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Reflections on beauty standards and photo editing, part one

In the past, retouching a model’s face or body for magazines covers or ads has often been a source of ethical debate. Now in 2019, it seems like reshaping one’s features have become globally adopted in photographs as in real life. What led to such a shift?

Beauty enhancing vs. quest for youth

Nowadays, botox, implants and injections are not only coveted by aging men and women.

I became even more aware of this trend when I watched this widely viewed video called “I Got Surgery to Look Like My Snapchat and Facetune Selfies.” It had been online for only a few weeks and already has more than a million views.

Younger and younger men and woman are critiquing their facial features. Generation Z spends much more time than any other generation seeing themselves in every possible angle and are very sensitive about their appearance. Smartphones, selfies, social media and their incredibly popular influencers and one of the reasons for that switch in beauty standards.

And then on the other side, there’s the eternal battle to erase signs of age. In this video called “DOCS: The Ugly Truth About Beauty,” a journalist in her early 40s goes through multiple interventions in a shocking raw and unfiltered news reporting.

That definitely gives food for thought.

My own point of view

I do edit and retouch my images — all of them. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I do believe that as photographers and editors, we have a very unique perspective about our craft based on our education, experiences, values and tastes. After all, that’s what art is all about.

My own approach, when retouching images, is to bring out the best of my subject without changing who they are. For example, let’s have a look at this second self-portrait editing progression in Perfectly Clear:

You’ll notice that after applying the Beautify preset (center), my skin is smoother and my eyes look brighter. I look rested, healthy and natural.

Taking it one step further with the Beautify+ preset (right), I gain some eye enhancement and enlargement, as well as some reduction of the dark circles under my eyes. More face contouring is present, as is additional blemish removal and skin softness. It’s still me, but I wanted to push the envelope a bit.

Now, let’s have a look at this second, more dramatic self-portrait editing progression made in Photoshop — the one that probably caught your eye on the cover of this article:

This time, with the center image, I worked with frequency separation, getting rid of blemishes, color correction, enhancing eye color, dodging and burning. The goal here is to make people look like themselves, but with a little extra something. If I’d only shown you this image, I trust you might believe me if I told you that I actually wake up looking like this in the morning!

Contrast that to the right image, where I pushed the retouching a little more to create a “Contemporary Beauty Standard” inspired portrait that looks like the one I could achieve with one of those popular social media beauty editing filters. Still, in Photoshop, I’ve used a brush to paint a flawless skin and add more contouring effect. I used the Transform Warp tool to slenderize my jawline and of course, the Liquify filter to enlarge my eyes, narrow my nose and enhance my cheekbones and lips. I also achieved a more symmetrical look by correcting some of my features like widening my smaller right eye and filling in my left upper lip.

True story: The husband’s nose

A friend of mine had once been hired by a couple for their wedding day. The future husband said he wasn’t comfortable with the look of his nose in pictures and asked her not to take his profile during the day. As you can guess, that happened to be impossible. She told me that she retouched his profile images ever so slightly while editing their album without telling anyone. The result was so subtle, no one ever noticed — not even his new wife — and the husband was absolutely pleased with her work and felt good about himself. Is that wrong, is that right? I could ask 10 people and get 10 different answers.

Personal reflections

Perhaps because I am too old, I haven’t grown up with a cell phone in my hands and social media at my thumb tips. They are not as much as part of my life as the Generation Z kids. I see my face twice a day: When I get ready in the morning and when I brush my teeth at night. I don’t have that self-awareness of what I look like — of what I think I should look like — all the time.

Perhaps, because I am too young — or because of good genes — I don’t have as many signs of aging as a 50 or 60-year-old woman would. I do have wrinkles, blemishes, dark circles and even a few grey hairs. I still believe in the power of good makeup when needed.

Perhaps because I don’t live in NYC or LA, or I am not as much surrounded on a daily basis by those new beauty standards that they have yet to be completely a part of my life.

Perhaps because I’ve been active most of my life, I still believe that taking care of my body by doing sports and eating right. Perhaps that is the key that helps me feel good in my body as well as looking younger and more healthy.

I haven’t had any interventions injected or surgical to this day. I don’t know if I ever will.

Maybe it’s only my naive self who is reflecting on this beauty enhancement excitement and controversy.

I have — WE have — the power at the tip of our fingers to modify, alter and transform anyone’s image.

How do we know when too much is too much? How do we, as photographers, retouchers and as a society, for that matter, have a positive and healthy impact on how our friends, teenagers, family and clients perceive themselves? Again, I could ask 1,000 people and still get 1,000 different answers.

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