Retouching pictures is about as old as photography itself. Especially when it comes to sectors like the fashion photography industry, it’s common knowledge that an image travels a long, edited road between being shot and being published. But one anonymous Photoshopper’s confession to Refinery29 about what happens behind the scenes of a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot, is eye opening nevertheless.

Sarah (not her real name) shares her story because she wants us to understand just how unreal the bodies we see are, from head to toe, but at the same time wants us to understand our own role in propagating these images. “As a society, we’re the ones who choose this.”

The first of Sarah’s nine-point-confession, is that retouching has been around much longer than Photoshop has existed. It started out not being about creating a false image, but showing you the clearest possible version. “But at some point, someone realized: You can manipulate the background, so why not manipulate the body? And then this thing just spiraled out of control.”

“Body fixing” also starts even before the first picture is taken. Sarah mentions things like hair extensions and “chicken cutlets” and other body shaping pads, and adds that it’s routine practice. “That’s why we’re used to seeing anti-gravity breasts everywhere, and why a swimsuit will never look the same on our bodies as it does on the model’s body. Because it’s barely her body anymore.”

Next comes the digital alteration. Sarah was asked anything from nipple erasing to more subtle corrections, like making sure armpits are no longer gray. Another standard practice is “adding meat on their bones,” which made Sarah wonder why brands don’t just take “curvier” models. Because society doesn’t want that. “If consumers responded positively with their dollars to less conventionally shaped models, brands would use them more in imagery.”

“The reason people retouch bodies is because they’re just trying to sell you something. Brands reflect the world as we’d like to see it, in order to sell […]. That’s why retouching alters everything from waist size to body hair.”

Aerie is the brightest exception to this rule, launching their Aerie Real campaign in 2014, announcing they would use a broader range of model sizes, and leave all their photos absolutely un-retouched. Aerie went big, but Sarah explains it wasn’t done out of the kindness of their hearts. “They didn’t do it to make people feel good. They did it because they wanted to see if it would sell.”

Sarah now has a full-time job in another part of the industry. She knew that what she was doing, was wrong, and while she still does some freelance retouching, she turns down a lot, depending on what they ask of her. She sees how minds are beginning to change, but the bigger battle – changing consumer hearts and minds – is still ahead.

  • Bo Dez

    I will always prefer a real body of a retouched one. anything too perfect I switch off to.

  • Steve

    I did not read all of this article. But being able to say I met 3 of the VS models in person they are extremely thin and frail looking. There might be shopping done to the images but very little. I think “sarah” is jaded probably for getting canned or yelled at most likley. I also have been to the main studio they shoot in. So half way down I quit reading this article. Its just a jaded opinion.