The Effect of Warning Labels on Retouched Photos

The effect of warning labels on retouched photos

Pictures in magazines are retouched all the time. Loose 20 pounds. Done. Erase a pimple. Done. Smooth the skin.  Done.

Beautiful sells.

The effect of this business on a woman’s self-esteem and emotions can be psychologically crippling. The automatic comparison to a picture of a beautiful model – who has been enhanced to be even more beautiful – doesn’t usually work out in favor of the everyday woman.

Countries such as UK, France, and Israel have considered stamping warnings on retouched photos. A French congress member, Valérie Boyer, proposed displaying this below a retouched image: ”This image has been altered to modify a person’s bodily appearance.”

Results from a study1 testing the warning’s effectiveness are mind-bending. And scary. The warning was actually damaging.

The result took me by surprise.

For the study, a group of women leisurely viewed an ad. The ad contained a retouched image of a young woman from her head to above her knees. She was covered with a black undergarment. The woman’s waist, upper arms, thighs were all slimmed.

For each woman, the ad had one of the following underneath the image:

  1. The warning proposed by Valérie Boyer: ”This image has been altered to modify a person’s bodily appearance.”
  2. A neutral sentence: “This image was published in a fashion magazine in the year 2000.”
  3. No sentence

Then the experimenters measured the women’s ability to access negative thoughts. How might you ask? After all “access to negative thoughts” seems like witchcraft! No! Not witchcraft! Science!

The women saw a series of words and non-words on a computer screen. They quickly pressed a button to indicate whether each was a word or not. Now, the words were either negative or neutral. Negative words included sorrow, suffering, worthless, dead, and suicide. Neutral words included book, pocket, often, train, and wind.

Note, there’s an inference that access to negative words is equivalent to negative thoughts, which for most of us includes a series of words and sentences.

Two more sessions followed – two weeks and two months after this initial session. In these sessions, ALL the women viewed the same ad but without any text. As with the first time, the experimenters tested how fast they could access negative and neutral words – a.k.a. thoughts.

And I warned you about the result.

For the women exposed to the warning as compared to the other two groups, they had faster access to negative thoughts immediately, two weeks, and two months after initially seeing the ad. And remember two weeks later and two months later, the ad had no warning.

The researchers suggest that

… the disclaimer may act as a reminder that “being beautiful means being thin”, bringing their attention back to the value of thinness. In this context, women are likely to focus on modifications that might have been made to the image and their own (lack of) correspondence to this ideal. As a consequence, negative thoughts could come to mind more easily.

There is an easy fix to this problem.

Forget warnings.

Include diversity in advertisements – all shapes, sizes, and colors.


We just need research to show that diversity sells.



1 Leila Selimbegović, L. & Chatard, A. (2015). Single exposure to disclaimers on airbrushed thin ideal images increases negative thought accessibility. Body Image, 12, 1-5.

Image Attribution

The model look by Werner Kunz

Valerie boyer by Vpe