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The great airbrushing debate

This is a long, and slightly ranty post. I've tried to keep it as concise and balanced as possible however. I know wordy posts can put people off, but I feel this is an important issue, and I'd love it if you could take the time to read through this post and share your opinions with me in the comment section.

The issue of airbrushing, or photo-retouching in advertising and magazines, and the effect which this has on our body image has been around for a while now, but it would seem we're still a long way from becoming tired of talking about it.

This summer Debenhams (a leading British department store) have decided to use un-retouched photographs in their summer swimwear campaign, to prove that "real beauty" can sell just as well as photoshopped images. They've gone a step further though, in providing an example of how their images would look if they were retouched, and details of what this retouching would involve.

The pictures below show the before and after of an airbrushed image. The original "natural" shot, which is being used, is on the left, and the airbrushed shot on the right.

And this is exactly what was done to the "airbrushed" image.

As you can see, the retouched model has been given an unrealistically small waist, and even her arms, which you couldn't pick any faults with, have been slimmed. It is obvious when you see the difference in the pictures, and the techniques used, that the second figure is not real, and therefore unattainable. However, although we keep being told that 99% or more of images in adverts are retouched, but can anyone say that this is ever in the forefront of their mind when they're reading magazines? I personally will admit that looking at pictures of perfect models with skinny limbs and flat stomachs makes me envious, and wish I looked the same. In this respect I praise Debenhams for what they're trying to do to improve body image, although I still have a few problems with the campaign.

In the press release I was sent about this campaign, the very first line used the words "trial window." Trial. Debenhams have done other "trials" before, in using size 16 mannequins for window displays in January, and using a disabled model for promotional images of the Principles by Ben de Lisi range. These trials only took place in the Oxford Street store however, and not across the entire chain of Debenhams stores, and they were only short-term, as I presume this new un-airbrushed campaign will be. The combination of the short 'trial' time periods of these campaigns, coupled with the Oxford Street location makes Debenhams' supposed committment to encouraging positive body-image seem more like a publicity stunt than anything else.

The company apparently has a long-standing committment to minimal digital retouching in an effort to improve body-image, but what is "minimal"? I'm not trying to completely slam Debenhams here, I think they've got a good idea here, but it can be viewed as a bit half-hearted, with the "trials" and limited locations. If you're really committed to making a change, to helping improve the body-image of the average British woman shopping on the high street, then surely you should cut out all photo retouching completely, and keep those size 16 mannequins in the windows, all across the country. Infact, stick some size 12s in there too, and keep some of the size 8s in, to show that you can look good no matter what your size, and that it's ok to be whatever size you are.

This does bring me on to one more point though. Yes the non-airbrushed swimwear campaign is good, but even without retouching, the model they have used has a body which is not representative of the majority of British women. Maybe with images we know are airbrushed, it's possible to reconcile yourself to the fact that the body we see in the image is unattainable, but for many people, due to body shape etc, the unretouched body of the swimwear model is equally unattainable. Surely slapping it in peoples' faces that "Look! This model is naturally thin and gorgeous!" is not going to make people feel a whole lot better about themselves and their bodies either.

It's a difficult topic to dicuss, and I think it's clear that more time and thought needs to be put into trying to find new ways to tackle body-image problems and make advertising more representative of the average british woman. At least Debenhams, as a leading high-street retailer, are doing something, as most other retailers appear to be ignoring the issue completely, and even if their campaigns are short-lived, they do seem to be occurring quite regularly, so kudos to them for that.

What are your opinions? What do you think of the new Debenhams campaign? Is it enough? What do you think about airbrushing, do you mind it? Maybe you don't think airbrushed images and body image are at all related? Let me know, I'd love to hear your views.

Swimwear campaign and retouched photographs courtesy of Debenhams.


  1. I think the campaign is OK, but it's nothing special and things like these have been going on all over. Not the same way, but with the same point.
    I don't really agree overall. I think a model is after all, a performer. She has a job and this job includes taking care of her body and being thin. It's not necessarily all unattainable. Obviously photoshopped women that have big breasts yet a tiny waist and legs are unreal and I think it comes across in this picture. On the other hand you can just take a look at VS models and the minimal airbrushing they need in their campaigns. A big part of it is lighting, angles, make-up artists... With a different angle this model could look thinner without photoshop at all.

  2. I seriously can't believe how many changes go into this kind of thing: it really is shocking. I guess it's a good thing that they're showing everything that goes into photoshopping an image.

    I think the campaign is good, but only is they keep it up. Debs look like they have a habit of running 'trials', but then not keeping them and they really should!

    It really is a tough and sensitive issue to talk about. Everyone is different sizes and if the modelling industry only picks tall and thin women, it will make the rest of us think that we're not aequate enough. More needs to be done to maybe change the industry as a whole instead of just one part of it.

  3. I rarely even consider that photos are airbrushed, but just look at them with envy. Even at the unairbrushed photo I'm envious, but I also realise it's more realistic as it isn't completely perfect.

    Although this Debenhams campaign probably is just a publicity stunt (which has worked, as it has sparked up these sort of discussions!), I do think that it's a step in the right direction. For them to make such a move suggests that there is demand for this, so I hope that it sparks other shops to consider doing the same for their photoshoots. Airbrushing is excessive nowadays, and I really don't think it's necessary - surely we should be looking at their clothing, rather than their amazing but unrealistic figure?

  4. I think that it is really great that Debenhams are trying this even if it is only for a short period of time i think it is better than not doing anything at all although i agree with what you said i hate the idea of it just being a publicity stunt and not actually doing it for the right reasons!
    I think that the model looks better without the airbrushing and i think most people would agree that they are really bored with seeing these fake and unattainable images in the media i just hope a few more stores follow Debenhams lead!
    Really great interesting post!

  5. I think this campaign is a great start. Yeah, shes already super skinny, but its realistic to show that, hey, this is what the skinny model REALLY looks like. its better than seeing those super mini waistlines and going "that is seriously not possible! she must have had a rib removed!" when technically, she did.

    we need to be realistic about our bodies, and that happens to be that womans real body. It might not be the solution to the problem, but hey at least they made an effort to go against the grain.

  6. This is such a difficult thing to discuss because, if you think about it from an advertising point of view, beauty sells. Having ‘normal’ sized models with ‘normal’ looks may make the general population feel better about themselves but at the end of the day, does ‘normal’ make you want to buy the product?
    The Debenhams campaign seems to me much more of a publicity stunt than anything else - it seems like they're trying to cash in on the nation's body image problems, not solve them! If they truly wanted to prove that 'real beauty' sells then they would have used a model who was a few sizes bigger, and they would not have brought attention to it!

  7. I agree with Carrie - it's a difficult subject because "beauty", whether we like it or not, sells products, and that's what big companies such as Debenham's are most concerned with - selling their products.

    However, what I think is ridiculous is that the 'before' photo of the model IS beautiful. If you'd shown me that without the other one next to it and told me that it was the retouched version, I'd believe it. The model is gorgeous, her skin is perfect, her figure is to die for, she's got shiny hair and a pretty face. The fact that someone else looked at that photo and thought "no, we still need to make changes" is crazy to me. The airbrushed waist in the second picture is just scary! It's worrying that it seems to be this extreme version of beauty that companies are constantly trying to promote. It's bad enough that so many models are horribly skinny anyway without digitally altering them to make them even skinnier. Who decided that THAT was beauty anyway?!

    The fact that Debenham's are doing this is, I think, kind of a good thing, but I feel like it's just a ripple in a huge ocean. It's like how V magazine did the plus-size issue back in January, where they featured several plus-size models - yeah, that's great, but the following month, they're back to using the usual skinny models. What's the point in making a big statement about this stuff if there's no long-term action?
    Sorry Fritha, rant over! There's so much to talk about on this subject - I've been wanting to do a blog-post on it for ages but I'm very aware that I'll probably just end up with a word-vomit situation! xxx

  8. This is a great topic, I study marketing and advertising at uni and this topic is discussed a lot. The fashion and beauty industry have to be seen to be doing something about body image for their corporate social responsibility in their communications within the community. So your right, most of the time its just a publicity grab.
    Have you seen the Dove real beauty campaign?

    Really great post!
    ♥ Jess x

  9. Outside of the photoshop issue...We're not arguing that models can't be naturally prettier than the rest of us, right? I'm asking about this: " Yes the non-airbrushed swimwear campaign is good, but even without retouching, the model they have used has a body which is not representative of the majority of British women. " Because I think it gets silly if we're deliberately looking for people ordinary/not especially pretty to sell things that are supposed to make you feel like you'll be prettier if you wear it. I certainly don't dream of looking plainer than I am.

  10. I agree with Wendy B in that I have no problem with models being skinny and gorgeous. That's kind of the job of a model, always has been!

    I do have a problem with models being so thin they look anorexic (even if they're not)simply because I don't think that's attractive!

    With regards to air brushing, I actually have no problem with it being used to remove blemishes and the like, because before digital retouching that would have been done with make up and lighting, it just saves time and money! I do have a problem with them "slimming" models and slicing off virtual bones, because that really does feed into a national body image problem!

    There's no problem with models being aspirational, but if that image isn't even acheivable by the model themselves, that's where we get into dangerous territory!

  11. Such an interesting post, really engagingly written too.

    I think the body issue/airbrushing image debate will rage for as long as photoshop exists, but it really is quite shocking that if you had placed the retouched image alone here, I probably would not have noticed half of the things they changed. Arms, as you pointed out, being one of them - the retouched arms look so fake in comparison! I can appreciate the argument that the 'best' body shape will make the swimwear look as appealing as possible, but IMO what would be more appealing would be to see their swimwear on real women, unretouched, which is more realistic, and more likely for me to bother to try it on! I can imagine a lot of women thinking, hmm, I don't have that waist, there's no point in even trying that on. I wonder if there will be a different in sales for Debenhams after this trial is launched?

    Claire @ Jazzpad

    P.S. Thankyou for the comment dearie! :) It seems the general consensus is an overriding love for Miss Arterton, her style and her talent!

    P.P.S. How you getting on with your red locks these days?

  12. i have a really great idea. everybody should stop caring.

    the magazine/advertising world is a two dimensional world. it makes up about 0.02% of what people see each day, and yet we care about that 0.02% more than 'we' care about the girl we saw down the high street with that really nice jacket or the really nice tree next door.

    i don't believe it's truly the advertising industry's fault; their job is to sell their product as part of an "ideal" lifestyle to a mass audience. i think it is other parts of the media's fault for creating this "ideal" unattainable lifestyle in the first place. you know, i read an article that girls who read celebrity gossip magazines were way more likely to have eating disorders and a bad body image. it's that sort of thing we should be tackling, the "ideal" and what it contains. back in the '50s the "ideal" lifestyle was having a wife, kids, a dog and a house made out of artificial fibres. nowadays we all know that we want to look nice, but nobody knows how they want to live or be. i don't really know what i'm getting at here

    this turned out to be an essay
    x x x

  13. For everyone who wants retouched pictures of themselves should google for such a service online.

  14. I think your idea of having multiple size mannequins in the window is genius. That's way more balanced. The retouched pic is just downright insulting to everyone's intelligence. I think they over did it to prove their point.Good post.

  15. I think it's almost insulting how much they need to photoshop the super thin model, and I agree the campaign would be so much more effective if they just used models a bit more relateable. Why not show customers that they can actually look good in these swimsuits, and not just photoshopped models?

    Chic on the Cheap

  16. i completely agree with you! in this modern world, it's a nice start in the right direction, i think. but if there's a big campain, i agree, that it's just half-hearted. yeah, it would be great if models, every size they may have and no matter if they're disabled or not, should stay in their campaigns, couse, from my opinion, they should be proud to show those real-life people!

    (: p.s: just wanted to say: i love your blog.
    greets, a.

  17. I am fashion shoe lover can you share a post
    about shoe shop and fahsion ?

  18. Even so, your site still looks beautiful! I love looking at your illustrations. They’re just so happy.


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