Manufactured beauty: Is the retouching that goes on in marketing damaging to women, and who’s at fault?


posted Wednesday, July 27, 2016 at 4:59 AM EST


The standard of what makes a woman beautiful has changed over time and continues to vary today by culture. Nevertheless, there is a certain ideal that many people -- at least in the western world -- will agree is beautiful, and that ideal is often well-represented by Victoria's Secret models.

As I'm sure we are all well-aware, despite its models' appearance being about as close to "flawless" as a person can be, Victoria's Secret still retouches their photos in advertisements. One of the people who used to do this retouching, henceforth known as "Sarah," recently spoke anonymously with Refinery29 about what sort of editing is done to photos for Victoria's Secret and other big-name brands. She wants the world to know about the illusion that society itself has created.

First of all, Photoshop didn't usher in the era of retouching, so this is not meant to be a condemnation of photo editing software as many of the tools photographers know and love in their editor of choice are designed to digitally replicate processes that were performed in darkrooms long before digital photography existed. Nor is everything retouched today done in post-processing as "body 'fixing' starts on the set." Sarah doesn't remember ever seeing a shoot that didn't involve hair extensions. Also, push-up bras are almost always used, especially with swimwear photos, and then edited out after the fact. "That's why we're used to seeing anti-gravity breasts everywhere, and why a swimsuit will never look the same on our bodies as it does on the model's body. Because it's barely her body anymore."

It's not just physical tricks, however, as the retouching stage always includes making adjustments -- sometimes dramatic ones -- to models' bodies. Making X bigger, Y smaller and Z smoother and a different color is standard. Sarah thinks that the best thing would be for people to get used to seeing the reality of the human body such as hair stubble, discoloration, wrinkles, etc., but that isn't what generally sells the best and it's not what we as a society want to see.

[NSFW content warning: Some images on Victoria's Secret's Instagram page, linked from the embedded image below, may not be considered suitable for viewing at work.]

Ultimately, what sells is what matters and what sells depends on what society wants. Although Sarah objects to many of the retouching practices and believes that they're a detriment to society, the bottom line reigns supreme for many companies. While Victoria's Secret tried selling products with models with different body types, they didn't sell as well. 

Some brands such as aerie have bucked the trend, however. For over two years, the brand has been promoting its "aerie Real" movement and not retouching their models. Of aerie Real, the company's Chief Merchandising Officer Jennifer Foyle suggests that "the purpose…is to communicate there is no need to retouch beauty, and to give young women of all shapes and sizes the chance to discover amazing styles that work best for them. We want to help empower young women to be confident in themselves and their bodies."


A photo posted by aerie (@aerie) on

If real sold better, we would see more companies following in aerie's footsteps. But we don't and that's because society as a whole still wants to see the "ideal" woman and not average or real. It's consumers who are driving the trends in marketing and it is women, particularly young women, who will suffer the consequences when they compare their bodies against a human body that doesn't even exist.

To read much more of what goes on behind the scenes, read the full story at Refinery29. For another take on the topic, check out this excellent piece written by Kishore Sawh at SLR Lounge.

Readers, let us know your thoughts about this topic in the comments below. Do you think that consumers should take some responsibility or should photographers and retouchers themselves be the ones to push for change?

(Seen via SLR Lounge and Refinery29)