In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: August 2012

Seventeen Magazine's "Body Peace Treaty" as reprinted by the New York Times

Seventeen Magazine's "Body Peace Treaty" as reprinted by the New York Times


The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation: Alterations in Pursuit of “Beauty”

Alteration of images has been occurring since the inception of photography. Manipulating a photo used to be an arduous process, typically involving scissors, glue, and meticulous precision. Today, virtually anyone with access to a computer can alter an image with relative ease. Kevin Connor, one of the creators of Photoshop, and Henry Farid, a digital image forensic scientist, created this timeline – Photo Tampering Throughout History – for their website, illustrating the technological and social changes that have accompanied photo manipulation since 1860.

There are many reasons for photo manipulation, including political, as when a Soviet official was removed from a photo of Stalin after falling into disfavor, and commercial, as when a product in an advertisement is made to look more desirable to consumers (see “Who Can Improve on Nature? Magazine Editors” New York Times, 7/20/12).

In this “Ethical Inquiry” we explore the ethics of digitally altering photos of individuals so as to make the subjects appear “more beautiful” in alignment with cultural standards of beauty – as when photos of celebrities and models are digitally altered so as to increase their perceived aesthetic value: thighs slimmed, celebrity heads placed atop model bodies, bodies enhanced, blemishes erased, and more.

N.B.: For a related question, see the May 2011 Ethical Inquiry “Is Ethnic Modification Surgery Ethical?”


Critics of digital photo manipulation have used medical evidence, widespread social standards, and professional codes of ethics to substantiate their claims that digitally tampering with photographs in pursuit of beauty can be psychologically harmful to consumers, narrows the scope of socially acceptable “beauty,” and is unethical on a professional level.

Medical Implications

In’s Health section Johnathan Purtle critiques Photoshop’s slimming techniques on medical grounds. He cites a study performed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which concluded that approximately 50 percent of girls and young women are unhappy with their bodies. Another study by the same institution determined that “exposure to thin-ideal media images may contribute to the development of eating disorders by causing body dissatisfaction, negative moods,” and  “low self-esteem.”

Unhealthy eating and weight loss practices continue to be a problem: a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that 14.5 percent of high school girls “reported not eating for at least 24 hours to lose weight, while 5.4 percent of girls... vomited or took laxatives to keep from gaining weight.”

In 2011, the American Medical Association addressed “the excessive use of Photoshop” in a new policy. Explaining that photo alterations “lead to unrealistic ideals about body image” particularly for children and teens, the AMA specifically addressed “Body Image and Advertising to Youth.” The policy encouraged advertising associations to “work with public and private sector organizations... to develop guidelines for advertisements.... that would discourage the altering of photographs that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.” This policy cited the link between altered media images and eating disorders as its primary motivating factor.

The Center for Eating Disorders applauded the AMA’s briefing, conceding that while it may not be the most powerful policy, the guidelines draw attention to the fact that “a society saturated with computer-generated images portrayed as real bodies is unhealthy and harmful whether it contributes to an eating disorder or not.”

Carrie Arnold, writing for Psychology Today, was generally pleased with the AMA press release, but disputed the AMA’s statement that media images contribute to eating disorders, contending instead that media images contribute to disordered eating. “It’s a common mistake, confusing disordered eating and eating disorders,” she explains. Arnold cites Dr. Sarah Ravin, who explains, “disordered eating ‘comes from the outside,’ whereas eating disorders ‘come from the inside’.... Environment plays a huge role in the onset of disordered eating... In contrast, the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders.”

Narrows the definition of beauty and harms self-image

In April 2012, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm from Waterville, Maine, was distressed that many of her peers frequently complained that they were “fat.” (“Seventeen Magazine Vows to Show Girls ‘As They Really Are’”, New York Times.) Believing that her friends’ media consumption likely led to their low self-esteem, Bluhm began an online petition on, demanding that Seventeen Magazine “print one unaltered photo in its magazine each month.” The petition garnered more than 80,000 signatures, and began a compelling, national campaign among teenage girls. On July 3, 2012, the magazine released an official “Body Peace Treaty,” promising to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and only “feature real girls and models who are healthy.” Inspired by this success, two teens from New York City have begun a similar petition targeted at Teen Vogue.

Many blogs have made it their duty to call out the “worst Photoshops” – the images that have been most severely altered. These “extreme Photoshops” disproportionately involve women, slimming their bodies, changing their facial structures, and retouching blemishes and age spots on the skin. Jezebel’s “The Best of The Year’s Worst Photoshops” critiques 13 images from 2010 media, employing humor and not-so-subtle distaste to express disappointment at the lengths to which print media will go during digital alteration.

The Dove soap company, a Unilever corporation subsidiary, launched “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” after completing their own study, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report.” Dove reports that it discovered that most women lacked identification with the word “beautiful,” largely due to the limited diversity within media images of women. Their campaign was created to “start a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty.”

This 2011 post on the blog About-Face, (from a California-based organization dedicated to “helping women and girls to resist harmful media messages that affect their self-esteem and body image,”) provides readers with a three-step plan for how “we – everyday women and girls ­– can help ourselves out of this body-hatred spiral without totally disconnecting from our culture altogether.” Author Jennifer suggests short-term measures (banning and protesting “overly retouched” ads, demanding before-and-after images from advertisers), a long-term strategy (building media literacy), and person-by-person resistance (encouraging actors, celebrities, and models to demand limited retouching).

Should women “Blame Photoshop” for their negative self-image, as this U.S. News blog post proclaims?

Major celebrities have publicly denounced certain alterations of their photographs in magazines, advertisements, and posters. As this article from SheKnowsEntertainment notes, after her body was enhanced for King Arthur and Duchess movie posters, Keira Knightley reportedly refused to allow the Pirates of the Caribbean production company to retouch her photos for that film’s publicity. Tennis star Andy Roddick saw his head atop an entirely different torso on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine. Singer Jessica Simpson has begun her own campaign, “A Beautiful Me,” with the goal of helping teens “embrace their inner beauty.”

In recent years, studies have investigated the effects of digital manipulation upon self-satisfaction. In this 2004 study, published in The Journal of Psychology, psychologist Bob Sands found that when the images of the participants were resized to resemble “the ideal” body shape, their rates of bodily satisfaction were significantly higher.

The modified images are misleading

A study conducted by University of Alabama professor Kimberly Bissell “compared college women's visual literacy – defined in terms of their knowledge of digital manipulation in fashion and entertainment images – to their desire to be thin.” Even if participants were aware that the subject of the photograph had been altered, their desires to look like the model did not diminish. Bissell used this data to further establish the relationship between the “thin ideal” within the media and “disordered eating patterns in women.”

Our perceptions of beauty are “distorted,” suggests film director Tim Piper in the credits of a behind-the-scenes of Photoshop film.

Some critics of this type of alteration of photos have hoped to decrease its prevalence in modern media by citing the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics. Clause One of the code specifically states that visual journalists should “be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” Later, in Clause Eight, the code states: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

Neil Turner, in this piece from the Editorial photographers of The United Kingdom & Ireland, provides “a five-step scale of what is, and what is not, acceptable” when digitally manipulating images. Steps 1 and 2, which Turner says are “OK,” involve typical and interpretive darkroom practices. Step 3, “Minor Alterations” which includes adding or removing elements to or from the image “that do not change the essential message of the image,” is, in Turner’s opinion, unacceptable for news. Step 4, major alterations, and Step 5, image montage, are similarly unacceptable.

In Defense of Digital Manipulation of Images

Those who favor digital manipulation in pursuit of beauty argue that, given the unreliability and time-consuming nature of the photographic process, digital manipulation does not distort reality – it better represents it. Supporters also claim that in light of the long and detailed history of photo tampering, changes to photographs are expected by viewers; such changes are not only acceptable, but may be artistic in nature.

Better Represents Reality

Esther Walker’s piece “Pixel Perfect” raises a perhaps counterintuitive point: “Unretouched photographs,” she states, “can actually distort reality rather than reveal it.” Walker contends that remaining stationary in front of a camera for a prolonged period of time may cause blood to rush to the extremities, creating “a redder density under the skin.” Similarly, if someone is positioned in front of a light, “seated on one leg with the knee of the other leg raised to their chin,” the raised leg will appear brighter than the seated leg. Virtually every image, Walker argues, has been retouched before it appears on the glossy pages of a magazine.

Changes are Expected by Viewers

In her New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Photoshop: Why Retouching Isn’t As Evil As Everyone Thinks,” Amanda Fortini asks, “Is anyone else weary of the media’s hunt for retouched images to ridicule?” Fortini argues that media audiences understand that images are digitally altered, and thus such images pose little threat to one’s self-esteem; they are simply artistic “caricatures” for consumers’ enjoyment. Fortini poses, “one can’t help wonder why we resist accepting, or even celebrating, a retouched photo for what it is: an open fiction, a candid fantasy. If we could ditch the idea that these images bear any resemblance to reality, viewers might not feel conned or played for fools.”

Alteration of Images is Part of Art and Industry Practices

Ruby Divine, in “Photoshop: Art or Artifice?” explains why Photoshop is instrumental in creating art that resonates with the current generation. Titling Photoshop “the modern day cosmetic surgery for photographs,” Divine dismantles the more traditional routines of photography, and sees “no harm in enhancing what is already there to make a mediocre foundation a remodeled upgrade of the image.” Citing David LaChapelle, renowned celebrity photographer, as an example of the success of Photoshopped images, Divine explains that digital manipulation provides a “wow” factor that is widely celebrated and unable to be achieved naturally.

Juliana Reed, former model and guest-blogger on, suggests that retouching an image simply transform a photograph into a “digital art form.”

Digital alteration is a necessary tool for helping the beauty, fashion, and modeling industries “make women look better than their best,” photographer Kevin Ames argues in his book Adobe Photoshop CS2: The Art of Photographing Women.

This article from The Art Institutes Online offers an additional perspective. While Photoshop has received a lot of negative feedback for its accused role in creating unrealistic beauty standards, many experienced photographers argue that Photoshop allows them to “control exposure, contrast, color balance – things that are also routinely controlled in a traditional darkroom.” From here, the issue of digital manipulation becomes much more complex: how much is too much? Which digitally manipulative functions are acceptable, and which are not?

Later, the article goes on to describe the personal ethical dilemmas photographers face when working with models. Becky Olstad, Photography Instructor at The Art Institutes International Minnesota, explains that models often sign contracts that allow photographers to alter their images. There are no industry Photoshop guidelines that photographers must follow. It becomes particularly controversial “when celebrities pose for editorial photographs that are later republished with significant alterations,” writes Olstad.

International Responses to Digital Manipulation of Images

Many countries have taken issue with the prevalence of Photoshopped images of models and actresses in their popular media. Often claiming that these “unreal” images are harmful to women's psyches, countries such as Britain and France have sought to impose restrictions upon such images. While not all of their efforts have been successful, politicians' suggested legislation indicates that there is growing dissent with digitally altered images outside the United States as well.


In 2010 Kate Ellis, Australia’s youth minister, proposed a law that would required altered photos in advertisements and magazines to be printed with disclaimers. Magazines that “cast healthy models and reject overzealous, unrealistic retouching” would receive a body image symbol, or “seal of approval.” (See the full list of guidelines here.) This article from analyzes Ellis’s motivations. Ellis explained, “The symbol... will empower consumers to tell the fashion, beauty, media, and modeling industries what they want and provide greater choice.” However, not everyone was happy with the proposal. This article from The Telegraph depicts some of the backlash to which the proposed law was subject. Designer Denise L’Estrage Corbet, for example, argued that the fashion industry needed thin models, stating “We know our clothes look good on thinner people.”


In 2009, the Liberal Democrat members of the British Parliament sought to impose Photoshop restrictions upon advertisements and magazines. This article from depicts the triple-tiered goal of the restriction, which would: (1) ban Photoshopping ads aimed at children, (2) require disclosure of digital alterations in ads aimed at adults, and (3) introduce media literacy lessons to teach kids and advertising techniques.

In 2010 the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Great Britain, issued a statement similar to that later issued by the American Medical AssociationBBC News reported that “the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the media to stop promoting unhealthy body images and 'glamorising' eating disorders.”


In “Point, Shoot, Retouch and Label?” (The New York Times, 2009), Steven Erlanger reports that Valérie Boyer, a member of the French Parliament, proposed a law that would “require all digitally altered photographs of people used in advertising to be labeled as retouched.” Claiming she drafted the law based on the pressure young women face to have the “perfect” body and skin, Boyer stated that labeling retouched photos is “a matter of honesty... a true feminist battle.” Retouched photos would have had to bear the text “Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person.” Though the law did not pass, it sparked a great deal of controversy in both the political and media realms.

As Sabrina Hicks states in this blog post, many favored the proposed law based on its objective of improving the self-esteem and eating/dieting behaviors of women. However, Hicks also raises the interesting point that “many in favor of the law support it because they think the photo-retouchers deserve to receive credit, as photographers and models do now.”

Amy Odell, writing in New York Magazine, observes French magazines’ reactions to the proposed Photoshop regulations that would require advertising agencies to label retouched images. Tony Chambers, former art director of British GQ, stated “The camera has always lied and always will... Fantasy and artistic interpretation are core ingredients in fashion, advertising, and art photography.”


In March of 2012, Israel passed a law that requires advertisements to disclose when their models have been digitally thinned. The law also banned underweight models - or models who appear underweight - from appearing in ads whatsoever in an attempt to “change idealized perceptions of beauty.” This article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz explains both positive and negative aspects of the law. While it will certainly lessen exposure to “idealized media images of bodies,” the law could potentially disqualify hundreds of models who “are healthy, despite their low body mass indexes” from continuing their careers. Alisa Gourari, runner-up in the World Super Model Competition, has “always been small” and is below the index the law provides: “For someone like me, for whom it’s genetic,” she said, “I will be arbitrarily disqualified from working and realizing my life’s dream.”

What Does This Mean for the United States?

The passage of Israel’s new law in particular has many Americans wondering if similar restrictions could ever be made law in the United States. Tayla Minsberg, writing for The Atlantic, interviews Donald Downs, a First Amendment expert at the University of Wisconsin. Downs argues that it would be very challenging to pass such a law in the U.S. Congress, given its contradictory nature with “American cultural support for free speech in cases in which the harm is not direct or clear.” Minsberg goes on to propose that in the United States pressuring the fashion industry to change without government intervention may be a more suitable and productive route.

Final Thoughts

Photoshop and similar software and applications for altering images have become cheaper, easier to use and more widely available. Techniques discussed in this inquiry were once limited largely to industry, government, and professionals. As the opportunities for digital photo manipulation grow, what do the practices of industry, in the pursuit of “beauty” have to teach us about our responsibility as individuals? Should mathematical formulas be used to determine “[h]ow much is too much” retouching of a photo?

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding digital photo manipulation? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by  Hailey Magee ’15, a member of the Fall 2012 Ethics Center Leadership Council.