Esther Honig, a 24-year-old Kansas City, Missouri-based journalist, recently hired people in more than 25 countries to Photoshop an image of herself with naked shoulders, hair tied back, and no visible makeup. The images have gone viral this week, starting an interesting conversation about whether there is a universal standard for beauty in a globalized world.
Honig used Fiverr to hire freelancers with varying Photoshop skills, receiving 40 doctored images from 25 countries for her “Before and After” project. “With a cost ranging from five to thirty dollars, and the hope that each designer will pull from their personal and cultural constructs of beauty to enhance my unaltered image, all I request is that they ‘make me beautiful,’ ” Honig writes on her website. Although you can see the obvious cultural influences in some photos, she received widely differing interpretations from Photoshoppers within the same countries.
The images ranged from heightened natural to unabashed artifice, demonstrating that there is no way to reliably quantify a nation’s perception of beauty and no accounting for taste. Altering light levels gave her varying skin tones, and changes in background often altered the mood.
Honig wrote in an email that there were approximately 30 percent more men who took the assignment.
“The females were just as likely as males to radically alter the image, but in all actuality my pool of examples was hardly large enough to generate any solid conclusions,” she told me. “I will say that in the instances that makeup was applied, the female Photoshoppers did a far nicer job compared to the males.”
Which country’s makeover gave Honig the most pause?
“The image I received from the U.S. with the blond hair made me shriek when I first opened it,” she told InStyle. “It has been manipulated so radically that I felt like I was looking in the mirror and not recognizing my own face.”
Honig told Elle: “We have to remember that this is a reflection of our culture, but also a reflection of the individual Photoshopper. In the U.S., maybe the Photoshopper felt he was given creative freedom, so he was inclined to really go at it and see what he could create. I don’t think it necessarily says that in the U.S. we’re more inclined to alter images or more obsessed with this concept of unattainable beauty.”
She added that since the photos have gone viral this week, she’s been receiving unsolicited submissions from strangers around the world and is thinking about putting together a second series showcasing those images.
To see all the “Before and After” images, check out Honig’s website.