I’ve been working as a professional retoucher for many years. Now I mostly work on fashion and beauty ads, but I’ve done everything, including product and car ads. With fashion work, I don’t do a lot of distortion of women’s bodies, which I think is terrible. I have been asked to slim down a waist or make the legs a little skinnier, but not anything too crazy. There is a lot of body distortion, and sometimes directions — and they always come from art directors, retouchers never make these calls on their own — get me upset, but it hasn’t been that bad for me. I think if I worked in a position where it was that bad, it would probably upset me that much that I would leave.
I think that overly retouched or distorted model is a horrible image to show young girls, especially in a publication like Teen Vogue, so I support [the campaign against it]. You can never have no retouching across the board, because some of it you just have to do if something’s really distracting in a picture. But if people are calling attention to distorted bodies, it’s good. At least when an art director tells you, can you slim down this waist? it might become not such a normal thing anymore.
But I think the suggestion that images come with a disclaimer warning people they’ve been retouched is a little ridiculous. There’s just no way an image would be released without any retouching at all so every single ad would have that disclaimer on it. And absolutely 100 percent of what’s in fashion magazines is retouched. With fashion itself, sometimes the clothes are not fitting the way they’re supposed to. They’re always pinned in the back, for example, and then the wrinkles are taken out with retouching. So the clothes are kind of a lie, too. Nothing is going to fit that perfectly when you try it on.
There are probably more ads that are being retouched than magazine fashion shoots. Ninety percent of Vogue is ads so the complaints should also really go to the ad agencies. And nobody would really know who those ad agencies were unless they looked up who had what clients. But also their boss is the actual clients. If Chanel or some company like that is telling their art director what they want fixed, they’re responsible for retouching as well.
Sometimes people don’t realize that models choose that career and they succeed for a reason. They have been genetically blessed with a fantastic physique and beauty. It is their full-time job to watch what they eat and work out all the time with personal trainers, get spa treatments, etc. They do things to achieve a look that average people don’t have the time or the money (or the genes) to create. So to put all the blame on retouching is probably not fair. There is so much more to retouching than body shaping. It is really about creating a beautiful image that shows the product in the best light (no pun intended).
I work on supermodels, and people are always asking, what do you do to them? We do a lot of skin clean-up to make their skin look perfect, but I don’t do any distortion of their bodies because these girls are really genetically blessed. I have smoothed boniness before — like when models have bones sticking out of their chest, they want that subdued. That’s somewhat common.
Slimming of the waist I would say is also a common instruction on models — not all of them, but it is a common thing just to nudge it in a little bit. If you do too much it looks ridiculous.
The skin is another story: we completely remove veins and freckles and moles and bags under the eyes all the time. We often remove body hair, subdue wrinkles, whiten teeth, pop the eyes. We also smooth kneecaps and veins in the hands and things like that — anything that’s distracting that takes away from the product being featured. If you look at something and the model’s got dark kneecaps with dry skin, your eyes are going to go straight to the knees instead of whatever it is they’re modeling. Or maybe there’s something in the background you have to take out just to make it less distracting. The goal of retouching is to put the emphasis on the thing that’s being sold.
I do work on a lot of cosmetics images, too, and the mascara ads are just ridiculous. They wear false eyelashes, of course, in the photoshoot, and we completely draw the lashes in one by one so it’s just like a forest of eyelashes. That’s like the biggest lie of all — you can’t achieve that.
Even if you don’t touch the body there’s always something on the skin to fix. But also, there’s just the treatment of the color — you pump up the contrast, you make the lighting different. A model’s legs might be a different color than her arms because they weren’t lit as well, so you have to even all that out. These are things you wouldn’t even think about and it’s not distorting or anything like that. These changes just make photos look cleaner and nicer.
People look at my portfolio and they say, “I didn’t realize you retouch models.” I might spend 20 hours retouching a model. And it’s not even just people — cars and products involve heavy retouching too.
Celebrities get retouched a lot more than models. Celebrities have their own photographers and those images get retouched before they even go out anywhere because celebrities don’t want those unretouched photos leaking to the public at any cost. I haven’t done a whole lot of celebrity retouching aside from the ones that are in the ads I’ve worked on, but I have had a few rough-looking ones I had to clean up quite a bit.
I check out that site Photoshop Disasters from time to time, and sometimes I see stuff that’s not a real error. Because these models, they have such crazy bodies that sometimes it’s not a Photoshop Disaster — sometimes they’re that skinny or whatever it is. Sometimes errors are really bad — like a model missing a limb. That’s a quality control issue — there’s some sloppy retoucher and nobody checks it. I don’t know how those things get through.
But retouchers do things like cut out a head from one photo and put it on the body from another. I do that kind of stuff all the time. Let’s say they do a photoshoot with a model and the body comes out well, but she’s got a wonky look on her face. They might want to put this head on that body. Or they want to put an arm from one photo on the body of another — that’s common.
I have an art background and I’m good at drawing. People with really good Photoshop skills are usually really good illustrators. If you can tell what’s been retouched in a photo then the retoucher did a terrible job. The difference between good retouching and bad retouching is that bad retouching looks airbrushed — totally smooth and fake. Good retouching is when you take out all the imperfections but maintain the texture of the skin and it doesn’t look retouched.
I wish everybody knew everything was retouched. I wish young girls wouldn’t look at things and say, wow, her skin is so perfect, there are no pores, no pimples, no freckles — I want my skin to be like that. It’s not possible. The skin retouching and smoothing is the most deceiving thing, but if we stopped doing that now, you’d flip through your magazine and say, oh my God, honey you need to put on some makeup. To stop doing it now would be so noticeable.
—As told to Amy Odell.
Do you have a job you want to talk to us about anonymously? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org