Operation Harpoon: Body Negative Retouching at its Worst

I am truly appalled. A project has recently come to my attention that is the very epitome of body negative retouching. In fact, the people behind it pride themselves on being body negative, rather than simply being the usual systemically blind-to-the-problem body negative retouchers.

Operation Harpoon

It’s called Operation Harpoon, formerly Project Harpoon. (Get it?) The entire premise is taking images of plus sized women and drastically retouching them to be skinny. The images are typically accompanied by body negative captions such as “From blocking the view to enhancing it.” or “Isn’t that better?” or even “School bus to high school sweetheart!!” The creators of the project claim they are trying to “help misguided women.” Presumably, that means women who are proud of their bodies being anything other than a size 4.

This is not the purpose of retouching and retouchers everywhere should be loudly protesting this project and making it clear that THIS IS NOT WHAT WE DO. This is not where we want our industry to go and these people do not speak for us. Retouching, as a tool, is not meant to make people into different people. It’s not meant to make people feel ashamed of who they are and what they look like. Retouching can be empowering by making you look like yourself on your best day and that is the retouching I believe in. This is vile body shaming propaganda at its worst and any retoucher involved should be ashamed of themselves.

Operation Harpoon

I, as a retoucher, despite being uninvolved, would like to extend apologies out to the women depicted in these images and the women viewing them and feeling bad about themselves. On behalf of my industry and craft, I am sorry you’re being subjected to extremely body negative retouching. The tools I work with every day can be used for good or they can be used for evil. This is clearly a case of the latter. You deserve better than this. This morning I feel dirty even being in the same field as these people.

However, not all of us are pushing this kind of agenda. I will always continue to advocate for body positive retouching that embraces diversity and the true visual essence of the person in front of the lens, whatever that may be. I will continue to urge other retouchers to do the same.

There is no excuse for this project. We can do better.

Operation Harpoon


Update: It appears that their Facebook page has been banned. That’s a start!

2nd Update: Instagram is also down.

Original News Source: Fstoppers

Note: These images are featured in this article under fair use doctrine. I will not accommodate requests from Operation Harpoon to remove them. However, if you are the photographer of the original image or if you are the model, I will gladly remove the image and replace it with another.

When Plus Sized Doesn’t Mean Plus Sized

Erica by Stephanie MauldingRecently a good friend asked me “Are ‘average’ sized bodies considered ‘plus’ in your field?” It was in the context of a conversation where I’d been referring to both average and plus sized women, so it was a completely relevant question and one I promised to address because I think this is a topic that causes a lot of confusion amongst people not in the fashion industry.

My short answer is that I feel that there should be two terms at work here: one for models and one for consumers.

A plus sized model is a model who doesn’t fit into designer sample sizes to model garments on runways or in photoshoots. Designer sample garments typically cap out at a maximum of size 4-6. (And there are reasons that sample garments are made small. Some are vanity based and I don’t agree with them, but some are pragmatic and I do support those.) Thus, a model who we would still consider very slim, but who is over the sizes of sample garments is literally “plus sized” in that she is oversized in comparison to the garments she is expected to model in her profession.

That said, in common terminology outside the high fashion industry in the consumer fashion world we use the term “plus sized” to refer to someone who maybe carries some extra weight and is above somewhere around a size 16 or so. These women are over the sizes typically carried by standard retailers as opposed to those used for runways. They are “plus sized” in comparison to a completely different range of sizes.

However, we run into problems when women outside the fashion industry start seeing size 7’s called “plus sized” and thinking that the fashion industry considers that size “overweight.” We believe that the fashion industry is equating a size 7 to a size 16 and trying to convince us that someone as tiny as a size 7 is venturing into the realm of “heavy”. (I will take a moment to state that there is NOTHING wrong with either a size 7 or a size 16. Both are beautiful and I’m using a lot of subjective and relative terms here. Hence all the quotes.)

I believe that this problem of perception stems from the fact that we use the same term for both body type standards (or apparel standards really) when they are clearly describing two different things.

We run into a bigger problem when brands throw around these terms in the public eye rather than just within their own private spheres. E.g. actually saying “here’s a plus sized model in this magazine spread” referring to someone who’s a size 8 rather than someone the public understands to be plus sized who might be a 16+. I think this is the exception, not the rule, but I bring it up to caution artists and brands not to do this. It’s confusing and damaging. (Furthermore, as a personal pet peeve, if your brand’s sizing only goes up to a size 12, don’t label it “plus sized” as a marketing ploy just because the model is technically a fashion plus model. You will not only anger your public, you will harm your demographic’s self image. Just don’t do it.)

Along these lines, we’ve seen a number of scandals in the media that can be summed up by “How dare they call this model ‘plus sized’?!” We’ve even seen some problems arise where models themselves have internalized this problem of terminology and started to think of themselves as unacceptably heavy because they’ve been assigned the plus sized label even though they may actually be very slim to average weight. However, the fact is that these models are “plus sized”…in the context of their specific industry. The trouble is when the language of the real world and the fashion world overlaps. These women aren’t plus sized out in the world at large, but they do arguably need to be marketed to their clients as plus sized because their clients need to know their relative size when compared to sample garments being pulled from designers so that they know what kind of shows or campaigns they can book. They are over the sizes that are likely to be on hand at a show or shoot without a different set of accommodations.

Erica by Stephanie MauldingThat said, many or most of these women aren’t considered plus sized in the way we use the term outside the fashion industry when we talk about someone who weighs a little more than average. (Obviously models nowadays run the gamut all the way up to very large sizes like the gorgeous Tess Holliday, who would be considered plus sized in both senses. This is great. I love seeing this diversity shift in the industry. I hope this trajectory continues.)

In the end, it is a problem of terminology and in my opinion, it’s not a problem we should dismiss as trivial.

I’m afraid that I don’t have a new terminology proposal at hand and I would love to hear your ideas! Let’s set a new standard that differentiates the idea of a model who doesn’t fit sample sizes and the idea of a larger, curvier woman. We don’t need to keep confusing younger generations with inarticulate terms that are harmful to self image. Both of these ideas are clearly ones that we want or maybe even need names for, but let’s stop accidentally conflating them with each other in problematic ways.

*I’m coming at this problem as someone who worked as a photographer for many years, someone who has worked as Director of Photography, and someone who has worked for agencies representing models and actors. I’ve studied body image extensively, but I’m also intimately familiar with the problems of both casting and marketing talent articulately and succinctly to clients. I’m highly sympathetic to both the industry and to the public (and models) suffering from body image issues caused by the industry. I am not necessarily happy with the status quo, but I think it’s important to explain and understand at the very least in order to start a necessary dialog. Understanding is the first step to any kind of change. I’ve actually seen a large push to abolish the term “plus sized” entirely. I think that’s an interesting concept, though I am still interested in maintaining a vocabulary of some kind if a less problematic one.



Photos by Stephanie Maulding. Model: Erica Larsen
Erica is one of my favorite plus models.
She is also one of the first plus models I ever got to work with. I shot these many years ago.