Magazines Are Now Photoshopping Models to Look BIGGER! Um, Yay?

And it's all Kate Upton's fault. Plus: a short art history tour of the feminine ideal. In photoshops.
Publish date:
August 23, 2012
body politics, models, beauty standards, photoshops

Just when you thought the over-the-top photoshopping of models couldn’t get any more ridiculous, here comes a “new” trend in which models are being altered to look bigger. Fox News’ Pop Tarts column on the subject blames Kate Upton personally for this.

While magazines have airbrushed pounds off models and celebs for years, to the consternation of many, the latest trend in the editorial and advertising world is digitally altering subjects to appear larger and curvier.

“I have to airbrush clients’ to make them appear bigger and more womanly before I submit photographs,” one leading talent manager told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “Skinny doesn’t sell.”

Uh huh. This is actually not new at all. While Photoshopping models to look impossibly thin is a well-known practice (who can forget that absurd Ralph Lauren ad in which model Filippa Hamilton was given a terrifyingly spindly alien body that seemed to defy the bounds of human biology?) said alterations have often included not only trimming some regions -- usually the waist, thighs or upper arms -- but beefing up others, typically the bust and hips. The sexy parts, naturally.

Models who want to continue to work are often required to be very slender so that they are able to fit into sample sizes, as well as to just to meet the deeply entrenched expectations from their prospective employers of what a model is supposed to look like. However, women who can satisfy the very slender requirement are often not also possessed of particularly impressive bosomy and hiptacular gifts, at least not without surgical intervention. Breasts are, after all, mostly fat, and while some very slender women may offer exceptions to this rule, often a lady who is prone to tininess will not also be able to boast fleshy sexyparts at will.

So what does the modeling industry do? They fake it to satisfy the fickle mistress that is fashion. And it’s not just done to sexify models -- sometimes it’s done to superficially repair the real damage done to real women who struggle to maintain a certain weight to keep their jobs!

Called “reverse retouching,” this practice first came under scrutiny in 2010 when Jane Druker, the editor of Healthy magazine in England, admitted that the cover girl arrived at the shoot looking “really thin and unwell.” But rather than being sent home and another model hired, the publication instead chose to retouch the model to look larger, in keeping with the publication’s dedication to “healthy” faces and figures.

Tell me that’s not one of the most tragically hilarious paragraphs you’ve ever read. The model didn’t look healthy enough to be on the cover of a magazine called “Healthy,” so they just photoshopped some health onto her! TECHNOLOGY, you guys, where would we be without it?

It’s easy to blame this recent reversal in favor of breasts and hips on the popularity of figures such as those of Christina Hendricks and Kim Kardashian, who have come to represent a renaissance of so-called “real” women in popular media -- i.e., women with tits and asses, whose bodies are a little more relatable to the average woman.

But there’s a couple of problems with heralding the new appreciation of “curves” as some kind of body revolution: for one, all women are “real,” no matter how their bodies are shaped, and it’s disgusting and damaging to suggest otherwise.

For another, both Hendricks and Kardashian are ALSO Photoshopped on a regular basis -- usually to refine their waistlines and make them look, well, skinnier. (Remember a few years ago when Complex magazine accidentally published an un-’shopped image of Kim, and then published the right one, giving us all a chance to analyze the adjustments?) EVERYONE is photoshopped. The ideal does not exist.

It'd be great if this sort of equal-opportunity alteration could teach us to always treat these images with a certain degree of cheerful skepticism; they’re not supposed to be real, they’re supposed to be a fantasy. This might work if we were not also inclined to strive in futility to meet those standards ourselves. Fantasies, even when we know they are fantasies, can still influence us -- sometimes they can even take over our expectations of reality.

Contrary to the quote above, skinny does “sell,” and it does so demonstrably well. While at present there may be a mild trend toward enhancing certain parts to look bigger in proportion to the rest of the pictured woman’s body, the message we’ve been fed for our whole adult lives hasn’t actually changed: Be thin, but not too thin. Be perfect, but not too perfect, and not too plastic. Try harder, but look as though you’re not trying at all. And any failure to succeed at meeting the ideal is your own fault, lazy!

So long as we’re carrying on with the idea that our self-esteem is dependent on our ability to meet a constantly changing, trend-hopping standard of beauty and sexiness, we’ll never actually be secure in ourselves, and we’ll never really feel confidence that can’t at any moment be ripped away by a sudden shift in popular culture. A confidence so very fragile is not good for much.