Mirror Mirror on the wall, am I allowed to photoshop my image at all?

Yes, but if you reside in France, your image-enhancing behaviour may soon be contained by certain boundaries... Recently it was announced that French law might require anyone who posts on social media would be banned from promoting plastic surgery and will be required to label a photoshopped image of a person as retouched. The French government seeks to “limit the destructive psychological effects” those practices have on social media users. The new law does not aim to limit influencers but to support them and social media users, especially those young and vulnerable.

Although social media does have some positive influence on body image, for example, providing space for body positivity and celebrating diverse body types, it can also hurt those who are easily influenced. The culture of thinness and unrealistic beauty standards are not the only things that hurt some individuals. Also, filters and editing software on social media can contribute to distorted perceptions of beauty and lead to unrealistic expectations of how people should look. Dove research found that over 50% of girls do not believe that they look good in a photo without some retouching. Warwick University found that flagging photos as digitally enhanced or manipulated did not stop people from wanting to enhance their own photos. Beauty ideals are difficult to change. However, this intervention may open up discussions that could be a start of constructive engagement with body image and self-esteem.

So, how is body image constructed? It is a complex, multifaceted concept that is influenced mainly by the following factors:

  • Biological factors and genetics play a role in determining our body shape and size, which can affect our body image. Hormonal changes during puberty and other life stages can also influence body image.
  • Social factors such as family, friends, and media can shape our beliefs and attitudes about our bodies. For example, family members and friends may comment on our appearance, influencing how we see ourselves. Also, how our significant others, like our parents or siblings, perceive their own body image may influence us. Exposure to media images and messages can also contribute to developing body image.
  • Cultural factors such as beauty standards and values can influence how we perceive our bodies. For example, certain cultures may value larger body types, while others may prioritise thinness. Cultural factors may also be influenced by the media, such as TikTok or Instagram trends related to body image.
  • Psychological factors such as self-esteem, anxiety, or depression can influence body image. Individuals with low self-esteem or high levels of anxiety or depression may be more likely to have a negative or distorted body image.

In psychoanalysis, body image and self-esteem are seen as closely related concepts that are influenced by a range of psychological and social factors, including family dynamics, cultural norms and values, and exposure to media. Body image refers to an individual's perception of physical appearance, weight, shape, and other physical attributes. Self-esteem refers to an individual's overall evaluation of their own worth and value as a person. Various factors, including experiences of success and failure, social support, and cultural norms or values, can influence it. Negative body image often may lead to low self-esteem and vice versa. This interrelation can create a negative feedback loop in which negative body image and low self-esteem reinforce each other, leading to psychological distress. Psychological conflicts and dynamics can contribute to negative self-perception. Individuals may struggle with feelings of inadequacy, shame, or anxiety related to their physical appearance, which can be rooted in early childhood experiences and other psychological factors.

Let’s look closer at the mirror stage, which starts the young child’s identification with their own image. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan coined the concept. According to Lacan, it is a crucial stage of development between 6 and 18 months of age. During the mirror stage, the child becomes aware of their own body and recognises themselves as separate from the rest of the world. Lacan proposes that an infant passes through a stage in which an external image of the body reflected in a mirror or represented by a mother or primary caregiver produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of “I”. According to Lacan, the mirror stage is critical in developing the child's sense of self and identity. It marks the beginning of a lifelong process of identification and desire, in which the child strives to become a whole and unified subject despite the fragmentation and lack that characterizes the human experience. The image of a unified body reflected in the mirror does not correspond with the undeveloped infant’s vulnerability and weakness. For that reason, the mirror stage is also characterised by a fundamental sense of alienation, as the child's sense of self is based on an idealised image that is unreachable. This leads to a perpetual sense of lack and desire that motivates the child's ongoing efforts to achieve a sense of wholeness and completeness. In conclusion, the mirror stage establishes the ego as dependent on external conditions. Perhaps innovative technology like Photoshop allows us to create the illusion of reaching the perfection of our images. Something that can never be attained due to the nature of our development and being human.

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©Anna Sergent

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