Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How do I look?

My concerns and grapplings with this issue began with Naomi Wolf's book, 'The Beauty Myth', where I imagine many women have begun. I come to this issue primarily as a woman, not so much as a photographer, since I don't really shoot people almost at all. But it does reach into many peoples and my concerns with the issue of veracity in images.

So what would the issue be after that long preamble? Well, essentially this, how models are portrayed in ads and popular culture and how that affects our own perception of ourselves.
While this does affect men, what with the coming of the metro-sexual, this is still I think largely about women.

Recently I came across this entry in the blog BAGnewsNotes. It shows an ad that Dove made as part of their 'Campaign for Real Beauty'. The ad largely shows you how much and how images are made and manipulated before they reach the consumption stage. It suggests, off course, that our perceptions of beauty are quite skewed by our perception only of the end product, a highly synthesized and manipulated, unreal end-product. A far more telling look for me was at Glen Ferron's portfolio, basically celebrity and model pictures before and after retouching. It's profoundly frightening to see these changes. All skin is uniformly firm, toned and clear, bodies toned, waists thinner, etc, etc. The signs of being human are regularly removed. Industry pundits tell you that no image is unmanipulated, its merely a difference in degree.

This is really nothing new at all, we all know this. The extent to which this knowledge permeates our consciousness of course, varies. There is probably the whole spectrum from falling hook-line-sinker to utter cynicism. And in my mind, there is very little doubt that a lot of people, particularly young girls are buying into these images as real and aspiring to reach them, much to their detriment. One need only take a look around to observe this, or maybe look at your daughter or niece, we've all encountered it. (Lauren Greenfield's photo-documentary takes on the particulars of this sub-culture are definitely worth a LONG look.)

What might be interesting about all of this is that we are somehow hardwired, psychologically, to inherently view others are better looking than ourselves. Its interesting because that might mean that it is much harder to combat our poor conceptions of ourselves in relation to these astronomically, albeit assistedly, better looking models than we think.

Here are two things that prompted this thought. First, theres been some research done by Sarah Hill that does suggest this. That we think that the opposite sex finds people far more attractive than they really do. In short, we overestimate our competition in terms of attractiveness.

I was thinking that heres how it might work. Its been said by fashion photographers that the rationale behind some of the manipulation is that this is indeed how we see other people. A little thought suggests that it might be true if we're talking about relatively quick looks at people we see incidentally. We usually tend to sort of visually 'average' out things, rarely do we notice flaws in appearance, unless they are rather large. Try it for yourself, look at someone 'normally', cursorily, and then closely for long, with the intention of finding flaws you'll see what I mean. Whereas, when it comes to ourselves, we're usually gazing in a mirror in close-up and for long, noticing flaws. Our own perception of ourselves is a sense 'honester'. You can see how this would lead to a overestimation of the competition.

What do you make of a photograph, however? Because there are close-ups and you can look as long as you want at them. Are we now conning ourselves doubly? By 'seeing' a lack of flaws even at this close-range in models, are we convincing ourselves that our own flaws are that much worse? And reinforcing an idea we already had from daily lives?

What do you think?


Maybe I should be clearer?

PS. Look in the comments, some of which I had pulled into the main body and now have pulled out.



The abstract to the original article is here.

5 comments:

Rahul said...

Hm. I'm not sure too many men, especially in India, fall for the anorexic supermodel look. Moreover, this is not the only form of media/marketing assault that children and teenagers are exposed to.

In India, I have a bigger issue with the fairness cream makers and marketers. (In fact, if one is worried about blemishes, surely dark skin is better to hide them.)

To go back to your question on whether one glosses over flaws in others (the way they're airbrushed from photos) -- I don't think that's the issue. The issue is that, by definition, very few of us are among the best looking; most of us are in the middle, and we notice those better-looking than us, and not those worse-looking than us. It's like noticing coincidences (and attributing them to supernatural causes) and not noticing ordinary events. Of course, I'm speaking from a male perspective (and though I never considered myself good-looking, it didn't keep me awake at night), maybe it's more complex for young girls.

Natasha said...

Well, I amn't on about any specific kinds of manipulation in pictures, so thinness, skin, untoned saggy bodies and faces, all of its covered. While off course certain preferences aren't as narrow as others, that isn't what I'm talking about.

You're saying that we only attend to people that are 'better' looking. The research suggests that we're bad at judging how good our 'competition' looks and so we're thinking of ourselves as looking worse than we appear to the opposite sex.

(Btw, both men and women show this behaviour.)

I was just wondering about how this might be happening at a proximate mechanistic level. And then wondering whether fashion imagery further messes with this purely mechanistic process.

I'm not really talking about whether this is good or bad and so on. Or who's to blame....really this is not a 'feminist' article in that sense. I'm just wondering about how it happens...

The researcher who did the work I refer to suggests evolutionary reasons for this preference, which is basically that we try harder as a result of our under-estimation of ourselves, increasing our chances of getting a mate.

I suppose at some level ads and images like that drive us with something like 'super-stimuli' getting us to try beyond the possible. Its a sort hijacking of a biological drive, if you will?

Rahul said...

Yes I think I understood what you're saying and I saw the news item about that research saying we overestimate the competition. (Though I didn't read the original research.) As I remember, I had several questions about the sampling, beginning with: were the people concerned single / in uneasy relationships / in happy relationships? How did they rate themselves and others in other aspects -- intelligence, independence, etc? Generally I'm a bit skeptical of these studies. They may show some correlation but correlation is
not causation.

(EG - Here's a rather ridiculous article by Christopher Hitchens on why women aren't funny... he bases it on some research saying men evolved humour to attract women, to compensate for lack of good looks, and women don't need it because they can sit there and look pretty. He fails to see the implication, that women should be the judges of what is funny and what isn't...)

One thing I realised late in life is that many women appear to be more self-confident than they really are... and, to me, at least, self-confidence increases their attractiveness.

Maybe it's a subject for a blogpost of my own.

Natasha said...

"As I remember, I had several questions about the sampling, beginning with: were the people concerned single / in uneasy relationships / in happy relationships?"

I agree with you here somewhat, in that I was not entirely happy with their design. I havent read the original research either. Its locked away behind a subscription wall.
Nonetheless, the sort of variation you talk of is usually dealt with in 2 ways in the behavioural sciences. One is to explicitly include these different parameters in you analysis.

The other cruder way is to hit the problem with numbers, you have a sample size thats large enough that effects that might be produced by other parameters are swamped by the parameter in question. This is what this study does, they have used over 100 individuals for each test, thats pretty respectable for a sample size. I think for the question asked their results ought to be robust.

Their interpretations off course as you point out with the Hitchens article are always debatable. I don't think, however, that such studies are always that poor or hand-waving.


"One thing I realised late in life is that many women appear to be more self-confident than they really are... "
"How did they rate themselves and others in other aspects -- intelligence, independence, etc?"

As the mind hacks point out, (2nd link in the sent abt research), in most other domains humans tend to over-estimate themselves. Which also makes the result interesting in itself.

I don't know what its like between the genders. A friend who was doing research in this area found that under certain conditions women are systematically less confident of their own knowledge than men. I'm sure theres quite a bit of work out there....surely for a couple of blog posts :)

Rahul said...

"you have a sample size thats large enough that effects that might be produced by other parameters are swamped by the parameter in question. This is what this study does, they have used over 100 individuals for each test"

The question is how were these 100 individuals selected... if they answered an advertisement (the most common way), there could already be a skew, especially if the ad said something about the research: people who were unsuccessful/unhappy in relationships or already had a low self-esteem may have been more likely to answer. I don't think 100 is a terribly large number, though I recognise that it's difficult to do better.

Neither the mindhacks nor the economist article says how many volunteers there were or how many of them overestimated others' appearance... the abstract gives the number of volunteers but not the breakup in overestimation (does "consistently" mean "all of them did that"?) I couldn't access the full article either.

About the "lake wobegon effect" thing, I think there could be a difference between rating yourself "on average" and rating yourself against specific examples. Eg, the same person may say that they look better than the average person, but worse than these specific examples.

"under certain conditions women are systematically less confident of their own knowledge than men."

In mechanical things that is often true -- men will say "I can fix that" and proceed to wreck it, women won't try unless they're more than reasonably sure of themselves. In other things it's totally the other way around... There are always exceptions of course.

Well, this discussion has morphed well beyond the scope of your post...

BTW, Abi points out that Hitchens totally misinterpreted that study on women and humour, as did most of the media.