Retouched Beauty Images Can Trigger Similar Brain Response To PTSD, Blogger Warns

The damage is real, says film-maker.

We see thousands of images every day, and whether we’re on social media or flicking through a magazine, chances are most of them are retouched. But this could be triggering a trauma response in our brains, a blogger has warned.

For her latest video ‘Redefine Pretty’, blogger Em Ford teamed up with some of the UK’s leading neuroscientists to investigate how viewing retouched images affects real women – and the results are pretty shocking.

In the experiment, a group of volunteers who’ve all struggled with their own body image looked at photographs of women, including some that had been retouched and some that hadn’t.

By analysing brain scans, the neuroscientists, from University College London, found that when the volunteers viewed retouched images, the response of the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions – was triggered in a way that signifies trauma.

They said the amygdala response was not dissimilar from that seen in people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Em Ford

Ford teamed up with Professor Vincent Walsh, a professor of human brain research at UCL, Professor Joe Devlin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, and cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting for the experiment.

In the film, Professor Walsh explains how seeing a retouched image may trigger a trauma response in the brain by giving the example of a woman with severe acne. If that woman has repeatedly entered social situations where she feels self-conscious about her acne, for example, she’s walked into a room full of “flawless super models”, the next time she sees “flawless” images, she may re-experience that trauma. The images become an external trigger for the internal narrative she’s built around her skin.

Ford says she was determined to conduct more research into this area after her film titled ‘You Look Disgusting’ went viral. In the film, the blogger slowly wiped away her makeup, revealing her acne. She says thousands of women contacted her after she made the film to share their own body image struggles.

“When you think about the world, and the women of the world, we’re forcing them to all feel like they have to fit one box. I’m not okay with that,” she says in the latest clip.

Em Ford

Ford’s 15-minute film also tells the stories of other women who have experienced negative body image, exploring the reasons behind their feelings.

“If we raise a generation of people who have only seen one thing, they’re going to have in their minds: ‘this is beauty, that isn’t’. In the media that’s what’s presented to you, so you just take it as it is,” says one of the women. “But everyone should be represented. It shouldn’t just be one way.”

Following the experiment, Ford has called on the beauty industry to be more representative of the general population, in order to put less pressure on women and “redefine beauty”.

“So to the brands, to the marketers, to the PRs, the creatives and the decision makers... talk to us,” she said on Twitter. “Work with us, listen to us, and most importantly – represent us. All of us. Not just the girls like me with white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.

“The damage that beauty standards are causing is real. The pain is real. The hurt is real.”