Believe none of what you see

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Much has been made of various attempts at illustrating how distorted our sense of self-image is (especially for women’s self-image) by the trade media using programs like Photoshop. However, if you truly want to blow up someone’s preconceptions about how manipulated everything is, there’s no better way to do it than to do it yourself.

If you have Photoshop or access to it, fire it up and pick a good image of yourself. Like most things, the better the source image (from a technical perspective), the easier it is to manipulate. For fun, we’ll use author Julien Smith’s photo that I shot at Podcasters Across Borders. I want to emphasize that I am not a Photoshop professional. I’m at best an amateur who can Google and follow directions. Everything we do in this little example is something you can do with almost no training besides learning where the individual menu items are.

Portrait of Julien Smith
The authentic Julien Smith

To start, hit three buttons: Auto Tone, Auto Contrast, Auto Color. This will fix up 90% of photographs. Remember that at any time, you can hit undo if a change isn’t quite as good as you’d hoped.


Next, hit up the spot healing brush tool and click on any blemishes or skin imperfections. With just one tool, you can change someone’s appearance fairly drastically, if subtly.

Julien Smith maintenance 2
Julien minus minor imperfections

Next, let’s make him clean shaven. We’ll hit up the Dust & Scratches box and simply melt them away by making 2 layers and “painting” over his stubble with the blurred layer.

Julien Smith maintenance 3
Julien minus stubble

Now let’s get into some truly warped things. We’ll apply puppet warp to his face, pin down all the sections we don’t want to move, and adjust his jawline. This step is so easy that a six year old can do it.

3667029704_17baeabacc_o.jpeg @ 71.7% (Layer 1, RGB/8*) *
Bone warp!

So in just a few clicks, we’ve altered reality significantly enough that the photo of Julien is no longer an accurate representation of that moment or of him generally. Doing bone warps changes the actual geometry of his bone structure, something that only drastic surgery could do.

Julien Smith maintenance 4
The enhanced Julien Smith

Want to empower someone – including yourself – to understand how absolutely false our perceptions of body image are? Learn these simple tricks in Photoshop, try them out if you can, and then any time you see a photo of someone, look carefully at it. Ask yourself which of these techniques were used (I guarantee at least one, if not more, in every media publication), and realize that pretty much everything you see on the cover of a magazine is fake and has been manipulated.

Even better, teach your kids how to do this and then make a game of spotting the tricks when they see photos of celebrities and other pop culture icons. The secret of this is the same as a stage magician: once you learn how the trick is done and can do it yourself, it loses all of its power over you. You realize it’s just a cheap parlor trick, some digital sleight of hand, so simple that you and your kids can do it. That realization shatters the perception of perfection that the media outlets and appearance-based industries desperately want you to buy into.

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