Professional Beauty Photoshoppers Spill Their Editing Secrets

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.