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UK, France mull Photoshop fakery laws

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The Photoshop wars are heating up again, with politicians in the UK and France calling for legislation to regulate digital nipping, tucking, and smoothing of images in ads and elsewhere.

The reasoning behind the moves to police fantasy Photoshopping is - as is all too usual in such cases - to protect those delicate flowers: impressionable youth.

"When teenagers and women look at these pictures in magazines, they end up feeling unhappy with themselves," Liberal Democratic Party MP Jo Swinson told The New York Times.

Swinson has convinced her party to adopt her proposal to institute a labeling system for digitally altered ads and to ban them altogether in ads targeted toward children under 16.

French parliamentarian Valérie Boyer is fighting the good fight at the other end of Le tunnel sous la Manche as well. "These photos can lead people to believe in realities that very often, do not exist," she has said.

As a member of president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, Boyer may be familiar with her leader's own encounter with digital unreality - his adorable poignees d'amour (love handles) were famously reduced in a bare-chested image of his canoeing adventure on a US lake in 2007.

Boyer's proposed law would have teeth. Retouched photos for "editorial purposes" would be required to include warning labels, and scofflaws could be fined €37,500 (£34,300, $55,000).

Swinson's proposal doesn't yet have an enforcement suggestion, but it does have a rating system: images would be rated on a scale of one to four, with one being simple enhancements such as lighting adjustments, and four being major digital surgery such as bulking up Gordon Brown to Rambo-level buffness.

Swinson and Boyer, however, may be tilting at digitally enhanced windmills. Photo retouching has a long and storied history, with an artist's airbrush long predating Photoshop's Healing Brush.

Take a moment, for example, to peruse a few recent well-known retouchings:

  • Jessica Alba's post-pregnancy waistline in an ad for Campari
  • Kate Winslet's digital slimming for Vanity Fair
  • Keira Knightley's enhanced breasts for the US - but not the UK - film poster for the unfortunate King Arthur
  • Keira Knightly's jubblies yet again in an ad for Coco Chanel
  • An aging Twiggy facially scrubbed in an Olay ad
  • Tony Blair toned a dozen or more years younger for Men's Vogue
  • Andy Roddick's buffed-up biceps for Men's Fitness

And, of course, there are dozens of other celebs and demicelebs who have been presented, in Boyer's words, "in realities that very often, do not exist."

The practice is so widespread that it's a newsworthy event when a celeb is not enhanced, as evidenced by US Republican media consultant Andrea Tantaros's hissy fit when Time had the temerity to put an unaltered Sarah Palin on its cover.

To be sure, some celebs aren't altogether happy about being turned into something other than themselves. Keira Knightley, for example, told People, "OK, I'm on the cover of a magazine but somebody else does the hair, and the makeup, and airbrushes the fuck out of me - it's not me, it's something other people have created."

The Reg to Swinson and Boyer: Get over it. We live in a digitally enhanced world. Vocalists' song stylings are pitch-corrected, music videos are color-saturated, first-down lines are added to broadcasts of American football, and so on.

Although guaranteeing the accuracy of images used for editorial purposes is a laudable goal, children in the UK and France are inured to digital enhancements and are quite able to distinguish reality from fantasy without a rating system.

And if they can't, they have bigger problems than your proposed legislation could cure. ®

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