Our world has become increasingly obsessed with perfection. The illusive (albeit perplexingly desirable) trait is something we aspire to in both the day-to-day as well as the grander scheme of everything. Whether this manifests itself in the pitch correction of vocalists who (quite often) don't need it, or the relentless waxing and plucking we put ourselves through bi-weekly (even if the bush is making a comeback), or our increasing fear of sharing selfies that aren't "just right," achieving perfection (or pseudo-perfection — because we've yet to figure out what "perfect" even means) has become a need, a must, a want, or a combination of all of the above.
I would be lying if I said I didn't actually care about how others perceive me. I select the photos I use on my blog or in my work carefully. I don't try to conceal my fatness or pretend not to have a double chin or anything, because I actually do like being plus-size, and I enjoy the wobblier areas of my body and my high-boned yet chubby cheeks. But I do tweak lighting. I do angle my face in the way I know will make it look more glamorous or beautiful or interesting. I play with the things I consider my best attributes, just as most of us do. It's rare that I post a photo or step out of the house without my powder, eyeliner and lipstick on. Not because I'm ashamed of my natural face — I've always been told I'm a "natural beauty" and though it's taken me a few decades to see any derivative of that claim for myself, I think I'm getting there. I'm not saying my face is perfect — I think it's actually rather strange. But I try to embrace that as best I can, and use makeup to highlight its peculiarities in a way that represents my style and personality.
All that being said, I find Photoshop a fascinating invention. It's a tool often used in that same pursuit of perfection. It's a tool magazines, advertisers, models, graphic designers and just about everyone with an Instagram account (granted, Instagram isn't Photoshop, but it serves a similar purpose) use constantly. My partner — who is my main photographer and subsequently my main photo editor — will always edit my pictures in some way. But he never does anything he'd consider "immoral." Lighting and basic color scheme, sure. Slimming of cheeks or removal of visible belly outline, never. He's my very own ModCloth, what with the brand's "No Photoshopping Pledge" and all.
Earlier this year, human interest journalist Esther Honig set out to find out how nearly 40 individuals across 25 countries would alter a basic image of her face if asked to make her look "beautiful." In her description of her project, entitled "Before and After," Honig writes, "Photoshop allows us to achieve our unobtainable standards of beauty, but when we compare those standards on a global scale, achieving the ideal remains all the more elusive." Some editors widened her eyes. Others gave her long and luscious locks. Others gave her neon makeup. Others slimmed down her already slim face. A scroll through her photographs reveals that our notions of beauty are totally indecipherable. They vary from continent to continent, from nation to nation, from person to person.
Shortly after Honig's experiment went viral, her friend and fellow journalist Priscilla Yuki Wilson conducted a similar experiment, to see how editors Photoshopped a biracial woman. Just as Honig pointed out, it quickly became clear that what we find beautiful is not as universal as it often seems. Perhaps predictably, however, the majority of the editors did play with the tone of Wilson's skin. Some lightened her; some darkened her. Others narrowed her face, just as they did Honig's. But overall, there was no one strong correlation. Once again, our interpretations of beauty prove themselves to be not necessarily ubiquitous, but individual.
As most plus-size women know, there are certain repeated phrases thrown around at women of size quite consistently: "You have such a pretty face; if only you lost some weight." "You're pretty for a big girl." And then there are the meaner ones — the porcine similes or the accusations of perpetual sloth or the faux-concern that usually goes something like this: "It's not that I have a problem with your body, I just worry about your health down the line," — and the latter one is often a not-so-sly code for, "I do have a problem with your body, so why don't you do something about it?"
Having grown up predominantly in the first world, I'm aware that in countries like the U.S. or the U.K. being fat is (although quite common) perceived as an inherently negative thing. Stereotypes include, but are not limited to: laziness, selfishness, stupidity, naiveté and even a lower socioeconomic class. But I'm also aware that the notion of "thin is the only beautiful" doesn't permeate the entirety of the world. When I first heard of the Ugandan Hima Tribe, I remember being amazed to learn how much beauty they see in a larger woman — and that being fat is still considered a sign of prosperity, health, wealth and/or grace. Just as it was to Peter Paul Rubens, and just as it still is to painter Fernando Botero or illustrators like Sara M. Lyons.
And so, inspired by Honig and Wilson, and my own perceptions of weight and beauty, I decided to replicate their original experiments — with a plus-sized twist.
The relationship between weight and beauty is quite obviously one that varies from person to person — so when we begin discussing it in terms of nation to nation, lines get blurred. That being said, I was so fascinated by these women's work that I became increasingly curious as to how editors would treat a photo of me if asked to edit it, what with my chubby cheeks, double chin, thick shoulders and chest and rounder, fuller face. What would they do with these traits? Would they all slim me down in the aid of "making me look beautiful"? Would they fiddle with my messy hair? How would they see me, as a plus-size woman, and how would they "fix" me? What would they make of my face without makeup, in its tired, "just woke up" state? One editor said, "You have weird face. I make better," whilst another asked me, "Are you a porn?" But overall, each Photoshop "expert" (a term I use loosely as some editors were newbies/rookies, whilst others had decades of experience), took well to the task at hand. All I asked was for them to make me look beautiful, whilst keeping in mind the looks they see in the fashion/beauty mags of their countries. They were each compensated with $5-30, the amount always set by the editor him/herself. And so, here's what "beauty" means to all of them.
Disclaimer: I would not presume that asking one or two photo editors in a given country would be an adequate indicator of that entire nation's overall perception of beauty (if such a generalized notion could even be possible). But in order to conduct a fuller and more complete experiment — one that sought to include 10-20 editors in every country of the entire world — would unfortunately require an incredible amount of time and far more international resources than I have at my disposal (though Fiverr and Freelancer were quite useful this time around!). And so, I do not assume that this experiment is 100 percent "complete." But the results are still revealing and insightful in their own right.
AND, FOR FUN:
MY BOYFRIEND (UNITED KINGDOM)
Sorry, no more pictures of my face. I thought it would be worth noting, however, that when trying to find photo editors in different countries, I reached out to three Icelandic experts (who were totally independent of one another), and they all told me they are anti-Photoshop. Their reasoning was all around the lines of: "Photoshop just isn't what I use, I work with talented models and makeup artists instead," or "I don't believe in re-touching a person's natural beauty. I edit lighting, but that is all." Ever since finding out that Iceland was planning on prohibiting weight discrimination in its constitution back in 2013, I was curious about this mysterious Nordic isle with its 300K inhabitants. Again, I wouldn't presume the three people I spoke to are indicative of an entire country. But, hey. All signs point to Iceland being as close to utopia as one can get.
I must admit that when embarking on this experiment, I pretty much assumed that the majority of the editors would quite drastically change my bone structure and weight. However, out of the 21, only three really made me look visibly thinner — and drastically so (Ukraine, Mexico and Latvia). Weirdly enough, there wasn't much of a middle ground. Some used quite a lot of airbrushing (India and Sri Lanka, for instance) to create an overall softer, less angled feel. And as a result, that made my face look less double-chinny and more calcimined. But for the most part, I was actually pretty surprised to see how much I still look like myself in the vast majority of these photos.
If I was to try to find some correlations between all of them, the closest thing to a common thread would be the changes in hair and makeup. From pink lips to overly-blushed cheeks to intense and striking eyeshadow (Italy, I kinda like what you did there!), quite a few editors took it upon themselves to play beautician on my face. A Pakistani editor even gave me blue eyes! And with the exception of three editors, just about everyone airbrushed out my cheek mole (a feature I actually like, and often accentuate, probably because of Marilyn's mole). Maybe this eradication of the mole signals that any kind of blemish — even a natural beauty mark — just doesn't fit in with standards of perfection. But the hair! The hair. Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bangladesh all did pretty unusual and striking things. We know that hair is important to women, and perhaps to everyone. It serves as metaphor for femininity, identity, freedom and liberation. And so it's fascinating to see what certain editors consider feminine — from luscious, shiny locks to a Vince Noir-ish 'do. The point is, "feminine" doesn't have a solitary definition. Like "womanhood" or "feminism" or "beautiful," "feminine" remains elusive. They are words that mean different things to different people, and if there's one thing this experiment has solidified to me, it is that trying to live by one standard of beauty is futile.
Something interesting to ponder as well is whether or not any of the editors took a satirical approach to the task (I would signal Canada — but to be honest, I have no clue what that even was). What I mean is, most photographers and editors know that Photoshop is often used for questionable reasons, like totally slimming a person down, changing their bone structure, etc. When you compare 1930s Photoshopping to the work done today, it's pretty clear that editing wasn't always so dramatic (granted, it used to take six hours to retouch a picture even in the most "basic" sense, but still). In fact, the Ukrainian photo editor actually got in touch to tell me that he would be editing my photo in a way that was indicative of general Ukrainian ideals of beauty, not his own. And that he was sorry for "hurting" my natural beauty. So basically, he intentionally over-photoshopped to showcase just how ridiculous some of the editing that's considered "normal" today actually is (like Mariah Carey's album cover for Me. I. Am). In terms of the other editors over-photoshopping, I could only really speculate.
It's also pretty interesting to consider that four editors gave me clothing. I was wearing a towel when the photo was taken, but wanted my shoulders bare in the aid of better seeing how editors would alter a part of my actual body, as opposed to just my face. When I was asked by an editor whether I was "a porn," I was pretty shocked, and mildly offended. Are we still that scared of the female form? Or are we only scared of the female form when it's fatter (because I'm pretty sure no one is complaining about Taylor Swift in lingerie, or the dozens of angels donning nothing but a Fantasy Bra). I don't know why these particular editors gave me tank tops or bustiers or chunky, badly placed sweaters (sorry, Canada, that's you again). Maybe they were offended at the "nudity," though I'm sure they've seen far "worse" on a beach. Or, perhaps, they simply thought I'd look "more beautiful" with a bit of extra fabric on.
Regardless, the experiment offered a lot more editors in favor of "preserving natural beauty" than I would have imagined, and so I feel extremely positive about its results. Maybe this is a sign that things are changing for the better (I mean, Refinery 29's "25 Real Photos of Women's Breasts" remains a super important and needed show of realistic bodies, and realistic beauty). Or maybe it's a sign that I got predominantly friendly, natural-beauty-favoring photographers. Ultimately, there was far less body snark and unspoken body shaming through these photo edits than I first assumed there would be. I won't assume that all of the photographers are as pro-plus-size as I am, but maybe natural beauty is making a comeback. And I, for one, would be greatly pleased if this was the case. Not because putting on makeup or doing my hair is that much of a hassle. But because I've always wanted to live in a society in which freckles and moles and double chins and natural wrinkles were embraced, rather than hidden away and caked in foundation.
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Images: Courtesy Editors