If a glossy magazine in India put their celebrity cover photos alongside the raw ones and asked you to play 'spot the differences', chances are most people would win without trying.
At a time when the West is opting to go more au naturel in their publicity — think Titanic star Kate Winslet crying foul over being airbrushed a few years back; American reality TV star Kim Kardashian posing nude, unretouched, for Harper's Bazaar last year — in India, it seems, we are still hung up on the 'perfectly photo-shopped' ideal of beauty.
Aishwarya Rai has been in the news for her supposedly 'whitened' look on the December cover of Elle, triggering debates about 'racist airbrushing' — readers immediately got an online petition going and have so far collected over 44, 000 signatures demanding an apology for the 'offensive doctoring' — but this was a rare case of such a protest.Airbrushing became big in the 80s when it replaced tinting as a less expensive choice. In recent times, however, it has seen a downturn in the West.
In the UK, it's being supported by the government, and found takers not just among top celebrities but also with glossies. Last year, the country's largest youth organisation sent a petition to the prime minister, signed by over 25, 000 people, calling for labelling to differentiate between airbrushed and natural images used in the media in order to instill confidence in young women. It was supported by a campaign earlier in the year by two Democrats that also asked for airbrushed images to be highlighted. Magazines such as Vogue UK have pledged their support as well.
Riding the trend to go natural, the US, French, Australian editions of Marie Claire came out with their 'non-airbrushed editions' where American actor-singer Jessica Simpson, French actress Louise Bougoin and model Jennifer Hawkins respectively posed on these covers. Australian magazines are said to have signed up to abstain from heavy duty tampering their celebrity photos.
Shefalee Vasudev, former editor Marie Claire India, now with the Indian Express, calls it a matter of 'ethnic cultures'. "While the West wants to see naturalism on their covers now, we want to see globalisation on ours."
Obsession with airbrushing here is tied to the idea of 'perfection' in beauty, says Neena Haridas, editor, Marie Claire India. "Blame it on our ingrained 'fair and lovely' culture. While girls with skin flaws like spots and freckles are completely acceptable in the West, here it is not. Someone like Julia Roberts will be seen with her wrinkles. Attribute that to confidence levels, openness to growing older or maybe just an understanding of the notion of beauty."
Adds the art director of a leading celebrity magazine who didn't wish to be named, "Most young people today do not know the difference between a living person and an animated character. The lines have got blurred. Today beauty is artificial, and people don't care. The trend here is why look natural? Who wants to see a 'real' celebrity on the cover? It's impossible for most people here to know what a celebrity really looks like; they'll see what we show them… And we are showing a fictionalised story of their lives," he says.
Kaushik Ramaswamy, photojournalist and printmaker who has restored images that date back to the British Raj calls airbrushing just another fashion trend. "Cosmetics or make-up are man-made embellishments of beauty. Airbrushing is the make-up of the photo of a celebrity." Even given this argument is true, the current trend is presenting reality, not "fiction", and "natural" is the new make-up. This is true not just when it comes to current opinions on airbrushing, but also other fashion trends — there is a wider acceptance, even celebration, of bigger sizes, races and even individual flaws such as gap teeth on global ramps. The perpetuation of impossibly perfect ideals of beauty is now seen as so last season.
Fashion-and-fine-art photographer Rohit Chawla, though, even takes the West's 'realism' with a pinch of salt. "The minute the air-brush is available to everyone, the trend is to be different. So now a brand of photographers are calling it the 'down and dirty' — a type of niche photography where every single imperfection is shot, warts et al."
However, in India, things are still we're two seasons behind. Kushal Parmanand, 29, fashion editor of L'Officiel, says: "Even as a guy I have had girls telling me, 'you're lucky you don't look like an Indian, you're so fair' — it's perceived as a cool thing! Indians still hold the notion that fair is pretty."
He cites the example of youth icon Sonam Kapoor who's dusky but endorses a whitening cream. Similarly, he says, "Bebo's weight becomes a national issue." Size zero, for example, became a national rage when Kareena said she was the size, even though if a western celeb had promoted the anorexic ideal she would have got pulled over the coals by the press for being a bad role model for women.
Chawla cuts it down to brass tacks. "It's the insecurity of the subject who wants to look perfect. The job of a glossy magazine is to sell itself. It'll use every single trick to do that. Airbrushing is a school of plastic surgery. They'll just try to be more sophisticated about it."
Waving the wand
So, how far is too far? It's not just the skin — digital nips, tucks, enhances, reductions on nearly every body part is a given. While many fashion magazines claim to not endorse fairness, some do agree to enhancing cleavage, trimming flabby bits, wiping out pimples and spots, erasing or adding stray strands of hair, adjusting awkward angles, touching up make-up patches.
According to Parmanand, airbrushing is most frequently used to trim bodies, "as everyone wants to be thin, not just fit". He adds: "I've heard of cases where the face from one image and body from another (for the same star) have been used or legs completely photoshopped. One Indian magazine seemed to have got it wrong by doing just that with Bipasha Basu."
Airbrushing is also part of the job hazard. "No celebrity has flawless skin given the harsh lights and extensive make-up they work with. The puffiness under their eyes comes with the job. With someone like Saif Ali Khan, it's important to touch up his hair as he seems to be getting a bald patch... not only is airbrushing here to stay, I think it'll increase," says the art director.
"Today, it's easy to make a 36-inch waist a 30-inch, add cleavage, stretch legs... techniques of airbrushing have improved in the West compared to ours that their celebrities can tell them, even if you airbrush, make-sure I don't look as perfect," says Chawla.
Part of the reason why things are not changing in India is also because of the photographer-celeb-magazine nexus. Industry insiders say magazines are increasingly being celebrity-controlled in a way now. "In India, all stars including top ones will get themselves shot by only their own photographers, who will then give selected photos for publication to the magazine after heavily processing them. The photos will be selected by the celebrities themselves. All top actors, if they trust the design person of the magazine, will tell them, 'saaf karke rakhna photo' after the celebrity okays it," says the art director. "In India, if having someone like SRK on your cover means it'll sell 10 million copies, and if he's telling you I want it like this, are you going to say no?"
Most of the top photographers today have a dedicated team of touch-up/airbrush artists who do this work. Adds Chawla, "Forget buckling to politicians, these magazines are advertising vehicles, they need access to the stars. It's an incestuous network. They'll insist on shooting with their set of photographers. Celebrities earlier had their favourite make-up people; they now have their favourite touch-up artists. It's not just stars, even politicians are obsessed with looking good. And not just fashion/glamour covers, even political magazines use air-brushing."
The other view
But many say that while airbrushing may be the norm today, natural will rule in the future. According to Payal Puri, former editor, Cosmopolitan India, "Indian actors today are more in shape than ever. People like Shilpa Shetty and Malaika Arora, who are consistently fit, require no touch-ups."
Nisha Jhangiani, fashion director for Verve India, says ultimately the reader keeps it in check. "Great readers are aware. Most magazines can't airbrush too much — it doesn't work.
While readers want to see the celebrities to be someone they can aspire to, they also want them to be as real as possible. And with the communication arena we occupy today, the feedback is immediate," she says.
And going by the support of the protest against airbrushing Ash's cover, the reader is nobody's fool.