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The Research Behind Getty Images' Ban on Photo Retouching for Body Shape

The stock photo agency is scrapping Photoshopped images that make models look thinner. Here's how that can help body image.
A woman is seen on February 18th, 2011, in Montreal, Quebec, watching an advertisement from the Canadian fashion brand Jacob, which doesn't Photoshop the top model shape in order to promote the body.

A woman is seen on February 18th, 2011, in Montreal, Quebec, watching an advertisement from the Canadian fashion brand Jacob, which doesn't Photoshop the top model shape in order to promote the body. 

Getty Images is giving its editorial guidelines a makeover—and, starting this fall, it's opting for a more natural look.

The stock photo agency announced on Wednesday that it will no longer accept photographs that have been photoshopped to make models appear thinner or larger, BuzzFeed reported. In an email explaining the new policy, Getty cites as its inspiration a French law requiring companies that use commercial images to disclose any retouching of body shape, which will take effect on October 1st of this year. Getty Images will amend its Creative Skills Submission Requirements guidelines—essentially, guidelines for freelance contributors—for all creative content in order to ban body retouching also on October 1st. The new requirements will apply to all staff and photographers.

It's a welcome change for models and viewers unhappy with the mass media's unspoken beauty standards, but Getty's policy has its limits. Getty said in the email that this change does not apply to "other changes made to models," including change of hair color, nose shape, and retouching of skin and blemishes.

Still, the Getty decision could have an effect on viewers of its photos: Research shows retouching is more than just a surface issue. From digitally altered ads to stick-thin models, studies have found that media depictions matter for women's health and self-image.

  • More than a decade's worth of studies suggest that body-shaming advertising can negatively affect self-esteem. A 2002 meta-analysis of 25 studies found that girls under the age of 19 feel worse about their bodies after seeing images of slim women, which dominate the mainstream media. In 2008, a meta-analysis of 77 studies found that exposure to media is linked to body-image problems in women—and another meta-analysis showed that media also led men to feel "significantly" worse about their bodies.
  • Research has linked unrealistic media representations to eating disorders. A 2002 industry survey found that about 30 percent of American models had an eating disorder, and 64 percent were asked to lose weight by an employer. The modeling industry's emphasis on thinness may be negatively affecting the general population: The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associate Disorders found that 47 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 feel pressured by what they see in magazines to lose weight. In France, the government criminalized "pro-anorexia" and "thinspiration" websites in 2015 in response to an anorexia epidemic in the country, which affected both professional models and ordinary French women.
  • Researchers have found that social media plays a role in tanking body image. A 2015 study found that adolescent girls who routinely post selfies—which, these days, can be retouched with photo-editing apps and filters—are more susceptible to body anxiety, dieting, and idealizing thinness. In 2013, researchers found that nearly one-third of all anorexia-related videos on YouTube are considered "pro-anorexia."
  • But social media and commercial images may also have the power to improve women's and girls' self-image. In one 2012 study, psychologists in Europe asked heterosexual female volunteers to view images of thin women dressed in leotards and heavier women dressed in expensive clothes. When asked to choose an "aspirational" image, volunteers were more likely to pick the heavier woman. Nevertheless: There is no clear research consensus on how women feel after looking at media images of regular-sized women: Another study found that women who watched commercials with average-sized women had the same level of body anxiety as women who watched commercials with thinner women. Some even reported being in a worse mood after viewing the average-sized model.

There's a limit to what commercial images can do, and it will take more than one policy change—in both the media and marketing worlds—to fix media representation.