Does altering an image alter self-perception? It’s time to ask the Girl Guides.

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Does altering an image alter self-perception? It’s time to ask the Girl Guides.

It’s an obvious problem really. More and more, we are faced with unrealistic images of bodies that have been digitally alerted to ‘perfection’. Whilst many of these images are professionally enhanced you can now achieve similar results at home with your own phone and many people, especially young people, do.

It is worth quickly explaining what we mean by altered. When we say altered, we don’t just mean covering up a spot or a blemish. Models and celebrities often gain muscle, lose fat, their eyes are moved and made bigger, legs become longer, some women lose ‘offending’ nipples, their chins take on a whole new bone structure (and so the list goes on).

In this post we look at the basics of body image, a possible solution and what French lawmakers and the Girl Guides have in common…


The Problem of Body Image and Mental Health

The scale of the issue was recently thrown into stark light by, of all people, the Girl Guides (UK). Their recent 2020 survey of young members found some worrying traits: half (48%) of girls and young women disclosed they regularly use apps or filters to make photos of themselves look better online[1]

But this is where things get more interesting. The stats above could be dismissed as simply a result of cheap and fun technology. Looking ‘good’ after all could mean adding imaginary animal ears or rainbow sunglasses, not necessarily something more sinister. However, more stats emerged from the survey:

“Two out of five girls (39%) said they feel upset that they can’t look the way they do online and 34% of girls said they wouldn’t post photos of themselves unless they use an app or filter to change their appearance, which increases as girls get older”.[2]

This distortion of ‘beauty’ could lead to a generational inability to identify what is a real and achievable body. The impact on mental health is clear. Individuals may spend their lives trying to achieve a body shape that is completely physically unobtainable, for any human. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), muscle dysmorphia and eating disorders are obvious resulting illnesses but not the only ones. Depression, anxiety and low self-esteem or self-worth can result from a withdrawal from social events, a pre-occupation with weight or appearance or as a result of bullying. In very extreme cases, the use of illegal substances to increase or decrease muscle and fat can result in substance abuse problems or addiction to surgery, dental and dermatological interventions. 

An answer to the problem?

As we said, it’s an obvious problem and actually so are some of the answers. And this is where the we find that French law makers and Girl Guides have a lot in common…

The Girl Guides have been campaigning for action on body image for over a decade (and yes, you can earn a badge for that). In 2010 they delivered a 25,000-signature petition to the Prime Minister demanding better labelling of digitally altered images in advertising.

The UK Government may have ignored the issue, but in 2017, France imposed labelling restrictions on photoshopped images. The label ‘photographie retouchée’ i.e. ‘retouched photo’ must now be displayed next to:

“any photo used for commercial purposes when the body of a model has been modified by an image-editing software to either slim or flesh out her figure” [3]


Failing to comply can result in a €37,500 fine increased up to 30% of the cost to produce the advert.

Predictably, the introduction of the law has not led to the end of digital retouching. What it does achieve though is a better way for the public to consume images and question their realism. The photographie retouchée label must also be shown in an accessible, easy to read manner and can’t be done in a way where it could be confused as part of the promotional message (think more like smoking packet label).[4]

The success of the law should also be seen alongside France’s other initiatives to prevent eating disorders. Culturally, France views anorexia as a clear public health issue. To tackle the estimated 40,000 cases the Public Health Ministry has imposed other complementary laws [5]: 

The promotion of excessive thinness is banned with up to 1 year in prison and €10,000 fine. This mainly targets pro-ana or pro-mia websites (pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites).

Fashion Agencies cannot hire models with a BMI under 18.5. If found guilty, it can lead to 18 months in prison and €75,000 fine.

What’s next?

With these laws, France is tackling a mental health condition both as a public health issue, and one of technology. It is clear that in their case they did not believe that voluntary codes would work.

In the UK, we are left with the words of the 2010 Equalities Minister who, having co-founded a Body Confidence Campaign, set the tone of ambition by stating that:

We have no desire to impose regulation or restriction on advertisers or others – so we will be looking to work with the industries involved on a voluntary basis – in the first instance.[6]


It is becoming clear though that since the Girl Guides petition over a decade ago, voluntary action has been akin to voluntary inaction. Body positivity has become a genre of marketing campaign but this fails to address the needs to educate and identify unrealistic depictions of beauty. With so many other issues at the fore currently, we are likely to be waiting some time for any news.  

Interested in knowing more?

Here at the School of Applied Mental Health we are focused on ensuring that professionals are trained to work with the complexities of modern society, reflecting the lives of those we are here to help. For more mental health information, check out the rest of our blog.

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How to Reference this Blog Post

Suggested reference for this post:

School of Applied Mental Health (2020). Does altering an image alter self-perception? It’s time to ask the Girl Guides. Available from:


[1] Girlguiding (2020). Girls Fear Criticism for Being Themselves. Available from:–fear-criticism-for-being-themselves/

[2] Girlguiding (2020). Girls Fear Criticism for Being Themselves. Available from:–fear-criticism-for-being-themselves/

[3] Daldorph, B. (2017). New French Law Says Airbrushed or Photoshopped Images Must Be Labelled. France 24 [online]. Available from:

[4] Légifrance. (2017) Décret n° 2017-738 du 4 mai 2017 relatif aux photographies à usage commercial de mannequins dont l’apparence corporelle a été modifiée [online] Available from:

[5] Daldorph, B. (2017). New French Law Says Airbrushed or Photoshopped Images Must Be Labelled. France 24 [online]. Available from:

[6] Lynne Featherstone (2010). Body Confidence. Available from:


Image Credits

Header photo by Patricia Palma on Unsplash