The Debate Over Photo Retouching of Models

I regularly encounter critique after critique regarding the ethics of photo retouching. It’s the latest craze, it seems. “Photoshoping” (When did the noun become a verb?), as it has become known, has turned into a controversial hot-button. A controversy that fosters concerns about the ethics of photo retouching in the media. That it’s wrong/unethical to manipulate a photograph of a person, celebrity or model to distort reality. The photo then, becomes a lie and it deceives the public goes the argument. From Kim Kardashian to Lena Dunham, this battle has become the rage.

Now I know that this critique is motivated by the interest in policing companies that perpetuate the body shaming so many women are subjected to. This debate has done a lot to get the message out that real women are beautiful. Which is why you could look at the “controversy” in an entirely different way. It is also argued that these “unrealistic” retouched women create a false message; a lie that the manufactures create.

Bottom line, we all know anyone who appears in any magazine or ad has been retouched so if you purchase a copy of a magazine, you’re buying into the fantasy. And beyond that, you don’t have to buy the magazine. Let’s not pretend to be so naive that we blatantly accept all images. Hey, if someone invited me to appear on the cover of a magazine you bet I’d say yes and I’d definitely expect some retouching done to my photo.

While I limit retouching of my fine art images to a minimum, I certainly understand that magazines and advertisers employ retouching to create enhanced perceptions. But I feel too many people want to promote the controversy over retouching and end up becoming the controversy themselves.

What this debate fails to factor in is that, in reality, all products are retouched and enhanced. From automobiles to buildings, from food to liquor, they all use retouching to portray their products in the best light. Would you want to buy a car that looked dingy and dull, and had all manner of reflections showing in the surface? Probably not as much as you’d like to see a bright, sparkly sleek car with a beautiful sunset horizon reflected along its side, enhancing the clean lines of the car. Consumers claim that this practice is deceptive, but the FTC clearly establishes the requirement that a deception must be a “material” one in order for it to be actionable. A material deception is one that depicts the product inaccurately; and the model is not the product.

The irony of all this debate, and what I find laughable, is that the same people who argue against retouching of models and celebrities in magazines and ads, will demand retouching for themselves when the have their family portrait done. “Take out those wrinkles under my eyes and fix my double chin. Oh, and can you thin out my arms so they don’t sag underneath? And my saddlebags, can you get rid of those??” I can’t tell you how often I’m asked to “flatten out my stomach” or “…make my butt a little more shapely.” These are regular people who out of the other side of their face are arguing against “photoshopping” models. Ah, the beauty in irony.