Lindsey Cook

Professional Writer

The Use of Extreme Photoshop in the Fashion Industry

Since Adobe released Photoshop 1.0 almost thirty years ago in 1990, it has become the tool used in mainstream media to alter everything from the blemishes on models’ faces to the size of their thighs. Although the broader uses of Photoshop include simply improving the visual quality of photos, the way the fashion industry has put the software program to use—namely, to substantially altar the appearances of real people—has raised much controversy in popular culture.  Photoshop has been so largely integrated into the fashion world that it is rare—nay, unheard of— to look through the glossy pages of a magazine without seeing the effects of Photoshop both in the magazine’s photo spreads and in its advertisements. While many people realize, and advocate against, the damaging effects of Photoshopped pictures on our society’s youth—including negative body image, low self-esteem, and even eating disorders—the program is still widely used, and does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Because photography, unlike painting or sculpture, was the first medium to portray the truth with any singularity, interactive multimedia researcher Meredith Jones explains that the issue with Photoshop is how “Photography’s intimate ties with truth and reality have been more explicitly called into question” (21-22). And indeed, the authenticity of photographs seen in the fashion industry has been a topic of discussion for years. In 2010, Ann Taylor displayed photos of a model who appeared not to have ribs (Donovan 582); similarly, in 2009, an Olay advertisement featured a fifty-nine-year old Twiggy “with softened and reduced wrinkles and with no sign of under-eye bags or crow’s feet” (Donovan 583). Although some people may have the ability to look at pictures like this and immediately realize that digital editing has been used, many other people may not be able to tell what is Photoshopped and what is real. This ambiguity is problematic because, as Meredith Jones observes, it calls into question the honestly of the photography in today’s popular culture.

According to Alyssa Dellaria, a graphic designer at Mambo Sprouts Marketing who uses Photoshop on a daily basis, the original purpose of Photoshop was much different than what it is actually used for today. She stated:

I definitely think Photoshop is useful when it comes to adjusting lighting—that was the initial use for Photoshop, lighting. But now people use Photoshop to manipulate their bodies, and that wasn’t the original intent, as far as I know. It was just a photo editing software program for adjusting size and the other basic stuff in photographs. But now, the liquefy tools [used to altar a person’s body] aren’t so good, because you’re deceiving people when you use them.

Meredith Jones agrees that Photoshop poses a question of ethics when it is used to manipulate people’s appearance; she says, “It is most controversial when combined with more traditional modes of photography and representation, specifically for the ways it is used to ‘enhance’ faces and bodies in line with mainstream beauty ideals of youth, slenderness, and whiteness” (22). The issue of unrealistic slenderness portrayed in magazines is particularly potent; according to journalist Marilyn Krawitz, there is an undeniable connection between media images and eating disorders. She states that the ideal body image for women in Western countries has been a thin one for more than fifty years, and that people in the fashion industry perpetuate this ideal by hiring models who typically have a body weight twenty percent lower than is healthy. The thin body image is also perpetuated through photographs of models that are Photoshopped to appear thinner and more attractive (Krawitz 862). “They [women] may try to change their bodies to look more like these models because they associate people in photographs as being beautiful. Seeing these images can lead some women to start dieting and to develop eating disorders” (Krawitz 862-863).

Interestingly, Photoshop is sometimes used for the opposite reason as well. In 2013, T Magazine editor Deborah Needleman was quoted, in response to angry feedback about a particularly thin model, saying, “She is rather thin for my taste, as most models are, and I considered adding some fat to her with Photoshop, but decided that as it is her body, I’d let it be” (Gillin). Despite the fact that Needleman ultimately did not use Photoshop on the model in question, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote this statement addressing Needleman’s remark: “Ms. Needleman’s reference to Photoshopping has raised some questions about how photographs are treated in The Times, including in its magazines” (Gillin). Evidently, the overuse of Photoshop is controversial regardless of whether it altars a model to look thinner or thicker.

According to a study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, the fact that Photoshop is used to fix any and every aesthetic flaw can be especially damaging to younger females immersed in this world of unattainable beauty ideals. “In Western cultures, girls’ self-esteem declines substantially during middle adolescence, with changes in body image proposed as a possible explanation. Body image develops in the context of sociocultural factors, such as unrealistic media images of female beauty” (Clay et al 451). Young girls who are exposed to airbrushed photos of celebrities and models on a regular basis (i.e., most girls in the western world) start to compare themselves to these women and likely wonder why they don’t look the same. It should also be said that adolescent females who look at the pictures in fashion magazines are probably more susceptible to feelings of shame and low self-esteem than women who are old enough to discern reality from Photoshopped perfection.

Some people, however, do not agree. According to NY Mag journalist Amanda Fortini, it is acceptable to use Photoshopped pictures, as the people who read magazines understand—and expect—that photos are retouched:

Most of us who read fashion magazines don’t feel we’re confronting reality when we see a photograph of a grown woman with preteen thighs. (We certainly see enough countervailing tabloid shots to know exactly what celebrity thighs look like.) If such photos enrage us, and often they do, it’s not because they damage our self-esteem, nor — let’s be honest — because we’re constantly fretting, like some earnest psychologist or crusading politician, about the emotional repercussions for adolescent girls.

Despite Fortini’s apparent flippancy, evidence shows that there are emotional repercussions for adolescent girls. This is because they are experiencing body changes that often lower their self-esteem; as stated in the study in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, “The onset of puberty entails bodily changes (such as greater adipose deposits, and acne) that, on average, move girls further away from societal standards of female beauty” (Clay et al 453). This idea relates to the issue of Photoshop distorting the truth. For instance, if a twelve-year-old girl with acne problems is looking at a glossy magazine ad of a young celebrity around her age with clear (Photoshopped) skin, she will likely feel that there is something wrong with her, when in fact she—and her skin problems—are the norm. It follows that young girls experiencing typical adolescent issues concerning their appearance (acne, braces, the weight gain that comes with puberty) might read magazines for tips on how to improve these issues:

Feelings of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem may lead adolescents seeking self-improvement to increase their media consumption—resulting in a ‘‘vicious circle’’ of media exposure, internalization of sociocultural ideals, social comparison  with unrealistic images, and further erosion of body satisfaction and self-esteem. (Clay et al 473)

And the negative effect that Photoshop has on our youth is not mere speculation. In the same Journal of Research on Adolescence study, a 13-year-old girl was quoted saying, “Magazines are going to exploit the fact that teenagers are often unhappy with themselves” (Clay et al 473). Yet despite the fact that adolescents are beginning to recognize the damaging effects of Photoshop, it is still being used by most mainstream journalism.

Photoshop, interestingly, has even gone so far as to enter the realm of false advertisement. In 2012, the United States National Advertising Division (NAD) moved to ban the use of Photoshop in cosmetic advertisements in response to a CoverGirl mascara ad wherein Taylor Swift’s eyelashes were airbrushed to exaggerate the effect of the mascara (Brown 2014). Despite the ad’s disclaimer that the lashes were enhanced in post-production, the NAD ultimately oversaw the discontinuation of the ad. The understanding that someone might buy a product—not because of the actual effects of the product but because of what the effects look like after Photoshop—is certainly akin to false advertising, as most people wouldn’t think to check the tiny writing at the bottom of the page that indicates digitalized enhancement.

The idea that Photoshopped pictures might influence a consumer to buy something that he or she normally would not buy was a deciding factor of the #AerieREAL campaign. Aerie, the lingerie line for American Eagle, decided several years ago to start a photo campaign with completely un-retouched photos. Journalist Eliana Dockterman, while reporting on Aerie’s campaign, stated:

It used to be that fashion designers preferred stick-thin, almost boyish models that their clothing could literally hang off of. But now that so many women are doing their shopping online, using models that look like real women could help consumers make better informed purchasing decisions. The new Aerie site, for instance, will allow an online shopper to see how the bra she likes would fit on a model with a similar body type and breast size as her own. (Dockterman)

More important than this practical aspect of the campaign, continues Eliana Dockterman, is Aerie’s mission “to promote more realistic standards for their teen and preteen customers.” According to Dockterman, when her article was published more than two years ago, the models were “still young, beautiful, and very thin,” signaling that “Aerie [hadn’t] overthrown the system,” but a quick scroll through Aerie’s site as of 2017 shows that many of the lingerie models are much heavier than what one may have seen in the beginning of the #AerieREAL campaign. Considering reality, namely the fact that young women are all very different shapes and sizes, it makes sense for Aerie to photograph a wide range of body weights in order to show what their lingerie will look like on real people instead of just the typical 5’9, 110-pound model.

Aerie isn’t the only company to turn away from digital editing—several years ago, Verily, a fashion and lifestyle magazines, became one of the first publications to forgo Photoshop entirely. According to a Huffington Post article titled “Verily Magazine’s No-Photoshop Policy Proves It Can Be Done,” the magazine even published an issue that used real women as models in 2013. In this issue, “runway looks from 3.1 Phillip Lim, Tommy Hilfiger, Rochas and Miu Miu are translated with affordable items from Zara, Mango and H&M—[were] all modeled by real women” (“Verily Magazine”). Today, Verily’s policy about Photoshop is the same; their statement is posted on the magazine’s website as follows:

Whereas other magazines photoshop to achieve the “ideal” body type and skin, we firmly believe that the unique features of women — be it crows feet, freckles, or a less-than-rock-hard body — contribute to their beauty and don’t need to be removed or changed with Photoshop. Therefore, we never alter the body or facial structure of our models, remove wrinkles or birthmarks, or change the texture of their skin. We aim to show everyone at their best, but also firmly believe that “your best” is not “a work of fiction.”

It’s encouraging to know that some publications are taking steps to represent reality instead of make-belief perfection. The fact that Verily understands the importance of representing all different kinds of women could even be the start of other magazines doing the same.

In countries outside America, some publications were resisting Photoshop as early as 2009. Photographer Peter Lindbergh made a splash when he photographed celebrities such as Monica Bellucci, Eva Herzigova, and Sophie Marceau without retouching or even makeup, for French Elle (Wilson 2009). But France isn’t the only country who has taken a stand against the age of extreme digital retouching. According to journalist Kerry Donovan, Photoshop is seen as such an issue that some countries are even attempting to take legal action. Indeed, “International politicians and lobbyists, from Brazil to England, are united in their belief that some sort of warning label system on these images is necessary” (Donovan 592). But despite all the backlash against Photoshop, we should consider that it isn’t always in the magazine industry’s hands. While of course there have been instances of magazines using Photoshop to an extreme level, and even instances of magazines using Photoshop against the wishes of celebrities and models, sometimes, it’s the celebrity or the celebrity’s publicists who insist on Photoshop. “As several editors said privately,” explains Eric Wilson in an article for The Times, “Celebrities’ publicists almost always demand retouching of wrinkles and visible cellulite. As a result, a celebrity can look different from one magazine to the next.”

With that in mind, perhaps we should stop viewing journalists as the sole perpetrators of Photoshop in the fashion industry. With all of the negative influences Photoshop has on our society’s youth—eating disorders, low self-esteem—it should be an obvious step to stop using it, rather than simply dismissing it as an unchangeable aspect of the fashion industry. But maybe before the fashion magazine industry can make this huge step, celebrities and models, all of them, will have to show their support of such a movement—a movement that shows their flaws to the public instead of hiding them behind digitalized perfection. Make no mistake; successfully implementing a new norm for the magazine industry, in which all photos are un-retouched, could bring back a fundamental aspect of photography that has been missing since Photoshop launched back in 1990—that is, the truth.

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