Internet trends come and go, but the “fail” will always be relevant. And when anyone can buy an Adobe subscription, Photoshop fails are everywhere. From badly imposed thigh gaps to facial features that have been blurred out of existence, the line between reality and fantasy is sometimes a little too obvious.
In the fashion world, cover girls will always be retouched.
But it’s not just amateur retouchers who are guilty of these Frankenstein edits. Everyone from clothing labels to celebrities to Instagram models use Photoshop, for better or for worse.
In her 2011 book, Bossypants, Tina Fey wrote, “Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy a**hole.”
Retouching photos isn't a new phenomenon. Even Andy Warhol admitted to editing his own self-portrait: “When I did my self-portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don't have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes—they're not part of the good picture you want.”
When Photoshop is this pervasive—and has been for decades—is it any surprise that women are falling for it time and time again?
Women’s bodies seem to be particularly troublesome for some retouchers. Recently, the poster for the upcoming Tomb Raider movie caused an internet stir thanks to Alicia Vikander’s strangely elongated neck.
Retoucher Brandon Diaz says he’s seen his fair share of terrible retouching: “There are a lot of bad examples or extreme examples that I could probably be listing them forever,” he says.
One company that sprung to mind for him was Ralph Lauren. In 2009, the company issued an apology after publishing an image of an impossibly thin model—clearly the result of excessive retouching.
Even social media is flooded with images that have been edited with more than just filters. YouTube beauty guru Amanda Steele spoke out against her fellow influencers who rely on Photoshop to enhance their Instagram photos, arguing that they were “beautiful enough without Photoshop.”
Forever in the spotlight, the Kardashians often make headlines for their suspiciously perfect selfies, especially when it comes to their famous curves. Kim’s been accused of Photoshopping her figure on more than one occasion.
But when unedited photos of her in a bikini—cellulite and all—were posted online, she lost a staggering 100,000 followers. Kardashian’s followers were unimpressed that, up until that point, they had been led to believe that she had what could be considered a perfect body: free of cellulite and defiant of gravity.
If literally millions of people bought into the idea that Kim Kardashian and crew actually look like they do in their "flawless" selfies, what else could they be persuaded to believe?
If they have been misled about what a woman’s body actually looks like until shown otherwise, then how many other retouched images are they not noticing?
How Photoshop Affects All of Us
Many a woman has expressed frustration over the fact that men’s skin is so perfect that they don’t need makeup. But the truth is, men don’t necessarily have better skin than women. We’re just socialized to ignore their “imperfections.” Why? Because women are the beauty industry’s target demographic.
Women are raised to believe they’re not good enough.
Think about it: when was the last time you heard a group of men complaining about their large pores, dark circles, and uneven skin tone? Skin issues are a relatively common topic for women, though. With the U.S. cosmetics industry valued at over $62 billion, the word “imperfections” may just be the most successful marketing term in history.
That’s not to say that men are free from the digital paintbrush— even Justin Bieber’s body seemed to be given the Adobe treatment for his Calvin Klein ad. Bieber denied that the photo was real.
While people of all genders are subjected to unrealistic expectations of what a body should look like, women are particularly susceptible to comparing themselves to the images shown on social media and billboards. As they strive to achieve unattainable perfection, beauty and weight loss industries make billions.
Women are raised to believe they’re not good enough. But maybe if we buy that dress, or use that foundation, or drink those shakes, we’ll look like the women on the billboard, right?
Of course, no amount of products could make anyone look as perfect as a digitally altered image. But that glimmer of hope is still helping to sell everything from fitness supplements to leggings.
Worse yet, it’s having a dangerous impact on women of all ages. Body-positive blogger Jes Baker did a TEDx Talk in 2014 where she revealed that 80 percent of 10-year-olds are more afraid of being fat than cancer.
This belief only gets worse as we age, with only 4 percent of adult women being confident enough to call themselves beautiful.
The Rise of “Real" Women
If unrealistic images of models and celebrities are causing so much insecurity among women, then what’s the solution? According to beauty brand Dove, the key is celebrating “real women."
What exactly is a “real woman”? According to what we're shown in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, it's someone who may be a little "curvier" than your average beauty model; a woman with freckles, or darker skin, or even wrinkles.
But there’s still a problem here. The women in Dove’s campaign may not all be size sixes, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of variation in weight. Many of the larger women are often shown obscuring their stomachs with their arms, and the mysterious lack of cellulite and fat rolls suggests retouching still plays a strong part in the final result.
In truth, Dove’s campaign isn’t entirely authentic. The term “real women” is the beauty industry’s version of greenwashing: perpetuating a false sense of ethics in order to sell products.
And while Dove’s use of the world “real” refers to models who haven’t been heavily retouched, the emerging trend of suggesting that women with a certain body type aren’t “real” is a little closer to body shaming than body positivity.
Social media is also experiencing the body positivity movement. Instagram is home to the ever-popular #nofilter hashtag, the ultimate badge of pride for a great selfie.
In the fitness community, Instagram users have taken to posting before-and-after photos that show them looking shredded in the morning, but incredibly bloated at night after eating. These photos are intended to be a reminder that even women with the most desirably body types don’t always look perfect.
Unfortunately, not every #nofilter or bloating photo is a picture of honesty. There’s a fine line between good lighting and tweaking the contrast and saturation. The same can be said for post-carb fest bloat and pushing your stomach out to an exaggerated point for the sake of a photo.
It’s a strange contradiction, really—manufacturing perfect images to send a message about falsehoods.
Is Transparency the Answer?
Not every company retouches images of their models. Many brands, including Modcloth and Aerie, have openly banned the use of Photoshop to change their models' bodies. (They still use Photoshop to fix minor issues like fly-away hairs, clothing wrinkles, and tan lines.) These policies are an attempt to present their consumers with truthful images. In Aerie’s case, it’s actually improved their sales.
Diaz says that with the public’s reaction to retouching, it’s the logical next step.
“When most people, in general, don't like or understand what retouching is, I am not even surprised when companies don't want any part in their photos being retouched, or at least retouched to that extent," he says. "If those companies were to come out with a badly retouched photo, that could easily ruin a company’s good reputation.”
Will these boycotts have an impact on the industry? Bill Costello has worked as a retoucher for 27 years. He thinks the new policies are affecting the way images are edited—companies still use Photoshop for plenty of valid reasons—but he doesn’t believe that these Photoshop bans will have an impact on Adobe’s sales.
He also says not to expect retouching to disappear.
“The boycotts did raise public awareness, and this is why we retouchers and photographers are told not to distort women as much as we used to,” he says. “However, in the fashion world, cover girls will always be retouched. They were since way before computers, and they always will be. It sells. It is what the average person wants to see.”
Forgoing plastic surgery via Photoshop might help raise awareness of excessive retouching, but perhaps the real issue lies with the technique itself. After all, no technology is inherently bad; it’s all about the way it’s used. And it does seem that people are more upset about the use of Photoshop to make models appear unrealistically thin—or, in some cases, a completely different ethnicity.
It sells. It is what the average person wants to see.
France has actually taken measures to raise awareness about edited images, introducing a law that requires retouched images to come with a warning label. Perhaps the solution is a healthy balance between these two: an appropriate level of retouching, while still reminding the consumer that what they’re seeing isn’t quite real.
According to Diaz, the first part is already starting to gain popularity.
“The good thing though is that fashion retouching is becoming more and more natural with their retouching approach,” he says. “You can see this on Elle, Vogue, et cetera, where the photos are retouched, but carefully done. That way, it doesn't go overboard. It gives the illusion of how they would look on their best day out.”