Re-Touching the Consequences of Extreme Thinness

by Lisa Wade, PhD, Sociological Images

A former editor at Cosmopolitan, Leah Hardy, recently wrote an exposé about the practice of photoshopping models to hide the health and aesthetic costs of extreme thinness. Below is an example featuring Cameron Diaz:

The story about Diaz, in The Telegraph, includes the following description of the image’s manipulation:

  • Face: Cheeks appear filled out
  • Bust: Levelled
  • Thighs: Wider in the picture on the right
  • Hip: The bony definition has been smoothed away
  • Stomach: A fuller, more natural look
  • Arms: A bit more bulk in the arms and shoulders

Another example was posted at The Daily What. Notice that her prominent ribcage has been photoshopped out of the photograph on the right, which ran in the October 2012 issue of  Numéro.

Hardy, the editor at Cosmo, explains that she frequently re-touched models who were “frighteningly thin.”  Others have reported similar practices:

Jane Druker, the editor of Healthy magazine — which is sold in health food stores — admitted retouching a cover girl who pitched up at a shoot looking “really thin and unwell”…

The editor of the top-selling health and fitness magazine in the U.S., Self, has admitted: “We retouch to make the models look bigger and healthier”…

And the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, has quietly confessed to being appalled by some of the models on shoots for her own magazine, saying: “I have found myself saying to the photographers, ‘Can you not make them look too thin?’”

Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, has admitted: “I spent the first ten years of my career making girls look thinner — and the last ten making them look larger.”

Hardy described her position as a “dilemma” between offering healthy images and reproducing the mythology that extreme thinness is healthy:

At the time, when we pored over the raw images, creating the appearance of smooth flesh over protruding ribs, softening the look of collarbones that stuck out like coat hangers, adding curves to flat bottoms and cleavage to pigeon chests, we felt we were doing the right thing… We knew our readers would be repelled by these grotesquely skinny women, and we also felt they were bad role models and it would be irresponsible to show them as they really were.

But now, I wonder. Because for all our retouching, it was still clear to the reader that these women were very, very thin. But, hey, they still looked great!

They had 22-inch waists (those were never made bigger), but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks.

Thanks to retouching, our readers… never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. That these underweight girls didn’t look glamorous in the flesh. Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology, leaving only the allure of coltish limbs and Bambi eyes.

Insightfully, Hardy describes this as a “vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist” and concludes, “[n]o wonder women yearn to be super-thin when they never see how ugly [super-]thin can be.”

UPDATE:  A comment has brought up the point that it’s bad to police people’s bodies, no matter whether they’re thin or fat.  And this is an important point (made well here) and, while I agree that some of the language is harsh, that’s not what’s going on here.  The vast majority of the models who need reverse photoshopping aren’t women who just happen to have that body type.  They are part of an social institution that demands extreme thinness and they’re working hard on their bodies to be able to deliver it.  This isn’t, then, about shaming naturally thin women, it’s about (1) calling out an industry that requires women to be unhealthy and then hides the harmful consequences and (2) acknowledging that even people who are a part of that industry don’t necessarily have the power to change it.

Cross-posted with permission. Originally posted at Sociological Images

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

8 thoughts on “Re-Touching the Consequences of Extreme Thinness

  1. I used to work at J.Crew in catalog production. There’s a lot of “fattening up” that happens in the retouching room there, especially since the aesthetic is more of a healthy, all-American look. It’s especially surreal when you pass these skeletal girls (and guys, actually) in the halls, then a month later you’re working with the retouched images and they look all rosy-cheeked and fleshed out.

  2. Thomathy, Thank you for your spot on response. Gays running the fashion world is a long held stereotype that needs to be smashed. Another problem with fashion is it is driven by capitalism and as long as something is *believed* to make more money for a product/celebrity then practices like photo manipulation, gender stereotyping, size discrimination, the objectification of women and the absence of underrepresented groups will persist. ~Pia

  3. As long as fashion is ruled by gay men, female models will look like the twinks those men desire.

    What an offensive comment. Funny what you should say about the patriarchy, because it’s also true of bigotry. That generalisation is simply untrue and so wrong that I can’t being to unpack all of the stereotypes and (incorrect) suppositions that have led you to make it.

    Gays are not monolithic and what we see in the fashion industry is not a fault that can be laid squarely at the feet of gays (who really don’t ‘rule’ fashion anyhow). The problem with fashion is a societal illness and it does no good to single out one group of people as at fault merely because of their gender and then to expand that into generalisations about a proclivity toward a niche subset of gays. You do yourself and any argument you might make a disservice by lapsing into bigotry.

  4. As long as fashion is ruled by gay men, female models will look like the twinks those men desire.

    What I find funny is the refusal by feminists to call them out. Patriarchy is still patriarchy even if the patriarch is
    isn’t a breeder.

    Until women reject men making fashion choices for them, they will be enslaved to what those men want.

  5. They way things are now they can look for a new batch of models in famine torn 3rd world countries. A little photo shopping and you’ve got models for pennies on the dollar. I remember when the I’m on heroin look was in vogue. And there’s that make your little girls look like ho’s thing as well. Next the corps look will be in. I can see it now as the walking dead make their way down the runway.

  6. This is sickening, what we are doing to our girls and women, still presenting anorexic as if fashionable thin. My own sister passed away at 55, of ovarian cancer, and years of hard fought battle, and even the funeral home was shocked as they prepared her for burial…. she honestly looked like one of the cadaverous starving victims of the Nazi concentration camps I’ve seen in horrible WWII footage, at a height of 5’9″, she weighed only 94 lobs. Yet in those last weeks, wherever she went, always wearing long flowing skirts or loose pants to conceal how horribly thin she was, despite her hollow cheeks and ashen complexion, people would turn and look in ADMIRATION, and comment on how wonderful she looked, how they wished they could stay so slim!

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