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Way off Target: retailer’s Photoshop faux pas supports unrealistic body image

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I love Target. This ubiquitous retailer has built a strong brand providing consumers with not just basic goods for the home and everyday life, but helping people add some affordable individualism and style to their worlds. We’ve all been there, some of us more than others. We’re usually just there for an extension cord and some paper towels, but end up leaving with a cute butter dish, matching kitchen towels and a decorative wreath for the next holiday on the calendar. My daughter, who is now twelve, shares my affinity for Target—she still displays child-like joy while perusing knick knacks in the holiday aisles, but being a tween, she’s also starting to love the fashion collections showcasing the world’s hottest designers.

To be honest, I love Target a little less this week, after their egregious use of Photoshop in their swimsuit images became overwhelmingly obvious. The images in question, which were displayed prominently on Target’s website, featured a Juniors swimsuit model who appeared to be missing some normal parts of her body, including parts of her groin. Altering a photo in this region of the body suggests that Target was attempting to give the model a “thigh gap,” the aspirational—and potentially dangerous—body image ideal that suggests the perfect female figure will have a defined space between the thighs. Because “thigh gap” is widely equated with thinness, it has emerged as a significant trend in eating disorder culture. Another disappointing part of this situation is that the model in question was very thin to begin with, even before digital retouching.

Target has since apologized for the “unfortunate error,” which leaves me wondering what, specifically, they are sorry for. Are they sorry they did a crappy job retouching their images and that they hastily posted those images online for the whole world to see? Or are they sorry that their irresponsible exaggeration of “thigh gap” in an already thin young woman propagates a dangerous and often anatomically impossible body ideal among the girls and young women it markets to directly? I sure hope they’re apologizing for the latter outcome, because unrealistic body ideals continue to be a big issue in our culture.

A significant driver of these unhealthy body ideals is the internet. While the internet expands our access to so much timely, valid and important information, it also offers a platform for inaccurate information and dangerous suggestions with the potential to fuel eating disorders. The so-called “thinspiration” movement, or the online distribution of ideas and images to fuel weight loss and the pursuit of the perfect thin form, is a strong example of increased information with decreased accountability. Case in point: Want to know the truth about “thigh gap”? It’s not physically possible for many women. The space between a woman’s thighs is based on bone structure and the shape of the individual’s hip and leg bones. In general, this space is not indicative of one’s fitness (or thinness) level. That's the reason why the “thigh gap” has become part of eating disorder culture—women are pursuing an often unattainable physical goal, and self-starvation is usually the sole means for achieving it. You won’t find much information about this reality on the internet, but you will find countless websites, discussion forums and social media profiles dedicated to achieving “thigh gap” or the “bikini bridge” or any other number of ideals.

These retouched images supporting unrealistic body ideals are everywhere in popular culture, including the internet, magazines, billboards and television. While we likely can’t avoid these unhealthy suggestions, we can be aware of a few basic tips for developing and protecting a healthy, realistic body image:

  • Make a point to practice—and if possible, teach children and young adults—critical thinking skills and informed consumption of information.
  • Avoid “fat talk,” taking care to not comment negatively about our own bodies and others’ bodies.
  • Don’t label foods as “good” and “bad”—food is neutral. What matters is listening to our bodies and realizing when it is hungry or full.
  • Don’t focus on what your body looks like, but rather appreciate all the ways your body supports your daily activities—walking the dog, chasing your kids in the park, taking a yoga class or stretching before bedtime.

Even though I’m disappointed by Target’s actions, I’m hopeful this Photoshop debacle and the widespread public criticism it sparked will help the retailer understand the impact of their irresponsible marketing. Furthermore, I hope they now have a greater awareness of the devastating impact these unhealthy, unrealistic messages and images can have on girls and young women, particularly the millions that are genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder in their lifetime. It is entirely possible to effectively market cute, stylish and affordable clothing to girls and young women using models with normal bodies and without freakish retouching. I hope Target knows this too.

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