When it comes to retouching people to be skinnier, my advice really boils down to this: Don’t. It’s that simple. There is nothing wrong with people who aren’t stick thin. Larger bodies are just as beautiful as smaller ones. (There’s also nothing wrong with people who are stick thin. They’re beautiful too.) Extra inches are not a problem to be fixed and there’s never a need to “fix” a problem that isn’t there. Remember my rules of retouching: It is not your job to “make someone beautiful.” They already are.
Everyone knows where I stand on body acceptance. I believe that every body is a beautiful body and I’m a Health at Every Size advocate.
That said, if I start with that, you doubters aren’t going to read past my ideological rant on beauty and ethics. I know that. So, here’s the bottom line for those of you retouchers and photographers still resisting the body positivity movement: even if you don’t believe what I believe, the paradigm of “skinny = beautiful” is shifting and the market is speaking. This equates to dollars in your bank account. You may personally only find skinny to be attractive, but you will be left behind in the dust if you don’t get on board with the new trend of universal body acceptance. That is a simple fact.
Look at the current backlash against retouching. Look at how well no-retouching campaigns are doing (regardless of how I feel about them.) Look at how many women are speaking out about the way skinny-retouching makes them feel about themselves. Look at the rise of superstar plus size models. Look at the celebrities balking at having their own photos retouched…particularly their waistlines. Look at actual laws being passed because of this type of retouching in particular. The market is speaking and you’re ignoring it. You will be on the wrong side of history on this one. If you stubbornly refuse to expand your definition of beauty, your business will ultimately fail over time as clients seek out ethical retouchers who are in line with market trend and market demand.
The first thing media consumers think of when they think of retouching is some dastardly “Photoshopper” making women skinnier, conspiring to deliberately make them feel bad about themselves. When we get down to it, retouching people to be skinnier does nothing but hurt the reputation of the entire retouching industry. Not only that, but the ability of the retouching industry to exist at all as companies start to do away with retouching to bow to consumer pressure and countries start to pass laws against us.
Once we factor in ethics on top of objective market factors, there’s really nothing else to consider.
The ethics behind this are straight forward. When retouchers insist on making people skinnier for purely cosmetic reasons, it sends a clear message to image consumers that being slimmer is the only way to be beautiful. That is a hugely damaging falsehood. Big is beautiful too. If you can’t make a larger person look just as good as a smaller person without resorting to making them skinnier, you may want to re-examine your photographic and retouching skills, because there is a lot of beauty there in front of you to work with. I talk a lot on this blog about the interplay between retouching and self image, and this is one of the few issues I will really come down on and outright state that there is a direct link between what retouchers are doing and a serious societal problem.
It’s bad enough that publications won’t diversify and use a wider range of body types, but even if only small bodies are being booked for photoshoots, at least if we don’t retouch those bodies to be skinnier, those bodies are still technically representative of real dimensions that exist somewhere out there in the world. They may all be skinny to begin with, but they’re body types that haven’t been manipulated to be anatomical falsehoods that reside only in someone’s imagination. (The representation issue is real, but it’s not one that we, as retouchers, can remedy. We can only take responsibility for our own actions…but we should be doing at least that. Personally, I hope to see greater size representation in fashion in the coming years as well. Photographers and designers, I’m looking at you.)
I talk about retouching being intended to make someone look like themselves on their best day. I’ve also talked about making them look the way they might appear in memory: a little more polished, but still themselves. A model’s skin can look clearer and smoother under different lighting or on a different day. Her hair can look neater and sleeker with a different stylist and with different products. She can shave her legs more carefully or use inexpensive soothing balms to avoid razor burn and bumps. She can apply her makeup differently. Etc. These are all minor things and also things that it’s easy for the brain to gloss over in a quick glance.
Body shape is different. When we go out of our way to make a body skinnier in post production, we’re not just neatening or removing distractions. We’re not cleaning up temporary or accidental issues. We are changing something that is not a variable, circumstantial thing. We are explicitly stating that smaller is better and more attractive than a body’s actual dimensions and changing something that is not changeable except over a large amount of time with a large amount of (often dangerous, often medical) intervention and effort. Body shape has substance. The brain registers it both in person and in memory. It’s not a trivial change when we make someone skinnier and there’s nothing ambiguous about the message it sends.
When we do this to well known models and celebrities, it’s even worse. We’re taking someone whose appearance is already well known, who is already looked up to as a role model; someone people aspire to be and we are telling people that even they are not good enough. They need to be skinnier even when their appearances are already often unrealistic standards to begin with with their designer products and many-thousand dollar styling teams and personal trainers. We are creating a completely impossible and often dangerous ideal.
Yes, eating disorders DO come out of this ideal. Granted, there are many other variables that lead to eating disorders and erradicating skinny-retouching will not eliminate eating disorders by any stretch of the imagination, but we shouldn’t be contributing. Our responsibility is to do what we can do and remain blameless where we can. We can be advocates in other areas as well, but we have concrete and direct control over this particular thing. And so is it really a question whether we should act ethically? Of course we should.
So, there’s the long and short of it: It’s really never okay to make people skinnier in retouching just for the sake of making them “more attractive”. Bigger bodies are beautiful the way they are. Let’s just start phasing this practice out right now.
…That said that there are times when making people skinnier isn’t actually making people skinnier and we’re going to discuss these exceptions, how to recognize them, and when they are and aren’t okay.
A closing note: I encourage retouchers and non-retouchers alike to read this series. Retouchers because we all need to be having this conversation on ethics and technique within our industry. Non-retouchers because I urge you to learn to recognize when “making someone skinnier” (or rather making a body part smaller or larger) isn’t actually making a judgment call on weight for your own peace of mind and your own self esteem. As I’ve stated many times, I believe in retouching education and public awareness as the answer to a lot of self image problems that arise from people encountering contemporary media in general and retouching in particular.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!
Photography by Stephanie Maulding // Model: Michelle Dione