Beauty & the airbrush

Campaign for Real Beauty

The beauty and fashion industry is in the midst of a serious debate about just how far image manipulation (or airbrushing as we used to call it) should go. Well-known brands are aligning themselves to be the new champions of real beauty. We have one view from an industry leader in our latest ‘from the hip’ blog. Then Liz Tray, our copy editor, responds with a different view.

Led by the super-successful Dove campaignsVogue and Debenhams have taken a position on real beauty for real women. But where could this all end up and what are the views of a senior ad exec and a leading model booker? Former Leo Burnett creative director Malcolm Gaskin takes a look in an exclusive blog for Shopped…

Beauty is the eye of the retoucher, or so it seems. The ideal image of our idols is not au naturelle. It’s stretched, slimmed, smoothed, de-veined, nipped, tucked and tweaked, all the while using the super-est of models as subjects, plus the best photographers, hair and make-up. Striving for and then emulating perfection has caused a mighty storm amongst self-image punditry. Does the extra enhancement of fashion plates lead to anxiety and despair, consciously, or as a drip-drip subconscious erosion of self-esteem?

True, the vulnerable and those with a lack of self-body appreciation and perspective of how their image measures up to their peers will feel that they are being got at by the aesthetically lucky, and that retouching already fine specimens is doubly unfair and unsettling. However, in the real world, seeing perfect pics or pecs is just part of the lookist business, and magazine buyers can tell the difference between the model people in Vogue and the real people in Vauxhall.

When thumbing through the latest fashion style and beauty ads and spreads, they expect heightened reality: it’s part of the dream. Readers know that, since the dawn of image-making, enhancement has fed the imagination. When the artist John Constable wanted to depict an idyllic English country scene, he added to a featured stream a cottage, a tree, a rise in the land, a puffy white cloud and a haywain. All taken from somewhere else in the locality, none of which was in his line of sight. He embellished and idealised and the public loved it and still do, as the millions of tea towels, postcards and jigsaw puzzles sold prove.

All of these dark arts of the retoucher’s studio, used to enhance today’s magazines, and the Shoot and Shame pics of wobbly celebrities letting themselves and their bodies go, highlighting their inadequacies and blemishes, make great visual fodder. But is this ok?


Francesca Gaskin at Elite models told me that retouching is a business tool. Your high value model has just been on an 8-hour flight, so is looking puffier than the headshots on her agent’s site. She’s young, so her skin’s not flawless, the fabric is clingy but not in the right places and the 5-inch heels which are paying for the shoot would look better on slightly longer legs.

She comments that a live model is like a shop mannequin: there to show the clothes. The live model and the photographer’s work are designed to supply the mood. However, when it comes to quantities of online images, there’s minimal retouching. It’s too costly, and usually the picture size and quality doesn’t warrant it.

If you are looking for down to earth ‘real’ beauty a consumer will gravitate to the Debenhams or Dove pictorial approach. That’s their market, not high fashion vamped-up. For those who appreciate a photo booth view of fashion that’s fine but millions prefer the glossy version. Models really are not like people you see every day. They are taller, slimmer and do catch the eye. That’s their field of expertise.

People enhancement does perfect the more than perfect but, for fashion escapists, pixelated perfection is a must, not a sin.


There is a balance to be found here in the fashion industry’s dream-selling business. There has to be a sliver of reality maintained – women should be able to believe that they can look at least a little bit like the models on these glossy pages. It’s why retailers are starting to use differently proportioned women in their campaigns. The catwalk is a lost cause, however, as these women are quite literally chosen to be clothes hangers. Much of the time, when done well, it’s more of an art installation than a realistic depiction of what you might wear on a night out. One need only look at a classic McQueen catwalk show to see that this is true fantasy being sold. More often than not, his clothes were unwearable but you knew this – this was an art happening, not the next rail of clothes at Topshop.

Perhaps a middle ground can be found that allows people to find that balance, but certainly, given how much power they have, the organisations in charge – fashion houses, magazines, manufacturers, TV shows – could do worse than try a little harder to convey their messages and sales pitches to the general public in a more responsible way.



  • Emma Bonar says:

    I have to agree with Malcolm, retouching is just part of the image production process. Models often have bruises, blemishes or ropey looking skin, and this needs to be touched up for the final image. Yes, sometimes this is taken too far, particularly when models are made to look far skinnier than they are in reality (Ralph Lauren I’m looking at you), but I don’t believe that the majority of people are unable to distinguish between a fully pimped fashion spread and a pap snap.

  • Eva Pascoe says:

    The problem of peddling hyper-perfection in body shape by reutouching and lengthening a model’s legs is not a new one. But what is new is the ease of use of hyper-retouching. We are also consuming a massively higher volume of fashion photography compared to even 20 years ago.

    Back then a girl had Cosmo mag and maybe a glimpse at Vogue while at the dentist.
    Now, brands produce large volumes of images as their online advertising becomes pervasive and ubiquitous via ever-present social media. Therefore, despite being a retail realist, I do side with those who push for more realistic concept of beauty.

    We simply don’t know what happens to a young girl’s sense of self when she is targeted 24/7 with images of impossible, unattainable beauty. Social media and the way it interacts with teenagers is an experiment in the making and nobody can say with any degree of confidence that bombardment of my 13 year old daughter with hyper-beauty images is going to be harmless. I would not want to find out when it is too late so I feel that we should raise the awareness that this time it is different, just due to sheer volume and the ever-presence of those re-touched images of extended legs.

    When I travelled alongside the Thai coastline over the winter, I cam across the expression of “pretty power”. It means the power over other people that you have derived from their degree of atractiveness. You study that and develop your skills in maximising “pretty power” in Thailand. But the girls there were of many shapes and sizes, as for them “pretty power” is not related to body shape. Perhaps it is time to take a leaf out of the teachings of other cultures, as this can help us in reflecting on our Western, narrow, aesthetic vision before we lose the ability to wonder and admire much more heterogenous examples of female beauty! Worship of the female body has its roots in fertility rites. Wide hips and big breasts were the name of the game for millenia as survival of the species was of critical importance. Today, as the world is overpopulated, we have less inclination to worship a body that is ideal for motherhood. I feel very strongly that we should not replace it with an image dreamed up by teenage boys playing Lara Croft on their screens at midnight.

    The real Lara has just had a double masectomy and is proud of it. We should take note and use her courage to have an open, honest debate about body shape, commerce and fashion. Otherwise the only people who will benefit will be cosmetic surgeons! When I was at the front line of bringing technology to women in the 90s, little did I think that it was going to be a negative factor in creating a false image of female beauty. Let’s reclaim and liberate the concept from the tech tools and let the girls be real: they are so worth it!

  • Zoe Goldsmith says:

    I agree with Liz. Most of us are aware that women in adverts have been altered and fixed to look perfect on Photoshop. Unfortunately many young girls who have been bombarded with these images do not realise just how much they have been manipulated. Not surprisingly, this would add to their insecurities about their bodies as they cannot attain these unrealistic looks. If some adverts are banned for being “misleading” (such as the Viviscal hair loss advert), should we not all be questioning the airbrushed models that are also false and misleading?

    It is primarily important that young people grow up with confidence support and learn about good nutrition. However, airbrushed images certainly influence people, particularly those who are already aspiring to the “thinspiration” ideal. The misogynist print ads posted by Liz also have an impact on those who see it. They portray women as objects and glorify violence. Companies need to realise just how influential their campaigns can be. They should be more responsible in what they promote and how they beautify their images.

    Yes, many people do want to see a “fantasy” (this is one of the main justifications for airbrushing). They may want to see high fashion photography created with impressive backdrops, outfits and storytelling. However a “fantasy” is not the same as airbrushing anorexic models to look less unwell – a vision of unattainable physical perfection.

Comments are closed.