I wrote this in January 2018 when CVS first released their press release, but never finished it or added the imagery I usually add. But there are so many more companies coming out and praising anti-retouching that I still wanted to post this.
This week, CVS released a press release stating they are going to be changing their rules on what is acceptable retouching for not only their brand, but ones they advertise in their store. And if it doesn't meet their requirements, they will now be putting a special watermark on the image to let customers know the image they see isn't representative of the product itself.
And that's great, good for CVS for trying to be more honest with their customers. But is retouching dishonesty?
I want to start this post with a game. Let's do a memory test.
What does your mother's face look like?
What about your best friend?
Now in either of these visualizations, did you think about the acne on the person? Or the open pores on their face? At most you probably remembered the mole above their lip or the way they smiled. What I'm trying to say is the details we think about when picturing a person aren’t, for the most part, what’s being retouched out. They're extra details that are magnified in beauty photography. Especially macro beauty photography where the face fills the entire frame. Details like open pores, acne, and flaky skin don't add to the photo, they're distractions that don't need to be there. They only distract you from the main subject(s) of the photo.
But Dave, these details are a part of the person. They're a part of what makes them who they are.
Well, there’s 3 issues I have with this. I'll start with...
Fixing Temporary Skin Issues
Acne is not permanent. Open pores don't have to be permanent. These are all things you can fix on your own so why should a pimple you got on photoshoot day have to remain in the photo? Why should the bags under your eyes be there when you just couldn't fall asleep the night before? Temporary items are exactly that, they're temporary. Scars, freckles, and things like that I don't remove unless it's a beauty photo or something like that. And why's that? Well...
Not All Photography is About the Person in the Photo
Fashion and for the most part, beauty photography aren't about the models in the photos. They're about the products being sold that are on the models. That is of course a different story if it's an endorsement of a product by a celebrity. But because of this, things like moles and scars may not be a part of the look and only distract from the makeup or fashion on the photo. Anything that takes your eyes away from the main subject is something that may get removed. If I'm doing a beauty photo where the main focus is the makeup and the woman in the photo has acne scars, I'm getting rid of them. Yes, the scars are a part of the woman, but the photo isn't about the woman. And I sound really douchey by saying this, but the model is the canvas. Her facial structure, eye color, and overall main features are why she was chosen for the shoot. Not the acne scars or bags under her eyes.
Think of it like this. When describing a portrait I'd say this: Here's a photo of (person) and she's wearing a Gap dress. When describing a fashion photo, I'd say: Here's a photo of a Gap dress modeled by (person). The photo in that second situation is about the dress and the model is only there because her features accentuate the dress and feel of the photo.
You can see the image on the left shows more of the texture and pattern of the sweater and jacket. It’s also in focus. Her face and attitude come secondary in this photo. They accentuate the outfit. On the right, it’s all about her personality. She’s laughing, having fun, and the main focus is her and not necessarily the clothes. The left belongs in a store, the right goes on the about page for a blog. Two totally different styles for different photos.
When it comes to studio lighting, you're basically exposing every little detail on the skin that you wouldn't see in natural light. Especially when using smaller lights or lights that create stronger highlights like beauty dishes or bare bulbs.
The best way to describe it is skin is really thin. And when you blow it out with these harsh lights, you're showing everything underneath it. Like shining a light through a piece of paper. You’re going to see what’s on the other side of the paper. That means all the patchiness, all the pores, and all the acne are way more apparent. That's why everyone looks like trash under the bathroom mirror lights. They're small, poorly angled, harsh lights that are super close to your face. So they bring out everything. That is unless you have one of those bathrooms with the 20 large bulbs that go around the entire mirror. Those are awesome…
Compare how you look under bathroom lights to outdoors in the sun on a cloudier day. It's totally different. Yes, the sun is the most powerful light source to humans, but it's super far away and when diffused by the clouds it creates a super flat, even light source that doesn't affect your face the same way as lighting in the studio. It's just not the same thing.
So to me, a lot of retouching is bringing back a person's natural look.
Do you think retouching is a problem at all?
In some ways. Yes, it is a problem. But it should be noted when is it bad and when is it okay. When you alter bone structure to give her someone else’s jawline or liquify a model's body into a toothpick with breasts, that's an issue. That's what is creating body issues. It's a flat out lie. If a model is just skinny, that's okay. Once you push her body to boundaries even she couldn't get to in a healthy matter, then that's the issue.
But I don't think flawless skin should be seen as a sin like it is for body transformation. For the most part, models who are in these advertisements already have nearly perfect skin. It's their job to. If you follow models on Instagram, you’ll see at least once a week they’ll be using face masks and If they're being hired for beauty work, their skin is nearly perfect. Especially if we're talking about for companies like Sephora or Maybelline. They make sure the models they work with have fantastic skin because when it comes to editing and finishing the photo, having really good skin can save you literally hours of time.
And to me this is the real problem with body issues. A person will blame retouching because it's easy to, but the truth is a lot of the people in these ads just have incredible skin. They put in the work for that the same way they do for their bodies. It’s just part of the job. They’re there to best represent the product.
Now CVS hasn't released exactly what their new rules on retouching will be just yet.* Only that a watermark will be added to those that don't meet the requirement. But does that really do anything? Is that going to make a person feel any better about how they look? Let's get real, probably not.
*I’ve seen the ads CVS does for their beauty campaign. Now that it’s been over a year since it’s been announced and you can see their Instagram of everything here. The photos are still really good and it looks like they’re not really doing any Photoshop at all. Like even for fixing uneven lighting or anything like that. So that’s really cool. And they’re choosing models of all shapes and ethnicity which is really cool.
To be honest I think the problems with retouching have less to do with perfect skin, and more to do with representation of the sizes and color of woman in the photos.
15, 25 years ago, there was a certain model that was in all photos. They were incredibly thin and their skin was bright and usually overexposed to the point where you couldn't even tell if there were flaws.
That's changing. As society evolves, so is the representation of women of color and size. We're now seeing more and more healthier sized women and more models who aren't white women with (insert color here) hair. If you go to Sephora or the makeup aisle at CVS, you're not going to see the same woman on every rack anymore. You're going to see a more diverse crowd. Is it still perfect? Of course not, but it's something that will keep gradually getting better as we talk about it.
At the end of the day...
Retouching will never go away. All we can do is make sure the retouching we do is respectful to the subject and its viewers. As for the beauty industry, changing beauty standards in media by including more diverse groups helps make everyone feel like they’re beautiful and they matter. And that’s what really matters. Making people feel valid with inclusion is real. Look how happy people were when Fenty Beauty released 50 shades of their foundation. That kind of stuff matters and that is what the beauty industry should be looking to fix. More inclusion. Not more pimples on the models.