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Yvonne Abraham

In an age of Photoshop, it’s what is real that counts — especially about our standard of beauty

Jameela Jamil says digitally altered images make her feel bad about her appearance.Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Invision/AP

If Photoshopped images can make a woman as stereotypically beautiful as Jameela Jamil feel bad about herself, heaven help the rest of us.

The actress, who stars in the TV show “The Good Place,” has become a crusader against the toxic practice of digitally altering images to make women thinner and lighter-skinned. Photo editors who erase her stretch marks and lighten her complexion to make her look less South Asian don’t just lead vulnerable girls to aspire to impossible standards of glamour, Jamil has said, they also hurt the actress herself: She sees the altered images of her gorgeous self and thinks she isn’t good enough.


How messed up is that?

Now more than ever, thanks to the scourge of social media, adolescent girls are bombarded with altered images that promote standards of beauty so narrow as to exclude actual human women. Research shows that this visual terrorism chips away at girls’ self esteem, takes a toll on their mental health, and drives them toward dangerous weight-loss supplements and eating disorders.

This happens even when girls are aware the images aren’t real. In fact, says Bryn Austin, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who specializes in eating disorders, labeling images as altered can have a boomerang effect: In countries that have required them, warnings on such images actually increase body dissatisfaction among the women who take them in.

“Warning labels call attention to the fact that the editor of a magazine thought the model wasn’t beautiful enough,” Austin said.

The only sure way to lessen the damage is to get real.

Representative Kay Khan, the Newton Democrat who often pushes innovative solutions to public health problems, is trying to take us there. She has filed legislation to create what appears to be a first-in-the-nation tax credit of up to $10,000 for cosmetic, personal care, and apparel companies that agree to forgo advertising with images digitally altered to change skin tone and texture, and body shape. (Khan has also proposed companion legislation that would put dangerous dietary supplements out of the reach of children, but that’s another outrage, and column.)


For those who might decry this as nanny-statism, a couple of points: First, the tax credit would be an optional incentive. The First Amendment protects advertisers’ right to continue to destroy women’s self-esteem for profit if they so choose. Second, we do this kind of thing all the time, providing tax credits for companies that offer wellness programs for workers, for example.

“It’s not like this tax credit is going to solve [the whole] problem,” Khan said. “But it’s a start. Let’s try to educate people.”

Khan points out that some companies are already taking that higher road: CVS Pharmacy no longer digitally retouches models in ads for its own cosmetic brand; American Eagle Outfitters does not alter images of models in its Aerie campaigns; Target no longer retouches models wearing its bathing suit line.

In the wider world, we are slowly expanding the definition of what makes a woman beautiful. Lizzo, who picked up eight Grammy nominations on Wednesday, isn’t just a great musician. She’s a revolution, pouring her big body into outfits and settings usually reserved for the petite — or emaciated. She is an argument for body-positivity so obvious and irrefutable it feels lame to even point it out.


Lizzo is an argument for body-positivity so obvious and irrefutable it feels lame to even point it out.Owen Sweeney/Invision/Associated Press/File/Invision/AP

But even the great Lizzo can’t fix everything. So we need legislation like Khan’s. And to make more of us recognize that, we need Jameela Jamil.

So, up to Beacon Hill goes the actress, set to join Khan, Austin, and other advocates Thursday morning to put some oomph behind the bills.

The actress may not be the ideal messenger for more realistic beauty standards given the way she looks, even in her unaltered state.

But bless her for leveraging her celebrity for the rest of us.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@Globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham