Winslet demands right to show her wrinkles

Beating the bullies: Kate Winslet (above) was teased at school for being overweight. © HBO

Should airbrushing be illegal? Today, the unrealistic representation of celebrities’ bodies is under scrutiny after Kate Winslet refused to have footage of herself doctored for television.

Craig Zobel could hardly believe his ears. The director of the TV series Mare of Easttown had offered to edit a scene in which the star, Kate Winslet, showed a “bulgy bit of belly”. But the Oscar-winning actress was having none of it. “Don’t you dare!” she told him. Not only that, but she rejected two versions of the poster for the series that had been retouched:

“I'm like: ‘Guys, I know how many lines I have by the side of my eye. Please put them all back!’” she told the New York Times.

Winslet, who is 45, plays a middle-aged woman who has an affair with a college lecturer. Viewers, she believes, can relate to her character because “there are clearly no filters. She’s a fully-functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we're starved of that.”

The term used in the industry for altering images of people’s bodies is airbrushing. It originally referred to a device that spreads paint using air pressure, making delicate changes to photographic prints possible. Today the work is usually digital, with computer technology allowing extensive, often unnoticeable changes.

For a long time, airbrushing was taken for granted. Early in her career, Winslet said that she was pleased with a photograph who had “reduced the size of my legs by about a third”.

In recent years, though, she and others have made a stand against it. When she signed an advertising contract with Lancôme, Winslet insisted that her pictures should not be retouched, explaining that she did not want to promote false ideas of how women look when they become older.

The singer Demi Lovato insisted on being photographed by Vanity Fair with “no makeup, no clothes, and no retouching,” saying that they wanted to show “the side of me that’s real, that’s liberated, that’s free”. The model Zendaya denounced Modeliste magazine for airbrushing pictures of her to make her look thinner when she was only 19. “These are the things that make women self-conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have,” she pointed out.

The actress Jameela Jamil has gone further, calling airbrushing “a crime against women”. She argues that it fools consumers into spending money to try to achieve a standard of beauty that is unattainable. It also makes the celebrities in the photos insecure about their real looks.

Those who practise it, she wrote in an article for the BBC, “are trying to break you, so you will hate yourself and go out and buy something you don’t need, in order to fix something that was never broken in the first place”.

“Two-thirds of teenage girls and young women don't think they’re pretty enough,” she noted. “And 93% think they’re judged on their appearance more than their ability.”

Airbrushing, however, does not just happen to women. Magazines also offer images of impossibly perfect men which, psychologists warn, can make ordinary people feel inadequate.

Should airbrushing be illegal?

Indulge the bulge

Some say, no. People have always sought an ideal of beauty, and airbrushing is just another tool in that quest. We love on-screen idols because they are so pleasing to look at, not because we imagine we can ever be equally attractive. Winslet would not be so quick to criticise airbrushing if she did not happen to look great without it, thanks to her natural beauty and access to expensive cosmetics.

Others say yes. Airbrushing has a terribly harmful influence, making even the most attractive people feel that they are not good looking enough and fuelling the rise in eating disorders. It is ridiculous that even a beautiful 19-year-old model should be subjected to it. In a civilised society, we should accept everyone for who they are and encourage them to be their authentic selves.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be a better place if everybody looked exactly the same?
  2. Should makeup be taxed like alcohol to discourage people from using it?

Activities

  1. Andy Warhol was famous for producing multiple colourful portraits of celebrities. As a team, choose a photograph of a celebrity and each paint a version of it in his style.
  2. In pairs, choose a famous historical painting or photograph. Copy it, but make changes to alter its significance.

Some People Say...

“Beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love.”

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), Indian writer and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that airbrushing has played an important part in trying to change history. A famous photograph of a Russian soldier raising a Soviet flag over Berlin at the end of World War Two was doctored to hide the fact that he was wearing two wristwatches, one presumably looted. Stalin gave orders for his political opponents to be removed from photographs of historic events and had himself added. The rise of deep-fake technology could make this common practice.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around why thinness has come to be prized in Western culture. For most of the last two millennia, artists celebrated larger women. In the first half of the 20th Century, Hollywood promoted curvaceous icons such as Marilyn Monroe. The ideal changed with the emergence of Twiggy and other thin models in the 1960s, but it may be that stands such as Kate Winslet’s – and anxiety over the prevalence of eating disorders – will bring a swing in the opposite direction.

Word Watch

Mare of Easttown
Winslet’s character is a detective investigating a murder and disappearance in a small town in Philadelphia.
Synonymous
Matches. A synonym is a word with the same meaning as another: for example, shut and close.
Lancôme
A French company famous for its cosmetics and perfumes.
Vanity Fair
One of America’s most famous magazines. The name is taken from John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the fair represents worldly frivolity.
They
The singer came out as non-binary in May and changed pronouns to they/them.
Zendaya
Now 24, she made her name as a child model before becoming an actress, singer and dancer.
Jameela Jamil
Also a TV presenter, writer and model, she is best known for starring in the comedy series The Good Place.

Subjects

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