A Thomistic Argument for Labeling Retouched Media Images

Valerie Boyer, a member of the French Parliament, has drafted a law requiring all digitally-altered photographs of people used in advertising to be labeled as “retouched.” Her proposal has not yet come to a vote in the National Assembly, but has understandably initiated a debate extending beyond France.

According to the NYTimes article on the subject, the real issue for Ms. Boyer is “about her two teenage daughters, 16 and 17, and the pressures on young women to match the fashionable ideal of a thin body and perfect skin.” Boyer noted in an interview: “If someone wants to make life a success, wants to feel good in their skin, wants to be part of society, one has to be thin or skinny, and then it’s not enough — one will have his body transformed with software that alters the image, so we enter a standardized and brainwashed world, and those who aren’t part of it are excluded from society.”

Photographers and models largely oppose the proposed law, citing concerns about destroying the nature of photographic art and misplacing body concerns and eating disorder prevention efforts to images rather than other complex causal factors.

But EverydayThomist is on the side of Boyer, with a Thomistic argument to boot. According to Aquinas, the sense of sight is the most important of the senses (this point he derives from his Aristotelian biology). While Aquinas thinks that there is something ontologically superior granted to the sense of sight not shared by other senses, a primary reason that the sense of sight is so important is that it is through our vision that we know the truth.

This requires some explanation. Human beings, in Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropological schema, are composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. We know the truth through our immaterial intellect. However, unlike the angels and other spirits, human beings, being corporeal, cannot grasp the truth simply through the immaterial intellect. Rather, all knowledge of the truth must be mediated through the corporeal body, and specifically, through the external senses–sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

The external senses apprehend external objects which it then communicates to the immaterial intellect. The intellect, being immaterial, cannot have knowledge of material objects perceived by the senses unless it abstracts from these material objects to form an image in the mind, what Aquinas calls a phantasm. It is by means of this image that the mind knows. This is an important point in Thomistic epistemology that bears repeating: the mind can only know by means of the creation of phantasms.

However, the process of knowing by means of the creation of phantasms is a complex and highly dialectic process. The mind must continue to return to the external senses which apprehend (and are corporeally transmuted by the perception of the external object) in order to maintain and develop the phantasm. Think of this analogously to apprehending a complex piece of art. As you think back on the work of art in your mind, your knowledge will be fragmented. You have to continue, time and again, returning to the piece of art before you can truly see it in your mind’s eye, even when the artifact itself is absent. Turns out, all knowledge of externals is like this. We have to continue returning to the external object before its phantasm can be firmly planted in the mind and our knowledge of the object can be said to be true.

Multiple empirical studies have indicated a significant correlation between exposure to idealized media images and various manifestations of body dissatisfaction including depression anxiety, and anger. A 2003 Australian study investigated the effect of body dissatisfaction in adolescent boys and girls (aged 13-15) after viewing 20 commercials containing idealized thin female images versus 20 nonappearance television commercials. The study found that girls, but not boys, who viewed the commercials with the idealized images reported significantly higher body dissatisfaction compared with nonappearance commercials, supporting the general hypothesis that televised images of attractiveness lead to increased body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls. A 2002 study by Durkin and Paxton found that in a controlled study of seventh and tenth graders, both grades experienced a significant decrease in state body satisfaction and a significant increase in state depression attributable to viewing idealized images of females in advertising. Another 2002 meta-analytic review of 25 studies on the effect of mass media images of the slender ideal on body dissatisfaction found that body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images than after viewing images of thin models than after viewing images of average or plus-size models.

The role of the media and specifically the espousal of the thin-ideal image of female beauty is frequently implicated as a cause for the onset and maintenance of eating disorders, and experimental data from the last two decades seems to confirm that this is the case. Several studies confirm that body-image dissatisfaction is the most consistent predictor of the onset of an eating disorder. A three-year longitudinal study of female adolescents confirmed a statistical significance between body dissatisfaction and the onset restrictive eating behaviors.

Aquinas would not be surprised at such empirical studies. Aquinas, along with the ancients, knew that what we see influences who we are. Aquinas called this the process of becoming connatured to what we see. The strongest phantasms in our minds, the phantasms of external objects we are most frequently exposed to through our vision, naturally influences our appetites, inclining us toward those objects in the appetitive movement of love. If we continuously are exposed to thin-ideal images of beauty in popular media, those phantasms of that beauty ideal will be strong in our mind, and our appetites will be duly influenced as well. Women may be inclined towards behaviors like food restriction and over-exercise to manifest such an ideal in their own body. Men may be inclined towards women embodying such an ideal, thus reinforcing the knowledge (derived from the phantasm), that thinness is the ideal of feminine beauty.

Boyer’s proposal offers a way of bypassing this psychological process. By labeling thin-ideal images as retouched, the phantasm that the mind would like create upon exposure to such images is more likely to be a phantasm of a falsely-represented external object, rather than an accurate representation of reality. The mind would not just create a phantasm of an overly-thin beautiful woman, but would accompany this phantasm with the cognitive judgment that such an image was a lie. Thus, the appetite is more likely to be inclined towards such images as good and desirable.

Now, EverydayThomist in no way thinks that Boyer’s proposal is going to solve the eating disorder problem. Eating disorders are complicated phenomena, and the representation of thin-ideal images of women in popular media is only part of the problem. But her proposal is a step in the right direction. It recognizes that eating disorders are not simply problems with food, but also problems in seeing. Transforming what we see is frequently the first step in solving problems in what we do.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] it or not, habituates us to associate beauty and desirability with thinness, as I wrote about here. We may think that we can watch overtly violent or sexually explicit films and not become […]


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