Pop-tart Jessica Simpson bares all on the May cover of Marie Claire. She isn’t in the buff, but—as the headline blares—the actress-singer has “no makeup, no retouching, no regrets!”
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Seemingly, neither do Kim Kardashian, Joy Bryant nor Amanda de Cadenet, who appear sans retouches or a stitch of clothing in the May issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
They join a growing list of famous beauties, including Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen and Cindy Crawford, all of whom have posed au naturel—with no retouching—in the last year in various magazines.
No longer the paragons of perfection we’re used to seeing gaze vacantly from a glossy cover—all with computer-generated pore-less skin, blindingly white teeth and impossibly lithe figures—the women still look gorgeous. They just look more, well, human. When it comes to beauty, perfection, it seems, is so 2009. As is retouching, the art of altering a picture (for better or for worse), a heretofore accepted industry practice that has come into question of late.
Consider: In September, Self magazine was criticized for over-retouching a cover image of songstress Kelly Clarkson, where inches of her frame were digitally removed. In the end, it was one of the magazine’s worst-selling issues on newsstands for the year.
Consider: In July, a campaign for Olay Definity Eye Illuminator featuring Twiggy caused public stir in the U.K., when people deemed the image (including retouching around the model’s eyes) misleading.
Consider: Outspoken models (think Coco Rocha, Filippa Hamilton and Crystal Renn) have gained accolades—and considerable media attention—by celebrating their fuller figures and pushing body image issues into the public domain.
Although retouching dates back practically to photography’s advent, a confluence of sociocultural factors has made it a talking point today for everyone from editors and image makers to legislators and consumers, driving a dramatic change in the look and feel of some fashion and beauty images, both on the advertising and editorial fronts.
“Postrecession, we are back to a more natural look,” says Joanna Coles, editor in chief of Marie Claire. “There has been a recalibration of people’s attitudes. Those highly retouched pictures, where everything is glossed out to make the person look perfect, look both unrealistic and old fashioned now.”
“People are speaking about retouching more and more for good reason—because they’ve had enough,” agrees Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, a reader in psychology at London Metropolitan University. “There is study after study that shows women, when exposed to unrealistic images, feel bad about themselves.”
The din has reached such levels that a law was proposed in France in September that could require all retouched photos to be labeled as such. Valérie Boyer, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, and some 50 other politicians suggested the law partly to combat what they see as warped images of women’s bodies that encourage eating disorders. The proposed legislation would cover advertising, press photographs, political campaigns, art photography and images on packaging.
Just six weeks later, the U.K.’s Committee of Advertising Practice received a report compiled by more than 40 international academics that demanded a ban on ads featuring digitally altered models targeting girls under 16. The report shows unhealthy behavior in adolescents who are exposed to images of skinny, airbrushed models.
The proposals in France and the U.K. aren’t likely to become law anytime soon, but in March, the Spanish government took a legal stance on body image and advertising when it approved a law prohibiting ads “that promote body culture” from being aired on television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. This includes weight-loss products, some surgical procedures and aesthetic treatments.
While many find the idea of labeling laws insulting to the public’s collective intelligence (says Madonna Badger, chief executive officer of the eponymous advertising and branding firm: “The idea that we have to put disclaimers on retouched images seems absurd in the same way that they didn’t put disclaimers on Greek statues of Diana”), most agree that the quest for perfection has reached its outer limits.
“The objectification of the female form has gone so far that we’re not actually really objectifying it purely anymore. We’re objectifying a fantasy of the female form,” says Papadopoulos.
“What is reality, because of plastic surgery, Botox, collagen fillers and all of those pieces?” questions Badger. “The idea of beauty and the fact that what is considered to be beautiful and what is real are really light-years apart from one another.”
The perpetuation of the fantasy has led to the inevitable backlash—a desire for more realistic images. “Some of the crazy excesses of the last decade are being reined in,” says Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour magazine. “In general, the sort of overretouching that occasionally bordered on butchering seems to be a little less prevalent.
“There’s more of a sense now on everybody’s part— designers, marketers, photographers and the retouchers themselves—that people want to see a little bit of reality,” Leive continues. “They don’t want to see something that is the platonic ideal of the female form. They want to see the female form. That having been said, retouching is obviously incredibly prevalent. The tools are on the desktop of any human with a computer now, so that doesn’t mean everybody can do it well, but everybody can do it. And that’s just added to the prevalence.”
Paradoxically, the very ubiquity of celebrity images— via print and online media—is helping to drive the desire toward more natural images. Credit Us magazine and its “Stars! They’re Just Like Us” section and others of its ilk, which show celebrities in all of their mundane, everyday glory, looking radically different from the perfected images they portray on the covers of fashion or beauty magazines. “The immediacy of the Internet and social networking are the ultimate reality check,” says Charles Decaro, co-founder and co–creative director of Laspata DeCaro creative marketing agency. “Posted images of celebrities at Starbucks are decidedly inconsistent with their airbrushed avatars that appear in print.”
The residual effects of the global economic meltdown are also the primary catalysts driving the backlash against perfection, notes DeCaro. “There is a pervasive air of suspicion that prompts consumers to question purchases from rust removers to fine-line erasers with greater scrutiny,” he says. “Transparency is the bon mot. Does a respective product deliver on a promise or are consumers victim to deceptive overtures?”
That shift has led many in the beauty arena to rethink their approaches to ad campaign visuals. “Communications standards continually change, and our job as communicators is to make sure we continue to focus on the core promise of the product in a way that’s honest and inspirational to our consumers,” says Charlene Sawyers, vice president of brand building for beauty and grooming at Procter & Gamble, who notes the company’s policy on retouching hasn’t altered. “[Retouching is] nonlegit if it overly promises the benefits being delivered and if it strips away the humanity of the talent, the model. What women are seeing very much in advertising today is the personality of the talent coming through.”
Coupled with that is a greater desire on the part of consumers to see diverse definitions of physical beauty. “We’ve coined it ‘the end of ethnicity,’ where it’s no longer just about black, white, yellow, green women, but it’s that blurring that we know is happening everywhere,” says Sawyers. “So the beauty imagery that people are yearning for is very diverse, but it’s in the sense that you can’t exactly pinpoint the ethnicity of the woman. And actually, that is the appeal.”
The demise of the Barbie doll ideal has ushered in a new age of individuality. “There is a premium now on women who just look individual,” says Leive. “Like with the gap in the teeth, the freckles, the hair that does whatever it was born to do rather than being tortured into being stick straight. You could do incredibly glossy, beautiful, glamorized, perfected images of those women, but retaining that sense of quirk and individuality seems to be big and attractive right now.
“What we’ve heard from readers is that they want to see a little authenticity, and so we don’t do the kind of retouching that would offend them,” continues Leive, noting that she has no compunction about making minor changes to photographs. “Readers aren’t objecting to you darkening the sky behind the type so that your white title reads better. They’re objecting to making somebody’s skin more perfect, making their thigh thinner and remaking a size 12 person into a size 2 person. That’s the kind of thing we don’t do.”
Retouching is cursory at Marie Claire, too. “If someone has a spot, or they come in with a cold sore, those things we would get rid of,” says Coles. “But for the most part, we really keep it as light as we can. We do it in the way the reader would on their Facebook picture. We’re not smoothing out someone’s wrinkles completely.”
Despite the aspirational and transformational promises inherent in beauty, presenting a more realistic image makes good business sense. “Images that convey a more realistic vision of beauty may validate a brand’s credibility,” says DeCaro, who worked on Ulta’s current ad campaign, which was photographed outdoors in a natural-light environment that facilitates minimal image retouching. Corresponding “Get the Look” videos on the retailer’s Web site show how consumers can achieve a beauty look, plus see a model before, during and after her makeover.
Of course, retouching a photograph is nothing new; the practice is centuries old. Photo tinting dates back to the 1840s, only about 25 years after Nicéphore Niépce created the first permanent photograph. The earliest example of photo manipulation known by Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth College specializing in digital manipulation and forensics, is from 1860. His favorite old-time altered image is a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln in a regal pose. As it turns out, the image includes Senator John Caldwell Calhoun’s body and Lincoln’s head, muses Farid, adding: “What’s really amazing is how good the fake is. You see stuff today all over the Internet—there are just horrible comparatives.”
In the 1860s, a lot of Civil War photography was altered either by staging or outright image manipulation. From the Thirties through the Fifties, retouching became increasingly widespread, and today it runs the gamut from simple touch-ups to the reassembling of people’s faces and bodies.
“I’ve worked with actresses who have made me take one eye that they thought looked better because it was more open and put it on the other side of their face, as well, so that they looked more even,” says Badger.
Although excesses are easy to identify, finding the perfect balance remains a fine line. In beauty and fashion magazines, says Leive, “you want to see glamour and you want to see beauty and you want to see women looking fabulous, but you also want to feel that those are women just like you—not some alien race of people who were born with flat tummies and toothpick legs.”
And, notes DeCaro: “Beautiful images with an associated emotional connection will always resonate with women. Visuals that are aspirational yet approachable are particularly relevant.”
Plus-size model Renn has firsthand experience. “The point of a photograph is to be aspirational,” she says. “When you hire a model who is a size 12 and make her a 2, there is no point to that—it just feeds into the sick obsession that thin is the only way to attain beauty. On the other hand, it’s not about taking a size 12 and showing rolls to make a point, and sensationalizing. That is fetishizing.”
The debate over retouching raises as many philosophical arguments as it seeks to lay to rest. Photographer Nick Knight says the choice of lens used to take a photo with and the height a camera is operated from create the most profound change to an image. He explains that photography is essentially one frame in a film—that the camera takes an image out of context.
“We’re quite happy to go to the movies and watch any amount of fantasy,” says Knight. “We’ll be happily swept up in the whole thing, and that’s a little bit the area that fashion photography occupies. Fashion photography is the transmitting of and conveying of desires through fantasy. That’s its role, that’s its purpose. It isn’t a record of reality.”
“If you think about photography as being reality, it’s a bit of a twisted view, because it’s one point of view,” agrees Pascal Dangin, the founder and ceo of Box, who’s largely considered the modern-day master of retouching. He points out that even black-and-white photos can be considered unreal, since people see the world in color.
“Photography has never been there to represent reality, but rather to interpret reality,” says Dangin. “So where can we make a definition of being untouched at all? [The image-making process has] always been about an idealization of something. The point of idealization and beautification has always been the same—from early painting to cinema today. We always want to look a little better than we are.”
Only time will tell if the proposed legislation in Europe has a lasting legal impact on the beauty and publishing industries—most experts think it won’t—but it does beg the question of whether art will trump commerce or vice versa. “If photography’s main purpose was really just to show us what’s out there, well, look out the window, because that’s reality,” says Knight. “But photography’s main purpose isn’t that. It’s an art, which allows you to understand somebody else’s opinions.”
For his part, Knight now uses a video camera that can take still and 3-D images from video grabs. To him, other exciting media include film and live broadcasting, like he uses on his site, SHOWstudio.com. “On the horizon, you have fashion sculpture and fashion objects,” he says.
“[Photography] shouldn’t be something we are debating or trying to restrict in this particular way, and that is why this whole concept is so far from the mark,” Knight continues. “I would much rather more women looked at their own image and felt empowered by it, but that’s a whole range of different things that we’ve got to change in our society.”