On Hiatus!

Hello Loyal Imperfected Readers!

I am so sorry for my lengthy absence. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’ve been on hiatus for quite some time. I regret to say that Imperfected isn’t coming back quite yet, but I hope to return with new articles sometime in early 2017.

I did want to offer some explanation, however.

2016 hit my little family with a number of very unexpected life events, some amazing and some not-so-amazing.

The Good: Early in the year, I got to train with my number 1 retouching industry role model, Pratik Naik, and shortly afterward start retouching for him as part of his studio, Solstice Retouch! (Such an amazing experience and I’m so honored to be working with him!)

A few months later, I was lucky enough to get engaged to the love of my life! (Naturally, a dream come true.)

Engagement Ring


Then, in July, I was given the opportunity to give a retouching talk for Adobe in San Francisco. (Thank you Adobe! This was also one of my life goals.)

Further, throughout 2016, I’ve had more work than I’ve ever had in any year of my career to date…by a staggering amount. (Great news, but it’s been an adjustment with lots of overtime.)

All of these things made 2016 one of the best years of my life!

However, 2016 was also one of the most difficult years of my life.

The Bad: Early in the year, I very badly injured my foot, ankle, and primary retouching hand. I had limited mobility and substantially slowed work capabilities for almost 2 months. Once healed, things were good for a few months, but I was re-balancing work after a noticeable change in booking frequency on top of celebrating the very good things I already mentioned. Then, about a week after we got engaged at the end of May, my fiancé and I found out that our dog had cancer. (We ultimately had to say goodbye to her a few weeks ago after she put up a very brave 6 month fight.) We then had a death in my fiancé’s family mid-summer. We had a brief reprieve before I fell very ill for 2+ more months near the beginning of August, where I was in and out of the ER several times. Of course, after that I had a lot to catch up on with work and the rest of life with really no time to write for quite a while. It was the beginning of October by the time I was well. Then, we got to mid-November with both our dog and the holidays to address. We’d barely gotten through Thanksgiving when we were asked to vacate our house because our landlord wants to sell. So, since then, we’ve been house-hunting…However, we’ve found a new house we love already so there’s some good news finally!

New office

Where the magic will happen starting in 2017

(To bring the year full circle, though this really doesn’t impact whether or not I can write…a few days ago I re-injured my foot from last January because evidently it never healed correctly. This truly completes our cycle of 2016 bad luck, which I think is actually verging on funny. Really 2016?)

So, in any case, it truly was the best of times and worst of times for us this year. As you can see, there has legitimately been very little time for me to write, much as I’ve wanted to. I still have my folder full of articles to edit and ideas to research and write up and I really do hope to be back at it soon! I will be moving to a new house at the very beginning of January (still in the SF Bay Area) and while I will probably still be flooded with work (and that now on top of trying to plan an imminent wedding), my hope is that I will also have time in there somewhere for Imperfected and my wonderful readers.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all! I wish the best to you and your families for the coming year!

Kitten at Christmas

One final update: Navi is the kitten who came to live with us this year! As we celebrate her first Christmas, we all wish you Happy Holidays from our family to yours!

Please Support Imperfected on Patreon


You can now support Imperfected on Patreon! You can donate at the following URL or by clicking the button on the sidebar any time. https://www.patreon.com/stephaniemaulding

Patreon is a website that connects artists with art patrons. It allows you to pledge a small amount of money to me every time I release an article or video. You can offer any amount starting from $1 and you can set a monthly maximum budget. Your support helps me to produce more content with higher quality. Any amount helps. Even $1/month.

Whether or not you can donate, thank you so much for reading and supporting Imperfected!

A Retoucher’s Eating Disorder Confession

So, something has been troubling me, and we need to talk. There’s a story I haven’t been telling you and it feels like I’m being disingenuous. In fact, a few people in my personal life have even told me I’m being insincere and that hurts. I need to clear the air.

Stephanie Self Portrait

You see, here I am as a blogger, preaching self-love and body positivity, all within the framework of a vanity profession plagued by body image scandal and controversy. My message is one of confidence and of moderation in projecting beauty norms onto ourselves and others. But I have a confession: I’m not living up to the things I try to instill in others. Not by a long shot. My relationship with body positive imagery is complicated at best, and my journey into photography and retouching has always been an exploration with as many questions as answers.

The long and short of it is that I am not body positive when it comes to myself. I have a history of self-image problems going back almost as far as I can remember. People like to claim that retouchers have no perspective on the damage they cause, that they blindly work in the field never knowing or caring about the ramifications of body negative imagery, but let me tell you, that’s not true. I understand the ramifications. I know where the path of body negativity leads, and I’ve hit rock bottom when it comes to self-hatred. These issues hit close to home and that’s why they matter to me.

Young Stephanie

Me around 3rd grade. Elementary school kids are not kind when you look like this.

I have struggled with my weight all my life. When I was 7, I remember being chased around school by mean boys calling me “fatty” and “chub chub”. When I was a little older than that I had a stalker who would send me abusive messages by night and send his friends to mock my body by day. “The great gravity well” they called me. (Clever…) I spent most of my formative years being harassed for being overweight and comparing myself to the world around me. This is not a struggle that is unfamiliar to me. I know that the world is not kind to those who don’t conform to a very specific physical ideal.

My first body image revelation came when I was 13…and it was not a good one. It happened on a week long school trip when I was in middle school. It was then that I realized I could take firm control over my weight. I stopped eating almost entirely during that trip. I can’t tell you how I came to the decision, but it was sudden. I just woke up and realized “If I don’t eat, I’ll get skinny.” On the first day, I limited myself to one gigantic non-fat Starbucks drink and a small order of McDonald’s french fries. No one noticed at all. None of the teachers were paying the first bit of attention to what I was eating. So I did it again the next day. And the next. I kept it up all week and at the end, I had dropped several pounds and I felt high and giddy. At the time, this felt like victory. (In reality it was starvation kicking in and my brain functions starting to shut down.)

Stephanie at 13

Me at 13 before any of this started. I often hid from the camera at this age so finding a photo was hard.

When I got home, I kept up my habits and ate as little as possible. Still no one noticed, and the pounds just melted away. I was ecstatic.

But there was a problem. I could only make so many excuses to Mom and Dad to keep from eating. They were getting suspicious…fast. That was when the whole system broke down. I had to find a new way. So I started purging. I restricted my calories all day, then came home and ate dinner like any normal girl and then I got rid of those calories later. Perfect plan, right? My 13 year-old self thought so.

Overall, I lost about 60 lbs in about 6 months. That’s a lot for a growing 13 to 14 year old girl. Mom and Dad were very concerned, but they didn’t know what to do at first. This is a hard situation for any parent. To make matters worse, I’d also watched someone very close to me struggle with anorexia my entire life and at the time, we still weren’t calling it that. Everyone knew there was something going on, but we just talked around it. I expected to be able to just follow in that person’s footsteps and never be confronted. This is scary because I never saw this very important person in my life over 100 lbs. Ever. But I wanted to be like her in every way. She was the closest person to me beyond my parents; I idolized her…and I thought I could get away with it, just like her.

Stephanie at 14

Me less than a year later. (With my mom in Hawaii.)

But I couldn’t. Eventually, there was a reckoning with my parents, and I was put into therapy. However, as anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder knows, the healing process wasn’t straight-forward. It took until I was 16 or 17 for us to consider me “recovered,” and by then I was blacking out in the shower and all manner of other dismal things were happening. My health was in shambles.

Stephanie in High School

Starting High School. I went into treatment halfway through my first year.

We declared me cured, but I’m not sure that 100% recovery is all that common. We like to read triumphant recovery stories in the media, but we often don’t follow these stories any further than their initial success. They’re like love stories where we see the characters get together and then consider the story “done”. But it’s not done, of course. The story goes on. The same goes for eating disorders. We don’t see the relapses and the residual depression and anxiety, the roller coaster weight struggles, the self-image problems that don’t necessarily ever fully resolve, the abusive relationships that we’re vulnerable to due to low self-esteem. (I’ve never really heard anyone talk about that one, but people with eating disorders are horribly vulnerable to be preyed upon by abusers. That’s a place I’ve been as well.)

There are so many things that people don’t talk about with eating disorders. About how they come to be, about what happens behind closed doors, about the recovery process…and about the life that comes afterward. We like to talk about them in a sensible, linear fashion and we like our eating disorder stories wrapped up with a tidy bow, but life isn’t tidy. People aren’t tidy.

My weight has fluctuated almost 100 pounds over my teenaged and adult life. Currently, I’m plus-sized again and I’m really struggling with that. I’m actually dieting again, and I’m really fighting to do it in a healthy way because it’s very difficult for me to ever diet in a healthy way. I feel I need to do it because my weight has ventured into the unhealthy territory, but losing weight is always dangerous for me. The extreme restricter in me always wants to get back into the driver’s seat, because like I said: I don’t think a lot of eating disorders ever fully resolve. The impulses stay with you. The complexes and insecurities stay with you. I could tell you that my relationship with my body is healthy and positive, but that would be a lie. When I look in the mirror, it’s not the self-love fest that I preach.

Stephanie selfie

A selfie I took at my smallest as an adult. (Yes, I’m a wine enthusiast at any size.)

I’m going to be honest. I don’t know if I will ever stop struggling with my self-image. There’s a lot of baggage there, and people who know me call me on that when I try to tell others they should feel good about themselves; because the truth is, I still diet. I dye my hair. I worry about wrinkles. I pluck my eyebrows. I sometimes wear a ton of makeup to cover up what I see as flaws. I’ll try on a dozen outfits before going out. I hate having my picture taken. No matter how much I work on it, I am still a physically insecure person down to my core. As I write this, I feel horrible guilt about trying to lose weight in the context of this blog. There’s tension between the belief that I should feel content with how I look, practicing what I preach, and a driving need to cater to my insecurities and be thin and conventionally pretty.

But here’s the thing:

You do not need to have won your struggle before beginning to help others with theirs.

Every day brings a new struggle for everyone. If we all wait until we’re perfectly at peace—with ourselves, with others, with the world—then we’ll never embark on anything. You can call me a hypocrite when I can’t look at myself with the same body positive eyes I use to gaze on the rest of the world. That’s probably at least a partially fair assessment. Because the truth is, my struggle isn’t over. It may never be over. That doesn’t mean I can’t look at the world and wish it a better place for others; that I can’t want to want to spare others the same trial I may still be enduring. Empathy is how we grow, both as individuals and as a society. I firmly believe that any difficulty in life can be turned around. We can turn the things that haunt us into muses: inspiration to challenge and change the world and whatever brought us to difficulty in the first place.

I grew up in a system that made me hate the way I look. I don’t want that for children of future generations. I don’t even want that for people my own age or older. I want to do everything I can to shift that paradigm, even if I can’t live up to that same body positive message I’m spreading to the rest of the world. I can want something better for everyone else than I have for myself.

I don’t want people to think that I’m disingenuous in what I say. I’m not. I mean every word of what I write. I can look at someone who looks just like me and think she’s beautiful. The problem is within myself and I know that. I do earnestly see beauty in everyone around me. My quest for body acceptance and beauty diversity isn’t made insincere by my inability to include myself. If anything, it’s made more urgent by the visceral empathy I feel for others who might also be suffering from poor self-image. My desire to help them and to help future generations is driven by my own familiarity with the pain of that struggle.

I also believe in what I do. Retouching is demonized by much of the body positivity movement, but I stand by it. It’s been a tool of empowerment for me and my recovery and I want to share how it can be for others as well. (When done ethically in a body positive way, of course.) I’ve devoted much of my adult life to understanding beauty, self-image, identity, the history of human representation, and the struggle that many of us go through to get to self-acceptance. These things have helped me in my own journey and I believe they can help others. None of the knowledge or opinions I share through this blog are disingenuous. They’re all part of my earnest quest to make the world better through body positive imagery, ethics, and philosophy. Whether or not I am a perfect person in relation to these ideas shouldn’t detract from that goal.

So here I am. I hope that knowing me, as a person, doesn’t deter you from believing in my message, but rather reaffirms to you that I’ve been there and that I speak my words from personal experience. Nothing I have to say is empty body propaganda. It comes out of my own journey, my own inner struggle, and my own earnest quest to understand the very nature of beauty in effort to overcome my own personal relationship with the concept. I’ve made the study of beauty my life’s work because of the impact it’s had not only on my own life, but on the life of someone very close to me, and even beyond that, on the lives of my friends and acquaintances who have gone through similar struggles. I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the concept of beauty and self-acceptance for myself completely, but I can at least pass on what I learn to others and try to improve the status quo going forward.

Thank you for reading.

My Retouching Philosophy

Why do we retouch? When do we retouch? What do we retouch?

These are all far more important to answer than “How do we retouch.” You can find a million How to’s out there. I may even do a few here, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to talk about philosophy. Or my philosophy anyhow.

Stephanie Maulding Retouching

What is the best compliment I can get as a retoucher in one word? “Invisible.” I don’t want people to notice my work. If I’m doing my job correctly, no one will notice I’ve done it. Our goal as retouchers is to make things look as realistic as possible at all times. (Unless you’re doing some sort of fantasy digital art piece, but that’s a slightly different topic.) No one wants someone to look at their photo and say “You look retouched.” or “This looks fake.” They want someone to look at their photo and think it’s natural but beautiful. Our job is to make things look just a little bit better than the original photo.

Notice I didn’t say “better than reality” because that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s often not the case. Very often, we are correcting camera problems and lighting problems or retouching out temporary issues such as blemishes, misplaced hair, or background distractions. Things like this simply bring things back to a reality baseline. Other times, we aren’t necessarily improving on reality, but making things different from reality. I have had jobs where I just alter, but not improve, such as removing trademarked logos from commercial images where unauthorized brands can’t be visible, hiding tattoos or jewelry, or changing the color of a certain image element. Not better, but different.

Then there are “improvements.” Improvements on products and architecture aren’t especially controversial, so I’m not going to discuss them. Whether or not something is ethical there is pretty black and white. When it comes to people, however, I have a specific mindset that I always use when I am approaching an image for “improvements”. First of all, I try to never approach an image thinking that someone needs to be “fixed.” As soon as you start thinking that way, you’re in trouble.

If you want to succeed as a people retoucher, I believe you need to be able to see the beauty in everyone. At the very least you need to be able to see the beauty in everyone in your demographic. If you think someone is ugly, there is no way you will start to find them beautiful no matter what you do to their image. If you do get it to where you like it, it won’t be natural enough to pass muster. It is not your job as a retoucher to create beauty. It is your job to underscore the beauty that is already there. Changes extreme enough to try to impart beauty where you don’t see it in the first place venture into the realm of fake looking images on the one hand and unethical images on the other.

Sarah by Stephanie MauldingHere’s how I mentally approach my images: I try to imagine how someone might look in a loved one’s memory. Loved ones usually don’t include things like small blemishes, blotchy skin, or stray hairs when they think of us. They remember us in our best light. I always start there. In fact, my favorite aspect of being a retoucher is offering someone a glimpse of how they might be seen by others. Granted, I will vary how far I take an image depending on its final intent; whether it is a portrait or fashion, which is meant to be pushed further into the realm of fantasy. However, this mindset typically keeps me on track, no matter the genre of image.

An alternative mindset that I entertain simultaneously is that of painting in reverse. I think to myself “if I were creating this image as a painting, what would I have left out?” I slowly start taking those things away.

With both of these mindsets, one thing is key: restraint. I believe that is the retoucher’s greatest asset. Too little retouching is always better than too much. Again, no one wants someone to look at their photo and think immediately that it’s unnatural looking. (Even if that person knows intellectually that it is because they are educated about retouching. Remember, we do want people becoming more retouching savvy.)

All of this is well and good, but how do we keep ourselves from going too far? Well, part of it is experience and education. Another part of it is using the appropriate techniques (I know, I know, I said it wasn’t about the “how”. It’s secondary, but it still matters.) The most important thing, however, is having a plan. A retoucher should usually start an image with a good idea of what needs to be done. If there are other people involved in the project (photographer, art director, client, etc.) talk to them about it if possible. It’s easy to finish an image and then fall into one of two traps. The first is one common to most artists: “I hate my own work and need to keep going until I like it.” This is a problem of self doubt. I can’t solve this for you. You just have to get to a point where you trust yourself enough to stick to your plan. The second is the game of telephone. Every person involved in the project wants to contribute and have some input into the image, so even if it’s finished and you submit it, they may find a “problem” and ask you to take it further, which means making it less realistic. This is one of the ways you end up with severe retouching fails. Get them on board at the beginning and let them have their say before you start rather than at the revision stage. This doesn’t guarantee they won’t chime in with revisions, but it can help. We’ll talk about saying “no” to clients later on.

Working in retouching, it’s easy to lose sight of reality and image ethics. We read a lot about how the media is irresponsible and contributing to skewed ideas about beauty and poor self image. Retouching doesn’t have to. We can approach our art with realism and natural beauty at the forefront of our minds.


 Rules of Retouching

All photography by Stephanie Maulding


How I Got Started In Retouching

I’ll be honest: retouching and I were not always fast friends. When I was younger, I had a very mixed relationship with retouching. I loved the finished product of fashion images, but I had an animosity toward the production and retouching needed to make them. Like many people, I bought into the narrative that retouching and fashion imagery inherently caused self image problems and were psychologically damaging in some way.

Then, as a photo major in college, I took a course about the ethics of retouching that also covered some of the basics of technique. (Ultimately, I am mostly self taught, but I got the basics in college.) Starting with this class, I began to really delve into a lot of the psychology of self image, optics, visual perception, etc. What I found is that my research didn’t really support my former ideas. At the same time, I loved the control the techniques gave me over my final images. Suddenly, I had the technical skills I needed to make my final images match the ideas I had in my imagination. I could make my photos look like the photos in magazines. I admit, I struggled with this at first.

Comp Card Samples

Comp cards with photos I worked on at my first retouching job out of college. 2006-2007

Through the end of college, I slowly began to develop my craft, initially exploring it through self portraiture and portraits of friends as a tool for empowerment while researching a lot of feminist theory, perceptual science, and history of beauty ideals. Some of my first projects were not even really retouched final photos, but digital art pieces that utilized retouching techniques as a means to critically explore the idea of retouching.

As I developed my technical skills, I thought a lot about why I felt the way I did about fashion images and retouching. A lot of my opinions were very emotionally driven because self image problems have touched my life deeply, affecting both myself and the people around me. However, when I got myself to analyze these art forms objectively, I found them very much subject to the intentions of the people practicing them. Retouching and fashion photography weren’t inherently bad or damaging, but they could be in the wrong hands. In the right hands, they could be used to make very empowering images. They were simply tools. Like any medium, the power lay with the individual artist.

By the time I graduated and got my first job as a retoucher, I had developed at least a partial philosophy about what I was doing, even if I was still a little bit shaky on a full ethical code. (I had just turned 21 at the time, so I was still really figuring myself out.) I went to work for a talent agency, running their graphics department, which meant handling all the retouching, portfolios, and comp cards for models, actors, and voice talent. Working directly in entertainment helped me to more fully develop a perspective in a way that you can’t always do in the isolated environment of college. Real world experience goes a long way to augment academics. The abstract ethical questions were no longer abstract and I had to establish a point of view and style that stayed true to my beliefs while still delivering on expectations. It was a process, and I wasn’t perfect to start out with–I’m still not perfect–but I loved the work and over time I grew into what I was doing. Eventually, after working for a few companies, I went full time freelance.

The subjects of self image and beauty standards are very dear to me, so I did continue in my course of academic study long after I left school. I’ve continued to practice retouching because it’s the art form that most directly relates to the psychological, historical, and philosophical concepts I’m interested in. My studies and my craft are synergistic. I now find that retouching allows me to more richly explore my academic interests in a hands on way. I can explore how people see themselves, how our era defines beauty, and how humans universally define beauty. It also gives me an opportunity to participate in and influence the cultural narrative on beauty.

Not everyone comes to retouching as academically as I did, but after establishing such a strong perspective on what I do, I really feel that it’s important for retouchers to have at least some academic, philosophical, and ethical grounding. It’s also important for consumers of images to have an understanding of what goes into the thought process of retouching. Arts education in general and retouching education in specific are key to more ethical retouching and to having healthier body image in the face of all media.

I could talk at great length about exactly how each of the academic subjects I’ve mentioned has influenced my stance on retouching, but honestly we would be here all day. However, I do plan to talk about all of them and more in this blog, so stay tuned!

It’s Nice To Meet You!

Stephanie MauldingMy name is Stephanie and I’m a retoucher based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. As a retoucher, I work in a very controversial field with a lot of outsiders looking in. Starting with this blog, I want to be a part of the conversation about retouching as an insider reaching out.

I retouch all sorts of images, though I focus heavily on images of people. I’ve also concentrated on architecture and historical restoration at different points in my career. I’ve been a retoucher in various capacities for almost 10 years now, working primarily freelance, but also running two graphics departments and working on a contract basis for a few other companies.

I’m also a photographer, though I don’t shoot often anymore, particularly in a professional capacity. I actually went to school to become a photographer, but I started focusing on retouching partway through when I realized that I enjoyed digital imaging far more than I enjoyed actually being behind the camera. I do still enjoy working with photographic subjects and working on my own photos, but today I primarily work with photographers around the world to realize their post production goals instead of my own.

Antique Kodak Cameras

A selection of my antique cameras

I’m very passionate about my profession and I believe that critical thinking and ethics should never be absent from the art of retouching. When those go missing, things go awry. I’m sympathetic to a lot of the critiques our industry receives and I would like to see the field become more responsible and conscientious. I enjoy researching topics adjacent to retouching and have a lot to say about ethics.

I’m also a big history geek in both my professional and personal life. Professionally, I study the history of beauty standards, cosmetic practice, art, and retouching. Personally, I study historical fashion and style, I sew vintage clothing, I practice historical hand crafts, I collect antique cameras and Victorian magazines, and I do vintage ballroom dance. I look to history a lot in forming my opinions. You’ll see me reference art history frequently.

I do truly believe that retouching has a solid place in the progression of art and I stand by what I do. What I don’t stand by is lack of transparency in the industry. I hope that you’ll let me shed some light on the how and why of what I do.


My cat, Hazel

…Also I’d really be remiss if I didn’t introduce you to Hazel, my fuzzy office assistant.