Category Archives: Retouching

21st-Century Venus

Photoshop seems to be indispensable nowadays, not only to the production of beauty but also to the discussion of it. And here it is again: Anna Utopia Giordano’s Venus project photoshops classic nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino below, into contemporary standards of naked beauty.

But what I can’t help wondering, with all sincerity, is why?


Some of the altered paintings look (to me) more attractive, some look weird. Yes, our standards of beauty have become more exacting and less realistic, but we know this already. Glancing through the comments on the page, this seems to be the general reaction.

After all, the reworking of a traditional image is hardly new: Titian’s painting has already been reimagined in a variety of ways, Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife) being only two examples.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, the Venus of Paris, 1863 (


Paul Gauguin, Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife), 1896 (

Manet’s Venus, with her defiant gaze at the audience and the boldly outlined, textured rendering of her body, force us to question the nature of the sexuality being represented. Gauguin’s placing of a black nude in the traditional attitude of Venus offers a reminder that we still need, of the Western presumption that beauty is a white privilege – not to mention the fallen paradise references, with the serpent coiled round the tree.

Art has been questioning beauty for centuries, and sadly I think that Giordano’s contribution simply doesn’t stand up to the richness and provocation of its predecessors. But her Photoshopped Venuses do show us something important about 21st-century beauty. Giordano’s skinny, implausibly busty nudes have lost the dynamic relationship between flesh and fantasy that characterises the originals. The Renaissance paintings show a sublimation of honest, physical bodies into a realm of dreamlike beauty; because the Photoshopped bodies are already in the dimension of fantasy, the spark of reification is lost. The picture falls flat, having no connection to the flesh we are wrapped in, but floating free in the impossible. And that’s where the project falls flat too, as Giordano leaves it there without bringing it back to earth with some seriously critical questioning.

Fatten Me Up, PhotoShop

What with the ‘fitspiration’ trend last year, there has been even more discussion around healthiness and its relationship to weight and beauty recently. But it turns out there’s more: as my excellent friend Elli Harris pointed out to me, PhotoShop has been playing its part – for decades – in creating a myth of healthy thinness.


It was this image of Karlie Kloss in the Huffington Post’s recent article that really caught my eye: Kloss is one of the most successful models around at the moment, and although we might in our knowing cynicism presume that her photos are retouched, I for one didn’t expect them to use PhotoShop to make her fatter.

I mean, we all know models nowadays are ‘too thin’, and they are constantly criticised for promoting an unhealthy level of skinniness. But it seems we haven’t been seeing the full truth of this, since the magazines and advertisers have been quietly erasing protruding ribcages, sunken cheeks and atrophied thigh muscle. This reveleation comes from former Cosmopolitan editor Leah Hardy, who wrote in The Daily Mail (of all places) that this has been happening for years.

As she explains, the industry is trapped in a cycle where designers send ever-smaller sample sizes to photoshoots, so the model agencies have to send ever-smaller models. Having booked exotic locations, top photographers, stylists and designer clothes at vast expense, you can’t really send home a model who turns up looking anorexic and ill, with acne, visible bones and dark circles under her eyes. You can, however, retouch her.

As the pieces in the Huffington Post and the Mail point out, this may have been done with good intentions – not wanting to promote an unhealthy ideal – but the result is that we don’t see just how unhealthy the ideal is. After all, Karlie Kloss still looks very thin in the retouched image above.


I think that the current obsession with health – often billed as a corrective to thinness – is in a dangerous position when this is how health is pictured: as the before and after image of Cameron Diaz above shows, artificial health is superimposed onto a slimness which physically cannot be that healthy. It’s the very definition of an impossible ideal. And if that’s what we think health looks like, then our self-esteem won’t be any better than when weight-loss was the goal.

Irony of the day: our Cameron has a new book out on how to be healthy. How much retouching, I wonder?

Beautiful Money

Jane Austen

Bridgeman Art Library at

Please no. Not Jane. I am sad to report (or re-report from the Guardian) that despite the victory of getting Jane Austen on the £10 note, as the only woman to grace our filthy lucre, she has been retouched. Predictably, perhaps.

I can’t really say it better than Tanya Gold at the Guardian, who succinctly voices how utterly terrible and ridiculous this is. Do we have to have another Twitter campaign? I don’t know if I could stand it.

Laminated Faces


Over at the Guardian, Emma Brockes has usefully given voice to how sick everyone is with retouching, and its over-use – in this case, Mario Testino’s cover shot of Kate Winslet for Vogue. Brockes’ use of the term ‘laminated’ is particularly appropriate, as the 38-year-old Winslet is Photoshopped far into the realm of plastic.

This may be the only kind of publicity the Vogue cover will get from mainstream platforms like the Guardian, and it is becoming the norm. Three cheers! It’s just a shame that women’s (and men’s) magazines don’t seem to be listening, caught in a cycle where perfection is required by the industry and increasingly rejected by the public.

However, as so much noise is being made on the subject, I have faith that eventually the magazines might get the message. And stick it above the editor’s desk. Laminated.

“Beauty Terror”: Thoughts on ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach

“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.


The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.

So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:

  • The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
  • The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
  • The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
  • The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
  • Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.


“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16).

People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:

“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)

An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.

The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.

Photoshopped-dog-or-a-woman Yeah. Lolz.

So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).

And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).

Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.

We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.

Making a noise. Being more than a picture.

word hug

The Revenge of Photoshop

Well, here is something marvellous. Thanks to Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The Beheld, I came across the work of artist Danny Evans at Planet Hiltron, who is performing a public service by turning Photoshop against its masters.


Guess who? Not quite Jack Sparrow…

Evans alters images of celebrities to make them look… not like celebrities, but instead like ordinary people who cannot hire a personal trainer or spend $2000 a week on their hair. Apart from his penchant for styling his victims circa 1985, this reminder of just how much work goes into red carpet beauty is both chilling and delightful.

A while ago I wrote about how few of us could turn down a little retouching on our own images (or selves), but perhaps I should rethink that: Photoshop can be cruel as well as kind, and there is a real danger in people’s images being infinitely changeable – extreme cosmetic surgery seems to grow from this ‘transformative’ and beauty-centric attitude. There is something to be said for the belief that you can be whoever you want to be, but when this is applied to beauty, as it so often is, the only people who seem to gain are the CEOs of L’Oreal and pals.

I would like to end on a lighter note though, in line with Evans’ experiment. After all, the field of beauty is sadly short on laughs.

Which other famous beauties would you like to see receiving the Photoshop Revenge? I vote for Jon Bon Jovi, who looks more like a Ken doll every year.

The Art of Light(en)ing


In yesterday’s Guardian blog Bim Adewunmi asks, “So what if Beyoncé’s skin colour is looking lighter?”, a question which I think has many more answers than she cares to give.

In response to the furore surrounding Beyoncé’s new album cover, Adewunmi makes the perfectly valid point that, of course, black people’s skin colour “changes with the seasons” and so is sometimes simply lighter. Adewunmi puts the fact that Beyoncé is far whiter in this picture than could possibly be accounted for by a lack of sun, down to lighting and retouching, and then considers her case closed. But look at the picture: what Adewunmi has failed to observe is that in post-production the singer has been deliberately turned into a white woman. She is blonde. With pale skin and a heavily made-up face that bears no resemblance at all to any other images of Beyoncé.

The implication is that Beyoncé’s image was not acceptable in its original form, requiring a complete overhaul from black woman to white.

In countries all over the world there are centuries-old prejudices in favour of pale skin, usually signifying higher class and moral purity – the UK, US, India and China are a few examples. However, that cannot be the case for Beyoncé, considering the composition of the image: she is near-naked and draped over leopard skins. Moral purity is evidently not a concern.

My research addresses what happens when human flesh is turned into art. Here we have one example: what happens is that the model’s flesh is no longer their own, modified beyond recognition into a clearly established Western ideal of beauty (in this case very much conflated with sexiness). The philosophies of Plato and St Augustine argue that the more flesh is reified into an abstract ideal of beauty, the more moral that beauty is. The further we get from the actual, tempting flesh, the purer the image becomes. But oddly, in the case of Beyoncé, her post-production team have reified her image into an ideal in an effort to make her more tempting, discarding every hope of moral integrity in the process.

Is it simply racism? A rather archaic devotion to the Marilyn Monroe ideal of beauty? A direct consequence of the continuation of such attitudes is the popularity of products like skin lightening creams. What is most pertinent and worrying is that the image will certainly be aspirational for many.

Percentage of Beauty

In my research I usually try to distance myself from the philosophies of beauty that attempt to draw up lists of criteria or rankings that define what beauty is: for example, Plato in the Symposium sets up a metaphorical ladder of beauty, with physical beauty firmly ranked at the bottom and an abstract “beauty in itself” at the top; this split between physical and spiritual is echoed in St Augustine and Aquinas.

Beauty Graph – 1959 guidelines for judging the Miss Universe beauty pageant

Aristotle offered the criteria of “order, symmetry, and definiteness” as the way to measure beauty in his Metaphysics, and Kant (in the Critique of Judgement) presents all manner of restrictions on beauty – to judge something beautiful we must have no “interest” in it, i.e. not intend to use it for anything, or have any personal connection that causes us to care at all about its actual existence. Further, there are “free” and “dependent” beauties (the first are not governed by or linked to a specific concept, the second are), and so on, and on.

Of course there is value in searching for clarity and consistence when discussing beauty, but the preoccupation with lists, restrictions and rankings tells us very little about the actual experience of beauty, its effects, causes or its significance. That’s what art is for. However, I followed this link at The Beheld and found a new rating system relating to beauty that I really quite like.


A rating system that tells us how much a photo has been retouched? Yes please! And I wonder if there might be an opportunity for collaboration between the arts and the sciences here, enriching scientific statistics and technologies with broader forms of interpretation, that question the impulse towards ‘perfection’ and also the recoil from it.

Cyber Beauty

While researching glass and ice as metaphors of human beauty for my PhD, I keep coming across the question of why a cold, static and untouchable beauty is so alluring. Think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… and the 2002 film S1m0ne, in which a computer-generated ‘actress’ becomes far more successful than her human counterparts. Simone, the beauty who was created behind a glass screen and only exists behind it, is the 21st-century cyber beauty.


William R. Newman writes in Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature that,

“Even fashion models are beginning to feel threatened by their virtual counterparts – the New York Times has reported that modeling agencies have begun using cyberspace personalities such as “Webbie Tookay” in their clothing advertisements. The founder of a famous model-management company expounds his semijocular wish that “all models were virtual,” in view of their “hassle-free” personalities and their ability to keep looking good over the long haul.

The virtual model, a two-dimensional creature of unthinking electrons impelled by human artifice, could end up replacing her (or his) natural exemplar.”


It shouldn’t surprise any of us that, just like Simone, Webbie Tookay is female, white, alarmingly symmetrical and comes pre-programmed with interview responses. Perfect beauty, right? I’m not convinced: as I argued in my last blog, ‘perfect’ beauty, correctly formed and surreally smooth, tends to disconcert us rather than turn us on, and the YouTube clip of Webbie Tookay gives a perfect example of that.

Newman may be overstating the ‘threat’ to real-life fashion models by such avatars as Webbie, but there is a genuine threat in the digitalisation of beauty:

Retouching could be just the beginning of our culture’s movement from flesh to pixels.

So what is the appeal? Perhaps the wish of the model-management company founder that all models were virtual, avoiding ‘problems’ of age and personality, comes down to control: a virtual model can be literally modelled into an ideal of beauty, and can stay fixed in that exquisite shape forever (or changed at the touch of a button). Moreover, like Snow White she (or maybe he) produces the desire of the unattainable, a desire that maintains its strength because it can never be satisfied.

In theory this seems a good place to conclude, offering a possible explanation for our cultural obsession with placing human beauty behind a glass barrier. But please, don’t take the ‘desire is strengthened by being unsatisfied’ idea as relationship advice. The notion of a world where everyone holds out is surely not an enticing one – too perfect, too inhuman.

Retouch Me


No one seems to like those impossible pictures of models retouched into waxwork perfection, and I completely agree that the culture of obsessively airbrushing images is far from healthy. It’s true that no-one should feel they have to aspire to such inhumanly perfect ideals, but I think our relationship with retouching is more complex than that. I would like to put forward the possibility that so much censure is directed at these images not because they represent an impossible ideal, but because they are an insufficient ideal.

There is nothing there to aspire to: the faces are so smooth that your eyes slide right off them.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant highlights the problem of drawing a distinction between beauty and perfection (in his Critique of Judgement of 1790). When it comes to people, he claims that perfection is found in the average: for instance, the mind pictures all the men it has ever seen, and then “gets a perception of the average size, which alike in height and breadth is equally removed from the extreme limits of the greatest and the smallest statures; and this is the stature of a beautiful man.”

But wait: a beautiful man? Clearly Kant never heard the phrase, ‘tall, dark and handsome’, nor ever met his contemporary Lord Byron and seen the effect on men and women of his tall, club-footed charisma. Average never turned anyone on. Kant does betray some uncertainty, in his following retraction: “But the normal idea is far from giving a complete archetype of beauty in the genus. It only gives the form that constitutes the indispensable condition of all beauty, and, only correctness in the presentation of the genus.” Like the glossy magazines, Kant is reluctant to entirely give up the idea that perfection is required for beauty, but he cannot deny that perfection alone is not enough. It produces a correct human, but not quite a real one. And not quite a beautiful one either.


This is the problem with retouched images: they turn people, who often are beautiful in the flesh, into perfect, correct mannequins without that compelling spark of beauty. However, there is still an aspirational element to these images – the practice of retouching surely wouldn’t be so widespread otherwise. We may not have that gut (or groin) response to heavily retouched images of people, but:

Who would turn down a bit of retouching on their own image?

I read somewhere that Girls Aloud only agreed to a particularly revealing photoshoot because the retouching would make them look perfect – and, perhaps, make them look less like themselves. One of them wished that they could be “retouched all the time”.

But it would seem odd to claim that what we (and Girls Aloud) aspire to is that waxy, inhuman look which is touted as an ideal of beauty. Maybe the thought of retouching in our own individual cases has appeal as a way of becoming our ideal selves. Individuality remains central, whereas it is glossed over in cosmetic advertisements. Fair enough; they are advertising their products. We are advertising ourselves, so it is no surprise if we would like to put our best face forward. I am certainly not defending the media’s obsessive retouching, just trying to explain its appeal when the consensus seems very much one of disapproval. Problems with the aspirational factor occur if, like Kant, we blur the distinction between perfection and beauty, and aspire to something beyond the capabilities of flesh.

But I still haven’t said nearly enough on the matter – this link shows very clearly how retouching may be seen essentially as the art of lying.


Are you lookin’ at me?