The Airbrush Conspiracy Myth

Posted on Posted in Misc, Past, People

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No matter how intelligent or well informed you are, if you are told something repeatedly, it will eventually become the truth.

A popular idea of our time is the notion that publishers and advertising agencies are conspiring to distort our perceptions of beauty in the human form.  In particular, the media owners and marketers are creating superhuman images of women; unnatural in shape and color, in the relentless pursuit of sales. Manipulating images of bodies is, we are told, a modern trend in a consumerist society, facilitated by technology and essentially a ‘gender issue’. Or is it?

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A few hundred years of art suggests that this might not be entirely true. Pick a random piece of figurative work; Lord Leighton’s painting Nymph of The River. Her pale, porcelain skin is almost translucent, her head is shrunken, eyes are enlarged and thighs accentuated. It’s a beautiful image and Leighton was an acclaimed artist, so today we say that the water-borne girl is ‘stylized’. Sir Freddy reconfigured the female body to fit an idealized image. It was coincidentally, also a style for which affluent patrons would pay top dollar.  This was in line with the Renaissance aesthetic, which was predated even the earliest advertising

Of course, you could argue that all this illustrates is that evil men have been exploiting women through the manipulation of the female form for the longest time and the grand misogynist conspiracy theory holds. But dust off your art history book and the evidence shows it might be something more benign.  There’s another notable piece of art that provides evidence that tweaking body images is both a perennial pursuit and also by no means gender specific…


Michelangelo’s David,  is a huge stature depicting a naked guy. And he’s evidently not anatomically correct.michelangelo_david2 Michelangelo’s not known for shoddy work; he distorted David‘s proportions deliberately.  Art experts have suggested that the unusually large head and hands (particularly noticeable in the right hand) might be emblematic of power and glorious intent. Or more plausibly, the distortions may be due to the fact that the statue was originally intended to be sold to a wealthy property developer who wanted to stick it on top of a cathedral. (Enlarged parts make the statue’s overall form easier to discern from the ground.)

Just saying.