When you think of aspirations, do you think of traveling,  going back to school, or hopes for your family? Most of us have aspirations we are working towards, but if you represent L’Oreal, you might think of an airbrushed picture of Julia Roberts. When the Advertising Standards Agency of the U.K. banned Loreal’s ad featuring a very heavily airbrushed picture of the actress, calling it “misleading”, L’Oreal responded that the picture was supposed to be “aspirational.”

I had a few reactions. First of all, can we get one of those agencies in the U.S.? Second of all, isn’t Julia Roberts pretty enough on her own? Third, “aspirational”? I guess we are supposed to “aspire” to have perfect skin, or perhaps aspire to have enough extra spending cash that we can afford expensive creams and makeup for our imperfect faces.

Most adults know that photographs of models and actresses used in advertising and fashion magazines are heavily altered. But I am constantly stunned at how many of our teen girls have no idea. When we discuss it with them, they often light up. You mean I don’t have to live up to that?

Anyone who “aspires” to look like a model in a magazine is going to fail- not only are we comparing ourselves to the thinnest, most symmetrical, most perfect-featured 0.1% of people in the world, but even they don’t look like their pictures. In an advertisement or photo shoot, your typical model is stretched, sliced, resized, rearranged, smoothed out, and colored in. An unwitting teen who sees that image might feel her heart sink as she compares her real teenage body, complete with bulges and hairs and pores and blemishes, to a fantasy in some Photoshop expert’s head.

Of course, if beauty advertisements showed us picture of regular people, we might feel satisfied with ourselves and have no need to buy expensive products in an attempt to look like an unrealistic ideal. So I’m not particularly surprised that they keep pushing the envelope on just how thin and perfect we are supposed to look.

How do we stop this? Well, first teenage girls need to know that it is happening in the first place. Dove created an amazing short film called “Dove: Evolution” which shows women can be morphed into unrecognizable beauty ideals using a computer. The second video below, made by a fashion photographer, is also very illuminating. While most models are still thinner, taller, whiter, and closer to the media standard than we will ever be, it can be heartening- and terrifying- to know that even the “most beautiful people in the world” apparently fall short in front of the camera lens.

Watch these videos with your teen, and then discuss magazines or ads you see with them. How might those images have been manipulated? Why? Who is behind it? What might have been “wrong” with the original? Most importantly, what are they trying to sell?