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What is Low Self Esteem?

Photoshop and Low Self Esteem in Girls

What is low self esteem?  I saw a fascinating story on NBC Nightly News that struck at the heart of this question. It’s a modern-day story of David and Goliath. Except in this case, David is a 14 year old girl named Julia Bluhm. Seventeen Magazine fills the role of Goliath. At least, that’s the headline story. The part that got my attention was the role Photoshop plays in this contest – sort of acting as a soldier for Goliath.

Please take a look at the news story.

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Does Photoshop Hurt Young Women?

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard women comment that it’s impossible to look like the models in magazines. It’s common knowledge.  People who have never actually seen Photoshop are aware of it and that it’s used to enhance every photograph published in magazines about fashion, glamour or style.  It happens to men and women alike.

Despite this conscious knowledge that Photoshop exists and how it’s applied, there’s still an emotional element that hits young girls very hard. As you see in the story, many girls feel like they aren’t “good enough” compared to the images they see in magazines. They’ve set themselves up to achieve an impossible standard. When they try and fail, it hurts. For some, it leads to damaging behavior as they continue trying to reach the impossible result set forth by magazines.

Julia Bluhm recognized the problem among her friends and did something about it. Among other things, she created a petition on Change.org to Give Girls Images of Real Girls. It struck a chord with others. So far, she’s reached nearly 85,000 people who signed her petition to the Editor-in-Chief of Seventeen Magazine. More than that, she sparked a litany of responses on blogs and video sites like YouTube.  Ultimately, Seventeen responded to agree that one photo spread out of each issue will show “real girls.”

Working for Goliath

I love a good “David and Goliath” story as much as anyone, but the other reason this caught my attention so much is that I’ve been working for Goliath. After all, I use Photoshop and other software to retouch images. That was the topic for my post just yesterday – portrait retouching software. One of the comments in the news story really grabbed me. It was from a video of a young girl who claimed, “Photoshop is harmful on so many levels.”

That hit me pretty hard.  I use Photoshop.  My friends use Photoshop.  I follow Scott Kelby – the Photoshop Insider.  I even go to Photoshop World! Have I done something to cause low self esteem in others? Where is the line and when do we cross it?

Once I started thinking in those terms, I already knew I was over the line.  A conversation with a photographer friend came to mind when I showed him a photo of a model that  we both photographed. He said, “Wow!  I wish that was the model who showed up.” That’s not an uncommon reaction. When a model shows up for a shoot, she usually looks like every other girl next door. While we setup our lights and gear, she’s getting changed with hair and makeup. You see, the transformation happens both before and after the photography. Do we cross the line when applying concealer, foundation, eye liner, or blush? Are hair curlers also a soldier for Goliath? Has anyone petitioned  Clinique? Probably not.

What is Low Self Esteem?

In order for me to figure out what role I play in this problem, I kept coming back to this question. What is low self esteem? According to one definition, self esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. In other words, does someone feel bad about their self image when they look at one of my portraits?

Maybe I should just stuck with travel photos.

what is low self esteem

Photo courtesy of Trey Ratcliff – Stuck in Customs

Do other cities feel bad when they look at a travel photo by Trey Ratcliff, like his photo of Times Square above? I’ve been to Times Square.  It doesn’t look that good in person. Trey’s photo captures the energy of the place. It’s vibrant and alive!  Yet, it’s also unreal.  He used Photoshop to convey an artistic sense of interpretation. Is that so different from retouching a model?

what is low self esteem

Digital Painting courtesy of Patrick LaMontagne – Cartoon Ink

Do animals feel bad when they look at a totem painting by Patrick LaMontagne? Every detail of this Rockhopper penguin is perfect, right down to the lighting on its eye.  I’ve seen real penguins up close.  They don’t look this good. When I took a picture of a penguin, it was bent over sniffing its butt.  That’s real, but I wouldn’t hang it on my wall.  Patrick works with Photoshop to create digital paintings of his subjects. From people to penguins, he shows them in perfect and exquisite detail. Isn’t that what painters have done for centuries? Should we expect an artist to include pimples or other imperfections on their subjects? If not, the why do we expect photographers to leave their photos untouched?

It’s much more likely that other photographers and artists feel bad when they compare their images to the works of these two great artists. Conversely, I know many people who find their works inspiring. It makes us want to learn more, try harder, and reach something that is beyond our grasp today.

Then I thought about this question from another aspect of my life.  What is low self esteem? It’s what happens when you believe that someone else’s best matters more than your best. I’m a person who has gone up and down with weight through the course of my life. I used to feel bad about my self image and, sometimes, I still do.

A couple of years ago, I learned something that I never knew. My heart just doesn’t pump as strong as the average heart. When I exert myself, it can’t pump out enough blood with enough pressure to satisfy the demand, so it has to pump faster.  In other words, my heart races very quickly as I do most cardio exercise.  When I played football, I couldn’t run with the others, but I could tackle. In the gym, I can easily lift weights, but most cardio classes will kick my butt.  That’s just the way I’m built.

I accepted my limitations before I truly understood them.  That’s because of a wonderful trainer who shared a simple wisdom with me. Everyone is different. You can’t be what someone else is, but you can be the best that you are. Most athletes I know aren’t competing with others. They’re competing with their own performance. It’s that kind of mental state helps their own self esteem.

That’s why I can watch the Olympics this summer without feeling bad when I see people in peak physical condition. Maybe they aren’t processed with Photoshop during the games, but they’ve had access to specialized training that most of us will never know. Even if I had that access, I physically could not achieve the same results as Michael Phelps. Neither could the best athletes in the world just four years ago. It’s absurd to compare myself to him.

Once I viewed this issue of self esteem from that perspective, I felt much better. I am not trying to hurt anyone’s self esteem when I process a portrait in Photoshop. The model I mentioned earlier absolutely loved the finished portrait I shared with her. Portrait retouching isn’t about creating something entirely new from your subject.  It’s about promoting the best that’s within them. While I can’t give you an absolute line, most of us know it when we see it being crossed.

I have great respect for Julia Bluhm. She took action and achieved a result beyond the hopes of many professionals. Yet, somehow I don’t see this as the end of the battle between our new David and Goliath. That’s because the scariest monsters are the ones in our own head. It isn’t Seventeen Magazine or Photoshop that is harmful on so many levels. I will never be Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff or Patrick LaMontagne. I love them all and their work. Each one gives back to the community by sharing their knowledge.  Not so we can be them, but so we can be better as ourselves.

The monster is the notion that we have to compete with others instead of ourselves.

About William

Author, Photographer and IT Manager. I have a fondness for chocolate. I also own Suburbia Press and Aperture vs Lightroom. Follow me on Twitter at @wbeem.

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