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Modern technology has brought us many marvels: Bluetooth, BlackBerries, iPhones, and nanos -- gadgets any forward-thinking gal covets. But one of our favorite creations has to be Photoshop, the program that lets you edit, alter, enhance, and improve on everything from Christmas cards to vacation albums. No more cringing at the red-eye glare of your daughter's soccer-team picture, or stuffing the finish-line photo from your first 10K in a drawer because your hair looks like you stepped on a live wire. The best thing about Photoshop is the way it makes your everyday life look a little more, well, glamorous. But how far is too far when it comes to image correcting? Is there a downside to our high-tech toy?
It's one thing when a woman alters her own image through a series of point-and-clicks on her home computer. But what is the effect of magazines and TV ads morphing the way we appear? "When we begin creating a digital reality that is impossible for real women to achieve, we stop seeing our imperfections as normal," says Judith Donath, PhD, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a professor at the MIT Media Lab.
Then again, reality has never been America's thing -- even reality TV shows are doctored to create drama, as real women fight to become "idols" or "top models." And, in general, we're okay with that creative license: Entertainment is supposed to be fun. What happens, though, when women can no longer separate fact from fiction? "The digital world creates confusion about what images are real versus what is Hollywood magic," says Kathy O'Brien, the marketing director for Dove, a company that in 2006 launched the Campaign for Real Beauty to promote realistic images of women's bodies. "Women are not always aware that what they see in the media isn't real. It impacts their self-esteem, and they feel less beautiful."
It made us wonder: If digital alterations can produce negative body image, could technology that enhances the truths about our daily life -- a space where our most intimate thoughts about the way we look are exposed, rather than hidden -- have the effect of making us love our bodies even more? These questions are being put to the test. Over the past 12 months, a viral movement has begun -- a grassroots effort to take back the way women's bodies are represented in America. "What we are seeing is a backlash to the homogenizing of women's bodies via airbrushing and digital manipulation," says Lisa Stone, cofounder of BlogHer.com, a Web site devoted to what women are saying and writing online. "More and more women are realizing the power of the Internet to reach out to other women in affirmation of what our bodies really look like. We see that we can turn the tables on how technology is used in the larger conversation about body image."
How, exactly? By posting unaltered body portraits online -- on personal and amateur-photography Web sites -- and allowing other women to view and comment on what they see. It's a social experiment whose time has come: According to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (a nonprofit research foundation), on any given day in the U.S., more than five million people post personal images or data on self-created blogs or other content-sharing Web sites. In the past five years, we have shifted from a society that uses the Internet to receive factual information to one that uses the Web to share anecdotal advice -- and women are leading the charge. "Women are the 'connectors' in our communities," says Stone. "The Internet is another forum for doing that."
Perhaps for this reason, BlogHer.com has seen an explosion of interest on the topic of body image. "Since July 2007, we've added 151 new blogs to our site relating to women's bodies," says Stone. "Ten years ago, you'd read an occasional comment on a message board in reaction to a model's photo in a magazine: 'Am I the only one who thinks real women don't look like this?' But garnering critical mass was difficult. The expansion of the Internet makes it easy to share these feelings." Think of the Web as a virtual watercooler: In a country where 64 million people are obese, as many as 10 million suffer from eating disorders, and untold others feel inadequate every time they drive past another airbrushed model on a highway billboard, it was high time there was an outlet for the emotions surrounding women and body-image issues.
The perceived anonymity of the Web -- even when sharing something as intimate as a photo of your body -- has allowed thousands of women the safety to say what they really think. As the trend grows, body-image Web sites have become more specialized. In 2006, Bonnie Crowder, 30, launched theshapeofamother.com, uploading an image of her post-baby body -- stretch marks, folds, and all -- in an effort to support other women who'd recently given birth. "The post-pregnancy body is one of society's greatest secrets," Crowder wrote on her Web site. "Sure, we all talk about sagging boobs, but no one ever sees them. It is my dream to create a Web site where women of all ages, shapes, and sizes can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret."
The response has been tremendous, as other new mothers post their own photos and viewers write supportive comments for all to read. Late one evening in January of this year, a new mom uploaded a nude photo, stretch marks and all, on the site with this comment: "I can't stand looking at myself...I have a spare tire and tiger stripes. I'm afraid they won't ever go away...at least I got them giving birth to the world's most beautiful boy." The responses came pouring in immediately.
"You have the most gorgeous curvy hips!...I am quite jealous."
"Thank you for your honesty. It is really helpful to people such as me. [I am] five weeks pregnant [with my] first baby."
"It all gets better, it really does. You are not alone in this."
It's like having your own support network at the snap of your fingers -- or, more exactly, the click of your mouse.
Photographer Laurie Toby Edison, author of Women En Large, a book of realistic female portraits that served as the springboard for her Web site dedicated to pictures of real people's bodies, understands the appeal. "Women are seeing their reality perpetually denied by the mainstream," she says. "The Web and the blogosphere have become the means through which they can reaffirm that their bodies are beautiful."
Of course, then there's this question: We're all for body pride, but really, who the heck has the guts (or exhibitionist urge) to post a picture of herself in her birthday suit online for the whole world to see? "The answer I get the most -- and it resonates with me personally -- is, 'I am tired of feeling embarrassed about the way I look,'" says Suzanne Reisman, 32, founder of a blog about feminism and other topics. "Women feel under assault from images that don't look anything like them, and the online community offers an opportunity to say, 'There is nothing wrong with having an average body.'"
Average is what Reisman had in mind when she launched The Swimsuit Brigade on BlogHer.com, a place for ordinary women to post photos of themselves in their swimsuits. "I put my picture up first," she says. "I'm not skinny, and I was a little afraid. But online, you don't have to see people's facial reactions to what you look like. You feel less 'exposed' than if you were in a gym locker room. That helps make women more confident about sharing their photos -- and, in turn, it helps the rest of us feel better about our own bodies, because we can see that women come in all shapes and sizes."
The idea of online body pride has spread across the country. At a national convention of bloggers last summer, Edison spoke on a panel devoted to the topic of online body image. And the ivy towers of academia are catching on -- both Harvard and MIT offer a myriad of courses exploring the creation of identity and the use of personal imagery online, as well as on questions of Internet ethics. YouTube is also getting in on the act, posting a Web movie created by Dove to dramatize the constant barrage of unrealistic beauty images that girls face. "The film Onslaught is a call to action for moms and mentors to talk to their daughters and educate them about what is real versus what is Hollywood," says Dove's O'Brien. "To date, the film has been viewed more than 2.5 million times."
"Everywhere you look, women are using technology, mainly the Web, to take back the reality of their lives and their bodies," says Stone, whose company hosted a conference last July that included a popular panel called Our Bodies, Our Blogs. "We are taking back positive body image, one Web site at a time. The journey toward self-acceptance is much easier with friends, and for the foreseeable future, more and more women are finding those friends on the Internet."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2008.