Has Photo Retouching Gone Too Far?

by Kelly on August 12, 2008 · 42 comments

in Women. Beauty. Feminism

How many times have you stared at an advertisement, magazine cover or the fashion pages and wished you had hair, eyes, cheekbones, breasts, lips like the woman in the photo?

When I was younger I had a thing about eyebrows. Bizarre I know. But hey, that’s me. It started in my late teens with Sherilyn Fenn, that ’80s vixen and star of Twin Peaks.

Sherilyn has the absolute best eyebrows. Very old Hollywood glamour. Looking at her, for the first time in my life I realised eyebrows could actually define a woman’s eyes and face. I became obsessed with how to make my naturally curved, but fine eyebrows dark and thick and peaked. I longed for her white pallor and cursed my freckly tan. I hold Sherilyn Fenn almost completely responsible for my over made-up goth like phase during my university years.

Now after watching the above video, I may not question Sherilyn’s eyebrows (they were ’80s authentic I’m sure), but I could definitely ask myself if great eyebrows on magazine covers exist at all. Is there an art to eyebrow styling or have I been lied to completely?

Retouching or Complete Fabrication?

I shouldn’t be so pithy about the subject of media image manipulation. At best, it uses lies to sell us products, at worse it encourages dangerous social stereotypes. Take the recent furore over the new Beyonce L’Oreal ads. The famous African-American singer is pictured not only with straight, reddish-blond hair, but her complexion is suspiciously whiter than usual. L’Oreal denies any wrong doing, but the spotlight is well and truly on photographic re-touching in advertising.

In fact, if this video is anything to go by, then the term “retouching” is a bit soft. This advertisement is pure IMAGE CREATION. The woman in the billboard barely resembles the woman who sat down in front of the camera.

I guess this is what Cindy Crawford meant when she said in 1993: “Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford in the morning.”

Check out the iWANEX Studio – Professional Photo Retouching Services and click on their GALLERY section. You’ll be treated to a dozen or more images of famous celebrities and get to see what they REALLY look like. Going over the BEFORE and AFTER shots is a revelation. Not only are these gorgeous men and women aged backwards, slimmed down, given breast augmentation and de-freckled, but sometimes they’re even fattened up. Cameron Diaz is a perfect example.

I don’t even know why I am surprised at the extent of this illusion.

I worked in advertising and marketing in the ’90s and saw the start of photo retouching, even though it was nowhere near as extensive as it is today.

I do have one clear memory of a photo shoot for a nutritional supplement I was promoting. We needed an image of a naked woman’s back for the product label and advertisements, and our target market were women 30 and over. This was a problem because all the models we saw at the initial go-see were so thin their spines were raised out of their back and therefore we couldn’t use them to appeal to our target market.

In the end, we had a few girls who specialized in mens magazines come in because our art director said they should be a bit meatier. They were, and we eventually found the woman with the ‘perfect back’. The only problem was she had a large tattoo on her shoulder blade. “No worries,” said the art director. “We’ll photoshop it out.” And they did.

That was 1997. Eleven years on, they’d probably use a skinny model and just re-draw her spine and thicken her back so she looked right. I doubt they would have bothered to find a fatter model with a realistic body shape.

Unattainable beauty images are already a hot topic of discussion. But the extent of the image manipulation at iWANEX Studio indicates that the problem is a whole lot bigger than that.

Women and young girls are being fed images that are so doctored that they are about as real as an animated figure

Remember sexy Jessica Rabbit? I wanted her va va voom figure, long red hair and white skin as a girl, but I knew she was a cartoon. There was no illusion of reality. Is what we are seeing in print these days any more real than Jessica Rabbit?

What do you think? Should we expect some reality from the images of human beings that are plastered all over our buildings, buses, televisions, films and print media?

Below are some more interesting links on re-touching in advertisements:

Customer Watch – The Live Version witout Re-touching

3 Magazines are Accused of Retouching Celebrity Bodies to Excess

Redbook Caught Red-handed Retouching Faith Hill

Doctored Cover Photos Add Up to Controversy

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{ 10 trackbacks }

You Read Women’s Magazines? I’ll Give You Ten Reasons To Stop | MomGrind
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photo retouching thoughts | misspuffycheeks!
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Photo Retouching - Haute Shots Boudoir Photography by Stacie Frazier - Las Vegas
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The Self Esteem Act: Pass it! « BE YOU(tiful)
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Photo Assignment 2 « mettaphotos
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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robin 08.12.08 at 11:17 am

Hi Kelly – the video is amazing.

I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to recover from the magazine images of girls that I looked at when I was a teenager, I think. Especially as it was the days of Twiggy and straight hair, and I am not Twiggy-like and I have wavy hair (or I did till I put it in dreads). I’m not doing too bad these days – it’s not really an issue. I guess education programs like in the video can help with this issue.

Robin’s last blog post..Letting Creativity Just Slip In

2 Evelyn Lim 08.12.08 at 1:32 pm

Hi Kelly, I think it is okay for some photo enhancements but retouching gone too far is a big No No. In the latter case, the photos are made to look so unreal. You’d be left wondering if you are looking at the right person or if this person really exists.

Evelyn Lim’s last blog post..7 Wise Confucius Sayings

3 Vered 08.12.08 at 2:07 pm

The most powerful statement that you make in this post is that these images are just like cartoons – but we don’t view them as such and thus they do have a power over us.

I have no doubt in my mind that being surrounded by these perfect images makes us feel less. Less beautiful, less perfect, less desirable. I sometimes wonder – how do the celebrities feel? The fact that they need all this retouching EVEN AFTER THEY HAVE FULL MAKEUP ON – what does it tell them? That they are not good enough.

Saved for future use (2 daughters!), bookmarked and stumbled. Thank you.

Vered’s last blog post..I Am Watching You

4 Yvonne Eugenio 08.12.08 at 2:31 pm

Hi Kelly,
I’ve spent most of my adult life working for cosmetic companies; and I admit the photoshopping has gone to far! The mascara that I sell to you can not make your lashes look anything like the lashes pictured in the Ad’s, when those lashes have been re-touched. Dream On!

5 Kelly 08.12.08 at 5:33 pm

The video is an eye opener isn’t it? It would be great if they showed this to all teens in schools I think. My youngest sister did MEDIA at school and something like this should definitely be a part of it. Or even HEALTH and P.E

Exactly. The person as we are seeing them doesn’t really exist.

I know. The woman in the video looked amazingly different post make-up anyway, let alone being made into a long necked, power eye-brow Barbie doll

Thanks for dropping in to give us your industry perspective. As someone who spent years in marketing I like to think I can’t be fooled, but even I have to admit I never considered just how many areas of an image are changed to get the “right look”. And I think subconsciously, I do look at a model advertising mascara and think that she has amazing lashes. So, total product deception really.


6 Gunfighter 08.12.08 at 8:15 pm

As the father of daughters, this is a subject dear to me. I try to keep my youngest away from the images that will distort her view of what women look like, or are “supposed” to look like.

It’s all so tragic.

Gunfighter’s last blog post..So, John Edwards… There You Are!

7 Charlie Gilkey 08.13.08 at 12:59 am

I must echo Gunfighter’s conclusion – this is tragic.

The tragedy is that, for the most part, the pictures make the people less beautiful than they really are. Freckles, worry lines, pooches, not quite Barbie forms, and natural colors are all more appealing than the white-washed, not quite real pictures we see here.

That we make the unnatural and unnattainable “beautiful” and the natural and realistic “not beautiful” is only part of the tragedy. The full tragedy is that we know it’s not right yet we internalize it anyways.

Thanks for bringing this up, Kelly.

Charlie Gilkey’s last blog post..Should You Let Your Boss Inside the Box?

8 Urban Panther 08.13.08 at 6:35 am

I remember watching a documentary of Faith Hill. She of the stunning cheek bones and jaw line. In it, to her credit, was a clip of her and Tim shooting some hoops. No make up. And her face is normal and pudgey! Also to Oprah’s credit, she has put pictures of herself in her magazine with zero makeup. This woman’s face is EVERYWHERE, but if you saw her with no makeup you’d walk right past her on the street. Personally I would much rather see women as they truly are. I love the DOVE ads. Ordinary women of all body shapes, sizes and consistencies.

Urban Panther’s last blog post..Don’t tell me I can’t

9 Marelisa 08.13.08 at 7:27 am

This makes me think of the days when they would break the feet of young Japanese girls so they wouldn’t grow. My gym is filled with women with these enormous fake breasts, and I mean enormous (is there such a thing as a triple D?). They don’t even ask for something that looks natural, it clearly looks like they have two plastic beach balls stuck in their chest. I really don’t know what’s wrong with these women. And you know, men don’t expect women to look like that, or at least that’s been my experience.

Marelisa’s last blog post..Six Scientific Ways to Create True Happiness

10 thefightgeek 08.13.08 at 8:23 am

Saw this vid a while back. Both amazing and disturbing.

I’ve got two teenage daughters who are gorgeous just the way they are.I really hope they don’t fall into the whole unrealistic image trap.

Good post.


11 Cath Lawson 08.13.08 at 9:22 am

Hi Kelly – don’t mention eyebrows. I’ve spent almost two years growing mine back after a bad waxing experience, only for some ditzy beautician to wax them away to nothing again a couple of weeks ago.

I’m glad you wrote about this though. I’m sick of the entire industry making young girls feel inadequate because they’re comparing themselves to unreal, touched up magazine pics.

Cath Lawson’s last blog post..Legacies, Links, Bad Ads And Puker Powder

12 Barbara Swafford 08.13.08 at 5:00 pm

Hi Kelly,

I remember when Cindy Crawford made that statement, “Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford in the morning.”. She was sending a strong message to women all over the world. It is sad that young girls and women grow up thinking there’s something wrong with them because they don’t look like the females in magazines. It’s no wonder women have low self esteem and young girls become anorexic. All the more reason for parents to begin building a child’s self esteem early in their life.

After all, who wants to grow up to be an “old” or “seasoned” blogger. BTW: Urbane Lion goes further and used the word “old foggie”. How dare him. I suggested we all get together and gang up on him. :)

Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Blog Visitors – Like Kids In A Candy Store

13 kailani 08.13.08 at 5:58 pm

I remember seeing this when it first came out. The sad thing is that she really didn’t need all that touching up. She looked fine just the way she was. It’s so hard for young women these days when they try to live up to images that don’t exist in real life.

kailani’s last blog post..WW: Ready for My Bath

14 Alex Fayle 08.13.08 at 8:07 pm

Unfortunately instead of getting better for women, it’s getting worse for men. Muscle implants are growing (no pun intended) exponentially as men try to get the perfect body without the 4 hours a day dedication required.

Plus the image that young men see creates unnatural expectations. I had a 12 year old student this year excited about the image he had on his cell phone – a woman so thin (photochopped?) with implants so big I was surprised she didn’t fall forward every time she stood up. And this poor kid had no idea why all women didn’t look like this…

Alex Fayle’s last blog post..Commitment to Growth: Tina Su Interview

15 Kelly 08.13.08 at 11:07 pm

Hi everyone, please forgive me if I am tardy with comments right now. have sick child and masses of work so getting over to SHE-POWER is a bit more of a challenge right now. But I’ll always turn up to speak to you eventually.

Tragic indeed. It’s a hard job to raise girls with a healthy self esteem these days

I completely agree. Whats wrong with freckles and smile lines? Faces with character and life are MORE beautiful than a blank slate, which is what retouching usually does

@Urban panther
When I followed one of those links I shared and saw the before and after shots of Faith Hill, I couldn’t believe they would photoshop such an amazingly beautiful and vibrant woman. And I love it that Oprah lets us see her without make-up occasionally. It makes her seem more human

It is frightenign what soem women will put themselves through to be ‘beautiful’ (NOT) and I agree I have never found men want a certain image of perfection in their arms. Blank barbie doll looks are boring and so not sexy

Thanks for stopping by to comment on tis issue and I really hope your girls are immune to this problem as well

Glad to hear I am not the only eyebrow obsessed person out there. I’ve never waxed my brows as I don’t have enough hair to wax, but I have heard many stories of beauticians getting a little carried away

I always liked Cindy Crawford; she seems like a smart, switched on woman. And yes, Urbane Lion must go down! :)

I thought she was pretty too, particularly once the tonne of make-up and hair saga was finished

Men falling prey to this bullshit doesn’t make it any better either. I would be horrified if my husband said he wanted fake pecs or something. It’s just yucky. And the worrying images we are sending both sexes of our young people mean videos like this should be a part of teen education.


16 Rita 08.14.08 at 12:28 am

As a woman with two almost grown (17 & 20) daughters, this is a VERY important issue to be discussed in general, and with parents of daghters (and, I guess sons, as Alex indicates). I TOTALLY stopped wearing ANY make-up exactly 20 years ago – when my first was born. I didn’t have time to get ready for work, and get her ready for child-care if I started the make-up routine. So I went cold turkey! I wash with plain soap, don’t moisturize, and the only thing I do IS my eyebrows.
Ironically, when my kids see pictures of me before they were born, or I run into people from the past, they tell me that I look “younger” of “haven’t aged.” I much prefer photos of me now – totally unadorned and retouched, and my 17-year-old totally gave up make-up after middle school. When we order school photos now we ONLY order “un-retouched.” I absolutely believe that photos should be au naturel. Given that my job is not based on my looks, I don’t even think about it. And I love it when the camera gets a picture of a celebrity “unadorned.” To me, that’s beauty.
One question – just out of curiosity – why is this post classified under “feminism?” I’m just interested in what your thinking was there…

17 SpaceAgeSage 08.14.08 at 1:43 am

And now this kind of “beauty message” has gone to China and the billions there. The cute, little girl singing at the Opening Ceremony wasn’t singing that song at all. A better singer’s voice was used, but that singer’s body and face wasn’t deemed “perfect” like the other little girl. Sigh.

SpaceAgeSage’s last blog post..In the eye of the beholder …

18 Jay 08.14.08 at 2:49 am

Excellent post! I’ve seen this vid before and it’s little short of tragic, as others have said. I don’t have daughters, and thankfully my sons have grown up with realistic expectations and are quite scathing about this kind of distortion in the media. I feel for anyone trying to raise daughters today with a reasonable self-image. It was bad enough for me in the sixties.

BTW – did you know Sherilyn Fenn was engaged to Johnny Depp for a while? It’s her name he has on his helmet in Platoon. And speaking of Johnny, he is as beautiful in real life as he is on the screen, and yet they STILL retouch his image in magazines. What’s up with that?

Thanks for Stumbling me! I’m adding you to my news feed.

Jay’s last blog post..You know you’re depressed when …

19 Graham Strong 08.14.08 at 5:31 am

I know that this sort of topic is extremely emotionally charged, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone. But I wonder where most would draw the line. Should models not wear make-up? Maybe a little bit, but not much? Should they be forced to put it on themselves, instead of having professional make-up artists apply it? Can a little blemish be Photoshopped out?

Most of us spend at least part of the day making ourselves look good. We choose the photos on our blogs and websites that we think show us in the best light. And many of us don’t want to be seen first thing in the morning before we’ve had a chance to “prepare” (though if I wasn’t married, I’d be interested in finding out just how bad Cindy Crawford looks in the morning…)

It is like nuclear weapons and genetic engineering — everyone is looking for the edge, and the “should we do this” gets pushed aside in favour of the “how do we do this”.

If it were my billboard, with my marketing message, trying to sell my products, I know I’d want that billboard to look as good as possible. Perhaps I as the the client wouldn’t even realize that “as good as possible” means Photoshopping necks and shoulders.

I don’t know. We all want to look our best. Where should we stop?


Graham Strong’s last blog post..Blogging Au Natural

20 Al at 7P 08.14.08 at 10:21 am

I agree with SpaceAgeSage – I was amazed that it was considered acceptable to take the cuter girl to lip sync the original singer. Since the Olympics is the world stage, it was a message sent to the entire world.

Al at 7P’s last blog post..The Hero with a Thousand Jobs

21 Cath Lawson 08.14.08 at 11:10 am

Kelly – I have taken a picture from a distance for your blog. I forgot to put sunglasses on, so I wanted it to be far away not to see the eyebrows. Or the mosquito bite on my forehead, or the terrible pigmentation marks from too much sun on my face. And not forgetting the scar on my face – plus – my hair was a mess as the hairdryer in the hotel was crap, so I left it to dry naturally. Plus, I had to chop my legs out of the pic, as I had heaps of mosquito bites and I’m allergic to them – they looked like giant bedsores. And my kids said I look like a statue.

I think you might need to touch up the photo. Do say if it is no good – I won’t be offended – I’m not good at photos. The local newspaper didn’t like the pics I sent when I wrote an article for them, so I had to send a better one.

Cath Lawson’s last blog post..Are You Blogging Like A Barbie Doll?

22 Kelly 08.14.08 at 6:22 pm

My mum also never wore a lot of make up and she still looks great for her age. I think the natural look does you a lot of favours in the beauty stakes long term.

In terms of the way I categorized this article, ‘Women.Feminism.Beauty’ is one broad category I use and this article definitely fits in it. What feminism means to me is pro-women, pro-choice. A consider anything that endeavors to manipulate women, minimize their worth and keep them in a certain box, where they are judged against an impossible standard, a feminist issue. I think media image retouching has become so extreme and so subtly accepted that we are changing the way women see themselves and each other. So yes, I think my discussion on this issue has feminist relevance.

Thanks for your question and for your comment, Rita.

Kelly :)

23 Kelly 08.14.08 at 6:35 pm

@SpaceAgeSage and Al
That news from the Chinese Olympics is very disturbing, isn’t it? I’m glad they got caught out and I hope it makes people sit and think, “You know, that’s really fucked!” I just hope they poor little girl they dumped doesn’t end up with major issues affecting her self worth from this.

I also hope to bring up my son with a full appreciation for all women’s beauty, that which comes as much from lovely eyes to a great smile to a confident swing of the hips. And Johnny is too perfect for re-touching, I SO agree.

Oh, you make me laugh. Don’t worry, I’ll retouch you. I’ll use a cut and paste of a giant sombrero to cover your face. Will that make you more comfortable? Lol!
Seriously, all I care about is that you bring your wit and your charm to the interview and a photo with a really big smile would be nice, but that’s only if you have one lying around. xx


24 Kelly 08.14.08 at 6:35 pm

You bring up a valid point, but if you choose someone to represent your products or magazine, then shouldn’t their real life best be good enough?

Make up adds to you, but it’s still you under there. Scrubbing out freckles, skin tone and covering up bony hips and elevating breasts for the sake of it is like painting a person, they’re not true to real life at all then. And this no real version is held up as something to aspire to, even though the model, actor in question doesn’t even look like that.

At the re-touching site I link to they have a photo of Kelly Clarkson, singer and ex American Idol winner. In her retouched photo they have completely changed the shape of her body and face and taken probably 10kg off her. If I was her, I’d be pissed because they’re saying the real her is “not good enough” for their magazine. The message here is only one look is acceptable, and any way you look at it Graham that’s a damaging message to spread through society.

Thanks for the comment.

Kelly :)

25 Writer Dad 08.15.08 at 6:31 am

Retouching has definitely gone too far. My wife and I spent like an hour the other night looking at a Rachel Ray magazine, trying to figure out what had been touched up. She looked almost nothing like the adorable girl who used to host $20 a day.

26 Rita 08.15.08 at 10:45 am

I have NEVER done this before, but I’d like to give you a personal invitation to my blog today. I think you’ll better understand why I asked the question I did.

Rita’s last blog post..The FIRST Time I Almost Got Expelled from College

27 Rachel 08.16.08 at 4:38 pm

Digital manipulation in advertising is out of control. Its disgusting really and I wonder how young girls now will ever feel pretty as grown women when they have been raised with completely unrealistic perceptions of beauty.


28 natural 08.21.08 at 4:36 am

of course we should expect some reality in the pictures we see, but it ain’t gonna happen. we, americans, are so tied up with beauty and outer appearance. it’s all about selling stuff, pushing products to make other people rich. makeup – is what it is – made up. photo retouching has gone too far…i don’t believe any picture i see in a magazine as untouched.

natural’s last blog post..Is Your Subscriber Count Showing?

29 Yahor Shumski 08.24.08 at 10:24 pm
30 Fred Campbell 09.08.08 at 2:01 am

Well, things haven’t changed. 30 years ago it was guys in darkrooms and people with airbrushes. 100 years before painters just made their images up to suit their paying clients. The style may have changed, in Ruben’s time pasty girls with fat thighs and huge asses was the ideal. Nothings changed. Just tastes and technology. The rare and unusual is still considered beautiful.

31 Rebenga 09.14.08 at 1:59 am

Yes, it has.

32 Alex 03.25.09 at 8:14 am

The truth is that our photos are usually worse than our reflection in the mirror unless they have been taken by someone like Nigel Barker assisted by a makeup artist, a stylist and a lighting specialist. Every photo needs some primping for color and light correction. A retouching professional can easily convert a so-so photo of you into a great photo of you and these days this service is very affordable. At PhotoHand.com, it will cost you only $3.50/photo – a nice confidence boost at the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

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