We’ve all seen ads featuring impossibly beautiful people. Most advertising is aspirational: show customers the ideal, the person they want to be — the person they could be, if only they had your product - and motivate them to buy.

But what if “impossibly beautiful” isn’t a metaphor? What if it’s literal?

Well, in an increasing number of countries there are laws about that. If you Photoshop women's bodies, your image may be slapped with a warning label.

Photoshop has changed photography, fashion, and advertising faster than legislation has kept up. In the US, the FTC has been enforcing truth-in-advertising laws for a hundred years (literally: the FTC was formed in 1914), but they have been slow to respond to image retouching.

That’s starting to change. In countries around the world, legislators and regulators are beginning to take action; laws are being passed, like the Photoshop Law in Israel which requires models to be 18.5 BMI and for advertisers to label retouched images. In France, a law that went into effect in October of 2017 requires a "photographie retouchée" label on photos that have been digitally altered to make a model's silhouette narrower or wider; it also requires an every other year health exam for models, to medically certify they are healthy enough to work.

In response, Getty Images (the massive stock photography group) banned "any creative content depicting models whose body shapes have been retouched to make them look thinner or larger," according to an email sent out to all customers and reproduced by PetaPixel. In a follow-up conversation with Digital Photography Review, Getty stated, "It’s important to be clear that altering a model’s body shape as described by the new French law is quite rare in commercial stock photography (it is time consuming and is also against the increasing trend towards more authentic imagery)." More on that trend "towards more authentic imagery" later.

Lawmakers and enforcers are motivated primarily by unrealistic depictions of the female body, and the potential harm retouched images are causing to the self-esteem of impressionable youth. The influential American Medical Association released a statement in 2011 condemning excessive image alteration that included this excerpt:

"The appearance of advertisements with extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image. In one image, a model's waist was slimmed so severely, her head appeared to be wider than her waist," said Dr. McAneny. "We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software."

"We must stop... models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software."

Dr. McAneny, an AMA board member, was referring to the image on the left:

Side by side retouched model

These two Ralph Lauren images feature the same model, Filippa Hamilton. The image on the left drew heavy criticism for its alteration to impossible body proportions.

The internet furor caused Polo Ralph Lauren to release a statement quasi-apologizing for “the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body.”

How can you avoid crossing the line from enhancement to distortion? From successful ad to inciting a pitchfork-and-torches mob?

Let’s take a deep look at photoshop, models, advertising and the emerging body of law around the three. As a photographer, brand, or ecommerce retailer, it’s important to understand where the lines are, and the logic behind them. The discussion around retouching images of the body can teach us how we should approach retouching product images, both ethically and from a business perspective.

The “real vs fake” discussion driven by retouched models teaches product image editing principles.

Photoshop Is Redefining What’s Possible

When brothers Thomas and John Knoll were developing the early versions of Photoshop in the late 1980s, their goal was to be able to recreate the image their eyes were seeing but camera technology at the time was unable to fully capture.

John Knoll, one of the creators of Photoshop, recreates the first demo he gave of the product.

Fast-forward to today, and Photoshop is doing much more than displaying grayscale images as it was in the 80s. From removing a small mole or blemish to wholly altering the figure of a model, “photoshopping” has become a verb in the modern vernacular.

Snickers ad with yellow bikini model and extra photoshopped hand - 11 total errors.

Dramatically photoshopping images has become so common it’s the punchline of this ad Snickers ran on the back cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

And this ability to alter every detail of a captured image has sparked a debate about an important question for consumers, brands, and legislators alike:

When does image enhancement become deception? What’s real, and what effect does photoshopping (especially bodies) have on culture?

In some countries, especially concerning the appearance of models, the verdict is already in.

The Future of Photoshop is… Warning Labels?

There has been a movement internationally towards normalizing the appearance of models in fashion for the past 10 years or so.

Skeletal model Holly Moore walks the runway in Melbourne in a black dress with ribs showing and bony legs.

Holly Moore walks at Melbourne Fashion Festival in March 2016, with some feeling she was too underweight to walk the runway. Credit: Dailymail.co.uk

Back in 2006, Madrid Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week required models to have a BMI (Body Mass Index) greater than 18 in order to participate in their shows; a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. This caused a bit of a stir with modeling agencies who argued the law discriminated against thinner models, but health officials were quite happy with the events establishing a healthier standard for their models.

Then, building on Madrid and Milan’s requirements, Israel passed legislation in 2013 that requires models to have a BMI of at least 18.5. Israel has a rate of women suffering from eating disorders that “matches those of industrialized Western countries,” but the issue of healthy body weight gained prominence with the death of a well-known model, Hila Elmaliach, from anorexia complications. The 5’8” woman weighed less than 60 lbs at the time of her death.

The law also requires that images that feature digitally altered models must be labeled as such, reassuring the general public that even the models don’t look like the models.

Warnings on photoshopped ads? BMI reqs for models? It’s law in France and Israel. Is the USA next?

Skin and bones runway model Cassie Van Der Dungen in a white dress.

Runway model Cassie Van Der Dungen at Australian Fashion Week in 2014. Credit: Dailymail.co.uk

And then, in fashion’s epicenter, France passed legislation that requires models to obtain a certificate from a doctor confirming they are healthy enough to walk the runway. Similar to Israel, France also requires images that have been altered by photoshop to “make a model's silhouette ‘narrower or wider’’’ to state that the image has been retouched or photoshopped.

Mostly recently in 2021, Norway also adopted its own retouched photo laws. The law requires retouched images for both social media influencers and advertisers to provide a disclaimer on the image that it has been retouched. The law is only limited to retouching of skin and body size. Anyone found in violation of the law could face a fine.

Seventeen magazine's body peace treaty, outlining what they will and won't photoshop, illustrated by before and after retouched image.

Seventeen Magazine responded to a 14 year old girl’s online petition with a published “Body Peace Treaty.” Credit: NYMag.com.

And it isn’t just celebrities and politicians that are in the mix: there is an important grassroots element that is making noise in the debate. Julia Bluhm, as a 14 year old in 2012, started a petition against Seventeen Magazine at Change.org that gathered 86,000 signatures. Seventeen Magazine’s editor responded by having her staff sign and publish a “Body Peace Treaty” which outlined the ways Photoshop would and would not be used.

Erin Treloar is another advocate with a personal connection to the issue. Treloar is an anorexia survivor, at one point weighing 86 lbs at 5’ 11’’ tall, but now runs the site Raw Beauty Talks which is dedicated to promoting healthy body image and mental wellness in women. She is also the author of the petition #lessismore which hopes to begin a conversation with publications about improving their transparency when it comes to use of Photoshop.

Photo of Erin Treloar's face, Founder and CEO of Raw Beauty.

Erin Treloar, Founder and CEO of Raw Beauty and Body Image Activist. Credit: RawBeauty.com

Whether it is a national law about BMI like Israel, labeling images in France, or grassroots petitions like Bluhm’s and Treloar’s, it seems that the universal agreement is that awareness is the most essential aspect of the Photoshop conversation. Awareness that photos are being altered, awareness that it affects women’s lives, and awareness regarding how to Photoshop ethically.

Celebrity Driven Public Backlash Against Retouching

In the age of social media, individuals can be brands unto themselves. Some models and celebrities have used their influence to bring attention to photos of themselves they feel have been over-photoshopped, and to speak out against the illusion of perfection the photos perpetuate.

Most models are relatively anonymous to the general public. Your average consumer can’t tell the difference between an unretouched and a retouched image of a model, if retouched within reason, because they don’t have an expectation of what that person should look like.

Take for instance Australian model Meaghan Kausman, who in August of 2014 found one of her images heavily photoshopped on swimsuit company Fella Swim’s Instagram account. She posted the original and the photoshopped version of the photo, highlighting in her post that Fella Swim had “drastically altered my body, thinning out my stomach and thighs.”

Before and after photos of Model Meaghan Kausman in white bikini underwater retouched to be skinnier.

Swimsuit model Meaghan Kausman’s original image on the bottom, and the photoshopped image above.

You’ve probably never heard of Kausman, so her complaints fell on relatively deaf ears and never caused Fella Swim to respond.

That changes when your model is a celebrity: the public has seen that person in many different contexts, which causes retouching to be much more noticeable. It also gives the celebrity/model a platform for protest.

In October of 2015, teen star Zendaya was applauded for calling out Modeliste Magazine for what she felt was heavy-handed photoshopping of her images. On her Instagram account (24.1m followers), she explained that she was was “shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated,” and that images edited in this way “create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.”

Take a look at the original image and the photoshopped images of Zendaya, specifically her left hip and left thigh.

In 2013, Beyonce protested against H&M, refusing to allow them to make alterations to her body after a photoshoot for H&M’s swimwear line. That same year Lady Gaga spoke out against her Glamour cover photo because she felt her “skin looked too perfect” and her “hair looked too soft.”

Lady Gaga on the cover of Glamour magazine retouched to have perfect skin and soft flowing hair.

Lady Gaga appearing on the cover Glamour in 2013 looking what she felt was a bit too perfect.

In April of 2016, Scandal star Kerry Washington took to her Instagram (2.5m followers) to respond to Adweek’s heavy photoshop job of her cover, explaining that “it felt strange to look at a picture of myself that is so different from what I look like when I look in the mirror.” Adweek did respond, saying they only made “minimal adjustments,” but based on Washington’s comments, she would argue the definition of “minimal.”

Kerry Washington in black and white striped dress on the cover of Adweek magazine with retouched facial features and lightened skin.

Actress Kerry Washington appearing on Adweeks cover...though some of her fans can’t be so sure it is her. Photo credit: Adweek

Most model release forms explicitly waive models’ rights to inspect or approve finished products. But that doesn’t really matter when it’s a celebrity who can communicate with millions of followers, does it?

The right to publish matters much less than the response a published image provokes. When it’s negative, driven by criticism from celebrity models who feel betrayed, brands are tarnished. The retouched Zendaya and Beyonce images were removed and replaced, but the damage to the brands’ reputations will remain.

Body-Positive Marketing

Even without widespread formal legislation in the United States, the conversation has become prominent enough for some companies to take a proactive approach. They’re limiting their use of Photoshop and promoting body-positive messaging, encouraging men and women alike to remove their critical lens when it comes to body-image.

The "CVS Beauty Mark" is the most ambitious attempt to set new standards I've seen to date. In 2018, CVS announced CVS Beauty Mark. In an attempt to redefine post-production standards, CVS is labeling all their images—digitally altered and otherwise. Unaltered images get a watermark, the "CVS Beauty Mark," to highlight that they haven't been "materially altered." CVS says, "materially altered is defined as changing or enhancing a person's shape, size, proportion, skin or eye color, wrinkles or any other individual characteristics." Altered images get slapped with a bold black tag saying "Digitally Altered."

A year later, in January 2019, CVS reported that 70% of their images had been marked, and that of those, nearly 70% featured the "beauty mark" certifying they were unaltered.

This is a big deal for a number of reasons:

  • CVS is the third largest retailer of skin care and cosmetics in the U.S., behind only Walmart and Target
  • It's all CVS imagery: in-store, websites, social media, and any marketing materials
  • CVS aims to have 100% of their imagery marked by 2020
  • Major brands are involved: Neutrogena, Covergirl, Olay, Revlon, Maybelline, and many more
  • Celebrity brand ambassadors have joined, like Ayesha Curry (Covergirl), Ashley Graham (Revlon), and Kerry Washington (Neutrogena)

CVS is recognizing that more and more people are turned off by over-retouched photographs. The CVS Beauty Mark campaign is a direct response to that. Kerry Washington referenced her earlier Adweek experience, telling Reuters, "I know firsthand what it looks like to wake up in the morning and look at the cover of a magazine and say, ‘Who is that? Why did some person at a computer change the shape of my face to appease their own idea of what I should look like when that is not who I am?’"

CVS Beauty Mark campaign example

All CVS images are marked, one way or the other.

CVS read public reaction, and their boldness in taking a leadership position is earning them positive press and consumer response. They're telling consumers they care about both women's health and truth in advertising. Their slogan is: "It's a mark, and a movement, and a promise to you." What a wonderful way to earn credibility and build your brand.

And they're not the only one.

Dove kicked things off all the way back in 2000 when they began their "Campaign for Real Beauty," which is considered to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the modern era. Some of the most iconic aspects of the campaign were billboards that “featured groups of ‘real,’ diverse women in their underwear.”

Six women of different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in white lingerie for Dove Real Women ad campaign.

Dove released images like this one to promote their Campaign for Real Beauty. Credit: huffingtonpost.com.

And then, more recently, Aerie, the lingerie line from American Eagle, launched #AerieReal to announce their decision to lessen their use of photoshop in ads and to spread a body-positive message that celebrates women of all body types, colors, and sizes. The campaign culminated at Aerie’s World’s Largest Unretouched Selfie event. The result? A 20% increase in sales in 2015.

Aerie’s unretouched selfie event was the climax of a body-positive marketing campaign that is credited with a 20% increase in sales.

In Spring 2016, Target promoted its body-campaign #NOFOMO (No Fear of Missing Out) for its spring swimwear collection. The campaign, similar to Aerie’s, was a celebration of all women’s bodies and breaks the status quo of only using thin, white models to promote swimwear.

Aerie saw a 20% increase sales increase with less retouching. How, and why? #AerieReal

Four different sized model women in swimsuits walking at the beach wearing sunglasses for Target's #NOFOMO ad campaign.

It is fun in the sun for everyone in Target’s 2016 #NOFOMO Campaign. Credit: mothernewyork.com

How to Retouch Ethically

So when it comes to your own image editing, how can you make sure your images are not deceptive, insensitive, or even culturally damaging, and avoid the social media pitchforks?

Typically, laws about how models are presented, and the general public’s scorn, are aimed at changes made to models that are so drastic that the images lose their authenticity. Problems most often come when the physical shape of a model, like hips and unique facial features, are visibly changed.

How can you identify what changes will be okay? Well, we suggest thinking in terms of the moment versus the permanent. You can follow this skin retouching guide, complete with video tutorials, for practical tips.

Model body in bikini showing best practices for before and after skin retouching in Photoshop.

A good rule of thumb is to retouch only momentary features, never permanent.

Flaws of the moment might be acne, scratches, dirt, fabric wrinkles, stray hair, unevenly tanned skin, a flushed complexion, reflections, or any other passing attribute.

Editing away little momentary blemishes won’t change anything fundamental about your model; you would still recognize that person on the street. If it’s something that changes day to day, it’s probably ok to change it in post-production.

But we recommend avoiding changes to permanent features, such as elongating legs, thinning arms, enlarging eyes, smoothing facial wrinkles, raising cheekbones, or flattening curves.

If it’s not something that could plausibly be captured by the camera (and if you have to change bone structure, you definitely can’t), then you probably shouldn’t make it happen in Photoshop. That’s the point where capturing passes into creation, and the public will stop thinking of your image as real.

The momentary versus permanent standard is the same one you should apply to your product image editing, and based on the same principle. You want to gain trust by being as accurate as possible. The worst possible impression an image can give to your customer is that it’s fake.

Join the Conversation

And so the conversation continues. What do we want to see in our magazines and advertisements? Are fashion advertisements art, not intending to reflect any reality but instead appeal simply to a sense of beauty? Or is Photoshop used tactically to create an unrealistic version of beauty in an effort to undermine the confidence of women?

It may take some time for the public and industry alike to come up with a firm best practices when it comes to the ethics of Photoshop, but the conversation has certainly begun.

Pixelz is a retouching service exclusively for product photography, specializing in high-volume ecommerce studios. We save your brand standards and model retouching specifications to our system, so you can customize your requirements once and then begin uploading thousands of images to your presets.