Last week, I was surfing Instagram, peering in at the lives of people I don't actually know (your baby's handmade vintage clothing looks amazing, @mintkarla!) and seeing what images I'd been tagged in. My tags are usually a hodgepodge of inspirational quotes, white feminist faces arranged into a pentagram, and anything having to do with Taylor Swift (love you, Tay, and I respect the commitment of these fans!). Amid the mayhem, one picture caught my eye: an iPhone photo of a Spanish magazine, its headline unreadable to me, though I did see a word resembling feminist. On the front of the issue was me, eyes wide and kohl-lined, doing my best Twiggy impression.
I was assisted in this impression not just by a pixie cut and a chic white jumper but also by what was clearly — to me — some skillful Photoshop. My chin was strong and defined, practically another continent from my neck, and my legs and arms were lean and milky white instead of their usual mottled pink. I'm not sure what it was about this particular image that set me off. It's three years old, is licensed often, and was taken by a photographer I love. But I felt a need so immediate it was like demanding that a driver pull over so I could go to the bathroom despite being in the middle of a five-lane highway.
I wanted to tell people, loudly: "That's not my body!"
What followed was a he-said-she-said that probably should have embarrassed me, were I more easily embarrassed. The magazine said (with good humor) that it had never retouched the image, that it had gotten it from the photographer (a man who has always made me feel beautiful and special), and that it had been approved by my publicist (a smart, classy chick). The picture originally ran in Entertainment Weekly in 2013, and that publication also claimed "no Photoshop," saying they'd simply raised my hemline and made my skin less magenta (whatever that means).
I didn't have the energy or the drive to figure out at what point in its journey this image had lost my dimpled thighs or bulge of bicep fat, or whether my chin had been recrafted. I also didn't have any interest in shaming or blaming anyone in the process. Every one of these people was being kind to me, supporting and protecting me by releasing an image they found charming and appealing. I also found it charming and appealing. But in the same way I find Emily Blunt charming and appealing: she's not me.
So was the image Photoshopped somewhere between raw digital file and Spanish glory? I think so, but who knows and really, who cares. But seeing the photo got me thinking about the real issue, which is that I don't recognize my own fucking body anymore. And that's a problem.
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The first time I experienced Photoshop was in third grade, when my mom's friend Karen took me to her job at Allure magazine on Take Your Daughter to Work Day (best holiday ever). I spent most of the day in the layout department, where the kindly computer dudes took a Polaroid of me, scanned it, and slapped my head on the body of Claudia Schiffer, their current cover girl. For the next five years a picture of me as Claudia Schiffer, posed demurely in a pink angora sweater, hung above my bed, my most prized possession.
In my early 20s, I sat on the couch of a boy I wanted to kiss while his roommate showed me her work as a retouching artist. I was transfixed by the subtle changes she made — lifting breasts, sculpting abs where they weren't, lengthening a model who was already impossibly long. She was even tasked with making diamonds sparkle. I made her show me the before and afters, over and over, gasping like I was on acid and seeing, really seeing, man, the truth of the universe.