Who is to blame for the proliferation of very unnecessary, glaringly obvious, and excessive use of Photoshop in modern media? Certainly not the retouchers, who are just doing their jobs. Maybe the editors, who demand impossibly high standards of their models. Certainly we, the viewer, to some extent, who flinch and scrutinize the slightest sign of a wrinkle and scream, "Baby bump!" when it's really just a totally normal, post-Chipotle situation. The fault is widespread, and at this point, maybe irrelevant. The interesting thing about it is the unwitting commentary those missing legs and flawless faces and impossibly slim waistlines offer about our society's standards of beauty and the way that content creators attempt to both push and adhere to those boundaries.
If you think about it, it makes sense. When there is so much competition — not only among celebrities but among their many print and digital mouthpieces — whichever cover is the most ridiculously perfect and beautiful is most likely to catch the reader's eye. But, ridiculously perfect and beautiful can mean many things. It can mean Kerry Washington or Jessica Chastain, whose everyday existence seems to emanate an angelic light that can, presumably, heal the ailments of small children and bring peace to all the people of the world. It can also mean anonymous models whose already long, lanky, waif-like bodies have been airbrushed to the edge of the uncanny valley. In one instance, "ridiculous" is a term of endearment and a joke; in the other, it's all too serious.
We have to wonder if some of this is due to a lack of perspective. It's like when you keep saying a word over and over again and it starts to lose meaning. If you scrutinize a raw image too harshly, tiny flaws and normal proportions will start to look monumentally off. And, when you try to fix it, the result is...well, we've all seen it. Undoubtedly, some of the blame is due to people's enthusiasm to criticize stars for physical flaws they would never notice on regular people. We got to talking and asked our senior photo editor, Christy Kurtz, for her thoughts on the issue itself and the process that goes into it.
Here at R29, we do retouch photos, but very minimally. While we want, for example, our hair DIYs to look aspirational and appealing, we also want our models (be they regular girls or professionals) to look approachable and realistic. Says Kurtz, "In our terms, which I think is less than what most people do, we want someone to look their best — but their best self. We want skin, we want imperfections, but we want to have them look as good as humanly possible." But, sometimes, retouching is part of an aesthetic, and it can even be a creative endeavor, as Vogue claimed about last year's controversial September cover featuring Lady Gaga. "I do think retouching and obviously digital manipulation can be an art form. But there's a difference between an inspirational fashion spread and something that's being presented as real people. In [the case of Lady Gaga], it's presented in a realsitic way." But sometimes it's not that simple. "It goes into a gray area between artistic and documentary photography. They're not presenting this as documentary, either," Kurtz explains. "That's not necessarily her dress or how she wears her hair most days. There aren't always clear distinctions between an editorial feature and a true-to-life portrait."
So, it's true that often, the best part of fashion editorials is the fantastical nature of it all. It's not supposed to look real, and while a more everyday presentation is in line with our aesthetic, it doesn't necessarily make sense to hold other publications to the same standard. At the same time, though, some of these 16 examples we've collected go beyond just creative fantasy and veer into misrepresentation. Weigh in with your thoughts, below.