Logically, most of us know we can't trust the images we see in beauty advertisements. We understand that the trim waists and wrinkle-free faces aren't an accurate representation of real life—they've been Photoshopped. In recent years, this fact has been publicly discussed and condemned in exposés and social media posts; yet brands continue to retouch, and consumers continue to buy into it. "Companies feel the need to retouch because they're setting the standard for beauty," a former Photoshopper, whom I'll call Jennifer, tells me in a hushed voice, as we sit across from one another in a glass-walled meeting room. "But these standards come from five people sitting in a boardroom saying, 'This is going to be the face of this brand,' and then everyone aspires to be that way." Take it from someone who used to "manipulate human bodies" for a living: "Nothing you see is real."
Last year, Jennifer left her job as a professional retoucher at a Korean company, where it was customary for her to "remove cellulite, pinch in arm fat, and remove under-eye bags and pimples" on women who were already young and thin. She tells me that because of the specific beauty standards upheld by her company, the retouching was often even more extreme. "I think they absolutely had a different beauty standard, especially when it came to freckles, moles, or blemishes that normally I would never notice," she says. "It definitely differs per brand and beauty ideal."
I ask Jennifer how she felt personally about her job, and she tells me that, ultimately, she couldn't reconcile her feelings with the tasks at hand. "There came a point when I didn’t feel comfortable with it," she says. "As someone who has blemishes and has felt self-conscious in bikini photos, I realized I wanted to move away from [retouching] because I didn’t feel like it was right. [As Photoshoppers] it's our responsibility, too, to stand up for what's real."
Of course, the job of a retoucher isn't all moral dilemmas. Jennifer admits there are plenty of positives, too. "The rewarding part is making a person look like the best possible version of themselves without distorting who they are," she says. "I think the best possible case of being a retoucher is when you're on a team where everyone wants to represent something that’s real, rather than a false identity."
To learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of professional Photoshopping, we grilled Jennifer, as well as two other beauty retouchers, for details. Read on to learn their behind-the-scenes secrets.
Part of what contributes to our blind faith in commercial images is that the average beauty consumer is not familiar with all the gritty details of Photoshop. Even photo-editing apps like Facetune ($6) don't give us the full idea of what a professional can do. "There definitely is a difference," Jennifer explains. "In Photoshop, there are a lot of secret commands. … If done correctly, you should never notice them."
Go-to retouching techniques include Photoshop's "liquify" tool, which allows a user to adjust the size of a model's body parts. Depending on the image you're going for, "liquify" can help you completely reshape a person. "Boobs bigger, boobs smaller, butt bigger, butt smaller, hands bigger, hands smaller," Jennifer says. "Eyes would always be the thing that people would want bigger."
In Photoshop, there are a lot of secret commands. If done correctly, you should never notice them.
Retouchers also keep Photoshop's "stamp" and "patch" tools handy—these allow you to add, subtract, and move different body parts around. "Typically I use the patch tool," says Christina, who works as a graphic designer and retoucher for a beauty site. "Patch" allows you to erase blemishes by stealing pixels from the clear parts of a person's face and syncing them with the pixels you wish to conceal. Similarly, the stamp tool is like "copy and paste" for body parts. This allows you to make subtle changes, like filling in models' hairlines or adding volume to a model's mane.
The perfecting doesn't stop there: Gradient overlays are used to make hair look shinier. The "brush" tool allows you to add highlight and sheen to hair and skin. It all serves a purpose: To make an image reflect the best theoretical outcome of the product it's selling. "If there’s a story going live about a product that helps you achieve better skin, I need to make that person’s skin look like they’ve used that product," Christina says. Same goes for hair and makeup. It doesn't matter if the model used the product or not—all that matters is the illusion.
Though all brands' aesthetics are heavily constructed, not all of them call for the same level of retouching. (Think: Glossier vs. AmorePacific—one brand's ads are aimed at a younger, lower-maintenance audience than the other.) That said, it is extremely rare for a beauty campaign or magazine to have a "no-Photoshop" policy. (Darling Magazine and American Eagle's #AeriReal campaign are a few exceptions.)
Photo retoucher Kaylynn puts it like this: "Typically, if [a brand] wants something more 'natural,' skin will still be dramatically smoothed and wrinkles will be taken away, but select freckles or moles may remain." Brands that demand a more perfected finish will up the ante from there. "I’ve definitely done a lot of skin retouching to the point where I've made someone with a lot of blemishes, wrinkles, and discoloration look flawless, and that’s always crazy," Jennifer says. Of course, the amount of retouching that goes into an image also depends on how the model and lighting look to begin with; regardless, the final product can end up looking drastically different from the original.
We had to doctor a lot of different photos to basically change someone's ethnicity. It was like Face Swap on the computer.
Jennifer, Christina, and Kaylynn all agree that at its most extreme, professional retouching asks you to alter the shape, color, and natural qualities of a person beyond recognition. Jennifer recalls her most outrageous experience: "One time I was working for an athletic company that had shot a campaign, but the art director said that there was not enough diversity. We didn’t have the resources to redo it, so we had to doctor a lot of different photos to basically change someone's ethnicity. It was like Face Swap on the computer."
Jennifer's discomfort with heavy Photoshopping ultimately lead her to pursue another career path, and Kaylynn's experience has been similar. "My least favorite thing is having to make significant changes to the actual appearance of a person versus just smoothing out skin and hiding a few pimples," she tells me. "Like if a model has some beauty marks that a client wants removed." Christina adds that changes like this make her feel like she's "cheating the world of what's real."
Kaylynn says the heavily edited images she's created have stuck with her over time. "I always wonder if the model sees the final images and is like, Where is my facial beauty mark, and why did they get rid of it? or Why did they completely hide my freckles or change the shape of my nose or chin?" she says. "As someone who has a few beauty marks on my face, I would be confused if I saw someone decide to get rid of them. As if they are seen as a flaw versus something that makes you different and unique."
On a personal level, Photoshoppers sometimes take issue with their assignments, but they also understand their purpose. "At the end of the day, [brands] are selling a product that is designed to create a certain look," says Kaylynn. "Sometimes a model will have a bad skin day that makeup can't completely cover up. I personally feel it goes a little bit far when the project involves completely reshaping someone's facial structure or body build … but I do think [Photoshop] is necessary to an extent."
I can't look at any commercial image without thinking about the amount of retouching that was done to it.
Of course, the ethics of advertising a product with images that were created with Photoshop, not moisturizer, will always be debatable. But knowing that this is the reality of how images are produced can help your mental health (and your bank account). In other words, that awareness can keep you from seeing an image, feeling inferior to it, and wasting money on products that won't help you achieve that look anyway. "I can't look at any commercial image without thinking about the amount of retouching that was done to it," says Kaylynn. Eliminating the illusion puts it all in perspective.
Despite the extremes, day to day, the job of a professional retoucher is not as soul-crushing as it seems. In fact, the act of making an image the best it can be is often fun and fulfilling. "I think it’s kind of therapeutic to retouch someone’s face," Christina admits. "I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of clearing someone’s face or, and this sounds kind of bad, if it's that I know [the model] would probably want me to do it." (I know I certainly wouldn't object to a little skin smoothing.)
I can always tell when someone’s used Facetune.
Jennifer agrees that there's something satisfying about the ability to magically nix an imperfection. "As someone who perpetually popped their pimples growing up and wished I could just hit a little button to zap them away, doing that was somewhat rewarding," she says.
However, professionals caution against getting too carried away with editing your own photos for social media. Nips and tucks can look glaringly obvious if you're not careful. "I can always tell when someone’s used Facetune," Jennifer says with a smile. "The dead giveaway is when there’s a shadow or straight line [in the background]. People get overzealous, and it distorts the image."
When all is said and done, Photoshoppers do gain some pretty impressive skills on the job, the best of which they can carry with them after they leave their stylus behind. I asked my sources to name their best trick for how we non-professionals can make our photos look beautiful, and they all agreed: Everything comes down to lighting. "The first thing is to try to take the best picture of yourself that you can, and lighting is the biggest thing," says Jennifer. "Have someone who you feel completely comfortable with take your photo, and do it at magic hour. Like 5 p.m."
If you're feeling ambitious, our experts recommend dialing up the contrast on your image and using the "Curves" tool in Photoshop to brighten it. "This usually blurs out minor imperfections and makes it look like a more professional photo," says Jennifer. Don't own Photoshop? Jennifer suggests using the "Lux" tool in Instagram (which appears as a sun icon at the top of your screen). "If you tap that up a little it just makes the whole photo look nicer," she says.
But most importantly, remember not to compare your image to the ones you see in beauty campaigns and celebrity social media accounts. By now, we all know for a fact that they're a fantasy. So let's do our part to keep things real, shall we?