In 1959, Ruth Handler gave the world its first “teenage fashion model”. Her name: Barbie. Nearly three decades later, in 1988, Thomas and John Knoll launched the graphics editing software Photoshop.
Both of these inventions have had a hand in shaping modern society’s perception of female beauty.
Graphic designers around the globe have used Photoshop to doctor images of women for billboard posters and magazines, removing perceived blemishes and enhancing features to attain the unrealistic ideals of looks and physique that Barbiehas helped to propagate for over half a century.
Photoshopped image (left) and raw image (right) of Keira Knightley in Cosmopolitan
American freelance journalist Esther Honig observed the growing trend of big lipped, doe-eyed, cellulite-free woman pervading Western print media.
Honig as featured in her "Before and After" project
The 24-year-old decided to make herself the subject of her own experiment, called “Before and After”, to see how graphic designers take raw images and manipulate them according to their cultural and personal perceptions of beauty. The results were fascinating.
With a simple, unadorned self-portrait, this Kansas City dweller used international freelancing platform Fiverr to contact amateur and professional graphic designers in 25 countries worldwide, offering them anywhere between $5 and $30 to carry out her one simple request: “Make me beautiful.”
Honig's original self-portrait
“I’m an avid reader and digital consumer so I’ve read plenty about how Photoshop generates images of unobtainable beauty,” said Honig. “What hasn’t been discussed is how standards of the unobtainable vary from person to person, and culture to culture.”
For this San Francisco native, the goal was that “each designer would pull from their personal and cultural constructs of beauty to enhance my unaltered image”.
Honig's original photo (top left) with selected Photoshopped images from "Before and After"
Her natural self-portrait was thus reconstructed into an array of different cultural perspectives on beauty.
Watch the video below to see Honig's interview about her "Before and After" project on CNN:
“I would contract someone to Photoshop my image – one person would add a filter and a little airbrush while others really went all out. I wanted to get a broad representation, and work with individuals in as many countries as possible,” she said.
The photo editing took on various forms in terms of changing skin tone, brow shape, cheekbone placement and even lip shade.
In certain images, such as those from Kenya or Vietnam, there are glimpses of Honig as she is in her original portrait, only with different exposure applied to the image and a few touches of digitally applied make-up.
Cultural expectations also came into play. A Moroccan graphic designer covered the journalist’s head with a turquoise hijab and body with a violet djellaba, which Honig describes as the most “dynamic” of all her Photoshopped images.
However, other interpretations of her photo took on a drastic transformation, particularly certain images from the United States and the Philippines.
Both of these countries had two designers submit their remakes of Honig’s portrait yet each individual designer had their own ideal of beauty.
This was when Honig realised that perceptions of beauty depend just as much on the individual as on the culture where that person is from.
“Even though there were over-arching themes to beauty, individuals, no matter their culture, had different perspectives of what the word ‘beautiful’ means. It’s hard to know what is cultural and what is personal – that’s what’s so intriguing, sorting out the possible influences.”
Honig felt that “Before and After” has left a lasting mark on how she views herself, realising that not even she can escape the influence of a touched up image.
She notes: “It did make me more aware of certain things like the uneven tone of my skin, which was touched up by nearly every editor. It also reminded me that my eyebrows are thicker than normal.”
In this video, Honig talks about how the project's reach exceeded her expectations and the opportunities it has afforded her:
Though the message of beauty is different in every culture, the images generated by Honig's experiment demonstrate that it is equally up to the individual’s taste and that the idea of universal beauty does not exist.
And, as an aside, most of the "Before and After" images ultimately show that if you want your portrait Photoshopped to make it look genuinely better, it's probably better to shell out more than 30 bucks!
For more information about Ester Honig's work, please visit: