Image of ultra-thin Ralph Lauren model sparks outrage

In recent years an ongoing debate has brewed over advertisers and fashion magazines using photographs, particularly photographs of women, that have seemingly been altered, or "retouched," by airbrushing and photo editing software such as Photoshop. The latest such image to cause an uproar is one featured in a new Ralph Lauren advertisement that shows a model, Filippa Hamilton, so emaciated that her waist actually appears to be smaller than her head.

On September 29th, Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin posted the ad, which originally appeared on a blog dedicated to pointing out suspected retouched images called Photoshop Disasters, with the comment, "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis." Ralph Lauren responded by filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint against Boing Boing and Photoshop Disasters, claiming that their use of the image was a copyright infringement that fell outside of the Fair Use laws which allow the media to reproduce creative content for the purposes of commentary and criticism.

The Internet service provider hosting Photoshop Disasters (Google Blogspot) deleted the post containing the image, while Boing Boing's (Canada's Priority Colo.) did not. In response, Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow issued a stern warning to Ralph Lauren yesterday on the website, saying that the company's attempt to silence their criticism has only inspired them to step up their efforts in the future:

"Copyright law doesn't give you the right to threaten your critics for pointing out the problems with your offerings. You should know better. And every time you threaten to sue us over stuff like this, we will:

a) Reproduce the original criticism, making damned sure that all our readers get a good, long look at it, and;

b) Publish your spurious legal threat along with copious mockery, so that it becomes highly ranked in search engines where other people you threaten can find it and take heart; and

c) Offer nourishing soup and sandwiches to your models."

The U.S. isn't the only place where advertisers are feeling the public backlash over retouching claims. Overseas, a recent Olay ad featuring a virtually wrinkle-free 59-year-old Twiggy caused such an uproar in the UK that the British Parliament recently proposed outlawing retouching in advertisements aimed at teenagers. The movement was initiated by the nation's Liberal Democrats, whose leader on the issue, Jo Swinson, said:

"Today's unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no one can live up to in real life. We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them. The focus on women's appearance has got out of hand - no one really has perfect skin, perfect hair and a perfect figure, but women and young girls increasingly feel that nothing less than thin and perfect will do."

In the U.S., many retouched images featuring celebrities have been the subject of recent scorn, including a L'Oreal ad that lightened Beyonce's skin, an image of Jessica Alba airbrushed to feature a slimmer waist in a Campari ad, and an ad for London Fog featuring Gisele Bunchen in which her "baby bump" was removed.

In response to the growing concern over retouching, a website called About-Face, whose stated mission is to arm "women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect their self-esteem and body image," has sprung up. The site features a "Gallery of Offenders" as well as a "Gallery of Winners" to highlight who the site's editors feel are the advertising industry's best and worst in regards to improving and harming the image of the modern woman. Site visitors can also contribute money to help offset its operating costs as well as expand programs designed to educate young women on beauty and self-image.

Another website to garner attention for its dedication to exposing photo retouching offenses is Speaking on the subject of retouching, Jezebel editor-in-chief Anna Holmes told Yahoo!, "I don't see any point in retouching anymore ... The cat's out of the bag." She added, "I think Americans in particular are sick of having the wool pulled over their eyes ... even if it's regarding fashion models and actresses. The more they do this sort of retouching -- and then try to justify it, as the editor of SELF magazine recently did -- the less anyone believes anything else they have to say, or show. They are, in a sense, digging their own (shallow) graves."

Whether or not Holmes is right about the digging of "shallow graves" remains to be seen, but companies like Ralph Lauren certainly don't appear to be helping their cause by attempting to silence their critics, as doing so has only increased the amount of negative attention to their already controversial ad.