Why Disclaimers On Retouched Photos Don't Actually Help

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More and more companies are waking up to the reality that retouched photos have negative implications for our self-esteem.

Some brands, like Aerie, have vowed not to retouch any of the images used in their advertising while others have opted to disclaim whether a photo has been retouched.

But a new study has found those disclaimers on photos are almost entirely ineffective in changing the way women perceive the images; even when the retouching is known, the unrealistic beauty standard still makes a negative impression.

Sometimes, in fact, the disclaimers actually made body satisfaction worse for at-risk women.

Why disclaimers don't help.

In a study by York University, researchers wanted to know how effective disclaimers were for women's body image. Disclaimers can range from a general acknowledgment that a model is underweight to a specific message about which body part was altered. Some just say, "This image has been digitally altered," and others note that the photo may be bad for body image.

Through a review of 15 studies, Jennifer Mills, Ph.D., associate psychology professor and the study's senior author, and Sarah McComb, a Ph.D. student in Mills' lab, found the disclaimers were not helpful when it came to helping women's body satisfaction.

"Telling people that the image is not real doesn't change the fact that that image becomes internalized," says Mills. "Once that image hits the brain, it has a profound effect on the way a woman thinks about how her body should look."

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More harm than good?

In addition to those findings, the review revealed some disclaimers actually hurt more than they helped.

For example, McComb says the women who were already at-risk for restrictive eating ate less after seeing a model with a disclaimer than one without. "The disclaimers seemed to trigger their already negative feelings about their bodies," she says.

The researchers say specific disclaimers can wind up drawing more attention to the retouched body part than they would otherwise, causing the opposite desired effect.

"Individuals still want to look like the model despite knowing there is a disclaimer because it draws our attention to the unrealistic body part," Mills notes. "People tend to want what they cannot have."

What's next for the findings.

Researchers note these studies primarily looked at women, and more diverse samples of participants are needed to figure out if the findings would be found in teens and men.

Additionally, many of these studies were short term, so the long-term effects of being exposed to retouching disclosures haven't been fully examined.

But from what researchers found, they concluded that "the use of media disclaimers should be avoided, or when used should be generic in nature." Given the prevalence of disordered eating, body image concerns, and low self-esteem among women, maybe it's time to stop retouching photos completely.

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