The US’s largest drug and beauty store, CVS (think American Boots), announced on Monday their plans to ban Photoshopping, image manipulation and retouching in all their in-store displays nationwide. Perhaps, more significantly, they are telling their outside suppliers, from Coty (owners of Rimmel and Covergirl) and Johnson & Johnson (Clean & Clear, Neutrogena) to L’Oreal (Maybelline, L’Oreal Paris and Garnier) and Procter & Gamble (Olay, Max Factor), that from 2020 they too will no longer be allowed to display retouched images in CVS stores, unless prepared to accept bold “digitally modified” stickers placed on their imagery, alerting customers to any photo manipulation, while those who leave their images well alone will receive a new “CVS Beauty Mark” in recognition of their honesty.
CVS’s president, Helena Foulkes, said the decision reflects an acknowledgment that "unrealistic body images" are "a significant driver of health issues”, especially among women, who make up over three-quarters of the chain’s customers. In real terms, her decision means: “We will not digitally alter or change a person's shape, size, proportion, skin or eye colour, or enhance or alter their lines or wrinkles or other individual characteristics.”
It’s a bold, necessary and honest decision (Foulkes freely admits the company was influenced by the growing success of brands with a more natural approach) and one I wish would roll out to social media, where deception is arguably more rife and the influence on the self-esteem of young women arguably much greater.
Even now, when Instagram is frequently acknowledged as the most influential advertising and marketing tool for the fashion and beauty industries, social media still escapes regulation, criticism and best-practice initiatives. A relative Wild West, its constructed narrative somehow retains the illusion of reality, like TOWIE or Geordie Shore. While most of us now instinctively expect the pool water to be bluer in the holiday brochure, for the ready meal to look more appetising on the cardboard sleeve than when plonked from microwave to plate at home, even for the thighs in the glossy underwear advert to be smoother than God intended, can we honestly say we receive social-media posts with the same degree of cynicism or hold them up to any kind of scrutiny? The context of a glossy magazine, billboard advert or packaging – with their top photographers, models, studio lighting, professional make-up and styling – helps us identify the line between fantasy and reality in a way that a celebrity or other influencer ostensibly sitting casually and make-up-less at a pool for a holiday snap doesn’t. It’s certainly positive and arguably of great value for magazines, newspapers and retailers to stop retouching their images. But until digital influencers own up to retouching theirs, we are unlikely to see true consumer awareness and any change in their behaviour.
What makes social media so exciting is that an amateur user can be as powerful as a multinational brand. But it also, admittedly, makes the demand for transparency less comfortable
Hashtags like #NoMakeUpSelfie #NoFaceTune #NoRetouch #NoFilter, while very often honest (I’ve used some of them myself) are wholly unregulated and can consequently make matters even worse. Last year, a colleague of mine stood next to one major (and very beautiful) influencer at a press event and watched her painstakingly retouch a selfie before posting – slimming cheeks, smoothing her under-eyes, enlarging her mouth and whitening her teeth – only to read her, 15 minutes later, categorically denying any of the touch-ups to a disapproving Instagram follower. It’s hardly uncommon. Miranda Kerr, Lindsay Lohan, John Mayer and even Beyoncé have all been busted for undeclared retouching on social, while reality-TV stars and health influencers routinely post “fresh-faced” selfies of themselves wearing what is undeniably a face full of neutral make-up and a little digital fairydusting.
"If someone decides they still need to digitally modify a photograph, what we want is for girls and women in our stores to know that," Foulkes said, as president of CVS. As a mother and social-media user, I can’t remember the last time my kids’ attention was grabbed by an in-store display. It’s when they open their laptops that they see the most unfeasibly lineless, fatless people. It’s in the online world where honesty will have the most impact.
What makes social media so democratic and exciting is that an individual, amateur user can be as influential and powerful as a multinational brand. But it also, admittedly, makes the demand for transparency less comfortable. No right-thinking person wants to see women (and men) trolled into ’fessing up or into exposing themselves according to someone else’s prescriptive vision, then pilloried for their imperfections. And only a deluded fool would drive for a ban on retouching online. Photo manipulation can make for creative, inspiring, artistic images and content. It’s a freedom, a choice, a tool – like make-up, Botox, strong sunlight, ring flash or magic pants – that presents us in a flattering way. But is it really that illogical to ask influential online figures to stand together in at least acknowledging the help they may have received? If CVS’s retouching brands have to wear a sticker in-store, shouldn’t digital brands, be they a multinational make-up company or single wellness influencer, have to do the same via disclaimer or hashtag?