When we hear about retouching these days, we mostly hear about the botched jobs and the toxic cultural impact of manipulating the images we see. Lately, we also hear about the brands and publications pushing back against those practices. But most of us don’t know what a retoucher actually does, how they do it, or why retouching exists in the first place. The short answer: It’s not as simple as you think. It’s a complicated mix of common-sense practices, illogical egos, and a fair amount of horror.
We spoke with a woman who’s spent much of her career retouching for several brands — most notably, Victoria’s Secret (who declined to comment for this story). In fact, she still does some retouching today (though she won’t do certain jobs anymore — more on that later). For that and other reasons, we’re not revealing her identity and will be calling her “Sarah.” Though, to be clear, Sarah is eager to share her behind-the-scenes intel with the world. “I know what I'm doing is wrong and that’s a huge part of why I'm not doing it full-time anymore,” she says. She wants us to understand just how unreal the bodies we see are, from head to toe (literally). At the same time, she wants us to understand our own role in propagating these images. “As a society,” she says, “we're the ones who choose this.”
1. Retouching existed long before Photoshop.
Any professional image is going to require some work after the fact — and that’s been the case since before Photoshop existed. It’s not about creating a false image, but showing you the clearest possible version. For example, sometimes the color of a shirt doesn’t translate well when photographed, and the retoucher fixes it to show the accurate shade. It’s such a part of photography that almost anyone who works in this field will also be expected to have retouching skills. Sarah taught herself how to do it while in school for graphic design. “You always start out just learning how to adjust things, just for photography in general,” she adds.
“And just for it to print out properly, you would have to retouch it so that you could see the photo clearly, and it would be bright enough, and all those things,” Sarah explains. “That is really what retouching is essentially about, and should be about.” But at some point, someone realized, “You can manipulate the background, so why not manipulate the body? And then this thing just spiraled out of control.”
2. Body “fixing” starts on set.
During her time with Victoria’s Secret, Sarah often worked on set, seeing all the alterations and special effects that took place long before the editing process.
“The first thing they do is they put in [hair] extensions,” says Sarah. “I don’t think I ever was on a shoot with a model that had real hair.” Next, they throw in “chicken cutlets” and other shaping pads to alter the model’s breast size and body shape. “If you hold up the bathing suit in your own hand, it’s so heavy because they have all this shit sewed into it.”
Perhaps the strangest — yet most obvious — addition is the bra. “They put a push-up bra under the bathing suit. And we retouch out the bra...a lot of [staffers] would complain because they even did it with strapless stuff. When you're wearing a strapless bikini, in no way, shape, or form [can] you have cleavage. It’s physically impossible with the way gravity works.”
Victoria’s Secret wasn’t the only one who pulled this trick, Sarah adds; it was a routine practice. That’s why we’re used to seeing anti-gravity breasts everywhere, and why a swimsuit will never look the same on our bodies as it does on the model’s body. Because it’s barely her body anymore.
3. No one’s [insert any body part] looks like that.
Next comes the digital alteration: The bra gets taken out, and the nipples erased. Sarah was often asked to make breasts rounder, higher, perfectly symmetrical, and of course, larger (“they all have [size] A’s,” she says.)
Breasts are just one of many fixes. There are also subtle corrections we’d never notice or think would need correcting, simply because of what happens to a human body when photographed. “Everyone has blue hands and blue feet,” says Sarah. That’s just the way extremities show up in a picture. Furthermore, everyone’s armpits turn gray on camera. No matter how closely you shave, you’ll have a shadow, she says. And many of the models she worked with didn’t bother even shaving: “They come to these photo shoots and, like, they have their arms up in the classic beach pose, and they have, like, hairy armpits. They all have stubbly pubes — all the normal stuff [non-models have].”
Of course, the best “fix” here would be for brands to leave the stubble in, and for us to get used to seeing stubble. Sarah agrees wholeheartedly, but she points out that we’ve been so conditioned by these standard practices that, “collectively, we don’t even think about it.”
Another standard practice is “adding meat on their bones.” You might assume that retouchers make everyone skinnier, but in fact, “Models are thinner than you actually think they are, and we retouch them to look rounder.” Sarah routinely plumped up butts, hid protruding ribcages, and softened sharp hipbones under digital flesh. “We have to curve them out.”
4. So, why not just hire “curvier” models?
Because they don’t sell. Here’s where the business of beautifying gets even uglier. During Sarah’s time at Victoria’s Secret, “they tried different models and different body types all the time.” Consumers just didn’t respond.
“One time, during a swim season, they had these two girls come in that had abs and thick thighs and busts. They were really toned and their skin was amazing. They were still obviously models. But they were a different look. But, they didn’t sell anything and so they stopped using those girls.”
This is what Sarah means when she says “we’re choosing this” — if consumers responded positively with their dollars to less conventionally shaped models, brands would use them more in imagery.
5. In the end, it’s just about selling.
“The reason people retouch bodies is because they're just trying to sell you something,” says Sarah. Brands reflect the world as we’d like to see it, in order to sell magazines, beauty products, or in this case, swimsuits. That’s why retouching alters everything from waist size to body hair. Even though we know that everyone has pubic hair, “if someone saw a picture of stubbly pubes, they probably wouldn’t buy the thing. They'd be like, ‘This is like a really weird picture. Why would I buy this?’”
We’re used to seeing very specific bodies made even more homogenous with digital fixing — and when we see something different, we notice. Most of the time, when it comes to purchasing habits, that’s a bad thing. Unless you’re completely immune to cultural standards of beauty (and if you are, call us), you’re going to be attracted to sameness and disconcerted by difference.
6. The Aerie Exception
Aerie is the brightest exception to this rule. In 2014, the company launched the Aerie Real campaign (“movement,” as the brand puts it), along with the announcement that it would use a broader range of model sizes going forward, and leave all their photos absolutely un-retouched. Aerie's had great success with this model, and therefore invested more and more into developing it. And while this is a success we can all celebrate, Sarah points out that it wasn’t done out of the kindness of their hearts.
“They did it because they wanted to see if it would sell,” says Sarah. “They didn’t do it to make a statement. They didn’t do it to make people feel good. They wanted to do it to see if it would sell, and it did. So then they kept doing it.”
Unlike Victoria’s Secret, quietly testing different body types, Aerie went big, making body positivity the very ethos of the brand. It was a risk, but it paid off. Now Aerie is the most visible leader in the anti-retouching movement. “No retouching is not just a campaign for us anymore,” says Jen Foyle, Aerie’s global brand president. “It’s become our mindset and the message behind all we do.”
But, really, that success is ours — the consumers’ — as well. And it’s up to us to keep the momentum going: “When you see things like that pop up, you should vote your money towards it, because then they see it as a money-making thing and they’ll continue to do it,” says Sarah. “Then, hopefully, other companies will say, ‘Aerie is doing really well. Maybe we'll start doing that, too. Maybe people will want to buy more stuff from us.’”
7. It’s not just one industry. It’s all of them.
It would be easy to pin the problem on mainstream women’s apparel brands, but Sarah points out that photo manipulation has become a daily presence — if not practice — in most areas of our lives.
Take Instagram, for example. “Just a reminder, fitspo pictures aren't a real thing,” says Sarah. Even when they’re not retouched (which she says they often are), Sarah points out that they’re using the same lighting and posing tricks used on a professional shoot. “And, when you're manipulating the light and the camera angle like that, that’s technically retouching, because you're manipulating something to look as if it's something it's really, truly not in real life.”
And just as straight-size models get plumped up, plus-size models get slimmed and smoothed. “Anything to make [them] look delicate,” says Sarah. Not just waists, but wrists and ankles are taken in. “They make the neck more narrow because that is a very female, delicate thing to have.”
Even worse, child models are subjected to the same manipulations. “I won't do little kids, because little-kid stuff gets kind of weird,” she adds. “They're like, ‘Can you make this 9-year-old look less tired?’”
It seems extreme, but it’s utterly standard.
8. Sometimes “fixing” is really “swapping.”
In light of that, it’s no surprise that when Photoshop fails, body-swapping begins. In February, Lena Dunham called out Spanish magazine Tentaciones for putting a photo of her on the cover, which appeared to be heavily retouched. “It's a weird feeling to see a photo and not know if it's your own body anymore,” Dunham said. Sometimes, across the industry, retouchers cross the line from editing bodies to actually substituting them.
“There's a lot of the switching bodies up,” says Sarah. She gives a common example: “‘Can you change these arms with a different girl's arms, because her arms are making it look like she's, like, picking her butt’ — or something.” Awkward gestures are often fixed this way. “A lot of the time, retouching isn't about trying to make a body look ideal, but also to avoid criticism of the image.”
9. Some things are changing — and some may never change.
Sarah now has a full-time job in another part of the industry. While she still does some freelance retouching, she turns down a lot of gigs depending on what they ask of her.
“I won't take in waists anymore. I refuse to do that,” she says. She’s alarmed by the growing trend of waist-training and simply doesn’t want to promote the idea that everyone has an hourglass shape. Another thing she won’t do? Teeth and eyeball whitening. “Nobody has really white eyes” she says. “And every company wants that because they think it looks brighter, but I think it looks really crazy.”
Still, there are some standard practices she doesn’t see leaving anytime soon. Just as nearly every model has acne, cellulite, and stretch marks (Sarah's reminder: “You don’t get 6 feet tall during puberty without having stretch marks.”), every retoucher knows to remove them. Sarah gives high praise to brands like Aerie for leaving everything in, adding that seeing cellulite in an ad doesn’t turn her off — but recognizing that hers is not a common perspective. If cellulite removal is ever totally eliminated, “I think that'll probably be the last thing to go.”
For now, she’s okay with taking out acne and stubble, while making efforts to share the behind-the-scenes truth with whomever will listen. She says she gets fewer requests for dramatic reshaping than she once did, and “the whole boob thing has kind of gone away.” Most of her clients ask for her to lift them a bit, “which is, like, okay. It's not the worst thing in the world. I'm not copying and pasting boobs. At least I'm not doing that. I'll take it.”
While Sarah’s glad to see pushback within her industry, she knows that the bigger battle is changing consumer hearts and minds — even her own. “I ordered a Victoria's Secret swimsuit this summer. And then I got it and, of course, it wasn’t as cute as in the photo. I'm the one retouching this stuff and I'm still not immune to marketing. It's incredible.”