“No Retouching” Campaigns

Today I’d like to talk about the popular media phenomenon of the “no retouching campaign”. As far as my audience is concerned, I’m probably a wild card when it comes to these campaigns. On the one hand: I’m all for anything concerning body positivity. On the other hand, I’m a retoucher. So where do I fall on the issue?

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of these campaigns.

On the surface, they seem like a good idea: let’s show the public what celebrities and models really look like without digital intervention. Great idea! I’m all for reality checks when it comes to the appearance of our media icons. There’s a lot that goes on in getting them from how they look every day to how they look in a magazine or on the big screen.

Bongo Unretouched

Vanessa Hudgens unretouched for Bongo, shot by Marley Kate. Is this reality?

…However, there’s a saying in retouching: “Retouching starts in the makeup chair.”

What does this mean? Getting a model or actor from point A to point B in terms of media representation is not all retouching. Retouching is the icing on the cake if everything else has been done properly (which it usually has been at the high end which is what we’re talking about here.) The manipulation has already begun the moment a media personality steps into the production setting. There are pro hair and makeup artists who sometimes do massive transformations. There is lighting that is highly tailored to be the most flattering it can be. There is wardrobe that is custom fitted to be absolutely complementary to the person’s figure for whatever impression is meant to be made. There are directors and coaches (or just very well trained photographers) manipulating the subjects into their very best angles even after the talent is likely already well versed in how to pose themselves to dazzling effect.

In most cases, the images delivered to retouchers are fantastic even before they hit post production when they are at the high end.

To take this further, when a campaign is being shot specifically with the intention of being unretouched upon publication, even more attention is paid to all of these elements. No hair is out of place. The makeup is touched up before nearly every shot. Every pose is spot on. No incorrect crop is utilized. The wardrobe is ironed, steamed, tucked, and pinned within an inch of its life so no ripple is out of place. The light is flawlessly flattering and the photographer will not use any frame that isn’t at the perfect angle for the model’s face and figure.

Let’s be clear: this is still not reality by a long shot. Retouching may have been removed from the equation, but it still isn’t going to give that reality check that I do think is to be applauded. The image that is ultimately presented is incredibly manipulated.

In fact, counter to what we’d intuitively like to think (and what the brands’ marketing teams would like for us to think), I’m of the opinion that some of these “no retouching” campaigns can be extremely harmful to women and young girls, possibly even moreso than retouched campaigns. They give the impression that this is actual reality whereas if someone is explicitly told “this is manipulated with a computer” she can more consciously comfort herself with the knowledge that “this is at least partially fake.”

Most “no retouching” campaigns I’ve seen flaunt all sorts of labels and promises of being “all natural” and “totally real” as if this model or actor has just rolled out of bed looking like this. That is the furthest thing from the truth and that’s not good for self esteem if girls think this is what they’re supposed to look like on a day to day basis. THAT is true self image danger.

Because the fact is, on these images you will still never see a zit or undereye circle, the angles de-emphasize waistlines and emphasize long legs, unsightly marks are hidden, the hair is perfect, the makeup is flawless, the models always look happy and sassy (or pouty and sultry depending on the mood), the clothes always flatter, and to boot, the models or personalities are always hand picked to be conventionally pretty from the get go.

Wasn’t our goal to show you something real? Something that demonstrated that models and actors look just like us?

Aerie Unretouched

Aerie’s Unretouched “Real” campaign …I don’t know about you, but my butt doesn’t look like this.

So what’s the alternative? Well, there’s always the possibility that we can do some more campaigns that are truly without much or any production value, but that’s probably going to be a rarity and even a difficulty because we are psychologically inclined as artists to try to make our subjects look their best according to the beauty conventions of our time. Even beyond that, consumers do often and generally agree that they enjoy some glitz and fantasy in their lives. The majority at least enjoys polished imagery that looks put together. And let’s be honest: the pro photographers out there know that a lot of production value is needed when working with certain types of lighting and whatnot. Even consumers know that photos don’t always come out when you’re using the wrong combinations of lights and makeups and things like that. (You know it from all those “oopses” on your phone selfies.)

What I believe more sincerely is that there is a breakdown in visual education in young people (especially girls). Art education in general is undervalued and often ignored in favor of other subjects, especially in the United States. This extends to mass media arts. I think we have a responsibility to be educating young people about the tools used to create high end images and we should be driving home the fact that mass media is largely fantasy. We have no problem telling our kids that video games and movies aren’t entirely real. Why not talk to them about commercial and editorial photos as well?

I also think we should continue democratizing these photographic and retouching tools so that a lot more people have the opportunity to see themselves in this idealized light and know that they too can look as glamourous as these people they idolize. I don’t believe in setting celebrities apart from non-media people and I do believe in photography and retouching as a source of self image empowerment.

MUFE Unretouched

Makeup Forever did do a better job at showing us what “real” looks like. I wanted to give credit where credit was due. There is still a lot of production value here, however, and we should bear that in mind.

The concept of showing images of media personalities as they truly are is intriguing and possibly empowering in that it removes some of their superhuman status. You know from past articles of mine that this is something I support. When we view media figures as towering above us, that’s not good for either us or them. Knowing that media figures aren’t inherently more beautiful than we are is a good thing. They aren’t necessarily. However, so called “no retouching” campaigns are often misleading because there’s still so much behind the scenes production involved. The images might as well be retouched for how much they reflect an average person on an average day.

In closing, I’d like to encourage media figures to maybe post more selfies and candids that aren’t highly produced rather than participating in these “no retouching” campaigns that can cause more self image trouble than they negate. Social media is great for this. On the flipside, I’d like to encourage people not related to the media to educate themselves and their children about the fantasy that exists in the media. Maybe even embrace it as something that’s just fun and pretty even if it is sometimes a little frivolous. It’s okay to enjoy things that are just visually appealing for the sake of being visually appealing.

Ultimately, if you take away nothing else from this article, take away this: Most “no retouching” campaigns are still their own type of fantasy. They’re often just as fake as retouched campaigns. Don’t just take media at it’s word, even if it’s making appealing promises to you. Media empowerment comes from education, not buzzwords or fads.

**Some “no retouching” campaigns are worse than others and I will freely admit that. Some are actually pretty good and don’t do much production. I’m fine with those. Others, though…


All Photos used under Fair Use Doctrine: Editorial Criticism.