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18 October 2011

The Truth Hurts: Disclaimers About Airbrushing Wound Teen Body Image

Keywords: magazines, teens, North America, advertising, beauty, body image, experiment, happiness, literacy, media, media literacy, print,

An International Communication Association paper attempts to bust the myth that disclaimers of photo editing and “enhancement” would give impressionable teens a more positive body image. Most photos of magazine models are altered to “enhance” the model’s appearance. Critics are concerned that this negatively affects the way teens perceive their bodies. The study dispels the myth that disclaimers of photo editing and “enhancement” would give impressionable teens a more positive body image. Actually the information harmed rather than helped teens’ body image.

Take aways

  • Disclaimers saying that photos have been edited in order to “enhance” them do not build up teens’ own body image. In fact, the disclaimer can actually hurt body image.
  • A possible explanation is that the disclaimer triggered teens’ thoughts about physical characteristics they might like to “edit” on their own bodies.

Study information

  • The question?

    How do photographs that are edited to enhance a model’s appearance affect teens’ body image and what is the role of a disclaimer that informs them about this?

  • Who?

    463 14- to 18 year olds (304 female, 159 male)

  • Where?

    United States: Midwest

  • How?

    In a school auditorium, participants were assigned to one of four groups. In group 1, they saw unedited versions of 10 photographs, in group 2 the edited versions, in group 3 the edited versions and a statement that the photo had been edited, and in group 4 they saw no photographs at all. The photographs included images of ordinary young adults (not models) with the same gender as the participant. For the edited versions, a professional photograph editor altered the images by removing blemishes, smoothing the contours on the women’s bodies, filling out the muscle contours on the men’s bodies, and brightening the teeth and skin tone. After looking at the photographs for a couple of minutes, participants rated their attractiveness.

Facts and findings

  • Photos that had been airbrushed only hurt the teens’ own body image when they were explicitly told that the images were edited.
  • Fun fact: Girls rated the photos of young women more attractive than boys did the photos of young men. 
  • Critical note: The teens that saw the edited photos only saw the final result. The results of this study may have been different if they had seen the unedited photograph before the edited one so they could see how they were changed.