Teaching girls that pretty isn’t pretty enough

One of my pet peeves, for far longer than I have identified as a feminist, and probably longer than I’ve even known the word “feminist”, is the creeping and insidious way that women are portrayed as perfect Barbie dolls in the media. When I learned that photos were often retouched, airbrushing away those parts that weren’t quite Barbie-like, that weren’t quite perfect, I felt an empathetic betrayal for every little girl who thought they weren’t good enough because they weren’t like those images. These girls were being taught that they weren’t good enough, because they weren’t like the images of women they see in the media — images of women who don’t actually exist.

Then Photoshop came along and made things so much easier to create women who don’t exist.

Real woman on the left, retouched woman on the right

There’s an excellent post at Forever Healthy and Young that shows this image, along with sixty-odd more, proving that the women that people consider beautiful are still beautiful before being retouched. And they are the more beautiful for having saddle bags, wrinkles, imperfect curves, lumps, bumps, scars, shadows, freckles… hell, even elbows.

There’s another trend in the visual arts, e.g. comic book art or cartoons, where women aren’t portrayed remotely realistically. Women can’t contort the way some of these comic book characters do regularly.

DC's comic character Black Canary, in a very contorted battle stance

Escher Girls chronicles not only Black Canary, but every instance of strange back-breaking, pin-up-posing, ass-and-boob-exposing, metal-wedgie-inducing art betraying the fact that some comic book artists value some very strange ideas of aesthetics over approximating reality.

Comics and media aren’t the only instances of ridiculous misapprehension of how the female body is supposed to work. Boobs, for instance, are not portals to an alternate dimension. Click to see the full animation.

Animated gif of cartoon woman pulling bazooka from her cleavage

And there’s no end to the other ways artists think boobs work, documented at Boobs don’t work that way.

You can’t even apply the label of parody on some of this stuff. A lot of it is legitimate misapprehension of how the human body — not just women, but humans in general — work. Artists are made to put priority on showing off T&A at the expense of logical or realistic physics, putting female characters into disturbing contortions out of a sense of fan service, giving them impossible body shapes that trend closer toward the societal ideal of a woman than any woman is actually capable. Making it so that women are told that the only acceptable body shapes for them are literally impossible to attain, is disturbing.

The only way to counter that meme is to show women what real women look like. Or, at the very least, point at and mock the impossibly wrong examples that the mass media shows us constantly.

Teaching girls that pretty isn’t pretty enough

37 thoughts on “Teaching girls that pretty isn’t pretty enough

  1. 1

    When Cindy Crawford was modeling, she once got hold of a photo of herself that was marked with the “necessary” retouching instructions. With admirable rebelliousness, she published it.

    The one change I remember is that her thighs were slimmed down a lot. They were too fat.

    Yes, Cindy Crawford wasn’t pretty enough.

  2. 2

    I for one think it’s completely insane (but almost a little transhumanist?) how we’ve gotten to this point where we hold up as our standard of beauty (that women are meant to aspire to) the absolute top 0.001% of women who are close enough to that ideal, and then push it even further, such that now our standard of beauty isn’t even human anymore and is literally impossible to attain. So now, no matter what, no matter how beautiful a woman is, she can literally NEVER, ever be beautiful “enough”. It’s insane, and neurotic, and terrifying, but in a weird way I can’t help but find it sort of fascinating how completely crazy we are, as a species, that we could end up in this state… where many women will consider themselves inferior for just being human, and many men will have their sexual desires directed towards post-human impossible imaginary people.

  3. 6

    Is it just me or is step one smear or remove all the pigments in the skin into even transitions. Grumbles.

    Ok, I’ve got it! We apply the same standards we do to science images to photos of models. So generally speaking modifying the whole photo (brightness contrast) or cropping good, changing individual elements bad. Whole image good, part of image bad.

    The elbow thing reminds me of something I heard about the uniforms in star trek. They had to make new uniforms for the TNG films because the ones used on the show weren’t meant to be seen on such a big screen and the zippers would show. Cause FSM forbid we see something as practical as a zipper on their uniforms.

  4. 7

    On the other side of the same coin, those comics also portray all men as perfect sculpture of physique, performing impossible feats. They’re projections of fantasy, in all categories. (They just happen to originate from the minds of straight males.)

    The image retouching is a bit more poignant. Like the famous line from Fight Club, in reference to a male clothing model, “Is that what a man looks like?”

    It’s standard procedure to make someone feel inadequate before pitching your ‘fix all’ cure.

  5. 9

    The AP actually has ethical rules on modifying photos, listed under “images” here: http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html

    Of course, just because these are the standards given does not mean that they will always be followed. Journalism is a cutthroat business, and sometimes getting a good story is placed in higher priority than ethics.

    Also, AP style (standards for writing and design) applies to journalism, but other media may used different styles (for example, Reuters style, Chicago, MLA). Most organizations also have what’s called “house style” – standard practices that are for the general organization. House style often includes variations from the preferred style guide of the organization. For example, the tech blog ReadWriteWeb uses the Yahoo style guide, but their house style is to capitalize the word internet. That’s contradictory to Yahoo style, but house style wins if there’s contradictory rules.

    My point is that, in a strict journalistic sense, modifying photos that much is a breach of ethics, but individual organizations may have decided to allow it – perhaps because ethical concerns take a backseat to the drive to be successful.

  6. Art

    The entire consumerist culture is based on each and every person being implanted with a deeply rooted, free-floating and nagging sense of inadequacy. It makes selling things easier.

    Women get the worse of it in the demands for physical appearance. Breast are never going to meet the ideal for size, shape, perkiness or proportion because the ideal is completely unrealistic. It also is going to be frustrating because the ideal is a moving target. As soon as any woman gets close the official ideal changes.

    No human meets the ideal set by the ideal fraction of one percent that qualify as models after they have had a couple of hours of makeup applied, been photographed at just the right angle, had their photograph retouched.

  7. 12

    I think Art has it right. It’s about using insecurity to sell product.

    I also think that as the ‘ideal’ gets more and more out of reach it becomes less and less relevant to actual people. And will eventually become totally irrelevant. I’m probably going to bungle explaining this, but I’ll try. Most people (of both sexes) are never going to make it to the ideal, some of us aren’t going to make it even part of the way there, and it turns out that it doesn’t matter. I’m a chubby woman, married to a man who went grey in his teens. There’s obviously more to both of us than that, and I think because we just gave up on the ‘ideal’ early (although not without much insecurity and worry on my part about ever being loved or found beautiful) we found that out. I think as the ‘ideal’ moves further away, it becomes more abstract and less important.

  8. 13

    Know what ticks me off? Spherical breasts as large as the character’s head that are not restrained in any way as she does feats of acrobatics that those breasts would get in the way of in the real world.

    1) Breasts aren’t spherical.
    2) No sports bra + high-impact activity = pain, even for an A cup like me. For someone with breasts the size of her head, I’m sure it must be even more painful.
    3) Back when I was less athletic and had larger breasts (for me, the two are mutually exclusive – I gain and lose weight easily and the first two places it disproportionately goes on or off are my waist and my bust), my breasts interfered with the full range of motion of my arm. I’ve been as large as a D cup before, so I know that at around a large B cup (for me, at least, but I’m small in both height and frame and a larger woman might be able to have larger breasts before she starts having this problem), you start having trouble with certain motions. But of course in cartoon logic, fatty tissue is infinitely compressible and therefore such things do not apply.

    As side notes: 1) storing stuff in your cleavage/bra is actually a bad idea because when you shift, you move it out of position and eventually it works its way out of your bra and falls.
    2) Storing stuff in cleavage/bra is highly uncomfortable. It chafes. And itches.
    3) Cleavage is not hammerspace.
    4) Nipples do not migrate to suit your outfit (I seriously doubt that there is any woman out there who will live her entire life without experiencing this one in the form of a wardrobe malfunction first-hand – I’ve had it happen twice so far, I’m only 24 and I don’t typically wear clothes that this would be an issue with).

    I could rant all day, but I’d like to get breakfast sometime soon.

  9. 14

    The lady in the first picture…I have the same stomach dimensions she does, or rather, she doesn’t have a perfectly flat stomach and it looks kind of like mine. I always thought mine was like that because I was fat and ugly too undisciplined to eat right…it’s literally mind-blowing to find out that it’s normal and that I’m not hideous.

  10. 15

    The only way to counter that meme is to show women what real women look like. Or, at the very least, point at and mock the impossibly wrong examples that the mass media shows us constantly.

    There’s something else:
    Replace the “pretty looks” with “awesome person”
    I know, I know, that’s the “I know you’re ugly but you have such a nice character” TV trope, but try to counteract this whole obsession with looks from early on with showing interest in something else than their looks.
    This may seem a logical, and easy thing to do, but most of us suck at it, because we’re all consditioned by a patriarchal society.

    I started to pay attention to myself and found, to my own horror and disgust, that I, intuitively, complimented my daughter’s female kindergarten friends on their hairstyle, their clothing, their looks, while I complimented the boys on what they were doing and asked them questions about it.
    Once I forbid myself to compliment any girl on their looks (unless they themselves wanted to talk about something, of course), paying attention to what they did came as naturally as it came with the boys.

    And I bookmarked the “Forever Healthy and Young” page for when (I sadly don’t think it’s an “if” clause :() that discussion comes up.

    Oh, and boobs are not footballs (soccer for you) that have been covered with skin.

  11. 16

    Just a note Såi , there really IS a difference between how male superheroes are posed and female superheroes are posed. While the hyper-muscular male ideal is probably not that healthy either (especially when many of the civilians look like body builders), it’s not inherently sexual the way shots of the women are, thanks to the costumes, posing and counterintuitive elements for an action hero (high heels, giant breasts, improbable armor that leaves the chest vulnerable for fear of obscuring cleavage)

    If women were posed like men, we’d not blink twice. If men are posed like the women are, you get this:


    and this:


    or my favorite:


  12. 17

    To leftwingfox’s point @16, David Willis summarized quite nicely why that’s a false equivalence. http://www.shortpacked.com/2011/comic/book-13/05-the-death-of-snkrs/falseequivalence/

    Alukonis: thank you very much! If I was just ranting into the ether daily, with nobody reading and appreciating, it would make me a sad panda.

    I fully agree with Giliell @15 — that is a good way to replace the meme in your own day-to-day existence. It might not be the best way to counter it when you see it, but it’s an important component.

  13. 18

    I find myself having to object to the whole comic book thing. As a woman, who even reads comics from time to time, I am kind of ok with it. There is a comic series I read, the Anita Blake vampire hunter comics (done by Marvel), where the men ARE sexually objectified like described in the example that @17 shared. But those comics are designed to be read primarily by women. Comics are fantasy, and they appeal to their audiences.

    Also, to assume all comics are superhero comics is a bit short sighted. There are plenty of indie comics written by and for women where no one is sexually objectified, and some have even been turned into big, Hollywood movies. The difference is, there are usually no explosions in those.

  14. Art

    Anyone wanting to undertake body-image shock therapy should get naked on a well populated nude beach. Hint: Even actual models don’t look like models without makeup, framing, selective lighting.

  15. 20

    Then Photoshop came along and made things so much easier to create women who don’t exist.

    It’s true that Photoshop makes it easier for the media to create women who don’t exist. However, people have been altering photographs in order to make subjects look like unrealistic ideals for a long time. For example, 19th century photographers used darkroom manipulations and manual airbrushing to produce tremendously busty women with flawless white skin and 17″ waists. Some examples can be seen on this blog post. Also, I’m not sure that these images of Camille Clifford, the original Gibson Girl, represent Camille Clifford’s natural figure; even if they do, I’ll wager that the Gibson Girl ideal of extreme curves and masses upon masses of hair was nigh on impossible for the majority of Edwardian women to attain.

    Addendum to the links above, since it’s somewhat on-topic: I am a passionate fan of Victorian and Edwardian fashions, and, if I had my way, my entire freaking wardrobe would be made from 1880’s and 1910’s clothing patterns. But I seem to be the only fan of “historical clothing” in the world who 1) isn’t white, 2) is (half-) black, 3) cares about racism and sexism (some of the unconscious biases of historical clothing bloggers, including the one I’ve just linked to, make me flinch right out of my skin), 4) doesn’t want to live in the past (can I get a “FUCK, NO!”) and 5) doesn’t think of the past as some sort of mystical magical-wagical Golden Age. Many fans of vintage clothing and aesthetics seem to think that beauty ideals for women were somehow more realistic (i.e., for white women to attain) before Generation X gave us a crowd of anorexic runway models. I strongly disagree and point to photographs of celebrities such as Camille Clifford and the scornful criticism of “fat” women in the novels of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and L.M. Montgomery. Beauty ideals, especially those for women, have always been punitive.* It’s the nature of the beast.

    Last year, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I wouldn’t call it an amazing book, especially because Kurzweil’s scientific understanding of biology is suspect and many of his forecasts are ideas borrowed wholesale and uncredited from science fiction. However, I read it when I was deeply depressed and the prospect of improving the quality of human life through biological engineering had not yet occurred to me with such cheerful force. Kurzweil thinks we will soon replace all of our biological components with artificial ones. He thinks that discussions such as this one will soon be moot because humans will be able to take on and discard new bodies with ease. I’ll admit that I think that would be an awesome solution to the problems caused by unrealistic beauty ideals. . . even if Kurzweil is a little too obsessed with the ability to change one’s sex partner’s body to suit one’s whims.

    *I think I’m especially sensitive to this because I’m not only brown but am also a skinny woman who has been subjected to a lot of pseudo-enlightened skinny-woman bashing over the last ten years. How is calling all skinny women ugly and treating skinniness as if it’s a crime any less hateful than “fatphobia”? How is a present-day environment where women are damned if they’re fat and damned if they’re skinny any less misogynistic than the environments of the past? There is still this inordinate fixation on what women look like. But that is a rant for another day.

  16. 22

    I gotta throw in some dissent on this one, but I’m biased. I’m a photographer.

    Professional photographers aren’t (always) hired to capture the status of a person’s physique and appearance. And yes, it’s nice to see someone stick up for the un-retouched image.

    Women and men don’t hire people like me to capture the person they look like in the mirror. They hire me to make an image of them. When you hire me, you hire me to light you (light that forgives a lot of blemishes by design). You hire me to add makeup to you, to find the right angles and direct your personality into a moment that exists for 1/200th of a second.

    Then I take that image and even out the skin tones, remove blemishes, adjust contrast and light. Remove or weaken the appearance of wrinkles (on clothes as well as faces, butts, arms, backs, arms and legs). I make the image that people want to project onto the minds of others.

    We, as a collective species, project a metaphorical Photoshopped image of ourselves toward others. Jason does it in his blog. I do it on mine. If we do not project qualities and traits that people will attract to, than we risk losing some wanted/needed social interaction.

    The whole, “Photoshop = the enemy of beauty” is bollocks. People are the enemy of beauty.

    My wife and I work together, and one thing that makes Tina feel better about her self images is being on sets with models, really hot ones. I mean, there’s something about getting to know women and men, and seeing them for who they are, that changes the perspective. It’s like the movement to out ourselves as atheists. You can’t hate the enemies you’ve met and started to like.

    Criticizing Photoshop as the enemy of beauty is missing the mark.

    Paintings have idealized the human form — in its many shapes — for a handful of centuries. Photoshop is a modernized painting tool for photographs. And many of the photographs used on one of the links above are really bad, student-level retouching jobs.

    Really good photoshopping is often highly valued, more than you realize.

    I’m shooting an atheists’ wedding in March, and you better fucking believe that I’m going to retouch those images. There aren’t many brides out there who wants to get real, journalistic shots of themselves for their books. Believe me, you don’t want every still image of yourself taken at 1/125th of a second. Photoshop is your friend. Not the enemy. And knowing someone who can use it can make a lot of difference.

    People hire me because I do my damnedest to make them look beautiful/handsome/badass/etc.

    As much as we’d all like to live in a world where regular people will be used in advertising and can help girls with poor self-esteem feel better, it’s not going to work.

    Education, conversations, discussion, these things will improve perceived beauty. Trying to eradicate photo retouching is like trying to rid the world of religion. It’s not going away. But the conversation and education makes a difference.

    TL;DR: Photoshop is not the enemy. Perceived beauty is controlled by conversation, enlightenment, and education.

  17. 23

    Juniper Shoemaker
    Well, I can’t help with 1 & 2, but I subscribe to 3, 4 & 5
    And in case you don’t know them already, let me treat you to this blog which has a bit of fresher air about fashions of the past.

    Jeremy Witteveen
    Actually, my favourite wedding picture has neither professional lighting, nor retouching, nor any kind of classical pose. I love it because Mr. and I simply look happy.
    You’re right that this isn’t new, but the difference in quantity has become a difference in quality.
    You say your own wife feels better because she can look behind the glossy print covers. Women who aren’t married to photographers can’t, and young girls can’t even understand.
    And what’s more is that those pictures aren’t sold as an idealized version of actual people, they’re sold as actual people to whose standard women have to adhere.
    “Look how Madonna manages to look like that at her age!”
    And millions of women feel shamed because they don’t, not even 20 years younger ones.
    That’s the problem, not selling pieces of art.
    If they were explicitly sold as art, we probably wouldn’t object that much.

  18. 25

    I disagree with the ‘false equivalence’ argument. I specifically mentioned that it was a straight male comic. The linked comic about Batman only renforced that point by casually employing homophobia. Comics sexualize both genders, and they’re done in different ways – mimicking poses is cute but stupid argument. A man trying to be sexy doesn’t wear lacy underwear – because the sexualization is gender specific.

    So, I see what you’re saying, but both gay comics do exactly what you’re talking about – and it’s a weak point from the start.

  19. 26

    Jeremy, I think you missed the point. I wasn’t saying that Photoshop is responsible. Just that it makes things far easier than they ever were to create imagined women. The bar got lowered. Ben Zvan is also a professional photographer, and he has his own policy for photoshopping images that, as I understand it, updating the whole image is fine but updating a tiny part of it is dishonest.

    Såi, I don’t think it’s at all a proper equivalence. Since the muscley dudes are essentially male power fantasies, and not considered sex objects and desired by women (though I’m sure there might be some women who like hypertrophy guys), and since the artists are building things for boys’ fantasies (male gaze for every woman shot), the meme of the gigantic impossible-to-achieve physique is damaging to men but definitely not in the same way as it is to women.

    And how is it at all “casual use of homophobia” if a woman reads comics and sees the male gaze everywhere, and dislikes how these women are portrayed, if they feel squicked out by these impossible women the way that this guy felt squicked out by this portrayal of Batman? Is it homophobia if he’s not bothered because this man is considered sexually attractive, but because he also views it as an impossible standard to achieve?

  20. 27

    Art@19, you are so correct. Nude beaches are very useful lessons in body acceptance, especially beaches that feature all ages from 90-year-olds to infants. You learn not to feel self-conscious at all, you feel that your own body is just fine, one of the few places where you can experience that anymore.

    Juniper Shoemaker@20, I don’t object either to the sort of re-touching you do, it’s fine and harmless. The problem is, as Jason says, re-touching to create ideals of beauty that are in fact impossible for any woman on earth to attain. Shaving many inches off thighs, hips, and waist, adding many inches to the bust, “beautifying” a face until it’s close to unrecognizable, I think your clients would object to.

    I recall a magazine photo of model whose pelvis was altered to be narrower than her head. Not possible in real life! Those images, especially in celebrities and models, who are held up as our society’s most beautiful, and whom women and girls are supposed to strive to be like, cause a lot of harm.

  21. 29

    Regarding the comic and visual arts bit… I’m pretty sure that you’re arguing for censorship instead of an educated public. Wow, is this what they post on freethought blogs these days?!?!

  22. 31

    @Juniper Shoemaker, about the thin girls thing:

    I know what you mean. My two closest friends and I are all overweight, and I’ve fought with them over this. There was one time when they laughed about and thought it was great when when a guy they knew dumped his girlfriend because she lost weight. I got mad at them and reminded them how shitty they think it is when a guy dumps his girlfriend because she gains weight, and how the hell is this any different? Or they bring out the “skinny bitches” thing…it pisses me off. As women, we get enough shit from the media and the culture in general about our bodies, we don’t need to be giving it to each other too.

  23. 32


    We’re failing to communicate on some level.

    These comics (and arguably most) fall into the “male gaze” category. We both agree on that, but to only focus on that and limit your scope is silly. There are other comics that don’t follow this rule, and other venues entirely. I’ll rephrase and provide a contrast to make my point more clear.

    It is offensive to women when Barbie and Disney princesses are drawn beyond the normal, hyper sexualized, and distorted because those are things that are marketed to little girls. Comic books are marketed towards adolescent males. It’s not surprising or offensive that they’re projections of fantasy that match the hormonally charged consumer base. (Please note, I say marketed and not “for” on purpose. Demographics are only something I observe and not something I agree with per say.)

    The Batman thing was homophobic because the proper response to media specifically not designed for you is to not seek it out, and the expected reaction to be indifferent. (e.g. “Not my cup of tea, but have fun.”). The comic implied that because a man ‘shouldn’t’ want to see a sexualized Batman, he shouldn’t want to see a sexualized wonderwoman. The male could have more aptly replied in that comic; “Gee, I’m sorry that you have issues with your own sexual identity, and seeing others fantasies perturbs you – here is my therapist’s number.”

  24. 33

    As women, we get enough shit from the media and the culture in general about our bodies, we don’t need to be giving it to each other too.

    Hear, hear! I totally agree.

    One insidious message about female beauty that I’ve recently taken away from online advertising, clothing catalogues and acquaintances who pay attention to celebrities can be summed up as “A beautiful woman is bone-thin when she is wearing a suit and voluptuous when she is wearing a bikini or lingerie.” Maybe I’m just a big dork and most people don’t get the same impression. Still, I repeatedly come away thinking, “Shit, ain’t none of us women can win this sick game. We’d have to be goddamned shapeshifters to ‘win’.” So I think you are absolutely right.

  25. 34


    They really have no reason to care. They’ve found a way to guarantee a certain return in investment. I’m sure if that finger had to aimed at minorities they’d probably do it. Corporate bastards aren’t people. They’re corporate bastards.

    I’m much more angry at the legion of immature fucks who buy this crap than I am at the producers. I don’t expect soulless monsters to feel or care. I expect people to have some fucking class. At least join us in calling for less eye candy or sexualized ideal bodies and more real characters, you shits.

    I’d like to be able to read a comic on par with V sometime again in my life.

  26. 35


    I don’t disagree with most of what you say, but considering how the publishers have been bemoaning steadily dropping sales numbers over the last 5-8 years, especially, I honestly would have thought that SOMEone in there might reconsider the alienation of entire demographics. The hormonally-driven young hetero male market can find many, many sources of mindless fuckbunny images, so gaining more of them to comic readership on the basis not of comics offering stories they can’t get elsewhere, but on the basis of offering more mindless fuckbunnies, is a risky bet. On the other hand, catering solely to the hormonally-driven young hetero male market in ways which increasingly alienate existing readership in other demographics is guaranteed to lose them some readers (personally, the only DC titles I buy any more are Animal Man and Swamp Thing, the best of the reboots, and this is down from what used to be 8-9 DC titles that I bought every month; they’ve lost 75% of the money I used to spend on them).

    On a social conscience side of things, yes, I despise that people not only buy the stuff but condone it and defend it and belittle those who have a problem with it. But on the economic side, it also makes me think that the publishers are morons — not just sexist morons, but really not good at their own business, to have such a huge honking blind spot.

  27. 36

    Comic books are marketed towards adolescent males.


    We female comic readers would very much like to be able to read our superhero comics without being squicked out by the depiction of the people of our gender, but the problem is that every mainstream superhero comic portrays females that way, and really honestly seems to think that the male adolescent market is the sole, right and proper and only market that they really need to worry about. And it goes further than that; I mean, in the latest DC reboot, some female superheroes were given a new costume, some were simply vamped (I do not say “revamped”, note; they were vamped) and one of my former favourites was simply turned into a mindless pointless plotless fuckbunny.

    Does that happen to the male superheroes? Really, not that I have ever seen; and that is purely because the big comics publishers see no need to do that, not out of any integrity, but simply because they just cater to the heterosexual immature male market. I feel excluded, marginalized, and that my gender is objectified, objectionably. I don’t see any big comic publisher turning around and saying, gee, we’re pissing off a big part of our potential market, maybe we shouldn’t do that — instead, they just don’t care. See the problem yet? I hope?

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