Homehealth & wellbeingbody imagehow do i know if an image has been digitally altered?

How do I know if an image has been digitally altered?

Have you ever compared yourself to a model in an advertisement or an influencer on social media and thought, “It’s impossible for me to look like that”? Well that’s probably because those images aren’t even real, and they’ve been heavily edited by tools such as photoshop and filters. 

Today, digitally altered images are everywhere – we see them on Instagram, TikTok, advertising, TV… and the list goes on. Constantly being exposed to these images can make us feel really down about ourselves and develop an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. 

What’s the link between photoshop and advertising?

You probably know about photoshop, or maybe you’ve even tried using it before. While photoshop can be a helpful tool to professionally edit photos, it can also be used to manipulate bodies in dangerously unrealistic ways. 

Photoshop is frequently used by advertisers to change how people in their photoshoots and campaigns look. Women are a big target for advertisers, as they are well aware of the buying power of women and try to exploit it. This means that most adverts featuring images of women are far too ‘perfect’ for real life. Using photoshop, these women are made to look flawless. Blemish-free. Wrinkle-free. Fat-free. Hardly human.

An image of a blonde woman 'before', and a heavily photoshopped version 'after', where she has enlarged eyes, makeup, and voluminous hair.

The reason why advertisers do this is to make people viewing the images feel inadequate or like they need to change something about themselves. Often these feelings will lead to people buying that ‘magic’ product that will make them a slimmer, taller, smoother version of themselves. But no beauty product, superfood or weird exercise trick is going to make anyone resemble a digitally altered person – because that person is not real

As ex-Victoria Secret model Josephine Skriver confessed, there were images of her in a campaign that were so unrecognisable that “I would stand next to the big billboards on the street, and I could stand there for 30 minutes and not a single person could put the two people together.”

In some countries, all photoshopped advertising images that have changed how a person looks must now have a disclaimer (or warning) label. In so-called Australia it is a recommendation, but companies don’t have to do it by law. 

Sounds like a good idea right? Well sadly, there is evidence that even this doesn’t help us feel better about ourselves. Even with a disclaimer like “This image has been digitally manipulated”, we still compare ourselves and feel like we’re not good enough. 

How do social media filters impact our body image?

Social media is another place where you’ll encounter digitally altered images. Social media apps are designed so we feel pressured to make ourselves and our lives look ‘perfect’. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok bombard us with the carefully curated lives of others, breeding an unhealthy space for self-comparison. 

Some people frequently use filters that change their appearance, such as giving them flawless skin, long lashes, and a slim face. Like with photoshopped images, this means we are comparing ourselves to people that don’t actually look like that in real life. Some influencers post photos that are heavily altered as curating their profiles in a certain way and growing their following is a way for them to make money. They are under immense pressure to look ‘perfect’. 

Filters can also lead to a distorted perception of ourselves. We might use filters to feel more confident about our appearance, however this makes our online personas very different from who we are in real life. Repeatedly using filters lowers our self-esteem, as it creates an impossibly high standard for how we think our faces should look and how we should present to others. 

Check out this TikTok by Holly Cockerill which shows just how easy it is to edit photos and videos to alter our appearance: 

@hollycockerill Reply to @ctab0713 part 3 of why you should never believe what you see on social media 🤯 #fyp #fakevsreal #instagramvsreality #loveyourself ♬ Praise God – Kanye West


How can I take action?

What we really need is images that aren’t altered in the first place and represent our bodies in all our diversity, but sadly this isn’t always the case. Digitally altered images can lead us to develop low-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Thankfully, there are steps we can all take to challenge this kind of imagery:

1. Be aware

The first step to combatting this manipulation of bodies and minds is to be aware of it. Advertisers push these impossible body ideals onto the public, making consumers anxious, leading them to buy products. Social media platforms profit off our insecurities, where addictive apps like Instagram enable the unrealistic portrayal of ourselves and others. It’s manipulation, pure and simple. 

2. Boycott harmful brands

Have you noticed an obviously altered image advertising a certain product? Show your disapproval by boycotting that brand. Stop buying it, cancel your subscription, unlike their Instagram page – these actions go a long way.

You could go even further and write to the company, explaining that you’re offended by their advertising practices and that until the issue is resolved you won’t be purchasing any of their products.

3. Follow people who make you feel good

There are many unrealistic images out there on social media, but thankfully there are also plenty of people who are working hard to spread body positive messages and represent diverse body types. If you find yourself often comparing yourself to someone’s profile, unfollow them. If you find an account that uplifts you, follow them and see other similar accounts you can follow. It’s amazing how much better we can feel just by changing up the content we consume. 

If you use filters and find yourself having negative thoughts about your appearance, try only posting photos, stories and reel etc. that are unfiltered and see how you feel.

4. Talk with others

Tell your friends and family about the harms of digitally enhanced images. Most people are in the know about digitally altered images, but we all need a reminder from time to time that those images are not real, and they have nothing to do with real bodies, real people, real lives.

Everybody has complex feelings about their body. By starting the conversation and talking about photoshop, filters, the media and the ridiculous beauty standards we’re expected to strive for, we can all get that bit closer to body acceptance. And that’s exactly where we all need to be.

5. Focus on your strengths

You are not the sum of looks. Or in other words – your worth is not defined by your appearance. I bet you already knew this, but believing it – that’s another thing all together. And it takes time. You need to train your brain to reject these impossible beauty ideals.

Focus on your smarts, your kindness, your strengths. And if you’re feeling like it’s all too hard, talk to someone about it. Don’t let advertising, social media, and the beauty industry define what is beautiful – decide for yourself.

Learn more

Check out these videos on digitally altered images:  

Where to get help

If you’re struggling with the way you feel about your body, reach out for support:

Need someone to talk to? Free, confidential support is available.

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