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The ethical responsibility in beauty retouching

I recently had an interview on the ethical responsibility of retouching. I found the experience very moving and very thought-provoking.

In this article, I would like to write down a few of these thoughts. What we see in advertisements and magazines every day feels like reality to people outside of the retouching industry: Impeccable models, even skin, great characters. If the retouching is carried out correctly, the processing won’t be visible — which creates an own reality. This is for many people (especially young people) a dangerous path. To aspire idols seems to be natural, at least until we eventually find our way and pull our thing through.

For young people, this distorted reality (by retouching) can be dangerous.
Liquify” is probably the best example: it can be done in Photoshop with a few clicks and is hard work in “real life”. Overdone retouching far beyond the target idea is either not possible, dangerous, unhealthy, or self-destructive when it is made in the way of unnatural anatomy beyond the reasonable limits of the human body.

We have a significant ethical responsibility in retouching here – and I’m very worried about the future generations.

When we retouch within the limits of doability, I think the world is fine. If someone has the will to follow this (photoshopped) ideal, it is possible to do so through hard work — through extremely hard work. It is possible, even without pathological, self-destructive methods …

In Israel, Photoshop’s use in advertising has been banned. For many, that’s the right approach. I think this is a possible new danger:

The advertising is based on stereotypes; advertising WANTS super-thin models — preferably 1.80 m tall and 90 pounds (45 kg) heavy, dress size under 34. The retoucher supports all this process by streamlining a little here and there, making something else more prominent, and so on …

Cycle of ethical retouching responsibility

This is the usual process in which almost everything influences each other. Advertising determines the ideal of beauty and thus influences the requirements of modeling agencies for their models through photographers and clients. These requirements affect people who have chosen to become a “model” as a career choice or to be part of that industry.

Cycle of ethical retouching responsibility

If the retouching is crossed out of this cycle — what will be the changes?
In the end, nothing will change — only the requirements of the model agencies will be stricter — because the unhealthy-self-destructive-super-thin-anatomy models will get the jobs. For the young people, the argument “This is photoshopped!” can no longer be maintained, and the pursuit of an unhealthy perfection becomes the new reality.

In my opinion — greatly simplified (the interview went over almost 3 hours) — as a retoucher, you have a lot of responsibility and should be aware of it. Unnatural retouching is not only extremely disturbing for me; I think it is dangerous. Be careful and pay attention to the anatomy of humans, learn as much as possible, and consider what shadows are essential, which body parts may be deformed and which wrinkles to keep.

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Retouching relevance of footage

Almost every one of us is seeking a change of one kind or another. Being thinner, firmer, smoother, better trained, or simply a different look — beauty is at its peak. Photographers and retouchers apply this analogously to the digital image: A flawless appearance of the image becomes the goal. The discrepancy between the beauty of the recipient and the medially ideal of advertising is increasingly emphasized by retouching.

When does retouching starts?

The question of where exactly image manipulation starts is difficult to answer since some decisions, for example, the choice of a suitable camera, the lens, the light filter, the light conditions, the image crop, etc. are taken at the moment of the acquisition. Also, the choice of color (schemes), accessories, make-up artist, stylist, and model decision takes place. After selecting the technical and personal parameters, the models are prepared according to a conceptual ideal in a complex and several hours process. They get professional makeup,  hair, and excellent styling.
Timeconsuming or impossible changes, lacking quality elements or flaws, are perfected in post-production. The mediale beauty is considered as a result of an appropriate staging – for example, by the right lighting – and the use of digital retouching techniques. So these are artificial situations that are optimized to the respective advertising goals and for the consumer to be as realistic and desirable as possible.

Rule of suppression

To achieve a positive effect on the target group of advertising, fade-out and fade-in mechanisms are used, which have led to the designation of advertisement as a distorted mirror (Wiles, Wiles & Tjernlund, 1996, cited by Gartmann, 2008, p. 12). Accordingly, everything in the picture that could have a negative effect on the consumer is not displayed, and everything that appears conducive to positive emotions is displayed (Schnierer, 1999, cited by Gartmann, 2008, p. 12; Gläßel, 2010, p. 15). Image processing serves additional emotionalization by first creating emotional attention and then the emotional attachment (Pleiner, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 46). The influence of advertising on the consumer is even more significant and more effective when he/she is in a passive, experiencing, and enjoyable mood, which is more likely the more beautiful the image is (Buddemeier, 1987, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 23 ). This passive attitude leads to an uncritical examination of the visual image impressions intended by the advertisers (Behrens, 1976, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 23).

Natural optimization

The question is: To which extent are retouching and naturalness mutually exclusive?
A natural appearance is characterized by the fact that not everything is completely retouched. Still, small deviations from the ideal of beauty, e.g., wrinkles, tooth gaps, freckles, or a fuller figure, remain preserved. An immaculate appearance, on the other hand, is defined as having a perfect correspondence of the ideal of beauty (Jäckel et al., 2009, p. 40). However, it depends on the image type and purpose of how much retouching will be done. So one differentiates already between portrait and beauty images. For example, if it’s a beauty shot with a product, the model is just an accessory. For jewelry, for example, the model is the holding frame for the piece of jewelry. Accordingly, the retouching is adapted to this type of image: The model is exchangeable, all personal characteristics, such as birthmarks, are removed. Differently, one proceeds with celebrities, thus prominent persons, whose occurrence is known and with whose reputation and recognition value the product is sold. The basics of any retouching, however, are things that can not be done while photographing, such as the setting of light for bones, temporary skin problems, dust and make-up marks, gloss corrections, peach fuzz, small protruding hairs to the taming of the main hair, slight color differences, which are also due to the differences in the pigments.

In some cases, body shadows or body shapes are adjusted. In the last case, it depends on the knowledge and style of the retoucher. Such body changes are continuously made. Until it is altered in a realistic, discreet amount, it is not necessarily bad.

Criteria of quality

Each retoucher sets his own rules and regulations to be able to deliver good work continuously. Within a set of rules should be the technical perfection, because the retouching should leave no trace. The viewer should never get the feeling that the image has more natural. If the viewer gets the feel of the image being edited, he will start looking for mistakes and will find them.

Amount of shape/body retouching

Due to the latest developments in technology, the question is, to which extent is it possible to alter the image? An intense retouching of the silhouette of a model does not take place without traces and thus works against the mentioned quality criteria. At a certain level where photography does not correspond 100% to the optimum, one has to save the image, and the price is that the result is not credibly anymore. Our perception can unmask very quickly what looks real and what is strange or unreal. Therefore, in high-quality advertisements, attention is paid to the smallest details when the raw material is created, so that heavy retouching does not have to take place.

The current trend in retouching

Retouching is an everyday occurrence in today’s advertising world. Already in 2012, there was a trend towards more realistic pictures. It is also changing in magazines to natural retouching.
Many photographers say they do not retouch or very little and experience great successes. It became increasingly important that things are less retouched, more taken out of everyday life scenes (as one can see through the current trend of influencer marketing). This seems to be a new authentic way of bringing products closer to the target audience.
Nevertheless – as our previous investigation of the retouching label shows – there is also the trend for a bit overretouched images, especially with big brands; they may not respond immediately; there will stick to heavily retouched advertisements.
This may have its origin in how Hoffmann (2008) states that young people in principle like to reclaim ‘authentic’ media actors, on the other hand […] They tend to prefer flawless bodies that correspond to the current ideal of beauty in the media (Hoffmann, 2008, p. 1760). As long as there are no significant changes to be made, this market will not, until only slightly, adapt.

Danger of naturalness

But what is the result that can be expected from a more natural retouching? The most critical aspect of digital image manipulation is its goal of creating the viewer’s belief in actual reality: perfect models that are away from reality, are of course, no longer credible. Naturalness is connected to realness. If the advertisement plays with the naturalness, with all the effort that is done to bring naturalness to paper, it is a little more dangerous. It’s easier to identify with something real and more natural to compare.

Sources:

Books:

Conference:

  • Hoffmann, D. (Hrsg.). (2008). Zur alltäglichen Wahrnehmung von Körpern in den Medien und den Konsequenzen für die Selbstakzeptanz von Körper und Sexualität im Jugendalter. Verhandlungen des Deutschen Soziologentages. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag (S. 1754–1764).

Theses:

  • Gartmann, K. (2008). Der Einfluss der werbemedialen Kommunikation weiblicher Schlankheitsideale auf körperbildrelevante Größen der Frau: Eine experimentelle Studie (Dissertation). Universität zu Osnabrück, Osnabrück.

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You are welcome to share this post. We are very grateful for every recommendation.