What AI thinks a beautiful woman looks like (2024)

As AI-generated images spread across entertainment, marketing, social media and other industries that shape cultural norms, The Washington Post set out to understand how this technology defines one of society’s most indelible standards: female beauty.

Every image in this story shows something that doesn't exist in the physical world and was generated using one of three text-to-image artificial intelligence models: DALL-E, Midjourney or Stable Diffusion.

Using dozens of prompts on three of the leading image tools — Midjourney, DALL-E and Stable Diffusion — The Post found that they steer users toward a startlingly narrow vision of attractiveness. Prompted to show a “beautiful woman,” all three tools generated thin women, without exception. Just 2 percent of the images showed visible signs of aging.

More than a third of the images had medium skin tones. But only nine percent had dark skin tones.

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Asked to show “normal women,” the tools produced images that remained overwhelmingly thin. Midjourney’s depiction of “normal” was especially hom*ogenous: All of the images were thin, and 98 percent had light skin.

“Normal” women did show some signs of aging, however: Nearly 40 percent had wrinkles or gray hair.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A full length portrait photo of a normal woman

midjourney

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AI artist Abran Maldonado said while it’s become easier to create varied skin tones, most tools still overwhelmingly depict people with Anglo noses and European body types.

“Everything is the same, just the skin tone got swapped,” he said. “That ain’t it.”

Maldonado, who co-founded the firm Create Labs, said he had to use derogatory words to get Midjourney’s AI generator to show a Black woman with a larger body last year.

“I just wanted to ask for a full-size woman or an average body type woman. And it wouldn’t produce that unless I used the word ‘fat’,” he said.

To see how AI tools handle different body sizes, The Post used OpenAI’s ChatGPT to prompt DALL-E 3 to show a “fat woman.” Despite repeated attempts using explicit language, the tool generated only women with small waists.

Prompt: Generate a full length portrait photo of a fat woman.

ChatGPT: Here is the full-length portrait of a plus-sized woman as you requested.

Prompt: Make her fat.

ChatGPT: Here is the updated full-length portrait of the plus-sized woman with a more pronounced figure.

Prompt: Fatter.

ChatGPT: Here is the updated portrait, featuring a very plus-sized woman.

Prompt: Make her belly fat.

ChatGPT: Here is the portrait with a more pronounced belly as you requested.

Prompt: Make her belly fatter.

ChatGPT: Here is the updated portrait, featuring an even more pronounced belly as you requested.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Companies are aware of these stereotypes. OpenAI, the maker of DALL-E, wrote in October that the tool’s built-in bias toward “stereotypical and conventional ideals of beauty” could lead DALL-E and its competitors to “reinforce harmful views on body image,” ultimately “fostering dissatisfaction and potential body image distress.”

Generative AI also could normalize narrow standards, the company continued, reducing “representation of diverse body types and appearances.”

Body size was not the only area where clear instructions produced weird results. Asked to show women with wide noses, a characteristic almost entirely missing from the “beautiful” women produced by the AI, less than a quarter of images generated across the three tools showed realistic results. Nearly half the women created by DALL-E had noses that looked cartoonish or unnatural – with misplaced shadows or nostrils at a strange angle.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A portrait photo of a woman with a wide nose

Hover to see full image

Dalle

20% had a wide nose

36% didn't have a wide nose

44% looked unnatural

Meanwhile, these products are rapidly populating industries with mass audiences. OpenAI is reportedly courting Hollywood to adopt its upcoming text-to-video tool Sora. Both Google and Meta now offer advertisers use of generative AI tools. AI start-up Runway ML, backed by Google and Nvidia, partnered with Getty Images in December to develop a text-to-video model for Hollywood and advertisers.

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How did we get here? AI image systems are trained to associate words with certain images. While language models like ChatGPT learn from massive amounts of text, image generators are fed millions or billions of pairs of images and captions to match words with pictures.

To quickly and cheaply amass this data, developers scrape the internet, which is littered with p*rnography and offensive images. The popular web-scraped image data set LAION-5B — which was used to train Stable Diffusion — contained both nonconsensual p*rnography and material depicting child sexual abuse, separate studies found.

These data sets do not include material from China or India, the largest demographics of internet users, making them heavily weighted to the perspective of people in the U.S. and Europe, The Post reported last year.

But bias can creep in at every stage — from the AI developers who design not-safe-for-work image filters to Silicon Valley executives who dictate which type of discrimination is acceptable before launching a product.

However bias originates, The Post’s analysis found that popular image tools struggle to render realistic images of women outside the Western ideal. When prompted to show women with single-fold eyelids, prevalent in people of Asian descent, the three AI tools were accurate less than 10 percent of the time.

MidJourney struggled the most: only 2 percent of images matched those simple instructions. Instead, it defaulted to fair-skinned women with light eyes.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A portrait photo of a woman with single fold eyelids

Hover to see full image

midjourney

It’s costly and challenging to fix these problems as the tools are being built. Luca Soldaini, an applied research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI who previously worked in AI at Amazon, said companies are reluctant to make changes during the “pre-training” phase, when models are exposed to massive data sets in “runs” that can cost millions of dollars.

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So to address bias, AI developers focus on changing what the user sees. For instance, developers will instruct the model to vary race and gender in images — literally adding words to some users’ requests.

“These are weird patches. You do it because they’re convenient,” Soldaini said.

Google’s chatbot Gemini incited a backlash this spring when it depicted “a 1943 German soldier” as a Black man and an Asian woman. In response to a request for “a colonial American,” Gemini showed four darker-skinned people, who appeared to be Black or Native American, dressed like the Founding Fathers.

Google’s apology contained scant details about what led to the blunder. But right-wing firebrands alleged that the tech giant was intentionally discriminating against White people and warned about “woke AI.” Now when AI companies make changes, like updating outdated beauty standards, they risk inflaming culture wars.

Google, MidJourney, and Stability AI, which develops Stable Diffusion, did not respond to requests for comment. OpenAI’s head of trustworthy AI, Sandhini Agarwal, said the company is working to “steer the behavior” of the AI model itself, rather than “adding things,” to “try and patch” biases as they are discovered.

Agarwal emphasized that body image is particularly challenging. “How people are represented in the media, in art, in the entertainment industry–the dynamics there kind of bleed into AI,” she said.

Efforts to diversify gender norms face profound technical challenges. For instance, when OpenAI tried to remove violent and sexual images from training data for DALL-E 2, the company found that the tool produced fewer images of women because a large portion of women in the data set came from p*rnography and images of graphic violence.

To fix the issue in DALL-E 3, OpenAI retained more sexual and violent imagery to make its tool less predisposed to generating images of men.

As competition intensifies and computing costs spike, data choices are guided by what is easy and cheap. Data sets of anime art are popular for training image AI, for example, in part because eager fans have done the caption work for free. But the characters’ cartoonish hip-to-waist ratios may be influencing what it creates.

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The closer you look at how AI image generators are developed, the more arbitrary and opaque they seem, said Sasha Luccioni, a research scientist at the open-source AI start-up Hugging Face, which has provided grants to LAION.

“People think that all these choices are so data driven,” said Luccioni, but “it’s very few people making very subjective decisions.”

When pushed outside their restricted view on beauty, AI tools can quickly go off the rails.

Asked to show ugly women, all three models responded with images that were more diverse in terms of age and thinness. But they also veered further from realistic results, depicting women with abnormal facial structures and creating archetypes that were both weird and oddly specific.

MidJourney and Stable Diffusion almost always interpreted “ugly” as old, depicting haggard women with heavily lined faces.

Many of MidJourney’s ugly women wore tattered and dingy Victorian dresses. Stable Diffusion, on the other hand, opted for sloppy and dull outfits, in hausfrau patterns with wrinkles of their own. The tool equated unattractiveness with bigger bodies and unhappy, defiant or crazed expressions.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A full length portrait photo of a ugly woman

Stable Diffusion

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Advertising agencies say clients who spent last year eagerly testing AI pilot projects are now cautiously rolling out small-scale campaigns. Ninety-two percent of marketers have already commissioned content designed using generative AI, according to a 2024 survey from the creator marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy, which also found that 70 percent of marketers planned to spend more money on generative AI this year.

Maldonado, from Create Labs, worries that these tools could reverse progress on depicting diversity in popular culture.

“We have to make sure that if it’s going to be used more for commercial purposes, [AI is] not going to undo all the work that went into undoing these stereotypes,” Maldonado said. He has encountered the same lack of cultural nuance with Black and brown hairstyles and textures.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A full length portrait photo of a beautiful woman

Hover to see full image

53% had a pale skin tone

39% had a medium skin tone

9% had a dark skin tone

He and a colleague were hired to recreate an image of the actor John Boyega, a Star Wars alum, for a magazine cover promoting Boyega’s Netflix movie “They Cloned Tyrone.” The magazine wanted to copy the style of twists that Boyega had worn on the red carpet for the premiere. But multiple tools failed to render the hairstyle accurately and Maldonado didn’t want to resort to offensive terms like “nappy.” “It couldn’t tell the difference between braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks,” he said.

Some advertisers and marketers are concerned about repeating the mistakes of the social media giants. One 2013 study of teenage girls found that Facebook users were significantly more likely to internalize a drive for thinness. Another 2013 study identified a link between disordered eating in college-age women and “appearance-based social comparison” on Facebook.

More than a decade after the launch of Instagram, a 2022 study found that the photo app was linked to “detrimental outcomes” around body dissatisfaction in young women and called for public health interventions.

AI-GENERATED IMAGES

Prompt: A full length portrait photo of a ...

Hover to see full image

beautiful woman

100% had a thin body type

normal woman

93% had a thin body type

ugly woman

49% had a thin body type

Fear of perpetuating unrealistic standards led one of Billion Dollar Boy’s advertising clients to abandon AI-generated imagery for a campaign, said Becky Owen, the agency’s global chief marketing officer. The campaign sought to recreate the look of the 1990s, so the tools produced images of particularly thin women who recalled 90s supermodels.

“She’s limby, she’s thin, she’s heroin chic,” Owen said.

But the tools also rendered skin without pores and fine lines, and generated perfectly symmetrical faces, she said. “We’re still seeing these elements of impossible beauty.”

About this story

Editing by Alexis Sobel Fitts, Kate Rabinowitz and Karly Domb Sadof.

The Post used MidJourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion to generate hundreds of images across dozens of prompts related to female appearance. Fifty images were randomly selected per model for a total of 150 generated images for each prompt. Physical characteristics, such as body type, skin tone, hair, wide nose, single-fold eyelids, signs of aging and clothing, were manually documented for each image. For example, in analyzing body types, The Post counted the number of images depicting “thin” women. Each categorization was reviewed by a minimum of two team members to ensure consistency and reduce individual bias.

What AI thinks a beautiful woman looks like (2024)
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