How to fight back against the excessive Photoshop that’s bad for body image

Fake photos are everywhere.
Image: Christopher Mineses/Mashable

When Sarah Krasley Kickstarted her customizable bathing suit line, she faced an ethical dilemma: should she Photoshop her models if her company mission was to make women feel more comfortable in swimwear? She went searching for some guidance online, but came up short.

That’s when the idea for the Retouchers Accord was born. What if she could get retouchers, photographers, designers, brands, celebrities and media companies to follow a code of ethics for altering images? She put together a board, a website, social media accounts and strategy sessions to suss out a pledge and all the while, in the background, new complaints about excessive photoshopping kept exploding on social media.

It seemed as if the time was ripe for change. But a big hurdle remained.

“We heard a lot of folks in retouching and styling saying this is never gonna work. You cant tell a client not to retouch the work,” she said.

So how do we get to a point where retouchers can “practice authenticity” and “advance the understanding of healthy body image,” per the oath? It will be up to armies of social media users to keep praising body positive campaigns, consumers buying products from brands that don’t “body sculpt” models in photos, and industry folks raving about how it’s good for business, activists and Retouchers Accord supporters said.

And the stakes are high. Advocacy groups warn of the psychological dangers of seeing a constant stream of perfect bodies that don’t exist. The barrage can contribute to eating disorders and a lack of self worth. Altered images have become so ubiquitous it’s a given that celebrities don’t look anything like what you see in magazines and on film, but even when we know the images aren’t real, a damaging expectation is set.

Krasley’s pledge can’t fix the problem on its own, and it won’t please the most ardent body positive activists, but it can get the ball rolling from the industry’s inside. It’s open to interpretation and focuses on using retouching in an ethical way, not doing away with it completely.

“There arent any guidelines, theres a lot of outcry, we need some organizing principles.”

“We’re looking to help in this moment were in right now. There arent any guidelines, theres a lot of outcry, we need some organizing principles and guidelines to get the industry out of this paralysis of, ‘Oh this problem is too big we dont know what to do,'” she said.

That’s something Dana Suchow can relate to. The body positive activist and founder of dothehotpants.com went viral in 2014 when she posted an article to her fashion blog spotlighting photos she wishes she hadn’t altered. Back then, she couldn’t see a place for fashion and body positivity to coexist. Today, the glimpses are there, but it’s still not mainstream, she said. Everyone’s still feeling around in the dark for a way to make it so.

“Brands are starting to learn they can make money off body positivity, as well, but is Chanel going to be showing cellulite and body hair? Absolutely not. Theyre going to keep requesting [heavy Photoshop] because thats what society wants,” Suchow said.

Photoshop fails have been publicized far and wide like when Gigi Hadid’s arm looked like Inspector Gadget’son the cover of Vogue or when she went knee-less for W. There are far more fails than success stories these days, Krasley said.

“Women are under daily attack, whether you walk by a billboard, you see a magazine, you get something in the mail, you see a popup, you see something on TV, … How do we fight this battle? Its daunting when you try to look at it. I commend Retouchers Accord for beginning to try,” Suchow said.

Even more daunting is that for every retoucher who signs the pledge, there are plenty of others who won’t, said Substantia Jones, a photo activist and founder of the Adipositivity Project, a photo series that proudly puts fat on display.

What’s to stop clients from going elsewhere? You.

“Theyre going to need it to be backed up with dollars, the consumers are gonna rule on this one,” Jones said. That means, if you want the standards to change, you have to buy from brands that strive for realness in their ads and call out ones that don’t.

The final draft of the pledge was finished earlier this month, and it’s clear that early adopters were already on board with body positivity. But the hope is that eventually it won’t be all about preaching to the choir.

“Nobody wants to get left behind, nobody wants to be the one person going too far.”

One retouching agency that’s taken the oath and is a member of the accord’s advisory board, Feather Creative, has had a more natural approach since its founding. They’ll fix lighting and smudged makeup, but extreme retouching isn’t their game.

“Its been pushed to the extremes and now were seeing the industry pull back from that,” Cofounder Linn Edwards said. “When digital photography came on the scene, suddenly anything is possible, the style of retouching went too far, people were too airbrushed, the ability was suddenly there to easily shape somebody … Nobody wants to get left behind, nobody wants to be the one person going too far.”

Some brands are using their stance against Photoshop as a marketing tool. Aerie stopped Photoshopping models the company says the models are completely unretouched in 2014 and by 2016, sales spiked 20%. And Target just came out with a Photoshop-free swimwear campaign, too. In 2014, ModCloth became the first retailer to sign an anti-Photoshop pledge created by girl empowerment advocates Brave Girls Alliance. It goes further than the Retouchers Accord no material alterations unless marked with a “Truth in Advertising” label but only about 40 small retailers have signed it since ModCloth, Nancy Gruver, a Brave Girls Alliance leader said. She’s hopeful that retouchers on the inside can move the needle more.

Krasley is, too. Can retouchers help each other write contracts with policies that avoid awkward conversations about excessive alterations with clients? Can they convince celebrities to only work with retouchers that take the pledge? Can they teach each other authentic retouching techniques? Can they get Adobe involved? Can they get fashion magazines in on this, too?

They’re lofty goals, but Krasley sees potential because a similar, and very successful, pledge already exists in the product design industry.

The Designers Accord, which aims to mainstream sustainability in design practice, launched 10 years ago and now has thousands of members and is taught in design programs.

Valerie Casey, who originally wrote the online manifesto which would become the Designers Accord, is now on Krasley’s board. To thrive, Retouchers Accord members will need to articulate how they can make their clients more successful, Casey said.

“That was the key to the success of the Designers Accord we werent the conscience for our clients, we were their competitive advantage,” Casey said.

But Krasley thinks it can go one step further.

“I hope the public outcry makes it so this isnt a competitive advantage any more, this is just something you need to do, like youre a weird outlier if you don’t.”

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