After receiving her Art History degree from Wellesley College in the late ’90s, Eunice Gomes headed to the Big Apple in search of a career that would put her creative skills to work. She landed in the fashion world, carving out a place for herself in the nascent field of digital retouching. Using newly developed Photoshop software, she edited images for brands like Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, and Ralph Lauren, and photo spreads for magazines like Vanity Fair, Allure, and Glamour.
Gomes has mastered the craft of perfecting light and color, erasing blemishes and, even, at times, reshaping models’ bodies. “About 10 years ago, there was a lot of pressure on retouchers from creative directors to make very thin models look even thinner,” she recalls. “We used liquefying and trimming tools to make models look long and lean, but also anatomically correct. We definitely made necks and legs longer, trimmed waists and calves, and narrowed arms. I am so glad that the worst of that is over.”
The tide began to turn around 2007 when organizations began battling the fashion industry’s Photoshopping practices. In 2010, Dartmouth computer science professor Hany Farid created software to expose how much a photo has been manipulated. In 2011, the American Medical Association released findings showing that the alteration of photographs in advertising to enhance models’ bodies was linked to eating disorders; a year later the Agency for Healthcare Research also noted that there was a 119% rise in hospitalizations for eating disorders among children during the years when Photoshopping became widespread. Meanwhile the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority banned ads featuring Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington for being too airbrushed.
Finally, in 2012, a tipping point: 14-year-old Julia Bluhm gathered 84,000 signatures on a petition to demand that Seventeen magazine include one unretouched photo spread in each issue. (Seventeen’s editor in chief complied.) And the fight continues: just this year, The Brave Girls Alliance launched a campaign asking companies not to alter the shape, size, proportion or color of models in ads; ModCloth was the first brand to pledge.
In many ways, this dogged anti-Photoshopping campaign has worked. Fashion labels are aware that their advertising practices are being scrutinized and many are rethinking their approach. Peter Kim, founder and CEO of Hudson Jeans, tells me he felt compelled to change his company’s retouching practices in a crisis of conscience. “I realized that Photoshopping had become about much more than just enhancing the artistic value of the pictures, but it was butchering and carving up the body until it is not human anymore,” he says. “I started feeling an enormous amount of guilt because this is something we’ve done as a company. The consequences are massive: it attacks the core of people’s self-worth. I am particularly aware of how it disproportionately affects young women, since I have two young girls.” Hudson Jeans has just launched a #ShushTheBrush advertising campaign to highlight it’s move away from excessive retouching.
While Gomes supports this feminist sentiment, she also makes the case that the emphasis on Photoshopping is sort of besides the point. Retouching itself is a valuable and necessary tool in photography: it can be used to misrepresent bodies, but it can just as easily be used to make bodies look more like themselves by correcting the color or light distortions from the photoshoot. Gomes points out that the anti-Photoshopping movement tackles one symptom of the problem, but not the cause. In fact, the narrow focus on retouching might be a distraction from other important issues at the heart of the fashion industry, such as using models that are predominantly young, white, and, yes, skinny.
Gomes is not alone in wanting to move the conversation beyond Photoshop. The lifestyle site SheKnows recently reframed the discussion about unrealistic beauty standards to encompass all the ways that images misrepresent women. In a survey released earlier this month, SheKnows discovered that female consumers want brands to use models of diverse ethnicities, body types, and ages. Respondents said they wanted brands to go beyond photos of women as sex symbols and to portray them as intelligent, career-focused, and powerful.
One of the most important insights from the SheKnows study is that positive advertising can drive sales: 52% of those polled said they had bought a product and 46% had followed a brand on social media based on how positively its ads had presented women. “Or course, it’s easy to pay lip service to the idea that we should use accessible, inclusive images, but what companies want to know is does this drive product? We don’t want to suggest an approach that will be ineffective,” says Samantha Skey, SMO of SheKnows.
And companies appear to be picking up on consumer preferences: brands like Nike, Hanes, Pantene, and Playtex were highlighted for increasingly representing women in realistic terms. The brands winning consumers over have a multi-pronged approach to taking on the industry’s beauty standards. Take ModCloth, for instance. It has taken the lead in signing the “Heroes Pledge for Advertisers” which limits the use of Photoshopping in ads, but this is far less radical than it’s policy of only using real women–not professional models–in all of its advertising. “Some community members that we have asked for model for us have gone on to sign contracts with modeling agencies and we’ve stopped working with them, although we wish them the best,” says Danielle Bouchette, photo director at ModCloth. “We’re committed to using a diversity of body shapes, not just blaming it all on Photoshop as an evil tool.”
From it’s launch in 2002, ModCloth chose to define itself as an accessible brand and this approach has paid off: it has been growing at a rate of 40% annually and made $100 million in sales last year. While the company’s founders have chosen this approach for feminist reasons, it also makes good business sense. Through gathering customer insights, ModCloth has found that it’s shoppers overwhelmingly prefer images with little to no retouching. The company recently commissioned a survey of 1,500 female consumers and found that nearly half feel excluded by the fashion industry. (These figures were drastically higher for plus-size women.) On the other hand, the majority of respondents were more likely to buy from brands that use models of varying sizes, ethnicities, and heights.
While the anti-Photoshopping movement is not sufficient to change the fashion industry’s standards, at it’s most effective, it has prompted companies to think more holistically about their entire approach to beauty and engage in a broader conversation about how things need to change. This appears to have happened with Aerie, American Eagle Outfitter’s lingerie brand. At the start of 2014, Aerie launched the Real campaign in which none of the models were retouched. “The campaign created a buzz,” says Jennifer Foyle, Aerie’s CMO. “Young women started sending us their stories and we’re bringing them to life on our social channels. It has also generated so much enthusiasm internally, on my team.”
Foyle is keen to build on this momentum by finding other ways to up women’s self esteem. As a first step, she’s reached out to Megan Grassell, a teenager who started a bra company called Yellowberry that targets tweens. Grassell decided something need to be done after taking her 13-year-old sister bra shopping last year only to find that existing products made for young girls were all hyper-sexualized. “I was appalled by the options that my sister had,” she tells me. “There were molded cups, underwire and padded push-up bras that promised you could go up two sizes if you wore them. It was so clear to me that I could not let my sister wear any of this. I wanted to create a bra company that celebrates the fact that those years do not need to be rushed.”
After launching a successful Kickstarter campaign, Grassell started manufacturing fun, age-appropriate bras that have been wildly popular.
Grassell is thrilled that Foyle has come knocking, proposing that Aerie and Yellowberry collaborate on a bra collection specifically designed for tweens that will be surrounded by empowering, body-positive messaging. The collection is set to launch in the next few months. (“Psyched is a very small word to describe how I’m feeling right now,” she says.) She’d been closely following the Aerie Real campaign and it is one reason that she is proud to align her products with Aerie’s. Foyle, for her part, has seen how powerful body positive advertising can be in spreading brand awareness. So, ultimately, Aerie’s anti-Photoshopping stance has paved the way for much broader change. “It’s so refreshing to see women on ads who have scars or cellulite; it is such an important social message that women can have imperfections and still be considered beautiful,” Grassell says. “It goes a long way to generating a positive body image, especially among teenage girls.”