Don’t Let the Retouched Photographs of the World Affect Your Own Self Image

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I recently had an unusual experience. I was standing in a department store aimlessly browsing some shiny shelving that held many glittery bottles with promises of youth and perfect beauty. In the process of being pseudo hypnotized by the lovely array of bright colors, I heard a small feminine voice pipe up in the aisle behind me.

She was fawning over the stunning portraits of celebrity beauties that held small spaces, conveniently placed right above eye level. She kept saying how perfect and beautiful they all were, and you could hear a kind of wistful tone to her phrases. The kind of tone that says “I wish that were me”. After a few moments of hearing her adoration, I couldn’t keep quiet.

I walked around the corner and saw an average looking girl, medium weight, plain dress, and simple hair, no makeup. I later discovered that she is 14 and had plans on becoming a professional makeup artist. I asked her what she liked about the photographs. Her response was about what was expected. They look so perfect. They’re so gorgeous. Look at their skin. The makeup is amazing.

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Now, this is something I have a strong opinion of. I love retouching, and I love over the top portraits, and I feel that great retouching is required in our industry. However these young girls have no idea the amount of work that goes into these ‘beauty’ portraits that they see on the walls and in the magazines.

I am of the opinion that education is the best way to show young (and old) men and women that these are commercials, and about as realistic as the animated movies we see in theatres. They are designed to capture attention, and create an emotion, and advertise a product. They do not have to accurately represent the face in which they are featured.

I keep a selection of images on my phone for all sorts of reasons, usually in the quest of shameless self-promotion, but it now served a new purpose. I flicked the phone to life and opened up my ‘before and after’ section. I explained to her the process of retouching, and that although these women are indeed gorgeous they are not as perfect as they are on the display.

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Without all the professional hair and makeup teams, the perfect lighting, professional photographer, and then the retouching on top of that, they look like normal human beings. They get to wake up in the morning looking just as messy as the rest of us.

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Granted, some have that bone structure that our industry flips over, but most of us do not. It’s winning the genetic lottery. The models on the runways, in the commercials, on TV are just the anomalies, the exception to the rule for a large number of reasons. However, underneath all the makeup, hair, and retouching, they are simply people.

One thing is for sure, none of us look as perfect as the retouch artists make us look, and our youth need to know this. I think many young people would be surprised at how amazing they also look with a pro team working magic on their face, a stylist deciding what they will wear, and a digital arts team picking just the right photograph that is the ideal angle for their features.

Supermodels have outtake photos too, and we as professionals in our industry have a responsibility to educate our younger generation of these facts.

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Many are just like the young lady I met in the department store. She had no idea the work that went in to those photographs, and her astonishment to the before and after shots left her with a clarity she did not have before. Best of all, she had a new appreciation for her own self-image.

My message is this:

We need to realise what “real beauty” actually is.

It’s not the magazines or the TV commercials, it’s not the movies and it’s not the billboards you see every day on the way to work.

In my opinion real beauty is making the best with what you’ve got, and not judging yourself against others. It’s making mistakes, and learning from them to be a better person. It’s being accountable for your actions and being willing to take a stand and do the right thing when others do not.

It’s being able to smile at the end of a rough day, because the bad days mean the good ones are just around the corner. It’s being honest, and true to yourself and those around you, and making the best with your body, mind and life.

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To our beautiful youth: no one is the retouched goddess we see in the department store walls. They are tweaked pixels designed into someone’s idea of perfection. Do not let someone else’s opinion of what is ideal carve the framework for your own self image. Whatever genetic mix you were handed at birth is what you’ve got. Be unique, do something different and be yourself.

Nobody has to live your life every day, only you do. You decide how you want to feel about yourself, because no one else will decide it for you.

About the author: Renee Robyn is a photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and 500px.

  • Neo Racer

    Rewind history to the beginning of Photography..they have been doing this for a 100 years…yawn

  • Banan Tarr

    The people worried about looking as fake as these fashion photos are the ones I really don’t care to be around anyway. Too harsh?

  • Neo Racer

    And btw even when I photograph BEAUTIFUL women who you would think as flawless, they still want to be edited up..Im like HUH..WHY? They have their own imperfections they want corrected. Its just the way it is..maybe vanity or narcissism..whatever

  • Tanya Greene

    What’s clear as day to us as professional photographers and retouchers is rarely as clear to a teenager who more than likely already has self esteem issues. This article wasn’t written you. It was written for them. It was written for the ones that need to know that this isn’t real.

    Well said Renee.

  • Tanya Greene

    What’s clear as day to us as professional photographers and retouchers is rarely as clear to a teenager who more than likely already has self esteem issues. This article wasn’t written you. It was written for them. It was written for the ones that need to know that this isn’t real.

    Well said Renee.

  • Trick

    This sort of photography is part of the reason we have teenage children thinking they’re ugly and have hugely low self-esteem.

  • oh Henry

    Firstly, I think you are somewhat bastardizing the term “Reouched” to encompase all photo and VFX applied to a photo.

    Secondly, walking through the mall, at least here, you’ll notice mostly fat people who excell at eating poorly, and b**ching about thr pretty girl in the photo. With further claims they (women) are being abused and exploited bia these very photos.

    Is true retouching being over used – without question. Are VFX and DD techniques being over used? Depends on what the artist envisions. ..
    Is copying said VFX techniques being over done? Without question.

    Now that is something to write and b**ch about and can hurt ones ego on a personal level.

  • Shellbell Chesnut-Gordon

    I put some photos of mine together shot with and without makeup, with different cameras, and with/without photoshop and posted.

  • MMielech

    No, not really. Teenagers by their nature think they’re ugly, and definitely have self esteem problems. They’re teenagers.

  • Antonio Carrasco


  • Kay O. Sweaver

    Can you possibly intercept every 14 year old and show her these before/after images? Even if you did how much difference does it make in the face of the constant media bombardment of the “perfect” faces and bodies all around us?

    As a photographer and filmmaker I struggle with the conflicting desires to make something that on the one hand is beautiful and compelling, but on the other hand is real. I feel like as the creators of these images we need to own our responsibility for the cult of beauty.

  • Kurt B

    I have done so many photoshoots with beautiful women and I can safely say that 99% of them asked me to retouch their skin even though most of them already have flawless skin. I think women simply want to look as much beautiful as they can to other women because other women do look at their photos and criticize a lot.

  • CurrentCo

    Well, it could be said that you don’t want to be around women then…

    (sarcasm and a joke)

  • CurrentCo

    Excellent article! thank you so much for posting. I am not against photo retouching, but I do believe educating our youth and the general public about the process is imperative to keeping people from creating false fantasies in their head that work against their self image. I love the way you put it “…these are commercials, and about as realistic as the animated movies we see in theatres…”
    Thank you for writing this. Great perspective from someone who does this for a living, and of course a story with a great ending for those girls. With a youth culture that already has enough identity struggles it’s lovely to see these girls educated, and in a sense, set free from them in such a practical way.
    I’ll be sharing this, most definitely.

  • Mike Phang

    These photos don’t walk the line attempting to fool impressionable people on what real women look like. They are clearly and immediately meant to be fantasy.

  • Tim Brown

    Or insecurity, perhaps?

  • Neo Racer

    Dont worry, society itself does a pretty good job of telling who’s beautiful & who’s ugly even without pictures like these. If you have the DNA you won the genetic lottery, if not, tough luck.

  • Neo Racer

    Even from as early as 5 I knew what I was, getting rejected for football games or playtime kiss-the-girls games that kids *used* to do so yea, I know where I stand..

  • Brendan

    Photography has a lot to answer for in pushing ideal aesthetic onto teens and creating/maintaining beauty standards. Believing that educating kids why girls skin glows in magazines will absolve it is naive, and shows how low the bar is set for the status quo.

  • Story Overdone

    “She had
    no idea the work that went in to those photographs, and her
    astonishment to the before and after shots left her with a clarity she
    did not have before.”

    Really? Everyone knows this by now. This story is overdone, old and cliche, not just in the photography world. I see this story in the mainstream media (Dove) almost every month. If you aren’t aware of all the editing that is done to pictures, photographer or not, then you have a bigger problem of being an idiot.

  • Steven Wade

    Beauty is defined differently in each culture and time period. Sorry, but you are just fooling yourself to think that society is not under such a strong influence of ads and commercials that only the people define what is beautiful.

  • MS

    Looks like a shameless plug for Renne Robyn… No thanks!

  • Brendan

    Imagine that you are only interested and good at one thing in your life. You dedicate all of most time to be as good as possible at it to the exclusion of all else. Wouldn’t you have impossible standards for yourself?

    Girls who aspire to be models are taught the value of their appearance from an early age, and peoples reactions and the media constantly reinforce this idea.

    This is a great TED talk that covers this stuff by model Cameron Russel.

  • Steven Wade

    I agree. I think most people know, and really they just don’t care. They just want to be what they see. I think a lot of people struggle with believing things they don’t actually see.

    I really don’t agree with your article. The industry needs retouchers because of what the industry and become and what their standards have become. I honestly don’t think education (which happens constantly and is pretty widespread) is going to change the influence these pictures have on people and their perception. You want to change how people think about these photos? Stop with the fantasy crap that is so pervasive, and basically just an excuse that is getting old, and get back to reality.

  • Kat Kamp

    Not all of us care about looking like fashion models. We have actual hobbies and more important things to care about.

  • Matthew Neumann

    Title should actually read “don’t let the manipulated backgrounds and colour shifts affect your self-image, because nothing about the ‘retouching’ in these images would have any effect on someone’s self-image, unless their self-image was based around wishing they lived in the land of narnia.”

    The retouching that is actually an issue is when there is gross adjustment of body proportions and skin imperfections. There is very little of that here, but thanks for plugging an article full of your pictures and loosely attempting to tie it to a relevant theme.

  • gochugogi

    PetaPixel is the wrong venue for an article like this. After all, the readership consists mainly of photographers… This article would be more appropriate for a preteen or early teen magazine. Or is it simply veiled PR for Renee Robyn?

  • fdefewfd

    really… there is something like RETOUCHING…. WOW… never heard about such thing. good that you tell people on a photography website about such marvels….

  • fdefewfd

    well most are….

  • Guest

    The industry is what it is, it just needs more balance and it is getting that through the growing “plus” size market. In the end it comes down to parents and schools having regular talks with kids about the fashion industry, self acceptance and diversity.

  • Patryk Widejko

    The industry is what it is; it just needs more balance and it is getting that these days through the ever growing “plus” size market.
    In the end it comes down to parents and schools having regular talks with kids about the fashion industry, self acceptance and diversity.

  • Espain

    Wrong – he wants to be around sane women. Makes sense to me.

  • CurrentCo

    Please note the edit to my comment.

    Furthermore, I read some comments you left on other websites. You sound very angry at the world. So I apologize, I didn’t mean to anger you with my comment.

  • Kat Kamp

    I don’t know why you would assume anger by my reply. Also, the only things I’ve posted have been from months and years ago, and also, I don’t get where you would assume that I’m “angry at the world” by them. I just looked, and they were replies to religious nuts that I had forgotten about. Maybe I just don’t like the implication that all women are shallow idiots who are just obsessed with their looks and fashion. Thanks for editing your comment, I guess, but maybe you shouldn’t make unfounded assumptions about people based on sporadic and random internet discussions.

  • wonka

    This is simply shameless self promotion in the guise of social concern.

  • Bill

    Sad thing is that this is nothing new and not just perpetuated by the photography industry. Everything you see, hear, touch, taste and smell has been manipulated in some way and to some extreme. It seems that the focus [no pun] is on photography as we shift towards a newer generation that dwells on visual perfection.
    Movies are guilty of it as well as almost all the top grossing movies have some sort of CGI to enhance visual overload.

    Models have fake boobs, food has fake colors, materials have fake textures, the list goes on and on. Think about it, there is manipulation in almost every aspect of everything we do.
    You listen to music, you adjust the bass and treble, manipulation of sound.
    You watch TV, you adjust the color, resolution and brightness, manipulation.
    You add creamer to your coffee, manipulation.

    We or the finger pointers have to get over it and just get real. I agree that there should be some disclosure to help some realize that products can or cannot achieve what they see in a photo.
    If anything, it should be focused more on the food industry. How many times have you gone onto a burger joint and received a burger that looks like it is displayed on a menu? Probably none.

    BTW, how do I get a job at Petapixel to do an article promoting myself?

  • 9inchnail

    Well, what is the industry? PEOPLE. So people do define what’s beautiful and what’s not. It’s just that only a hand full of people decide and the rest just follows their lead.

  • 9inchnail

    Every 14year old nowadays has a pirated copy of Photoshop on their computer and retouch their self-portraits anyway. Everybody knows what’s going on. If a girl looks at a poster and says “I wish that was me”, showing her that the model doesn’t look like that, doesn’t help. She doesn’t want to be the model, she wants to be that fantasy creature on the billboard and who could blame her? Unfortunately there is no real-life photoshop.

  • 9inchnail

    Thinly veiled, very thinly veiled PR.

  • 9inchnail

    Well, that always worked for Bono and Chris Martin, those shameless attention whores. “Look at me, I’m feeding a kid in Africa. Now back to my private jet I got lingerie models waiting in the jacuzzi”.

  • Adam Finan

    I want a picture with photoshopd tiger cubs!

  • alsn

    It’s not the fault of the photographers. It’s the fault of the parents for not educating their children on what’s fake, and what’s valuable in life. I grew up with plenty of people who’s parents told them the reality of the world and that they’re beautiful no matter what and anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t worth their time. I’m 26, and for the past decade I’ve been more than aware that photos are edited. Jostens even offered us photo retouching when we were in school. It’s not like an intelligent (or even mildly observant) person wouldn’t know such things took place. So like I said, photographers are not to blame and do not have to answer for their art. We don’t blame painters for not painting pimples. If you have a picture in your mind of what your piece should look like and only have a few things at your disposal, you use what you can and then work with it so it eventually becomes what you want. Sure I don’t think that advertisers should enlarge women’s bums or thin out their arms or even cover up blemishes, but if you’re dumb enough to believe that that’s actually how people look, even though you exist every day in the real world, no one else is to blame but yourself and maybe those raising/teaching you.

  • Francesca

    Yes – I think the point about the photos really being more like commercials is important. I think it’s easy for photographers, photoshop addicts, people in advertising, etc., to know how much was done to a photo. I know I spend a whole lot of time playing with images of myself in Photoshop and I look absolutely nothing like a model in real life, but after I spend a day with Photoshop, I have some pretty kick-ass pictures.

    I think it’s easy for us to forget that for a lot of people, photography still means documenting, whether it’s parties, vacations, family photos… it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people who don’t know how much we can manipulate a photo and that they might believe that these things are more *real* than those who know better. I’ve shown plenty of family and friends my before and after images and they are always shocked. When we’re kids, we think things in movies are real, we play dress-up and make-believe and believe in things like Santa Claus and magic and then we move on. Many people just don’t understand.

    Point is, people should definitely compare photography in ads to movies and other fanciful things, rather than to other photos in the newspaper or on the fridge. And I don’t think that means that those people are stupid or that photographers shouldn’t edit their work. It just means there needs to be more understanding. Education, as you say, is definitely the key.

  • Guest

    While I like the article, I do agree with you that the term “retouching” isn’t used correctly here. I saw nothing in these images that was the kind of retouching that eats at girls’ self-esteem. I think this kind of image, is more the concern for self-esteem:

  • Francesca

    Agreed. I often enlighten my friends and family to the wonders of Photoshop… but photographers know this. I actually think something like this would be a great topic for a teen magazine.

  • CurrentCo

    The interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that anytime you poke fun at the oppostie sex, for whatever reason (exluding sexist remarks), and you do it on the internet, there will always be someone who takes it way to personal and serious.
    Now, I suppose if you are of a more feminist belief, than perhaps I’m already at a dispostion considering I’m a male, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
    But the thing is, I’m not trying to piss you off. I was just having a little fun with Banan there.
    I am not a sexist, I always try my best to be a gentleman and respect women. AND I don’t think there’s anything wrong with poking fun at each other every once in a while.
    I realize sarcasm doesn’t translate well over text, especially considering everyone comes from a diffrent walk in life,
    so again, I apologize if I made you angry. It was not my intention to make anyone mad.

  • Tanya Bones

    Your final pictures are AMAZING – soooo talented!

  • Sesquipedalian

    I love unicorns. And you’re all going to hell.

  • oh Henry

    Well, I have to post another coment after reading the article again. And some of the coments. I’ve seen this stance before.

    Definitely a womans point of view of a certain”type”. The author and some comenters have “type” cast yourselves. What I call the “Nancy Grace stance” type.

    As the author, your defense is ” the amount of work that goes into the photo” that these woman “don’t wake up looking like that” etc etcetera. That is just… lame.

    You show a high key shot which any amateur can do “in camera” – most don’t do it post.
    You show a photo of an average girl stripped of any makeup let alone a comb through her hair. Anyone can be made up. And there are a ton – ton of natural beauties out there. Hence they are deemed “Natural beauties”.

    And then there is the Nancy Grace special b s stance of we must protect the children.

    How about telling them the truth? The real truth.?
    You are at an age were you have a bad complection, your over weight. You need to brush your teeth more often. But… that all can be different and you too can be a natural beauty but it will take work. A lot of work.

    Till then… Renee can photoshop the heck out your photos to the point even your own mother won’t recognize you. When the clearacyle starts working. ..

    Ill wrap a news paper around my head and show you how its done right… it ain’t all that hard… and very little photo shopping need be done.
    We leave the photoshopping to the mall rats that can’t shoot.

    WWC’s sure put as bad a twist of photograghy as. GWC’s and Nancy Grace does on factual News reporting

  • Brendan

    Discrete recognition of understanding how photos are edited is not really what I’m talking about, although you do raise an interesting point about parenting. It IS important that children are taught the value of having skills and seeking passions that help them grow independently of pressures of peers during the most the influential years of their development.

    What I mean is beauty standards and how they affect our lives. The easiest way to analyse it is to compare men and women – we hold a much higher standard with women. I have a very intelligent friend and PHD student who I would describe as having feminist values, and she still spends down time watching Top Model shows because it teaches things of value to her, like ‘how to pose for photos.’

    As someone who enjoys post-processing, I admit to be as guilty as anyone else – I find that I probably spend up to three times longer taking care to make women look good, and that doesn’t take into account the time that they’ve spent applying their own makeup, something so few guys will ever bother to take the time to do (why would we?). It’s so tempting to want to concentrate on beautiful women at events not because they are beautiful, but because they look ‘correct’ and fit a standard of aesthetic in a photo that we find pleasing. With a guy there is a lot more variety in his form, dress or even stance in a photograph that allows him to generate interest – we call this character.

    Some people will always ‘look’ more beautiful than others, this is a fact of life. My critique in photography in particular is that it is the first medium used widespread to sell this idea of hyper-real homogenized beauty (I realise that painting and illustration are the natural predecessors) which leads me to my point – modern ‘retouching’ is really jut the tip of the iceberg.