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Home / FASHION / Touched Up: Photoshop in the Plus-Sized World
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18 Jan

Touched Up: Photoshop in the Plus-Sized World

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Touched Up: Photoshopping Touched Up: Photoshopping Photos by Jolianne L'Allier Matteau & Alexandre Chabot | Model Colisha Brathwaite-Sutherland

We are obsessed with skinny: Sleek gadgets, skinny lattes, skinny girl margaritas and yes, skinny jeans. But skinny does not suit us all. When the plus-size modeling industry started to bloom I think many people saw an opportunity for change in the business, which traditionally sends the message that skinniness, that responding to a certain prototype is the only way to be beautiful. In recent media, there has been a push against these traditional ideas: several television ad campaigns are attempting to endorse positive body image for young girls, to call for the inclusivity of all body types across cultures, thus elevating young women and girls’ sense of self.

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is the most relevant example of this effort to counter the effects of traditional media.

Launched in 2004, the campaign was based on statistics that confirmed women’s lack of self-esteem and noted the absence of “real women” in the media. The worldwide movement was focused on helping women and girls re-conceptualize the view of themselves, and on redefining beauty beyond the prototype of the fair-skinned, skinny blonde model.

By crossing geographic lines, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty tells us that the issues of body image, beauty, self-esteem, the struggle to exhibit our true selves and the concerns surrounding these are not just the result of a Western dilemma exhibited solely by women in the Western world. They represent a problem every woman regardless of her place has, they characterize plainly put, a global issue.    

In a New York Times article titled “Smile and Say ‘No Photoshop’”, author Eric Wilson tackled the problem of retouching gone too far. He used the case of A-list celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Gwyneth Paltrow to demonstrate how a few alterations could dramatically transform someone’s physical appearance. He tapped into a longstanding debate, quoting photographer Peter Lindbergh who wrote:

“My feeling is that for years now it has taken a much too big part in how women are being visually defined today. Heartless retouching should not be the chosen tool to represent women in the beginning of this century.”

But it is and Wilson argued that the debate over retouching has been around for centuries. He showed the evolution of digitalization from a tool that was initially used to create a sense of the supernatural, to a technology so advanced that it utterly crosses the boundaries of what’s realistic in terms of the depiction of women’s bodies. And real, Wilson says is a quality most sought after in photography today. However, despite initiatives like the Dove Campaign, despite the growing counter-culture we glimpse in articles like Wilson’s there appears to be on the other end of the spectrum, a persistent refusal to accept the wave of change in the industry. Women and young girls are still having unrealistic ideals pushed down their throats.  In a society that is supposedly rooting for the “real woman”, searching for some semblance of authenticity, some sense of itself reflected back in the images that are projected everyday I have had a hard time grasping why skinny is so in. But I was even more shocked to find that plus-size models were being photo-shopped to look larger. What are the implications of this? Is the plus-size industry really plus-sized? And when talking about women what exactly does ‘real’ mean? I decided that some research and a trip to Vancouver Fashion Week might help inspire and educate me.

When Vogue Italia launched a special edition featuring three plus-sized models this past June, the magazine started a wave of controversy on the one hand while being praised by some readers for portraying the average woman and on the other, for giving false impressions after charges of “padding” were brought up in the media against different magazines, Vogue Italia among them. One such opponent was Molly McCaffrey, the main blogger of ‘I Will Not Diet’, a personal blog that chronicles the journey of an average sized young woman and attempts to reverse the perceptions we have around fat. In a piece titled “Would You like a Side of Padding with Your Curves?” McCaffrey revealed a few startling discoveries she made about the fashion world. In it she substantiated the claims I am working with here: size 10 and 12 modeling professionals are in fact being padded and stuffed in the hips, butt and chest areas to give them the appearance of curves. Why not choose women who will not need the extra helping? Like say, size fourteen women? The simple answer is that the average woman as some of us would like to see her depicted is too real for the industry. She has cellulite and her face might not be perfectly angular. She has body fat that is perhaps too hard to conceal and suck in. Her body might be lacking the ideally curvy shape which the plus-sized industry has taken to represent what has become the prototype of the ‘fat’ woman. In essence, this woman might be oversized for the plus-sized industry.

I think it is fair to say that industry professionals -whether it is agents, photographers, editors or designers- like their models to still maintain a shape that does not leave room for additional fat. The plus-sized industry came out to respond to a demand, to create a niche for women who despite having bigger measurements still had modeling potential. However, mentalities and skill sets have not changed enough to make this change perceptible. We are still dealing with designers who have not learned to sew to flatter the overweight body. We are being sold images by photographers who feel the need to preserve a sense of fantasy for their viewers, suggesting that we might be too turned off by the raw quality of truth as it would stand otherwise, un-manipulated.  At the top of the pyramid are the agents and agency heads who make it their job to keep models within certain proportions lest they become either too fat to be considered skinny or too overweight to be plus-sized. So we are left with a version of the truth, which has completely distorted our perception of what should and should not be considered fat. On the runway at Vancouver Fashion Week, I was surprised to see a black model that had a butt and hips but an otherwise toned body; I conceded that she might at times be too fat for the industry, but to me she had the body I knew many young women would be envious of. I still thought of her as being slim. What exactly then, was the problem? I realized that the problem was this model was slim for the real world, not necessarily so for the world behind the camera’s lens. Moreover the idea that I, that anyone could have a thought that she was fat, was the sign of an epidemic larger than the industry itself. I might even go as far as to suggest that by using photoshop and padding to manipulate the ratios of women’s bodies, the industry is only making us aware of our own distorted view of women in the world. But even while I am attempting to give the industry a break from the longstanding barrage of criticism, I know that the suggestion is a stretch. It seems to me that no one in the industry since the creation of plus-size has done anything to truly challenge us. Unless we consider Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani’s anti-anorexia campaign against what she deigns pro-anorexia sites like Facebook, a challenge. Unless we consider one time plus-size cover specials like the French Elle “Special: Rondes” issue that hailed plus-size supermodel Tara Lynn and ‘plump’ women like her.  I am not saying that these are not awesome initiatives in and of themselves, but who are these enterprises really challenging when they come with falsified images? They are certainly not challenging themselves. And they are giving false ideals to little girls and young women who are not just curvy, but perhaps simply, or as it happens, perhaps not so simply, overweight. In my opinion, the entire enterprise would be posing a challenge worthy of my mention if the plus-size business became desegregated; if I finally saw a size 14 woman on a mainstream magazine cover; if I saw a woman who had not been airbrushed, padded and photoshopped into perfection or otherwise digitally adjusted to give the appearance of being natural.

Part of the debate over photo-shopping is that we don’t want to see ourselves portrayed with every roll, wrinkle and blemish. We want to see beauty. Beautiful things and people for their esthetic appeal. We want to have the hope that we too can attain these ideals. We want to find ways to escape our everyday, true, but we also want a more accurate representation of ourselves in all media forms. “Fashion magazines are always about some element of fantasy,” said Cindi Leive, the editor of Glamour, “but what I’m hearing from readers lately is that in fashion, as in every other part of our lives right now, there is a hunger for authenticity. Artifice, in general, feels very five years ago.”One person who has been pushing the envelope is former plus-size supermodel turned business tycoon Tyra Banks, whose television show America’s Next Top Model has produced plus-size models on more than one occasion. Whitney Thompson and Toccara Jones, the latter of whom scored the cover of Italian Vogue after being sixth runner up on the show; the former who went on to be the first plus-size model ever to win. Banks has broken barriers and successfully challenged the industry on several fronts; however she is just part of a minority of professionals who are trying to do things differently. And how much different can things really become unless we completely dismantle the industry and the mentalities it is built upon?  My wager is, not very, not until the next revolution happens within the industry. A big part of me wants to point out we’ve already had our revolution. Plus-size with padding is better than no plus-size at all. At least this is a view that Franca Sozzani seems to embrace. When asked about the future of plus-size modeling Sozzani had some insight that should challenge our thinking. She made a point that progress has been slow for a part of the industry that has been so segregated. She suggested that getting plus-size models out in the mainstream and presenting them as they are is going to be a battle comparable to the race war. She also demonstrated a strong dislike for the tokenism shown towards plus-size models in the industry. Ultimately, Sozzani called for the kind of change that happens on an individual basis and with the simplest ability to question what we see as the norm everyday:  

“I don’t think we’ll see the same proportion [of plus-sized models as straight-size models.] Just like we don’t see the same proportion of white and black girls. They use curvy models sometimes, like a provocation, but it is just to show something different, which I don’t like honestly. I loved for example Prada, the winter before last she used three or four girls which were curvy girls. So not everybody will embrace that, I don’t think. But I think in a way we will stop to think, do you really want to go on with all these skinny girls? If this is the only question that comes up, for me [the issue] will be as big success.” {w}

by Djami Diallo

Last modified on Sunday, 11 November 2012 02:48

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