Digitally placed thigh gaps, removed limbs, human heads pasted onto digital mannequins: All in a day’s work to sell beauty, right? Not anymore. Models, online magazines, and retailers have started fighting back against Photoshop, and one company is sharing how it’s leading the charge.
ModCloth’s Instagram feed is awash in color, a jittery jumble of vibrant hues competing for attention. Here you’ll find floral sundresses beside pink flamingos, Hawaiian shirts beneath variegated umbrellas. The account hits the note many other established retailers aspire to, operating in the space between conventional catalog and nouveau lifestyle porn. You can buy most of those garments if you’re so inclined, but it could just as easily be the account of your most glamorous friend, the one who always manages to make Portland seem like Paris.
More than anything else, it’s the people in the pictures who contribute most to that illusion. Yes, they’re uniformly beautiful, but their bodies, varied in size and shape are real bodies—curves visible, imperfections occasionally apparent. That’s very much by design: ModCloth explains on its site that its “exclusive line of apparel is available in a full range of sizes―because we believe fashion is for every body.” This premise underlies ModCloth’s advertising, especially on social media, but it’s also a conceit that the company has elevated to the level of an ethical standard.
In recent months, the web-native retailer has thrown its support behind H.R. 4445, a bill that calls on the Federal Trade Commission to look into deceptive Photoshopping of bodies in advertisements.
ModCloth made fashion history last month when it became the first retailer to sign an anti-Photoshop pledge. The promise to not overly retouch photos of models came in response to the steady rise in airbrushing in advertisements and magazines, mainly targeting women. It’s one thing for a company to promise it won’t Photoshop its models; it’s another to actually do it. But ModCloth isn’t shying away from the discussion; in fact, the team is inviting it.
“Since we signed The Heroes Pledge For Advertisers, we’ve received an outpouring of love from across the globe,” Christopher Preis, senior writer and editor for ModCloth,wrote. “While we’re thrilled to be leading the charge, we also realize that this is just the first step towards a more inclusive and truly inspiring shopping environment.”
Preis recently went in-depth about ModCloth’s photo-editing process with Carrie Thovson, ModCloth’s head of retouching. The extensive interview on Sept. 23 details exactly what kind of retouching they’re doing—and not doing—on their models.
“The don’ts are easy,” Thovson said in the interview. “We don’t smooth skin bumps or rolls, and we don’t remove natural freckles or moles. We refuse to enhance or diminish bust, thighs, arms or buttocks. We don’t do ‘airbrushing’ with the paint tool, and we avoid over-using the stamp tool.”
Ultimately, steering clear of Photoshop may not even require much effort from ModCloth. Built as it is around 21st-century notions of body positivity, ModCloth—a business founded in 2002—has a vested interest in showing its clothes on relatively real bodies, bodies that resemble those of its customers.
Unaltered images, in other words, are part of ModCloth’s business model, a way of creating “an emotional connection with [our] customers,” as co-founder Susan Gregg Koge puts it. That plays out on the company’s site, where customers post lengthy, detailed reviews of products, often focusing on the minutiae of sizing. “Arms are a little constructive, but I have big arms, so that probably wouldn’t be a problem for most people,” a review of one dress reads in part. On another dress’s page, a customer writes, “For me, the belt came midway between my bust and my waist—impossible to wear. So sad! But I would say if you are under 5 feet 6, it would be great.” ModCloth invites such meticulous responses, notably allowing customers to list their own measurements and encouraging them to post pictures of themselves in the garments.
Friends who patronize ModCloth praised this commitment to transparency, with many telling me that access to these more honest details kept them coming back. Observing that she thinks ModCloth isn’t “just giving lip service to the idea of showing real people in their clothes,” my friend Alison told me that the detailed reviews are “hugely helpful when you’re wondering if something will fit everywhere else but squish your boobs, just as an example.”
Another acquaintance explained that she likes that she “can see what each item looks like on an actual person who has bought it,” especially because ModCloth sells clothing made by smaller, less known brands, making it more difficult to determine whether something is likely to fit.
Digitally reshaping someone’s body to create a thigh gap or larger breasts might seem strange, but it’s actually become a standard practice for many retailers, advertisers, and magazines. Some people, like Amanda Fortini in The Cut, have even argued that it’s a modern artistic illusion, like modifying women’s figures in paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.
However, more medical professionals are arguing that photo editing creates an ideal that girls and young women mistakenly think is real. The American Medical Association even has an official policy discouraging advertisers from using Photoshop, because it contributes to poor body image and eating disorders.
“The appearance of advertisements with extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,” AMA board member Dr. Barbara McAneny said in the official statement. “We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.”