The Great Photoshop Crusade

One activist’s battle with the advertising industry.

08 Jul 2013, New York City, New York State, USA --- An artist/researcher has designed a Normal Barbie by using the measurements of the average 19-year-old American woman. Nickolay Lamm, from Pennsylvania, used the Centers for Disease Control's statistics with a 3-D model and Photoshop to create the shorter, curvier, bustier version of the widely popular children's doll. Lamm then dressed his model like Barbie using Photoshop and photographed her standing next to a standard version of the slim, leggy toy. I wanted to show that average is beautiful,'' Lamm posted on the website Pop star Demi Lovato, who has struggled with eating disorders, was quick to support his project, posting a picture of the Normal Barbie with the caption: @barbie you are AWESOME!!!!!!!! LOVE this!!!!!!!!! Pictured: Normal Barbie's model by artist/researcher Nickolay Lamm --- 
© Nickolay Lamm/Splash/ /Splash
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

If I find a horse’s head in my bed, I’ll know who put it there,” Seth Mat­lins is say­ing. We are sit­ting in a se­cluded booth at De­canter — the gil­ded, Medi­ter­ranean-themed res­taur­ant of the St. Re­gis Hotel in Wash­ing­ton — and the ad­vert­ising ex­ec­ut­ive-turned-cit­izen act­iv­ist is telling me about his re­cent spar­ring with rep­res­ent­at­ives of the in­dustry he used to work for.

Mat­lins is on a cru­sade to get the gov­ern­ment to take on what he sees as one of the great so­cial ills of our time: Pho­toshop. More spe­cific­ally, the un­real­ist­ic breast-en­han­cing, stom­ach-slim­ming, cheekbone-de­fin­ing, un­der-eye-circle-eras­ing that per­vades so much ad­vert­ising and (count­less stud­ies show) can con­trib­ute to lower self-es­teem and de­creased hap­pi­ness for wo­men, chil­dren, and men. “In my es­tim­a­tion, it’s as big a pub­lic health crisis as any­thing we have faced as a coun­try,” he says. “And there are people who think I’m be­ing hy­per­bol­ic, but I think the data makes it ab­so­lutely clear. … This is an is­sue that has af­fected, and I’d ar­gue, in­fec­ted, gen­er­a­tions of Amer­ic­ans — and prom­ises to con­tin­ue to af­fect gen­er­a­tions more un­less we do something.”

Artist Nic­olay Lamm’s “nor­mal Bar­bie” pro­ject: an­oth­er at­tempt to point out com­mer­cial dis­tor­tions of the av­er­age wo­man’s body. (Nick­olay Lamm/Splash)But first, let him make something very ap­par­ent: “We are not try­ing to ban Pho­toshop,” he says. Rather, the scope of the bill he and his al­lies are lob­by­ing for is much nar­row­er. They want the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion — the reg­u­lat­ory agency that pro­tects con­sumers from un­fair and de­cept­ive busi­ness prac­tices — to sub­mit a re­port to Con­gress out­lining a strategy for re­du­cing the use of “im­ages that have been altered to ma­ter­i­ally change the phys­ic­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics” of people in ad­vert­ise­ments.

Mat­lins — who still looks the part of a Los Angeles ad man: crosshatched navy blazer, per­fectly dimpled tie, horn-rimmed glasses with blond stems — star­ted his ca­reer selling Evi­an, or, as he puts it, “pic­tures of cut bod­ies.” He moved to L.A. 16 years ago; there, he ran Rock the Vote, then helped start the mar­ket­ing di­vi­sion at Cre­at­ive Artists Agency.

But after hav­ing two chil­dren — he and his wife, Eva, ad­op­ted Ella Rose, now 8, and Ot­is, 7 — Mat­lins be­came “such a daddy cliché.” He star­ted look­ing at the world through the eyes of his daugh­ter. One year, the nanny gave her a Bar­bie doll for Christ­mas. In his head, he was hav­ing a mini-melt­down, think­ing, “You just gave our child a loaded weapon — are you kid­ding me?!” Bar­bie had been one of his mar­ket­ing pro­jects. “That’s when I real­ized I needed to help make the world a bet­ter place.”

“When at least 30 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans are suf­fer­ing from eat­ing dis­orders, we can’t simply ig­nore the prob­lem and hope it goes away.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en

So, in 2010, Mat­lins left cor­por­ate life and with Eva star­ted a web­site, Feel More Bet­ter, that was meant to be “60 per­cent Oprah, 40 per­cent Sarah Sil­ver­man.” The idea was to cre­ate a more up­lift­ing space for young wo­men than the fash­ion magazines they were reg­u­larly ex­posed to. In Au­gust 2011, after see­ing a story about a Brit­ish MP who suc­cess­fully took down L’Or­éal ads in Eng­land, he wrote an op-ed in The Huff­ing­ton Post float­ing the idea that we should reg­u­late beauty ad­vert­ising in the U.S. After he wrote the art­icle, “I star­ted cold-call­ing mem­bers of the wo­men’s con­gres­sion­al caucus,” he re­calls. Mat­lins had no idea what he was do­ing; but, he says, “I knew I had to do something.”

In late 2013, build­ing on dec­ades of work by fem­in­ist act­iv­ists and writers on the is­sue, Mat­lins de­cided to turn his full fo­cus to ad­voc­at­ing for a bill in Con­gress. He teamed up with a num­ber of groups, in­clud­ing the Eat­ing Dis­orders Co­ali­tion, to get a bill in­tro­duced by Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lois Capps of Cali­for­nia and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en of Flor­ida, and he has been com­mut­ing between L.A. and D.C. to build sup­port for it. In April, Mat­lins and oth­ers went to Cap­it­ol Hill to hold a brief­ing on the bill, and in June they re­turned to present Capps and Ros-Le­htin­en with a pe­ti­tion signed by 28,000 people back­ing the le­gis­la­tion. Since then, the pe­ti­tion has reached 35,000 sig­na­tures. The bill has also picked up Demo­crat Ted Deutch of Flor­ida as a co­spon­sor.

Mat­lins says he be­came “such a daddy cliché.” (Cour­tesy of Seth Mat­lins)The FTC rarely com­ments on pending le­gis­la­tion, but spokes­wo­man Betsy Lordan notes that the agency already “has the au­thor­ity to take ac­tion against any ad whose net im­pres­sion is con­sidered de­cept­ive un­der the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion Act.” The act­iv­ists and spon­sors of the bill, however, want the FTC to come up with a sys­tem­ic ap­proach — not a one-off in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to an in­di­vidu­al ad.

“These fake, im­possible, and di­git­ally altered bod­ies have been con­trib­ut­ing to ser­i­ous, deadly health is­sues like eat­ing dis­orders for too long,” Ros-Le­htin­en tells me. “When at least 30 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans are suf­fer­ing from eat­ing dis­orders, we can’t simply ig­nore the prob­lem and hope it goes away. The ad­vert­ising in­dustry has not and will not self-reg­u­late without pres­sure from the pub­lic.” For her part, Capps notes that she was mo­tiv­ated to spon­sor the bill by her ex­per­i­ence as a school nurse. “I’m a little sur­prised to see the re­ac­tion be so strong and so sup­port­ive,” she says.

Capps, Mat­lins, and oth­er back­ers take pains to point out this is not an ef­fort to cur­tail First Amend­ment rights: Com­mer­cial speech doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily have the same pro­tec­tions as in­di­vidu­al speech, es­pe­cially if it’s false or de­ceiv­ing. Still, con­ser­vat­ives oth­er than Ros-Le­htin­en haven’t rushed to the cause.

“We’re un­der no il­lu­sions that this is not a pro­cess, and it’s go­ing to take time,” Mat­lins tells me. “The truth is on our side, but the odds are still — they’re long.” He scribbles a graph on an x-y ax­is. “By 13, 53 per­cent of girls are un­happy with them­selves,” he says, re­peat­ing one com­monly cited data point on the top­ic. “At 17, it’s 78 per­cent.”

As he speaks, Kath­leen Mac­Don­ald, a policy staffer from the Eat­ing Dis­orders Co­ali­tion — his part­ner in pe­ti­tion­ing the gov­ern­ment — turns up with a bubble-wrapped bind­er he sent her. It is filled with ex­amples of waists nar­rowed to bio­lo­gic­al im­possib­il­ity and com­ments from sign­ers of the pe­ti­tion. “Some of them are just dev­ast­at­ing,” he says. “They’re so poignant and so hu­man and smart.” He plans to take this to the FTC and con­gres­sion­al of­fi­cials he’s about to go meet with. “The av­er­age wo­man has 13 thoughts of self-hate every day,” he says. “When I think about my ba­bies — boy and girl — hav­ing thoughts of self-hate be­cause of an ad that’s try­ing to de­ceive them to sell a wid­get? That’s not cool. Not cool with me.” Then he’s off to see the reg­u­lat­ors.

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