What You See Isn't What You Get

It’s no secret that models in advertisements are retouched. All too familiar are the images of Victoria’s Secret models in their catalogue perfection. Jezebel created quite the stir when they released a batch of un-retouched photos from a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot.

Before and after retouching on a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot. Expression lines on her face have been removed. Skin folds have been removed or smoothed. The strap of her bathing suit that creates the illusion of cleavage has been removed. Image from Fstoppers via Jezebel.

Before and after retouching on a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot. Expression lines on her face have been removed. Skin folds have been removed or smoothed. The strap of her bathing suit that creates the illusion of cleavage has been removed. Image from Fstoppers via Jezebel.

This video has circulated the web, gaining over 27 million views on YouTube, shows just how dramatically models are edited for a shot.

Before any digital retouching has commenced. Screenshot via Youtube “Body Evolution - Model Before and After”

Before any digital retouching has commenced. Screenshot via Youtube “Body Evolution - Model Before and After”

After digital photo manipulation. The model had extensive makeup, hair and lighting adjustments done in person. The video provides a more thorough picture of just how much work goes into creating the final shot.

After digital photo manipulation. The model had extensive makeup, hair and lighting adjustments done in person. The video provides a more thorough picture of just how much work goes into creating the final shot.

In June 2011, the American Medical Association took a stance on body image and its relation to advertising by encouraging advertisers and others to “discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”

That was over 6 years ago, but unfortunately, the industry has been slow to change. In December 2016, a professional retoucher, who has done work for many high-profile brands, including Victoria’s Secret, came out anonymously as Sarah, in an interview with Refinery 29 to discuss the reality behind these images. She explained just how unreal these photos are when you see the final product. She even explained how all the retouching she’s done has affected her. She shared how she no longer will do any retouching she’s not comfortable with.

“‘I won't take in waists anymore. I refuse to do that,’ she says. She’s alarmed by the growing trend of waist-training and simply doesn’t want to promote the idea that everyone has an hourglass shape.”

Even though some brands are moving to change (see Aerie’s #aerieReal movement or Dove’s Real Beauty campaign), this problem has grown beyond the world of advertising.

The popularity of mobile apps that can achieve with ease what was once relegated only to the professionals using Photoshop has raised even more issues. Facetune. AirBrush. Snapseed. Selfie Editor. Beauty Plus. Retouch Me. These are just a few of the apps that you see in the top charts of the iOS App Store for editing images. And along with each of the app descriptions, all some variant on the idea that you can look “amazing in every single selfie you take,” there are before and after shots of seemingly everyday people who have been “enhanced.”

L to R: Promotional shots from app description pages: Retouch Me, Facetune, AirBrush & Selfie Editor. Images via App Store.

L to R: Promotional shots from app description pages: Retouch Me, Facetune, AirBrush & Selfie Editor. Images via App Store.

At least when an individual is looking at a magazine and sees a model, they can recognize that these photos are edited to act as an advertisement. However, when you see these model-perfect images from your friends and family on Instagram, that distinction isn’t as clear.

I remember being 14, self-conscious and insecure about what my friends thought of me. But I was lucky to escape the rise of Instagram until I was older and more confident with myself. It breaks my heart to see my young cousins fret over the likes they get on their photos, or when I can tell my 17- year-old sister has edited her pictures to fit a certain look.

Instagram was recently found to be the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing of teens and young adults. Though the platform can contribute to a feeling of positive identity and freedom of self-expression, it was strongly associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and the “fear of missing out.”

The photo-based platform is one of the most popular amongst teens and young adults, but considering it’s almost exclusively visual, it’s a prime candidate for sharing these manipulated photos.

In the Refinery 29 article with Sarah, she explained that “fitspo pictures aren’t a real thing.” Even if they aren’t physically manipulating their shape, retouching is still being done on these incredibly popular photos. “When you're manipulating the light and the camera angle like that, that’s technically retouching, because you're manipulating something to look as if it's something it's really, truly not in real life.”

In an article from the Journal of Aesthetic Nursing, Ella Guest, a Research Associate at the Centre for Appearance Research, explains this more clearly:

The majority of images people are exposed to in the mass media have been digitally altered to reflect enhanced western beauty ideals. Exposure to heavily edited media images can lead to a number of appearance concerns, such as body dissatisfaction, low social self-esteem and body image-related anxiety. Many individuals are now editing their own images to reflect appearance ideals before sharing them on social media. Being exposed to idealized images of one’s peers on social media might be worse for an individual’s body image than exposure to figures in the mass media. This could be because there is more pressure to fit in socially with peers, and their appearance may be perceived as more real and achievable.

With the relative novelty of social media, the long-term effects of this exposure are yet to be seen. With what we do know historically from editing images and the affect that alter images have on one’s body image, it would be safe to conclude that the ease and prevalence of it on social media could be even more damaging.

One of the greatest benefits of how popular Instagram is, is that you can find individuals who are fighting these unrealistic standards. Mel Wells is an author, speaker, health and eating psychology coach and body image expert. She called out Samsung for the default settings on their front-facing camera.

I personally identify with Sarah, the retoucher who opened up to Refinery 29. I’ve done my fair share of retouching in my line of work over the years. I’ve had friends text me photos, accompanied by questions like “Can you fix my teeth here? I hate how bad that gap looks,” or requests to smooth their skin, fix their hair and extend their legs. Some have stopped asking me, but I would venture to guess it’s not because they’ve decided they don’t need it anymore and rather because they can do it themselves now, thanks to these applications.

It feels naïve to think that one day, maybe we won’t feel the need to warp ourselves to fit a societal standard of beauty, but I hope we reach that point. And I hope it’s before I walk down this road with my future daughters.

Further reading:

Confessions Of An Anonymous Victoria’s Secret Photoshopper http://www.refinery29.com/2016/07/117242/victoria-secret-photoshopping-tricks-interview

Thinner, smoother, better: in the era of retouching, that’s what girls have to be https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/08/thinner-retouching-girls-imagemanipulation-women

Why Girls Should Stop Over-Editing Their Pictures On Social Media https://www.theodysseyonline.com/why-girls-should-stop-over-editing-their-pictures-social-media

Double standards? More than half of women admit to editing their social media photos before posting despite over two thirds thinking it's wrong for magazines to do it http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2948410/More-half-women-admit-editing-social-mediaphotos-posting-despite-two-thirds-thinking-s-wrong-magazines-it.html

How 25 years of Photoshop changed our perception of reality
http://www.dw.com/en/how-25-years-of-photoshop-changed-our-perception-of-reality/a-18284410