The compulsion to airbrush images of women is now so entrenched in our media that even those born before the invention of the camera aren’t exempt from manipulation. This week the Bank of England were criticised for photo-shopping a portrait of Jane Austen which will don £10 notes from 2017. The image in question is itself a copy of an earlier sketch which has now been modified to fit our modern beauty standards. Jane’s cheeks have been plumped, a coy smile etched across her face, her nose shortened and eyes widened, brimming with joy at the honour of gracing our currency alongside Winston Churchill. She now looks younger and slightly docile, nothing like the shrewish unimpressed original. Some might not see the problem with these changes, but I’m pretty sure there would be uproar if Churchill was presented on the fivers beaming mindlessly into the distance. The fact is we have no real idea what Jane Austen actually looked like, but it probably wasn’t much like her revamped portrait.
It’s telling that so much effort was put into altering Austen’s image while the accompanying quote chosen to summarise her world renowned novels is a clumsy line from the ridiculous Caroline Bingley. Frankly I think Jane would be insulted by the whole thing. Unlike most talented and accomplished women of the 21st century Austen’s appearance, up until now, has been irrelevant to discussions of her legacy, she has been rightly celebrated for her words instead her beauty or perceived lack of. Of course, pressure has always been put on women to fit a certain standard of beauty, as Austen herself wrote about, but new technologies have taken this obsession to a ridiculous new level in the 21st Century.
This is not to say that the use of Photoshop is always negative; it’s a useful tool for photographers and image manipulation can help create incredible artwork. However the problem arises when radically altered images are passed off as natural, eradicating individuality and diversity. Some argue that because we all know images in magazines and adverts are edited, it doesn’t matter; but then why does it still happen? The definition of beautiful in our society is still incredibly narrow. The slimming down of actresses and singers happen because people’s perception of their weight is still more valued that their talent. Beyonce’s skin is lightened in her own promotional material because whiteness is sadly still more ‘desirable’.
This issue is part of a wider cultural problem about how women are portrayed in the media and how their achievements and talents are undermined by the focus on appearance. While pressure is indeed put on men to look and dress a certain way, the standards are simply different for women. While certain commentators and politicians criticise those women who chose to cover their face with the burqa, other women are similarly lampooned for daring not to wear makeup; obligatory airbrushing makes their unaltered faces unacceptable anyway. Women should be able to look however they like, but their appearance should never be more valued than their achievements, especially when we don’t even know what they really looked like.