There is a secondary consideration when we’re talking about making people skinnier in Photoshop, but this one is a little less cut and dry than correcting for camera issues. We’ve all agreed now that there’s nothing wrong with being a little larger (Right?) but what about those areas that just aren’t quite smooth no matter how big or small we are? I’m especially talking about those rolls and bumps that appear when we wear clothes that don’t quite fit us correctly or areas that bulge out when we sit on or lean against something in a certain way. These little lumps, bumps, and bulges are almost always temporary issues. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t. They are influenced entirely by external things. However, when looking at someone, we visually interpret these bumps as signs of being heavier, regardless of the actual size of the person. After all, we’re literally talking about excess fat that is made more obvious in some way. (No matter how skinny you are, you have at least some body fat.)
What I want to introduce here is the concept of “the body at rest.” What I mean by this is the body as it looks when it is not pinched by restrictive garments or distorted by environmental things that the model might be leaning against or otherwise pressing a body part against. It can also mean the body when not distorted by wind or motion. The body at rest is the body in its natural state when not influenced by outside factors. In essence, it’s how you really, naturally look.
The techniques I’ll be talking about today are mostly contouring or actively changing the shape of the body. This is one of the most controversial practices in retouching and it is very commonly interpreted as making people skinnier. That’s fair. There’s a very fine line. We’re going to discuss that fine line.
Now, contouring varies based on body type. Significantly larger bodies feature more curves that shouldn’t be smoothed out or else it will look anatomically incorrect. A lot of judgment comes into play here. If it’s a naturally occurring curve or bump that is always present when a person is at rest–standing straight and not wearing ill-fitting, restrictive clothing–it should be left alone. We see this a lot in larger arms, legs, and stomachs. However, bulging areas of flesh from bad posing or ill fitting clothing are unflattering and are not necessarily reflections on someone’s natural figure but rather on circumstantial conditions. I believe that these bumps and bulges can be ethically modified.
One thing to keep in mind is that in contouring, you shouldn’t always be making people smaller. You should be moving areas to make body parts wider at least as often as you are making them slimmer. It depends on what makes the most sense for the particular bump. Often with ill fitting clothing, especially jeans, I will bring the pinching part of the jean out and the bulging part of the stomach in to average out the figure, as that’s usually where the figure would be at rest. (see below.) With pinching clothing, that’s how it works. One part is tighter, constricting the body to make it thinner than it normally is. This displaces skin or fat to somewhere else, making another part wider than it normally is. That means the average between the two is where the body actually should be at rest in most cases. Bring one part in, bring one part out.
Other times I will exclusively make a model larger, but the effect is that of making her look slimmer. In the example below, I have made the model at least 1 to 2 jeans sizes larger. However, because her stomach is no longer bulging over her jeans and the jeans look perfectly fitted to her, she looks slimmer. The image is more flattering and our brains, through conditioning, tell us that means she’s skinnier. She’s not. (I urge you to click through to the before/after animation to see how drastic the change really is.)
The overall effect of contouring is typically slenderizing because bulges are literally comprised of excess skin and body fat. Reducing visibility of these things draws our attention away from thinking about fat which makes us believe a person HAS less fat…even if we are actually making the person larger in the process. It’s an optical illusion of sorts. It’s a disconnect between our eyes and our brains. We equate any kind of bulge or roll with being overweight even though this isn’t truth when we consider the body at rest. A thinner person wearing ill fitting clothing or who is poorly posed can and will have more unflattering bulging areas than a heavier person in perfectly fitting clothing. Bumps and bulges are about restriction and applying pressure, not about body size.
To be perfectly clear about the model I’m retouching above, here are a number of photos where you cannot see any bumps or bulges in her figure. Her default state is without bumps or bulges. The problem is fit and pose and her truer appearance is lacking these problem areas. We are striving toward images that are more honest to her natural appearance at rest. Her contours have not been modified in any way on any of these photos, even to correct for clothes wrinkles. Retouching I have done: light skin retouching, hair cleanup, backdrop smoothing, tone and color. You can click on the images to see larger versions.
A fashion tangent: The real problem with clothing bulges isn’t that someone is “too large” or in any way inherently unattractive, but that most people do not select properly fitting clothes. This isn’t always their fault either. Clothing stores don’t carry enough plus sizes so that people are often forced to buy sizes that are too small for them. We also have confusing and inconsistent vanity sizing and that encourages purchase of the wrong size, particularly in women’s clothing, but also to a certain extent in men’s. If all that isn’t enough, a lot of plus sizes are initially designed and cut for smaller figures and simply scaled up without actually adjusting the pattern for larger figure shapes. Only the scale is adjusted without accounting for the fact that as the body gets larger, proportions and shapes also change. (I sew as my primary hobby and I always custom fit, so lack of fit variation in clothing stores is a pet peeve.) These are all issues that have nothing to do with actual body shape or size. They have to do with clothing fit and cut and how they flatter the body. Mass produced garments are made for an average and rarely flatter a wide variety of body types, so adjustments are commonly needed, if not by a tailor then by a retoucher. For many body types, well fitted, perfectly flattering clothing simply isn’t available.
As a retoucher, I feel that it is a good thing to give people who are not used to seeing themselves in well fitted clothing the opportunity to know what they might look like in perfectly fitting clothes tailored just for them. In my opinion, there is nothing unethical about this. On the contrary, it can serve to bolster someone’s self esteem.
People generally know when their clothes don’t fit because clothes that don’t fit pinch and are not comfortable to wear. If a garment looks like it is pinching, it looks unflattering, not because it makes someone look fat, but because it makes them look uncomfortable and that, in turn, makes the viewer uncomfortable. It also makes the clothes look less than beautiful in the case of fashion photography where the clothes are supposed to be the star…Really, this is the responsibility of the stylist, but sometimes we retouchers wear many hats and end up responsible for making the clothes look good.
Moving on, lets take a moment to talk about posing. Bad posing also looks uncomfortable. If you are leaning on something in a way that makes your arm, face, or other body part look squished, creating painful looking bulges or indentations, the viewer of the photograph is going to feel uncomfortable on your behalf. It’s unflattering and it’s not how you normally look at rest. Even when working with thin models, photographers who are good at posing usually do not have the model put their full weight on their hands or limbs. This prevents painful looking posing. Correcting for problems created by bad posing is resetting to what someone looks like in reality at rest, but again, can trick our brains into thinking we’re making someone skinnier for the same reasons as outlined above.
Now, what I am not encouraging is changing contours and body dimensions that aren’t being pinched or distorted. I still don’t think we should be bringing in waistlines just for the sake of making someone slimmer in order to conform to arbitrary beauty ideals. All I’m talking about here is returning a body to its natural state at rest: bringing in clothing wrinkles, correcting pinches, smoothing out bumps from posing, that sort of thing. Our goal is not to make a person look skinnier than they really are. We are correcting the photograph, not the person. Photographs lie and sometimes we also get distorted by our garments, accessories, and surroundings. Our goal is to make a person look like themselves by educating ourselves as retouchers and photographers about factors that distort their true appearance in final photographs. This may result in a photo that has the illusion of a skinnier model, but that is not our end goal and may, in fact, not be the truth of the retouching we’ve ultimately done.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!
All photos by Stephanie Maulding
Upper Model: Amber for CYA Denim; Various Designers
Lower Model: Alexis