Have you seen the un-retouched W cover photo of Brad Pitt? How about Jessica Simpson for Marie Claire? Or maybe you’ve heard about Cindy Crawford’s viral Photoshop-free photo from a 2013 photoshoot for Marie Claire Mexico?
It’s no secret that most companies use Photoshop or other retouching methods on their models, but why is it considered so revolutionary when photos are not altered? Is it really that big of a deal to alter photos of models?
An abundance of research says yes.
Jean Kilbourne has dedicated the last 40 years of her life to studying the effects of media and advertising on body image. Through a series of articles, lectures, and films, Kilbourne has been communicating about the detrimental affects of these altered images:
“It’s not just that we see these images once, or twice, or even a hundred times. They stay with us and we process them mostly subconsciously… [They create] an environment that surround us with unhealthy images and that constantly sacrifices our heath and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit.
Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.”
Although much of her work has been directed at researching the negative affects on women, Kilbourne’s research also delves into what it means for men. Take the Justin Bieber Photoshop debacle from last month or the fact that by the age of 10, 22% of boys say how their bodies look is their number one worry. Photoshopping may feel like a gendered issue, but it’s a universal truth that many people—regardless of gender—feel unable to live up to the binary standards of Photoshopped images.
Why should we, as consumers, care about this altered advertising? Because the statistics for negative body images continue to be staggering:
- Forty-two percent of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner.
- Fifty three percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.
- Thirty percent of high school girls and 16 percent of high school boys suffer from disordered eating.
- By the time they’re 17, girls have seen 250,000 TV commercials telling them they should be aspire to be a sex object or have a body size they can never achieve.
- Seventy eight percent of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.
- 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day
Is it entirely the fault of Photoshopped ads that so many young people and adults have negative body images? No. Is it empowering and self-esteem building to see “real” people with all their “imperfections” embraced out in the open? Absolutely.
In the eleven years since Dove launched its groundbreaking (albeit flawed) “Real Beauty” Campaign, these four companies have followed suit in encouraging and embracing natural beauty:
If you head over to the Modcloth website right now, you’ll see a banner featuring women of all different sizes and ethnicities in similar polka-dotted bathing suits. Above their heads, it reads “Our employees prove swimsuit confidence is for every body.”
Modcloth is the most recent well-known company to embrace beauty in all unaltered shapes and sizes by signing the Truth in Advertising Heroes Pledge. Citing company-wide frustration with overly Photoshopped advertisements, Modcloth has agreed to the following:
- To do their best not to change the shape, size, proportion, color and/or remove/enhance the physical features, of the people in our ads in post-production
- To be honest about ads that are materially Photoshopped, by adding a “Truth in Advertising” label to these ads.
- Not to run Photoshopped ads in media where children under 13 might see them.
It’s worth noting that “materially change” means they will not change a person’s shape, size, proportion, color, or otherwise alter individual features. Make a blue sky clearer, clean up a fly-away hair, fix a dog’s smile? A-OK. With this move, Modcloth is stating that Photoshop isn’t the problem—the responsibility lies with the company and the people behind the computer.
2. Seventeen Magazine
Seventeen Magazine stopped Photoshopping their models back in 2012 when Julia Bluhm, a 14 year old from Maine, organized a petition with over 84,000 signatures that demanded at least one unaltered photo spread per issue.
She won, and then some. Seventeen Magazine responded by pledging not to digitally alter body sizes or face shapes of young women featured in its editorial pages. This promise came with an editorial note from Seventeen’s then editor-in-chief Ann Shoket, including an eight-point Body Peace Treaty promising not to alter natural shapes and include only images of “real girls and models who are healthy.” Shoket further wrote:
“While we work hard behind the scenes to make sure we’re being authentic, your notes made me realize that it was time for us to be more public about our commitment.”
The magazine also promised greater transparency surrounding its photo shoots, showing what goes into the shoots on the magazine’s Tumblr.
In the spring of 2014, Aerie launched “Aerie Real”, featuring completely un-retouched lingerie models. The results? Beautiful models…with tattoos, freckles, beauty marks, and scars that would normally never make it into advertising campaigns.
A look at their website today features an #AerieReal hashtag and this mantra:
“Some girls wear makeup. Some girls don’t. Some girls wear pushup bras & some just won’t. Lots of girls live in heels & others in flats. Long hair, blue hair or maybe none of that. No matter your choices, let’s be clear, You won’t find retouching on any girl here. Simply stated, we made a deal. Trends may come and go but We Will Always Be Aerie Real.”
The models are still young, gorgeous, and thin, but their “imperfections” are clearly on display, too. Aerie brand representative Jenny Altman explained in an interview:
“They are still models, they’re still gorgeous… they just look a little more like the rest of us. We hope by embracing this that real girls everywhere will start to embrace their own beauty.”
4. Darling Magazine
This independent magazine for adult women launched their “Real Not Retouched” campaign in print and on social media with the release of their Fall 2014 issue. Since then, the campaign has taken off with support from celebrities and thousands of Instagram photos posted with the #RealNotRetouched hashtag.
The magazine states their commitment to:
“Live out the Darling mission to never digitally alter a women and to challenge other publications to follow suit…let’s deliberately choose to notice beauty in ourselves and call out the same in those around us.”
Their website further outlines their stance on unaltered beauty, with a list of things that make them different from most magazines including promoting respect for women’s bodies in fashion and photography and never using Photostop to alter women’s faces or bodies. The magazine itself stands as a serious competitor to most mainstream print magazines, and with a combination of body positivity and solid magazine content, what’s not to love?
There’s clearly a movement that’s gaining momentum here, but I can’t help but notice all four of these companies are geared towards women. What about men? What about people outside the gender binary? Matt Wetsel, a disordered eating survivor and activist, wrote in a February 2015 blog post about the difficulties in finding recovery programs and helpful literature as a male. Wetsel wrote:
“I got turned away initially from the group therapy which played an integral role in my recovery—the only one my school offered—because I wasn’t a woman.”
As consumers, we have the choice to support companies that promote positive body images. Who knows? Maybe in a few years, unaltered photos will be the norm. What we need next is a company for men (or one that isn’t gendered at all) to take the first step and refuse Photoshop.
Hopefully the understanding that unrealistic body ideals affect all genders will help advertising become more gender-inclusive, too. If we feel less media pressure to fit binary ideas of “perfection,” maybe more people of all genders will feel comfortable being themselves.
Amanda Oliver is a freelance writer, librarian, and frequent traveler. Currently all of her belongings fit into one suitcase. Visit her website, or follow her on Twitter: @aelaineo.