Have a look at the following image, move the cursor on and off it. It's a before and after Photoshopped publicity still and it shows so clearly how advertising and media work to create perfect images that are unreal in order to manipulate us into thinking a certain product will work wonders on our wrinkles or a certain actor or actress is more beautiful than they actually look in real life. The actor in the picture looks rather worn out, with heavy lines and uneven skin tone - but Photoshop gives him the equivalent of 15 years of botox and a face lift. Similarly, the woman in the picture loses her eyebags and every single stray hair is mercilessly removed.
Techniques like Photoshop have been around for decades, and before that similar effects were achieved with good lighting or clever make-up. But now it's very unlikely that any image you see in the context of advertising has not been heavily Photoshopped to clear up tiny imperfections.
What's worrying about these images is that they present us with an unattainable ideal from the start - even the models don't look like that, so how on earth are ordinary people expected to measure up?
And perhaps more importantly - who decides that Photoshopped images are actually better? We look at the before and after shots and we think we see an improvement - because that's the way we're subliminally educated to see improvements. Standards of beauty are utterly subjective, due to changes in fashion. If you're old enough, look back over old photos of films stars or pop stars you found attractive in the 1970s or 1980s - you'd probably note how raw and unfinished they look, how bad their hair is, how the shape of their bodies wouldn't cut the mustard today. Similarly, you can "educate" yourself to notice things about people's faces and you see them in a whole different light. I watched Gone With the Wind a couple of days ago - great film! I've seen it about five times - the last time about ten years ago. But this time one thing I noticed was that Vivien Leigh and Olivia DeHavilland had really big noses (well they do compared to the nose-jobbbed actresses we see nowadays). After a friend had botox recently, I've also started noticing wrinkly foreheads. I never used to pay them any attention at all - but now I'm hideously aware of the lines that appear when someone frowns or raises their eyebrows. What I'm getting at, is that beauty is utterly subjective - it's to do with what we notice or don't notice and what society tells us to place value on. And while Photoshop is a very useful tool, it's been used to push the subjective notion of beauty to a place that no-one can reach.
There's some philsopher I read once who said that humans are born to be slaves - in the past this was literally the case. But now, although we have freedom, slavery is imposed on us in other ways - we make ourselves unhappy because we don't have enough stuff or we aren't thin or muscly or young or pretty enough. Modern gyms are an almost perfect metaphor for our self-imposed slavery - with the treadmill machine being its ultimate symbol. You run and run - but you don't get any further forward - because everyone else is running alongside you and the stakes keep on getting upped. While there are plenty of good reasons to go to the gym for the sake of your health, I've been thinking of getting off a few of my own treadmills lately. I think I'd be a lot happier if I did.