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Published: Monday, 7/18/2011

Beyond thin

Mattel's Barbie sets the bar for unrealistic anatomy, but at least girls and young women can remind themselves the creation is just a doll. Not so the digitally shrunken images that populate fashion and celebrity magazines.

These manipulated illustrations start with photographs of real models and movie stars, and then computer software programs take over. They can transform an image -- typically of a woman who already is inordinately slender -- into a physical impossibility.

A notorious example was a 2009 advertisement for fashion designs by Ralph Lauren. The model's waist was digitally squeezed so much, it appeared narrower than the width of her face.

It's hard to catch that reflection in the mirror, even in a carnival fun house. Yet like it or not, young people, especially girls, can get their ideas of what is healthy and desirable from fashion magazines.

Every few years, some egregious example triggers calls for realistic body images that might help American teenagers focus on healthy habits instead of the notion that starvation is socially acceptable. But little changes, and computerized techniques have made twisted images even easier to create.

Last month, the American Medical Association adopted a policy designed to "encourage advertising associations to work with the public and private sector" on guidelines that would discourage airbrushing or retouching in magazines, especially those that cater to teens. An AMA spokesman said medical students raised the issue at the group's convention.

Distorted images of stars and models are nothing new. The practice of altering photographs goes back at least to the 1930s, when glamor shots of Hollywood actresses were enhanced. So what's the problem if manipulated photographs suggest the unattainable is commonplace among the rich and famous?

A new study concludes that 53 percent of 13-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies. A University of Central Florida analysis observes that girls as young as 3 to 6 years old already are worried that they are too fat.

This country's obesity problem is well-documented, but the health concerns of being too thin are also serious. Anorexia, a condition in which those afflicted starve themselves, affects 1.2 million people in this country. It often develops between the ages of 12 and 25, the Mayo Clinic says.

It's time that magazine and advertising executives recognize the role of their displays in setting unattainable standards of beauty. Advertisers can showcase their fashions and other products without the use of computer gamesmanship.

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