The Ethics of Airbrushing

Flicking through the latest fashion magazines we are bombarded with images of a woman. She is most often tall, thin, has a flawless complexion, perfect proportions. But how realistic is this image? Does she look like you? Or anyone you know? I doubt it.

Every element within this image has been perfectly orchestrated; from what the model is wearing, holding, where she is, how she is standing, and particularly what she and her body look like. The image is often airbrushed and retouched within an inch of its life, pixel by pixel, creating this perfect scene. As a fashion designer I am very aware of this – I have been the one orchestrating such images.  Consequently, I find it easy to look at a beautiful image and be swept away into fashion la-la-land, as I know that is all it is – an unrealistic and unattainable view of the feminine ideal. It is work of art (or design), rather than a goal to strive towards. I know that no matter how hard I work, how much money I spend on fashion, how much make-up I put on my face, I will NEVER look like this woman. And I am okay with that.

Debenhams, a campaign partner for YMCA, has shown its commitment to encouraging positive body image by banning airbrushed lingerie photographs. These before and after shots were released to show the extent of retouched images.

To me these “perfect women” are clearly at odds with the “everyday woman.” But I am also aware that education in fashion has given me a bit of a backstage view on such issues. Young women are often the ones that are most severely impacted by these images, being confronted by advertising campaigns featuring stick-thin models (normally hundreds of times per day) and left wondering what they can do to transform their bodies into something more in line with this portrayal.

There are a number of influential organisations that are doing their best to tackle this problem. The YMCA’s Body Image campaign aims to “tackle society’s obsession with body image ideals and to promote better confidence for all” encouraging health and wellbeing in both body and mind.

The Campaign for Body Confidence was launched in 2010 by MPs Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone to educate us about the negative effects of portraying unrealistic body ideals in the media/fashion/beauty/diet industries, particularly for young men and women. Their research shows that this unrealistic body image can lead to anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and eating disorders. Through action, the Campaign for Body Confidence is working towards “honesty and transparency in advertising,” diversity of body size and shape in fashion campaigns and aims to provide education on these issues in schools.  The site offers some startling statistics, which really highlight the depth of this problem. The campaign draws on research performed by the Schools Health Education Unit which conducted a survey of over 30,000 10-15 year old children in the UK, and found that 58% of the 14-15 year old girls and 50% of the 12-13 year old girls felt they needed to lose weight.

Zine by Chloe Taylor, student of Nottingham Trent University, All Walks Diversity NOW competition finalist

One step towards a more happy and healthy future for these children was the development of the Media Smart Body Image lesson which is available for parents to download. This resource provides examples of images that have been airbrushed and ‘photoshopped’ and teaches them how to dissect the images. It also provides parents with tools to encourage positive body awareness in their children. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “Young people are being set an impossible standard by images in media and advertising which can erode their self esteem... As parents, we are often aware of these issues, but may not have the advice and guidance we need to talk to our children.”

In addition to educating children about the ways in which photographs are altered, some experts are calling for Government legislation: that it should be a legal requirement to label images as ‘retouched’ when such post-production work has been performed on the image. This could be a step in the right direction for children and adults alike. Whilst some women (and indeed men) understand that majority of advertising images we are exposed to have been retouched, many still find it difficult to not let these “perfect” models effect how they feel about their own body.

All Walks Beyond the Catwalk is an organisation that encourages diversity of model shape, size, age and ethnicity in the fashion industry, so that the everyday woman is represented on the catwalk and in fashion advertising. The organisation, co-founded by  Erin O'Connor (model and founder of the Model Sanctuary), Caryn Franklin MBE (fashion commentator) and Debra Bourne (fashion consultant), launched at London Fashion Week in 2009, with their SIZE ME UP campaign. Instead of presenting one ideal woman or man, it is their goal that all mainstream designers, brands and image-makers will represent ‘all walks’ by highlighting and celebrating individuality, diversity and difference.

The work of student designers, Brogan Toyn (left) and Jessica Ng (right) of London College of Fashion, All Walks Diversity NOW competition finalists

Since their launch, All Walks have been growing steadily and spreading awareness throughout the UK by conducting a number of campaigns and initiatives. They believe, and have shown, that by representing more realistic, individual and diverse images of the female body, women can feel empowered and emancipated from the constraints of body-related anxiety and low self esteem.

One way All Walks does this is by working from the ground up– educating and building awareness within universities, so future graduates (and eventually the leaders of the industry) have the ability to question current body ideals and think outside the box when designing and casting models – representing a realistic image of the female (and male) form. If designers are taught to think this way as students, when they make their way into the industry they will hopefully continue down this path: “It’s the responsibility of fashion educators to teach our future fashion practitioners from designers to image-makers to become more aware of the emotional impact of their design and messaging through creative and exciting educational methods.” says Mal Burkinshaw, course leader of Fashion at Edinburgh College of Art.

This approach was shown this Summer at Graduate Fashion Week, which is in its 22nd year, provided a platform to showcase All Walk’s most recent campaign – Diversity NOW!  Students from 24 colleges across the UK were asked to create a fashion film, garment, zine, photograph or illustration that celebrates difference and diversity.

The work of student designers, Lasha Demetrashvili, London College of Fashion (left) and Sarah Xuanyi Liu, Central Saint Martins (right), All Walks Diversity NOW competition finalists

Overall, All Walks acknowledged the campaign as a huge success – and hope that many of the universities and colleges that took part will introduce this project into the curriculum. The students involved also felt it was a very important lesson to learn:

“People who are strong enough to embrace their differences represent something more beautiful to me, than someone who has molded themselves into an ideal.” (Student that took part in Diversity NOW! Competition)

“We can choose to change our clothes through fashion but we should not have to feel pressure to change our genetics because of fashion. Fashion is about celebrating the body not conformity and negativity.” (Student that took part in Diversity NOW! Competition)

As well as the competition, All Walks hosted a live shoot at Graduate Fashion Week, which encouraged male and female models of ages, shapes and ethnicities to go along and get their photo taken. They also conducted a live Twitter debate that encouraged people to do just that, debate about this hot topic.

We would love to hear what you think. Do the retouched images in advertising and fashion campaigns affect your body image and self-esteem?


Header photo credit: Daniel Sims for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk

About the author
User picture

Fashion and textiles graduate, newby to London, charity shop addict, lover of tea

Graphic for The Good Wardrobe newsletter linkGraphics for connecting to The Good Wardrobe via social networks and email newsletters



Graphical link to forum page to ask for advice from The Good Wardrobe community
Graphical link to "Give Advice" area on the Good Wardrobe forums
Graphical link to rate and review businesses on The Good Wardrobe Directory


Pledge here to share your skills and learn more about our campaign to get London sewing.