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One Activist’s Journey to Regulate Photoshop

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One activist’s battle with the advertising industry.

 If I find a horse’s head in my bed, I’ll know who put it there,” Seth Matlins is saying. We are sitting in a secluded booth at Decanter—the gilded, Mediterranean-themed restaurant of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington—and the advertising executive-turned-citizen activist is telling me about his recent sparring with representatives of the industry he used to work for.

Matlins is on a crusade to get the government to take on what he sees as one of the great social ills of our time: Photoshop. More specifically, the unrealistic breast-enhancing, stomach-slimming, cheekbone-defining, under-eye-circle-erasing that pervades so much advertising and (countless studies show) can contribute to lower self-esteem and decreased happiness for women, children, and men. “In my estimation, it’s as big a public health crisis as anything we have faced as a country,” he says. “And there are people who think I’m being hyperbolic, but I think the data makes it absolutely clear. … This is an issue that has affected, and I’d argue, infected, generations of Americans—and promises to continue to affect generations more unless we do something.”

Artist Nicolay Lamm’s “normal Barbie” project: another attempt to point out commercial distortions of the average woman’s body. (Nickolay Lamm/Splash)

But first, let him make something very apparent: “We are not trying to ban Photoshop,” he says. Rather, the scope of the bill he and his allies are lobbying for is much narrower. They want the Federal Trade Commission—the regulatory agency that protects consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices—to submit a report to Congress outlining a strategy for reducing the use of “images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics” of people in advertisements.

Matlins—who still looks the part of a Los Angeles ad man: crosshatched navy blazer, perfectly dimpled tie, horn-rimmed glasses with blond stems—started his career selling Evian, or, as he puts it, “pictures of cut bodies.” He moved to L.A. 16 years ago; there, he ran Rock the Vote, then helped start the marketing division at Creative Artists Agency.

But after having two children—he and his wife, Eva, adopted Ella Rose, now 8, and Otis, 7—Matlins became “such a daddy cliché.” He started looking at the world through the eyes of his daughter. One year, the nanny gave her a Barbie doll for Christmas. In his head, he was having a mini-meltdown, thinking, “You just gave our child a loaded weapon—are you kidding me?!” Barbie had been one of his marketing projects. “That’s when I realized I needed to help make the world a better place.”

“When at least 30 million Americans are suffering from eating disorders, we can’t simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

So, in 2010, Matlins left corporate life and with Eva started a website, Feel More Better, that was meant to be “60 percent Oprah, 40 percent Sarah Silverman.” The idea was to create a more uplifting space for young women than the fashion magazines they were regularly exposed to. In August 2011, after seeing a story about a British MP who successfully took down L’Oréal ads in England, he wrote an op-ed in The Huffington Post floating the idea that we should regulate beauty advertising in the U.S. After he wrote the article, “I started cold-calling members of the women’s congressional caucus,” he recalls. Matlins had no idea what he was doing; but, he says, “I knew I had to do something.”

In late 2013, building on decades of work by feminist activists and writers on the issue, Matlins decided to turn his full focus to advocating for a bill in Congress. He teamed up with a number of groups, including the Eating Disorders Coalition, to get a bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and he has been commuting between L.A. and D.C. to build support for it. In April, Matlins and others went to Capitol Hill to hold a briefing on the bill, and in June they returned to present Capps and Ros-Lehtinen with a petition signed by 28,000 people backing the legislation. Since then, the petition has reached 35,000 signatures. The bill has also picked up Democrat Ted Deutch of Florida as a cosponsor.

Matlins says he became “such a daddy cliché.” (Courtesy of Seth Matlins)

The FTC rarely comments on pending legislation, but spokeswoman Betsy Lordan notes that the agency already “has the authority to take action against any ad whose net impression is considered deceptive under the Federal Trade Commission Act.” The activists and sponsors of the bill, however, want the FTC to come up with a systemic approach—not a one-off investigation into an individual ad.

“These fake, impossible, and digitally altered bodies have been contributing to serious, deadly health issues like eating disorders for too long,” Ros-Lehtinen tells me. “When at least 30 million Americans are suffering from eating disorders, we can’t simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The advertising industry has not and will not self-regulate without pressure from the public.” For her part, Capps notes that she was motivated to sponsor the bill by her experience as a school nurse. “I’m a little surprised to see the reaction be so strong and so supportive,” she says.

Capps, Matlins, and other backers take pains to point out this is not an effort to curtail First Amendment rights: Commercial speech doesn’t necessarily have the same protections as individual speech, especially if it’s false or deceiving. Still, conservatives other than Ros-Lehtinen haven’t rushed to the cause.

“We’re under no illusions that this is not a process, and it’s going to take time,” Matlins tells me. “The truth is on our side, but the odds are still—they’re long.” He scribbles a graph on an x-y axis. “By 13, 53 percent of girls are unhappy with themselves,” he says, repeating one commonly cited data point on the topic. “At 17, it’s 78 percent.”

As he speaks, Kathleen MacDonald, a policy staffer from the Eating Disorders Coalition—his partner in petitioning the government—turns up with a bubble-wrapped binder he sent her. It is filled with examples of waists narrowed to biological impossibility and comments from signers of the petition. “Some of them are just devastating,” he says. “They’re so poignant and so human and smart.” He plans to take this to the FTC and congressional officials he’s about to go meet with. “The average woman has 13 thoughts of self-hate every day,” he says. “When I think about my babies—boy and girl—having thoughts of self-hate because of an ad that’s trying to deceive them to sell a widget? That’s not cool. Not cool with me.” Then he’s off to see the regulators.

This article appears in the July 12, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Great Photoshop Crusade.

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