Retouching & Body Image

I was recently watching a time-lapse video of another photographer’s work retouching an image. The subject was an incredibly beautiful woman in perfect lighting. The retoucher’s cursor ran back and forth, cleaning up stretch marks, masking blemishes, smoothing skin, adjusting the shape of the woman’s eyes, and finally patching up a section of her eyebrow that apparently wasn’t up to his standards.

It made feel sad.

The kinds of imperfections that the retoucher was fixing were natural, real parts of what an adult human’s skin looks like. It made me wonder if the retoucher had ever been in love, when any flaw is an endearing trait to be cherished and treasured.

I won’t hesitate to fix a pimple or clear a distracting fold of skin if it will make a better image— after all, that’s the kind of thing a loving eye would ever notice. But the more extreme the retouching, the more I wonder if we aren’t doing a disservice to the audience and to ourselves. Perhaps people would have fewer self-image and body issues if our visual culture wasn’t so obsessed with a certain kind of perfection. Maybe people would feel more confident if the men and women in clothing advertisements looked a bit more like them.

Most people don’t realize that when they see a poster for a movie or a cover image of a celebrity on a magazine, that the image has probably had a team of digital artists working on it, teasing out the best shot of the star’s eyes, mouth, arms, all from different images and compiled together. Even if they do know in some abstract sense that the image has been retouched, how could the casual observer be aware of the full extent of retouched images around them that hides blemishes and individual variation? What if people knew that a gap-tooth or stretch marks were normal, and saw it daily? How differently would they feel about their own bodies?

How differently would you feel about your own?