One of the fashion world’s greatest ironies is that despite all of the measures taken by models to meet the industry’s extreme physical standards, their bodies are still considered imperfect.

Despite years of staying hungry and subsisting, as insiders have claimed, on diets of cigarettes, laxatives and tissues, models are still trimmed, squeezed, liquefied and airbrushed on Photoshop, their bodies digitally transported from the realm of the impossibly-skinny-but-sadly-real, to that of complete fantasy.

According to research, between 2000 and 2009 cases of eating disorders rose by 16% in the UK, while there is evidence to suggest that triple the amount of cases go unreported.

For many, the cause behind this worrying trend can be traced directly to the fashion industry and its obsession with size zero. The equivalent of a UK size 4, this is currently the only size of clothing which leading fashion designers supply to magazines for photoshoots. Known as the “sample size”, this makes a near impossible 22-inch waist one of the most basic requirements for anyone wanting to be a female fashion model.

According to a study from the London School of Economics in 2012,  there is a direct link between the use of unhealthily thin models and the rising levels of eating disorders in the UK. From their research they were able to provide evidence that conditions such as anorexia and bulimia are socially transmitted, with the now synonymous relationship between attractiveness and skinniness in our culture exerting immense pressure on women to lose weight.

However, while the health of models is an issue that has been at the centre of the size zero debate for many years now, a new backlash has recently emerged against the industry’s use of Photoshop, and the way in which it exposes society to an even more unachievable ideal of female beauty.

As one of the largest news agencies in the world, Reuters has very specific rules that their photojournalists must adhere to when it comes to photo retouching. Their handbook clearly states that “materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.” The only editing allowed includes “basic colour correction, subtle lightening/darkening of zones, sharpening, removal of dust,” as well as “other minor adjustments.”

There are no such rules in the fashion industry; materially altering photos is more of a career path than a breach of professional conduct. As one professional photo retoucher I spoke to told me, it is completely up to the client’s discretion how much photos are edited. “Guidelines are discussed between retoucher and client, whether that’s a photographer or art director,” he explained, “every brief will differ between each client, and will dictate how much creative control you are given.”

For many campaigners, it is this lack of regulation, and the fashion industry’s ability to dictate what the perfect body is supposed to look like, whether attainable or not, that has contributed to more people than ever developing unhealthy relationships with food.

However, is Photoshop really bad for our health? Or, is the rising epidemic of eating disorders in the UK just so alarming and difficult and complex, that our only possible response is to clutch at straws and blame photo editing software?

Since the emergence of photography around the middle of the 19th Century, its ability to visually replicate moments in time and make them tangible, and therefore editable, allowed photo manipulation to become one of most powerful tools in the production of political propaganda.

One of the earliest examples of politically motivated photo editing can be dated back to the early 1860s, when a portrait of Abraham Lincoln standing next to a desk, holding a now iconic pose, was released. However, as it later emerged, neither his desk, nor body, belonged to him. The only part of Honest Abe in the photo was in fact his head – the rest was that of the Southern politician John Calhoun.

Photo manipulation was also one of the favourite political tools of some of the twentieth century’s most evil dictators. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini all deployed manual editing techniques  to help them maintain their images as flawless, hyper-masculine leaders, and erase any former political ally-turned-foe from the visual archives of history.

However, with the Internet now providing us with open access to an almost endless sprawl of mass information, political photo trickery has become much easier to spot. To the amusement of the free world it is now primarily the retreat of embattled autocracies and hermit nations, such as North Korea and Iran. For example, just this year the Iranian government was caught out after they released a photo of one of their fighter jets soaring triumphantly over a snowy. Persian mountain range. After a small amount of digging online however, it emerged to be nothing more than “a Photoshop creation combining a wallpaper image courtesy of [the stock photo website] Picky Wallpapers, and one of the original photos of the jet from [its] unveiling.”

As it stands, the fashion industry is currently having a much better time at dictating reality to their followers. Their use of photo editing may not be driven by any explicit political ideology, but it is still operating within a wider, more insidious political framework, which asserts control over our bodies through promoting an unattainable image of beauty.

Now that the technology of photo editing software has become so advanced, and professional retouchers so adept at making their edits appear ‘real’, even the most cynical viewer would be surprised at just how much of a difference they are able to make, and how much of an aesthetic standard they are able to impose.

Common retouching techniques include smoothing out all of the blemishes a model may have on their skin, which often entails the complete removal of pores. If necessary, waists are also pinched and pushed inwards, noses shrunk, and any sign of flab on the body trimmed off.

Some lawmakers have advocated for warning messages to be printed alongside photoshopped images, alerting the viewer to the editing tricks which have been used.

As is well-documented on the website Photoshop Disasters, every so often this has the tendency to go wrong, rendering the model’s body into a hilarious, albeit unsettling, distortion.

In 2009, for example, Ralph Lauren produced an advert featuring the model Fillipa Hamilton, whose body was made to appear so warped and ill-proportioned that the label was forced to issue a public apology. “For over 42 years, we have built a brand based on quality and integrity,” they said. “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body.”

As the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman is no stranger to the ongoing debate around the impact of fashion magazines on women’s health. In 1993, she was responsible for publishing a shoot featuring a young Kate Moss, in which the model’s appearance was emaciated enough to make her one of the first models labelled with the term ‘heroin chic’.

Defending her use of models, Shulman stated in 1998 that “not many people have actually said to me that they have looked at my magazine and decided to become anorexic.”

However, since making this claim Shulman has become one of the biggest names within the industry to campaign for a greater awareness of the fantasies presented by fashion magazines. As well as campaigning for larger sample sizes, earlier this year she announced her plans to make an educational film for teenage girls, teaching them all they need to know about the methods that go into creating a fashion editorial. “They are a construct, like a movie is a construct,” she told the Guardian in February, “the harm is the idea that they are reality.” However, given the extent of photo retouching methods in fashion magazines, and the amount of people who still have faith in the fantasies they are able to create, convincing the public of this harm will take more work than just one film.

As Brené Brown, an American scholar specialising in the area of female vulnerability, argues, “it’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes, [which] makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced and photoshopped world very dangerous.”

One person who is doing all they can to tackle this danger is the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who as well as putting forward proposals to ban airbrushing from children’s adverts, has also advocated for warning messages to be printed alongside photoshopped images, telling the viewer which editing tricks have been used.

Swinson has also been the one of the leading figures to campaign for the removal of adverts which take retouching too far. So far she has managed to successfully lobby the UK’s Advertising Standard Agency to ban three adverts, including a pore-less Julia Roberts for Lancôme in 2009, and an impossibly complexioned Rachel Weisz for L’Oréal last year.

Yet despite all of this backlash against the fashion world and its impact on society, there are still doubts that the growing number of eating disorders over the last decade can be blamed entirely on their methods.

In 2011, Elizabeth Perle, Editor of The Huffington Post Youth Network, wrote an editorial titled ‘Photoshop Isn’t Evil. There, I Said It’. According to Perle, singling out photo retouching completely oversimplifies the problem, which is as much embedded, if not more, within the current discourses surrounding the female body as it is a .psd file. “The pervasive use of image alteration software,” she writes, “is only one small piece of the strong, sexist undercurrent that continues to dehumanize women as objects.”

Moreover, certain studies raise significant questions around the idea that most eating disorders are even socially imposed at all. Based on over 30,000 participants, research in 2006 found evidence that suggested more of a genetic link, pointing towards “a strong biological basis for anorexia nervosa, contrary to the common notion that it is mainly a pathologic response to fashion”.

This “common notion” is one also brought into doubt by a number of case studies published in the 1980s. As the website Science of Eating Disorders revealed last year, there is a range of studies on women who have all been born blind but have still developed pathological aversions to food, whether this be because of clinical depression, psychological trauma, or many other destabilising experiences or conditions.

When it comes to eating disorders, it’s evident that there has always been more behind them than what meets the eye. In promoting an ideal body that doesn’t exist, campaigners are right to blame Photoshop for the increasing number of eating disorders across the UK. But to believe that it is solely responsible for the current epidemic not only retouches the truth, but airbrushes it completely out of the picture.


Photography: Felix McCabe
Models: Imogen Custers, Vivian Law