Lindsay Lohan’s Photoshop fail and the problem with ‘real’ selfies

It's not them, it's us.


Nayomi Reghay

Internet Culture

Published Mar 17, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 7:03 am CDT

It’s no secret that, as a society, we hunger for real images of real women. The upside of photo-sharing social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr is that now more than ever we have access to a wide array of user-created content featuring women of all shapes and sizes. So why are we still obsessing over celebrity photoshop fails? Well, maybe there’s a bit more Regina George in all of us than we’d like to admit.

Last week, Mean Girls alum Lindsay Lohan came under fire for a photoshop misstep on her Instagram account. Lohan, who had previously courted controversy after dropping the “N-word” when hashtagging an Instagram photo of Kanye West performing in Paris, chose not to remove the photo, insisting it was unaltered.

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Instead of scrutinizing the photo, let’s turn our gaze to the insidious coverage Lohan received. TMZ broke the story and then outlets from the New York Post’s scandal-laden Page Six to the female-powered Bustle ran the doctored image urging readers to inspect the photo closely for evidence of Lohan’s altered legs and glutes. Invariably, the stories cast Lohan as a failure, at life and at photoshop.

This isn’t terribly shocking when gossip outlets do it—tearing apart celebrities is their bread and butter—but something more disturbing is at work here. Bustle’s Emily Kirkpatrick insists she’s rooting for Lohan but goes on to label Lohan as a “struggling actress,” warning that “now that we’re all amateur Photoshop cops, there was no way anyone was going to let that go by unnoticed.” She finally asks, “When will these women learn?”

The article also includes an image from Instagram account wephotoshoppedwhat that zooms in on Lohan’s altered derrière and snarkily pairs it with an image from Freaky Friday, a film young Lohan starred in.

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The result is a sly brand of body-shaming where Lohan becomes doubly guilty and endlessly vulnerable. First, she is guilty of showing us a “false” image, and secondly she is guilty of not getting it “right.” Thus, Lohan is giving us permission to dissect her image and zero in on her possible flaws.

As Lena Dunham said when Jezebel paid $10,000 for and subsequently published her unedited Vogue pictures, the whole thing feels “gross.”

I am all for investigating the uses and effects of Photoshop on our self-esteem and our cultural standards of beauty but not like this. When we seek out these “fails” and point fingers at individual women, the blame misses the mark entirely. The problem is not Lindsay Lohan or any of her fellow self-photoshopping celebs, who include Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Miranda Kerr, to name a few.

The problem is us, and I don’t mean women: I mean “us” as a collective culture of media consumers and producers. We have to own our obsession with beauty standards, and we’d be wise to investigate the notion that these women deserve a public-scolding for less than stellar photoshop skills.

There is a distinct line between questioning why a woman felt the need to alter her image and saying, “Wow, look what a joke she’s become.” When we start cataloguing women’s failures, especially in their attempts to produce acceptable images of beauty, we might as well be gluing together our own Regina George-style slam book. 

Although it’s understandable and likely healthy that our attitude towards photoshop is shifting to one of general distaste, we cannot attack women in order to support women. We cannot tear women down in our quest to pave way for better beauty standards. A starlet who doctors her Instagram selfie may have internalized our cultural beauty standards, but she’s not responsible for creating them.

That history belongs to the fashion and beauty industry. Although brands and magazines alike love to applaud themselves for daring to show “real women,” the grand gesturing that accompanies editorials or ad campaigns featuring plus-size models serve to remind us that these images are still a variant from the norm.

Dove orchestrates emotional scenes for its “real beauty” campaign, but has been accused of heavily airbrushing curvier models, and Aerie’s #aerieREAL campaign flaunts un-retouched models but makes sure they are all extremely slim. I nearly choked on laugher perusing their site when a model whose butt could hardly be described as large was paired with copy that reads: “My bubble butt makes me #aerieREAL.”

Amidst all these mixed messages about what women should look like and what constitutes “real” beauty, who gets to call the shots? Thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, now, more than ever, we do. 

When Ralph Lauren ran an ad of an absurdly photoshopped Filippa Hamilton in 2009, the public outrage was loud and clear; Ralph Lauren had no choice but to hear it. The company eventually issued a statement apologizing for and admitting “[responsibility] for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body.” They did not, however, apologize for terminating the contract of model Filippa Hamilton, who claims at 5’10” and 120 pounds, that she was let go for being “too fat.”

But progress is a slow game. In part because we don’t always want to see images of reality. We enjoy the glamour and fantasy of fashion magazines. Thus, our reactions to un-retouched photos can be unpredictable. When Marie Claire released an un-retouched photo of Cindy Crawford, people applauded her bravery, failing to notice that Crawford had no say in the matter. And when un-edited images of Beyoncé’s 2013 L’Oréal campaign leaked, the Web reacted with horror, and the photos were swiftly deleted.

One reason we don’t have healthy images of beauty is because after decades of unrealistic standards we’re not quite sure what real beauty looks like. We’re hungry for images of relatable women, but since women come in a variety of shapes and sizes and we’ve been fed one-size-fits-all for so long, it’s hard to gauge what “real” beauty looks like.

Fortunately, if you know where to look, you’ll find that there is a wealth of exciting new images of beauty at our disposal. Models like Ashley Graham and fashion bloggers like Nadia Aboulhosn regularly share and create content that exudes confidence and beauty without conforming to industry standards.

The campaign encourages Instagram users to post a selfie with a heart and the hashtag #HeartYourSelfie. When users do so and tag @CharlotteRusse, the company will give $1 to Girls, Inc., a non-profit that works with more than 138,000 girls across the U.S. and Canada.

Of course, posting a positive selfie won’t cure our Photoshop woes overnight, but it would be nice to see these efforts to build and create positive beauty images, especially those aimed at young girls, get as much attention as celebrity photoshop “fails” do.

Former model Katie Willcox founded Healthy is the New Skinny in hopes of adjusting our perspective of beauty and body image. Willcox also runs Natural Models Management, a company geared toward helping models to have a “healthy experience” in the beauty and fashion industry. Slowly but surely, efforts like these—along with the democratic nature of social media—point toward a future where we may achieve a more evolved and malleable standard of beauty.

While these women don’t necessarily cover the full spectrum of what a healthy body can look like, these images excite me because they resemble my body type more closely than what I’m used to seeing in the media. What we need, and what technology is allowing us to create, is a diversity of images. What we don’t need is another deconstruction of a woman into an assortment of parts and pieces. No matter their size, all women deserve to see healthy, relatable images in the media. Because all women, even celebrities, deserve to feel whole.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Mar 17, 2015, 7:19 pm CDT