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Photoshop, Models, and the Law: How Far is Too Far?

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We’ve all seen ads featuring impossibly beautiful people. Most advertising is aspirational: show customers the ideal, the person they want to be - the person they could be, if only they had your product - and motivate them to buy.

But what if “impossibly beautiful” isn’t a metaphor? What if it’s literal?

Well, in an increasing number of countries there are laws about that. Your image may be slapped with a warning label.

A photoshopped image with a digitally altered warning label side-by-side with a cigarette pack and surgeon general's warning

Is photoshopping models the new cigarette smoking? More and more countries say “Yes.”

Photoshop has changed photography, fashion, and advertising faster than legislation has kept up. In the US, the FTC has been enforcing truth-in-advertising laws for a hundred years (literally: the FTC was formed in 1914), but they have been slow to respond to image retouching.

That’s starting to change. In countries around the world, legislators and regulators are beginning to take action; laws are being passed, like the Photoshop Law in Israel which requires models to be 18.5 BMI and for advertisers to label retouched images.

Lawmakers and enforcers are motivated primarily by unrealistic depictions of the female body, and the potential harm retouched images are causing to the self-esteem of impressionable youth. The influential American Medical Association released a statement in 2011 condemning excessive image alteration that included this excerpt:

"The appearance of advertisements with extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image. In one image, a model's waist was slimmed so severely, her head appeared to be wider than her waist," said Dr. McAneny. "We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software."

"We must stop... models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software."

Dr. McAneny, an AMA board member, was referring to the image on the left:

Side by side comparison of the model Filippa Hamilton badly photoshopped in Ralph Lauren ads.

These two Ralph Lauren images feature the same model, Filippa Hamilton. The image on the left drew heavy criticism for its alteration to impossible body proportions.

The internet furor caused Polo Ralph Lauren to release a statement quasi-apologizing for “the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body.”

How can you avoid crossing the line from enhancement to distortion? From successful ad to inciting a pitchfork-and-torches mob?

Let’s take a deep look at photoshop, models, advertising and the emerging body of law around the three. As a photographer, brand, or ecommerce retailer, it’s important to understand where the lines are, and the logic behind them. The discussion around retouching images of the body can teach us how we should approach retouching product images, both ethically and from a business perspective.

The “real vs fake” discussion driven by retouched models teaches product image editing principles.

Photoshop Is Redefining What’s Possible

When brothers Thomas and John Knoll were developing the early versions of Photoshop in the late 1980s, their goal was to be able to recreate the image their eyes were seeing but camera technology at the time was unable to fully capture.

John Knoll, one of the creators of Photoshop, recreates the first demo he gave of the product.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Photoshop is doing much more than displaying grayscale images as it was in the 80s. From removing a small mole or blemish to wholly altering the figure of a model, “photoshopping” has become a verb in the modern vernacular.

Snickers ad with yellow bikini model and extra photoshopped hand - 11 total errors.

Dramatically photoshopping images has become so common it’s the punchline of this ad Snickers ran on the back cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

And this ability to alter every detail of a captured image has sparked a debate about an important question for consumers, brands, and legislators alike:

When does image enhancement become deception? What’s real, and what effect does photoshopping (especially bodies) have on culture?

Video campaigns like Dove’s “Body Evolution” aim to show how dramatically bodies are altered for advertising through makeup and digital retouching.

In some countries, especially concerning the appearance of models, the verdict is already in.

The Future of Photoshop is… Warning Labels?

There has been a movement internationally towards normalizing the appearance of models in fashion for the past 10 years or so.

Skeletal model Holly Moore walks the runway in Melbourne in a black dress with ribs showing and bony legs.

Holly Moore walks at Melbourne Fashion Festival in March 2016, with some feeling she was too underweight to walk the runway. Credit:

Back in 2006, Madrid Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week required models to have a BMI (Body Mass Index) greater than 18 in order to participate in their shows; a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. This caused a bit of a stir with modeling agencies who argued the law discriminated against thinner models, but health officials were quite happy with the events establishing a healthier standard for their models.

Then, building on Madrid and Milan’s requirements, Israel passed legislation in 2013 that requires models to have a BMI of at least 18.5. Israel has a rate of women suffering from eating disorders that “matches those of industrialized Western countries,” but the issue of healthy body weight gained prominence with the death of a well-known model, Hila Elmaliach, from anorexia complications. The 5’8” woman weighed less than 60 lbs at the time of her death.

The law also requires that images that feature digitally altered models must be labeled as such, reassuring the general public that even the models don’t look like the models.

Warnings on photoshopped ads? BMI reqs for models? It’s law in France and Israel. Is the USA next?

Skin and bones runway model Cassie Van Der Dungen in a white dress.

Runway model Cassie Van Der Dungen at Australian Fashion Week in 2014. Credit:

And then, in fashion’s epicenter, France passed legislation that requires models to obtain a certificate from a doctor confirming they are healthy enough to walk the runway. Similar to Israel, France also requires images that have been altered by photoshop to “make a model's silhouette ‘narrower or wider’’’ to state that the image has been retouched or photoshopped.

New measures are on the horizon in the United States as well. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethinen and Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, with the support of the Eating Disorders Coalition and Brave Girls Alliance, originally put forth the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014. After the bill got caught up in congressional gridlock, it was reintroduced in February of 2016 with eight additional new bill sponsors as the Truth in Advertising Act of 2016.

The bill requires the Federal Trade Commission to present a report to Congress within 18 months that provides the following information:

“The report must contain: (1) an evaluation of the degree to which such use of altered images may constitute an unfair or deceptive act or practice, (2) guidelines for advertisers regarding how the FTC determines whether such use constitutes an unfair or deceptive act or practice, and (3) recommendations reflecting a consensus of stakeholders and experts to reduce consumer harm arising from such use. “

The bill is a first step. If the FTC finds that retouched images are deceptive and/or causing consumer harm, there are a couple possible outcomes:

  1. The FTC could exercise their existing regulatory power and require changes to advertising almost immediately.
  2. Congress could legislate around the FTC’s recommendations.

Government moves slowly, but it is quite possible - even probable - that in a few years the United States will have laws in place restricting image editing of the face and body.

Seventeen magazine's body peace treaty, outlining what they will and won't photoshop, illustrated by before and after retouched image.

Seventeen Magazine responded to a 14 year old girl’s online petition with a published “Body Peace Treaty.” Credit:

And it isn’t just celebrities and politicians that are in the mix: there is an important grassroots element that is making noise in the debate. Julia Bluhm, as a 14 year old in 2012, started a petition against Seventeen Magazine at that gathered 86,000 signatures. Seventeen Magazine’s editor responded by having her staff sign and publish a “Body Peace Treaty” which outlined the ways Photoshop would and would not be used.

Erin Treloar is another advocate with a personal connection to the issue. Treloar is an anorexia survivor, at one point weighing 86 lbs at 5’ 11’’ tall, but now runs the site Raw Beauty Talks which is dedicated to promoting healthy body image and mental wellness in women. She is also the author of the petition #lessismore which hopes to begin a conversation with publications about improving their transparency when it comes to use of Photoshop.

Photo of Erin Treloar's face, Founder and CEO of Raw Beauty.

Erin Treloar, Founder and CEO of Raw Beauty and Body Image Activist. Credit:

Whether it is a national law about BMI like Israel, labeling images in France, or grassroots petitions like Bluhm’s and Treloar’s, it seems that the universal agreement is that awareness is the most essential aspect of the Photoshop conversation. Awareness that photos are being altered, awareness that it affects women’s lives, and awareness regarding how to Photoshop ethically.

Celebrity Driven Public Backlash Against Retouching

In the age of social media, individuals can be brands unto themselves. Some models and celebrities have used their influence to bring attention to photos of themselves they feel have been over-photoshopped, and to speak out against the illusion of perfection the photos perpetuate.

Most models are relatively anonymous to the general public. Your average consumer can’t tell the difference between an unretouched and a retouched image of a model, if retouched within reason, because they don’t have an expectation of what that person should look like.

Take for instance Australian model Meaghan Kausman, who in August of 2014 found one of her images heavily photoshopped on swimsuit company Fella Swim’s Instagram account. She posted the original and the photoshopped version of the photo, highlighting in her post that Fella Swim had “drastically altered my body, thinning out my stomach and thighs.”

Before and after photos of Model Meaghan Kausman in white bikini underwater retouched to be skinnier.

Swimsuit model Meaghan Kausman’s original image on the bottom, and the photoshopped image above.

You’ve probably never heard of Kausman, so her complaints fell on relatively deaf ears and never caused Fella Swim to respond.

That changes when your model is a celebrity: the public has seen that person in many different contexts, which causes retouching to be much more noticeable. It also gives the celebrity/model a platform for protest.

In October of 2015, teen star Zendaya was applauded for calling out Modeliste Magazine for what she felt was heavy-handed photoshopping of her images. On her Instagram account (24.1m followers), she explained that she was was “shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated,” and that images edited in this way “create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.”

Take a look at the original image and the photoshopped images of Zendaya, specifically her left hip and left thigh.

In 2013, Beyonce protested against H&M, refusing to allow them to make alterations to her body after a photoshoot for H&M’s swimwear line. That same year Lady Gaga spoke out against her Glamour cover photo because she felt her “skin looked too perfect” and her “hair looked too soft.”

Lady Gaga on the cover of Glamour magazine retouched to have perfect skin and soft flowing hair.

Lady Gaga appearing on the cover Glamour
in 2013 looking what she felt was a bit too perfect.

More recently, Scandal star Kerry Washington took to her Instagram (2.5m followers) in April of 2016 to respond to Adweek’s heavy photoshop job of her cover, explaining that “it felt strange to look at a picture of myself that is so different from what I look like when I look in the mirror.” Adweek did respond, saying they only made “minimal adjustments,” but based on Washington’s comments, she would argue the definition of “minimal.”

Kerry Washington in black and white striped dress on the cover of Adweek magazine with retouched facial features and lightened skin.

Actress Kerry Washington appearing on Adweeks cover...though some of her fans can’t be so sure it is her. Photo credit: Adweek

Most model release forms explicitly waive models’ rights to inspect or approve finished products. But that doesn’t really matter when it’s a celebrity who can communicate with millions of followers, does it?

The right to publish matters much less than the response a published image provokes. When it’s negative, driven by criticism from celebrity models who feel betrayed, brands are tarnished. The retouched Zendaya and Beyonce images were removed and replaced, but the damage to the brands’ reputations will remain.

A New Trend: Body-Positive Marketing

Even without widespread formal legislation in the United States, the conversation has become prominent enough for some companies to take a proactive approach. They’re limiting their use of Photoshop and promoting body-positive messaging, encouraging men and women alike to remove their critical lens when it comes to body-image.

Dove, for example, kicked things off all the way back in 2000 when they began their Campaign for Real Beauty, which is considered to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the modern era. Some of the most iconic aspects of the campaign were billboards that “featured groups of ‘real,’ diverse women in their underwear.”

Six women of different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in white lingerie for Dove Real Women ad campaign.

Dove released images like this one to promote their Campaign for Real Beauty. Credit:

And then, more recently, Aerie, the lingerie line from American Eagle, launched #AerieReal to announce their decision to lessen their use of photoshop in ads and to spread a body-positive message that celebrates women of all body types, colors, and sizes. The campaign culminated at Aerie’s World’s Largest Unretouched Selfie event. The result? A 20% increase in sales in 2015.

Aerie’s unretouched selfie event was the climax of a body-positive marketing campaign that is credited with a 20% increase in sales.

Looking towards Spring 2016, Target is promoting its body-campaign #NOFOMO (No Fear of Missing Out) for its spring swimwear collection. The campaign, similar to Aerie’s, is a celebration of all women’s bodies and breaks the status quo of only using thin, white models to promote swimwear.

Aerie saw a 20% increase sales increase with less retouching. How, and why? #AerieReal

Four different sized model women in swimsuits walking at the beach wearing sunglasses for Target's #NOFOMO ad campaign.

It is fun in the sun for everyone in Target’s 2016 #NOFOMO Campaign. Credit:

How to Retouch Ethically

So when it comes to your own image editing, how can you make sure your images are not deceptive, insensitive, or even culturally damaging, and avoid the social media pitchforks?

Typically, laws about how models are presented, and the general public’s scorn, are aimed at changes made to models that are so drastic that the images lose their authenticity. Problems most often come when the physical shape of a model, like hips and unique facial features, are visibly changed.

How can you identify what changes will be okay? Well, we suggest thinking in terms of the moment versus the permanent. You can follow this skin retouching guide, complete with video tutorials, for practical tips.

Model body in bikini showing best practices for before and after skin retouching in Photoshop.

A good rule of thumb is to retouch only momentary features, never permanent.

Flaws of the moment might be acne, scratches, dirt, fabric wrinkles, stray hair, unevenly tanned skin, a flushed complexion, reflections, or any other passing attribute.

Editing away little momentary blemishes won’t change anything fundamental about your model; you would still recognize that person on the street. If it’s something that changes day to day, it’s probably ok to change it in post-production.

But we recommend avoiding changes to permanent features, such as elongating legs, thinning arms, enlarging eyes, smoothing facial wrinkles, raising cheekbones, or flattening curves.

If it’s not something that could plausibly be captured by the camera (and if you have to change bone structure, you definitely can’t), then you probably shouldn’t make it happen in Photoshop. That’s the point where capturing passes into creation, and the public will stop thinking of your image as real.

The momentary versus permanent standard is the same one you should apply to your product image editing, and based on the same principle. You want to gain trust by being as accurate as possible. The worst possible impression an image can give to your customer is that it’s fake.

Join the Conversation

And so the conversation continues. What do we want to see in our magazines and advertisements? Are fashion advertisements art, not intending to reflect any reality but instead appeal simply to a sense of beauty? Or is Photoshop used tactically to create an unrealistic version of beauty in an effort to undermine the confidence of women?

It may take some time for the public and industry alike to come up with a firm best practices when it comes to the ethics of Photoshop, but the conversation has certainly begun.

We are interested to hear from you in the comments section on where you draw the line between enhancement and deception, real and unreal, and how you have developed your own code of Photoshop ethics. Share your thoughts in the comments section below!