Retouching in the fashion industry has become so commonplace that it is considered normal. But retouching photos come at a price. As consumers are constantly faced with a barrage of perfect looking models that do not exist in reality an anti-retouching movement has begun to form. Brands that are moving away from retouching photos are finding support from consumers and this is impacting their bottom line.
The Rise of Real Models
Consumers, particularly the millennial demographic embrace truth in advertising. There is a cultural shift away from the heavy retouching that is common practice to more natural looking models with real bodies. This trend is part of a larger movement that places an emphasis on a body positive image and inclusion of different body shapes and sizes. This movement is constantly growing and gaining more support, but it is still not mainstream.
The Rise of Retouching
Digital photography and programs like Photoshop make it possible to alter the appearance of photos. Adobe Photoshop is a software program that was developed in the late 1980’s and released for consumer use in 1990. This software started out as a way to clean up minor issues in a photo file or to create digital artwork. There are competitor programs that do the same or very similar tasks; however Photoshop dominates the field and has transitioned into the preeminent photo editing software.
Retouched images are everywhere. People are being constantly bombarded with images in articles and social media and advertisements. Often the models featured in photos look perfect, but it was through retouching that this impossible level of perfection was obtained. Any blemishes or perceived imperfections were removed to create a flawless look.
Studies have shown that when people are constantly exposed to unrealistic bodies in photos that have been retouched this can lead to eating disorders and lack of self-esteem. This is dangerous because people are aspiring to an impossible and unattainable ideal. Even though it is understood and common knowledge at this point that photos are altered the ramifications are still present. People know they are looking at altered photos, but the imagery still resonates.
Ethics of Retouching
Retouching photos have been an issue that has been spiraling out of control for years. When the practice of digitally editing photos first started, changes were slight. Over time as technology has improved and standards have shifted, the changes can be substantial. Brands are put in a tough position and are faced with the question of whether or not to retouch images. Each brand has to decide how much retouching is too much, and even if any retouching is too much.
Evolution of Change
After facing this dilemma herself, designer Sarah Krasley set out to create guidelines that can be used by everyone in the industry from casting directors to photographers and graphic designers. The result of her work and collaboration is the Retouchers Accord, which sets out to provide a code of ethics around retouching images.
Implementing change is hard at first, but given time new practices will be not only accepted but become normal. Before the Retouchers Accord, there was the Designers Accord. This pledge aimed to integrate sustainability into design practice across all levels. It took several years for it to catch on, but now 10 years later the Designers Accord has thousands of members and the industry standard.
There are multiple examples of photoshop fails. Where the distortion is almost too obvious. From impossibly thin waistlines to impossibly long necks, it is very common to spot an over-enthusiastic attempt at retouching a photo. These unrealistic alterations are emblematic of a bigger problem. Model’s bodies are digitally contorted in ways that do not even resemble the human form. Retouching has gotten so out of hand that the industry does not try to make images look real.
Change Will Be Slow
Companies will continue to do what they think is best for their brand. It is likely retouching will always exist in some form or another. That is fine, some degree of retouching can be beneficial. Extreme retouching has become normal and that is a problem. Change is often slow, but there are some trailblazing brands doing their part. Ultimately, consumers can help speed up the process.
Change is happening within the retail fashion industry as several brands have begun to use real models and stop retouching photos used in their marketing materials. The results are mixed, but overall positive. It is worth noting that some brands have taken an all in approach, while others only feature real models and untouched photos in limited capacities.
Aerie is a sub-brand of American Eagle that sells intimate apparel and lingerie. The brand banned retouching from all of their advertising in 2014. This was a bold move at the time and it was not anticipated. Aerie’s parent brand, American Eagle, earned a reputation for vanity sizing and using perfect looking models in their advertising and in-store displays. Years later Aerie serves as an example of how shunning retouching images can resonate with consumers. Aerie
has experienced consistent and substantial growth and has a loyal legion of followers who are passionate about the use of real women in their marketing.
Lack of Retouching in Swim Suits Campaigns
Both ASOS and Target launched swimsuit campaigns in the spring of 2017 that featured photos free of retouching. Models in the ASOS campaign wore bathing suits while stretchmarks and scars were visible. This is a move that was unheard of for the online British retailer. The ASOS photos sill featured models that were thin and mostly white, so the campaign was not inclusive, but it was a step in the right direction in terms of not retouching photos.
By comparison, the Target photos featured models of a variety of shapes and sizes. All of the images are as shot. This is not the first time the retail giant has promoted body exclusivity and positivity. The campaign is being met with support and encouragement.
Campaigns like the ones from ASOS and Target, as well as everything from Aerie, are not commonplace, but the industry is changing. Target has secured a place in the market where they can promote a body positive message and opt to use photos that have not been retouched. “Target is committed to empowering women to feel confident in what they wear by offering a variety of style choices,” said Jessica Carlson, Target spokesperson. The best way to show this variety of choices is to show a variety of bodies modeling the choices.
Backlash to Real Photos
Retouching photos have become so commonplace that when untouched photos circulate online there is a backlash. When untouched photos of body-positive model Iskra Lawrence made it online, some users shared unflattering comments about her real body. It is alarming that people would criticize a real body, but be accepting of something that is clearly the result of retouching.
Lawrence has been known to use her social media accounts to feature teachable moments about body image and the dangers of retouching photos. “Perfect does NOT exist, so trying to achieve that is unrealistic and editing your pictures will not make you happy,” Lawrence explained in a post. Lawrence continued, “What’s real is YOU, your [sic] imperfectly perfect self. That’s what makes you magical, unique and beautiful.” As a professional model, Lawrence speaks from experience. Early in her career, her photos went through the retouching process. Lawrence contests that she became unrecognizable to herself and she desperately wanted to look like the version of herself that appeared in the photos, even though she knew that version was not real.
Brands Are Reactionary
Brands that have a following are reactionary. It is understandable that brands do not want to rush to take action. Changes may promote growth and be embraced by their loyal followers. Or change can drive customers away. Brands can be hesitant to break away from the status quo and promote change.
Taking a stand against retouching photos is a good public relations move. When a brand announces plans to take a body positive stance either by using plus-size models and/or limiting or completely abandoning retouching photos, this garners interest. Promoting a body positive image can help expand a brand’s reach and substantially grow their business.
An established brand needs to weigh their options and do what they think is in the best interest of their company long term. This may mean saying no to retouching images, but it can also mean continuing to do what they have always done and using altered images.
Many new brands are opting to feature models with real bodies and this is winning over clients. New brands just starting out do not have the loyal followers that established brands have, so this gives them a freedom and flexibility to break away from the industry standard and do what they think is best.
These campaigns from startup brands are also a blow against the larger brands, that continue to use retouching practices. By not aligning their brands with this trend, several retail giants are losing out to new brands that do not have the resources or name recognition.
Economic Implications of Using Natural Models
Findings from MarketWatch suggest that companies using plus-size models and opting to avoid retouching marketing photos see an increase in sales. Brands that exclusively feature thin models and do not carry plus size offerings have reported sales numbers that continue to plummet.
Body Inclusive Brands Appeal to a Wider Audience
Brands that promote inclusivity and feature plus-size models are seeing an increase in sales. This is likely the result of the appeal of the advertising campaigns to consumers. The average American woman is now a size 14. When people see themselves represented in advertising campaigns they are more likely to shop those brands and show their support with their purchasing decisions.
Meredith Rollins, Redbook editor-in-chief succinctly explains, “The bottom line is that 50 percent of American women are a size 14 or above, so that means magazines [that aren’t including plus-size fashion] are willfully ignoring 50 percent of their readership.” Real people have real bodies and when they see advertising that features people with similar bodies it compels them to shop the brand. While brands like Aerie continue to grow and post impressive and always increasing sales numbers. Brands known for heavily retouching images, like Victoria’s Secret continue to decline.
Consumer’s Need to Make a Statement
Change is in the consumer’s hands. It falls to consumers to take a stand and show support for brands that promote body positivity and realistic retouching in their marketing materials. Consumers can show support with their purchasing designs. It falls to the brands to identify when their actions. Such as excessive retouching, as impacting sales and create a solution.
As important as it is to support brands that are doing the right thing. Sometimes consumers may need to call out brands that could be doing better. Social media provides a great platform to engage with brands in a constructive manner. From Photoshop fails to inclusive campaigns free of retouching, consumers have a voice beyond speaking via purchasing decisions.
Future of Retouching in the Fashion Industry
Retouching when done often can seem like the norm. This can cause self-esteem and body insecurity issues. The movement against excessive retouching of photos is gaining momentum. The Retouchers Accord is a clear indication that change is coming. The oath is available and supporters are having a dialog about what it means to retouch images. While many brands are supporting natural bodies in advertising and choosing to avoid retouching images. There are still many brands that do not embrace these changes.