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A Model’s Take On The Politics Of Photoshop

A Model’s Take On The Politics Of Photoshop

It’s interesting that Photoshop has developed such a poor reputation.  Over the past week it has already made national news twice – first in a controversy over whether InStyle Magazine excessively altered Zooey Deschanel’s appearance for their cover, and now thanks to a series of Bongo ads featuring Vanessa Hudgens which go out of their way to promote that they don’t use Photoshop. Both stories have a common theme: Photoshop is cast as a villain, exacerbating female body image issues and revealing a core inauthenticity in our popular culture. (Editors note: Colby Caillat also making an anti-photoshop stance in her newest video below);

I’m not here to completely defend Photoshop. In fact, many of the criticisms made over ways it has been used are quite valid. At the same time, as a former fashion model who has spent much of her career with the technology (to the trained eye, Photoshop has been evident since 1997), I view it more as a tool, one that can be helpful but isn’t quite necessary enough to warrant the title “necessary evil.”

Part of the reason Photoshop is so unpopular is that people outside the fashion industry have difficulty understanding its more practical functions. For example, often the models you see in magazines are wearing clothes that are much too big for them; because non-designer clothes are sized for the general public, they’ll need to give you a Size 6 or Size 8 instead of your actual Size 2. Although stylists use pins to reduce the size, there is only so much you can do to make a garment look good when it is three, four, or five sizes too big for the woman wearing it. Similarly, a woman facing the camera in an A-line skirt might need Photoshop to make it so you can’t see the back of her dress hanging down, or a photographer might want to adjust the lighting in a shot after the fact.

In that vein, I also don’t think there was anything particularly wrong with InStyle’s use of Photoshop on Zooey Deschanel. The complaint that she too closely resembles Jared Leto seems to have more to do with her fanbase’s discomfort with her new look than with any excessive use of alterations. Any work that is done to better achieve a certain “look,” remove skin blemishes or whiten teeth, or in other minor ways touch up the image is fine. It’s only when the Photoshopping is abused that it becomes a problem.

Make no mistake about it, though – it has been abused. Although most of my modeling and cover work was done before Photoshop was widely used, I once caught myself on the cover of a Mexican magazine where they had changed my face so drastically that I was unrecognizable. I still remember my first thought: “Oh my god, that isn’t me!” While it’s understandable for these agencies to clean up flyaway hair or remove tattoos, an ethical line is crossed when the final result doesn’t even look like the original person. (below)


Of course, far worse ethical breaches have occurred with Photoshop. Perhaps the most infamous controversy occurred when L’Oreal altered the shading of Beyonce’s skin to make her look paler. Considering that millions of people know Beyonce’s appearance, it’s astonishing that they didn’t realize that this would be noticed – and seemingly reinforced racist preconceptions about beauty. Then there have been the countless others where women known for being heavy (Adele, Melissa McCarthy) are seen looking considerably thinner on magazine covers… again, sending an exclusionary message to larger women.

The ordinary consumer seeing these images doesn’t automatically think that they’re Photoshopped, and even if they did, they still don’t have the training and experience as the professionals who take courses for just this skill. Indeed, it is impossible to want a career in fashion publishing without Photoshop. “It’s a tool that helps designers create a professional product and it is an integral part of our industry,” explained fashion blogger Tillie Adelson of MyStilettoLife“Every industry edits its content: filmmakers edit movies, news segments are pieced together to create a full show. It’s naive for the public to think that Photoshop shouldn’t be used in the publishing world.”

Needless to say, it has completely changed my line of work as well. People forget that the fashion industry thrived for centuries before Photoshop. For one thing, it has made many aspects of the industry much less time-consuming – we can shoot more pictures now at a faster rate than ever before, and instead of it taking several months for new shots to be published, they can be printed almost immediately. Another important difference between the era in which I started and today is that now there is always another person on the team – “The Retoucher.” With the Photoshop Expert around, the make-up artists and hair stylists and others don’t have to be as vigilant as they used to be. The same laxness in standards also happened with the models. In the days when photo retouching was done in a dark room, every aspiring model knew she had to look absolutely perfect if she wanted to get a part. Now a model can get an assignment despite having a pimple or asymmetrical features. It’s enough so that me and my fellow model friends have started referring to ourselves as “pre-Photoshop.”.

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At the same time, consumers have a responsibility to accept fashion for what it is. No one really has teeth which are that white, everyone’s skin wrinkles and gets spots, and human beings age; these things don’t appear in modeling pictures because the industry sells an ideal, not a reality. If you buy a magazine and want to look exactly like the models you see there, it is because you have been trained by the media to feel badly about yourself when perfect unattainable images are presented. There are pros and cons to this, and while the downsides shouldn’t be ignored, the best way to appreciate the industry is to enjoy it for what it is.

By Liskula Cohen with Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist (PolicyMic, The Allentown Morning Call, The Newark Star-Ledger). He has provided expert commentary on Huff Post Live and Channel 69 news (Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania area).

Liskula Cohen is a Canadian-born former model who has worked in New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Sydney, among other cities. She is a feminist and loves every second of raising her amazing daughter as a single mother.