In parts one, two, and three we talked about how we really don’t want to make people skinnier than they actually are in Photoshop. It leads to poor self image and it simply isn’t necessary because there isn’t anything wrong with a few extra pounds and we never need to fix a problem that isn’t there. Retouches that give the illusion of making people skinnier should primarily be based on camera issues such as distortion and perspective or should account for issues of clothes fit or bad posing.
Confession: Nobody is Perfect
However, after talking about this for 3 articles, I have to come clean. I, myself, am guilty of making people skinnier in Photoshop just for the sake of making them skinnier. I used to do it when I first started out. I’m not above reproach here, so I’m not going to roundly condemn people who have been doing skinny-retouching up until now.
When I was younger, before I had any sort of fully formed retouching philosophy, I was very strongly influenced by what I perceived that everyone else was doing. I thought I needed to precisely match all of my photos to what I saw in magazines and that I needed to emulate what I assumed other retouchers were doing. So, naturally I became guilty of skinny-retouching. I was early in my career so I wasn’t necessarily working with models straight off Paris runways and I thought that it was a given that I needed to morph these models’ bodies away from what was natural for them into faked knockoffs of the unvaryingly slender standards I saw in Vogue. I believed that they all had to fit the status quo fashion model mold at all costs if I was going to be taken seriously as an artist.
Two projects in particular stand out to me in my past. One was where I took a relatively heavy model and made her much thinner. I probably shaved off 50 lbs. or more. From a technical perspective, based on her surroundings, this was very challenging, so I was proud of it at the time. Looking back, this was a terrible thing to do. She in no way resembled herself when I was done. I was conscious only of my technical prowess and had no concept whatsoever of philosophy or cultural impact. I was 21 or 22 at the time and some of you who have been following me for a long time may remember this photo. I’m so ashamed of it.
The second project was debatably worse. I was a little older…ostensibly old enough to know better. It was a model I’d worked with before and she’d gained a little weight since the last time I’d worked with her, though certainly not enough to be called heavy. I booked her for a certain look and she took me by surprise at the shoot, which is no excuse. I loved the final photos, but I wanted them to look like they were straight out of a mainstream fashion magazine like I’d originally envisioned. The original shots were close, but I wanted to nudge them that extra few millimeters toward looking truly “high fashion”. So, I made her skinnier like she’d been before.
I now feel horrible about this because it was completely unnecessary. She looks gorgeous and bombshell in the originals. The worst part about it is that I still love the photos and I use one in my portfolio. She loves them too. (I’ve thought about reversing the retouch, but if I were to do that at this point, it would underscore that I changed her body in the first place and embarrass her that I felt I needed to do it, so I’m leaving it alone. I will never tell her that I did it or point out which photo or model it is.) I will probably always feel guilty about loving those photos.
So, is it Ever Okay to Skinny-Retouch?
My personal confessions aside, I do actually have a gray area where I will still voluntarily do skinny-retouching almost universally: brides and grooms.
Brides very often request to be made skinnier in their photos. When possible, I try to gently talk them out of it, but most of the time I have no first hand contact with the bride, so this isn’t possible. I’m only in contact with the photographer. My next step is to look for possible contour retouches. When someone asks for skinny-retouching on themselves, this is very often what they’re actually asking for. They’re uncomfortable with how their clothes fit and that makes them feel “fat” (what with various rolls or puckers showing where things pinched.) This makes them feel like they need to look slimmer. In these cases, I don’t actually need to make the subject smaller, I just need to smooth their contours or fix pinches. (Corsetted and/or strapless wedding dresses in particular are notorious for fitting poorly.) After that, I look for perspective problems and so on.
However, when it really comes down to it, even if there are no contours to be smoothed, no perspective or distortion problems to be fixed, just a perfect, straight on photo with a bride or groom still requesting to look skinnier…I’ll usually do it. Why? Because frankly, it’s their special day and it will almost never have any greater societal impact. It’s not going in a fashion magazine where it will influence children or teens and it won’t likely be anywhere where it will participate in any overarching social conversation about body image. It’s going in an album or on some wall mostly for the couple and their families to enjoy.
The important thing with a wedding photo is to make the bride, groom, and anyone else in the photo feel good about themselves and you aren’t going to win the war against poor body-image by forcing one single individual to spend years looking at a photo of themselves that makes them uncomfortable. This is not an occasion where you will be able to change someone’s body-image by making a grandiose ethical stand. It’s simply not the time or place.
That doesn’t mean I don’t cringe a little when some bride comes along and asks me to make her skinnier. It makes me sad that it’s necessary. But I will still do it so long as it’s anatomically within reason.
The simple truth is this: Waging the cultural body-image war in fashion magazines and advertisements is all well and good. Even trying to talk people out of skinny-retouching in everyday portraiture can be a productive thing. But when it comes down to someone’s (possibly/probably) once in a lifetime formal event, just make them feel and look the way they want in my opinion. It’s their day. Our politics and social causes can wait for a more productive time with less emotional investment.
Yes, giving in on this reinforces beauty mores for this particular bridal party, but you weren’t going to single-handedly undo years of self-image conditioning on this one day anyway. This sort of thing is the symptom of an unhealthy media environment, not the cause. Your better bet is to apply these kinds of ethical standards in higher stakes and higher profile projects in order to enact change in the industry. Apply your anti-skinny-retouching, ethical retouching stance to photos of media role models and icons so that the self image problems don’t entrench themselves so deeply in the first place. Then the brides and grooms may simply stop asking for this sort of retouch because they’ve seen greater beauty diversity ideals modeled to them from the start.
However, for now, you are not a psychologist. You aren’t qualified to talk someone down from years of self-image problems when it comes to what they may see as the most important photos of them that they may ever have. My opinion is to just leave this one alone. Let them have their special day with their ideal photos.
In Conclusion: Making People Skinnier in Photoshop
In general, it’s a bad standard practice to alter someone’s physical proportions in Photoshop, but the concept isn’t exactly cut and dry. There are techniques that give illusions of changing proportions due to technical and styling concerns and those can and should be addressed. This doesn’t necessarily equate to actually making a person skinnier in a photo or have anything to do with their real appearance whatsoever. Remember: cameras lie and size distortion in a photographic image can come in many forms.
We also have to acknowledge that we should pick our battles. Not every photoshoot can be the time and place to make an ethical stand. High profile shoots that impact the greater media narrative should definitely move away from skinny-retouching. However, retouching personal shoots where people are just suffering the effects of media telling them to look a certain way may be more of a gray area. There’s a self esteem and image satisfaction balancing act to be performed there.
All in all, I hope that we start to see a sharp decline in skinny-retouching that directly affects the body. The time for that is over. Really, it never should have begun.
Thanks for sticking with me through this 4 part series. I hope that you’ve found “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop” interesting and informative! If you have, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am completely self funded and Patreon helps support what I do here. Thanks!
All photos by Stephanie Maulding