How Norway Is Trying to Reduce Body Shaming

The plan includes fines and jail time for undisclosed retouching

Key Takeaways

  • In an effort to promote more realistic standards of beauty, Norway recently passed a law requiring all digitally altered promotional photos to be labeled, even on social media.
  • Under the law, Norweigian brands and influencers that fail to label retouched or filtered photos face fines and even jail time.
  • Photographers in the US have expressed mixed feelings about the new regulations, wondering if they go too far or if other solutions might be more effective.
Someone retouching photos on two computer screens in a home office.

AndreyPopov / Getty Images

In the wake of Norway’s new laws requiring brands and influencers to disclose edited photos, American photographers have expressed mixed feelings about rules to regulate photo editing.

As part of an amendment to the Nordic kingdom’s 2009 Marketing Act, the new regulations require that all retouched photos used for advertising or marketing (including promo posts on social media) be labeled as edited. The Norwegian law covers all social media channels and applies to brands and influencers posting for commercial purposes, even in cases where just a filter was used.

"I think, for the most part, adults understand that most images they see are retouched. However, I’m not sure that’s the case with youth who are so impressionable," Los Angeles-based photographer Heather Lemmon of Hello Photo! told Lifewire in an email interview.

False Advertising

In the US, truth-in-advertising laws have existed for years under the Federal Trade Commission’s oversight. Those laws don’t currently apply to retouching images, though regulations similar to Norway’s have been passed in other places like France and the UK.

Regardless of regulations on digital alterations, photographers like Matthew LaVere of Matthew LaVere Photography, have pointed out that there are plenty of in-camera methods for perfecting people in photos that fall outside of the tech space.

"If we totally [get concrete about] this issue, then maybe the pendulum does need to swing in the no-retouch direction to give people a sense of what 'real' looks like again."

"I don't overly retouch a lot. It's the lighting," La Vere told Lifewire in a phone interview. "And if someone's like, 'Oh, that's Photoshopped,' I'm like, 'No... It’s like in-camera Photoshop.'"

He explained that methods like lighting techniques, on-set tailors, hair and makeup artists, and specific poses can all have an effect similar to retouching without relying on digital tools, which could bring the point behind laws like Norway’s and others into question.

Perceptions of Perfection

In his experiences as a photographer working with a range of clients, LaVere said the desire for perfection often seems to stem from an individual’s own personal struggles, including past bullying, rather than from social media use.

"When I do headshots of people, they’re always nervous," LaVere said. "The first thing they say to me—consistently for years and thousands of people—is, 'Can you fix this?' and they circle around their faces."

Based on those observations, LaVere expressed concerns about whether regulating social media photos would actually be effective in making people appreciate their bodies. 

In a study of Instagram users in Singapore last year, researchers found that the app actually didn’t directly cause social anxiety in users. Rather, it enabled users to continuously compare themselves to others, exacerbating underlying self-esteem issues that already existed.

Still, the study noted that campaigns aimed at improving individuals’ self-esteem—like the body positivity movement online that celebrates natural beauty—are generally a good thing.

A beautiful person going through makeup touchups before a photoshoot.

Roman Makhmutov / Getty Images

Taking It Too Far

Despite understanding the spirit of Norway’s law, Lemmon and LaVere each expressed concerns about the potential for disproportionate penalties—which, in Norway’s case, includes fines and even prison time.

"I definitely understand having a fine," Lemmon said. "Jail time seems very extreme to me."

LaVere also questioned how regulations like Norway’s would be enforced and wondered whether AI would be implemented to detect alterations in photos, given the technology’s past failings and extensive list of ethical issues.

Both photographers agreed there is a line where retouching can go too far, though. "In my editing, I personally choose to only retouch temporary body distractions, such as pimples that come and go," Lemmon said. LaVere said his retouching practices fell along similar lines.

Still, under Norway’s law, even those minor changes would have to be labeled.

"I’m not sure where the line should be," Lemmon said. "If we totally [get concrete about] this issue, then maybe the pendulum does need to swing in the no-retouch direction to give people a sense of what 'real' looks like again."

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