Creative Project: Photoshopping the Female Image

That the cover page campaign of female celebrities has always been heavily airbrushed after photoshoot is no secret. British actress Kate Winslet has been vocal against her photos being excessively retouched, ever since her cover page for GQ magazine in 2003 rendered controversies regarding her phenomenally slimmed-down stomach. Another Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton was heavily photoshopped by Grazia magazine in May 2011 commemorative royal wedding issue, the latter pressured to admit having removed Prince Williams, mirrored the Duchess’s left arm and slimmed down her waistline. It is certainly not right to push the idea that the female body should be immaculate without tattoo or freckle, and maintaining a size 2 with an ample bosom. Jennifer Lawrence’s Flare cover has been scrutinized for signs of photoshopping, as demonstrated below.


Besides making Lawrence’s upper arms, waist and hips 2 sizes slimmer, her clavicles are lowered to prolong her neck, giving her a more defined, emaciated look. Flare magazine removed her wrinkles and under-eye bags, and gave her face heavier contouring and shading. As Lawrence already looked stunning in the original photo, the drastic airbrushing “surgery”–without Lawrence’s permission–that re-constructed her overall skeleton seems to be not just unnecessary but re-inventing Lawrence.

However, to say that Lawrence is a victim to a set of visual vocabulary surrounding the female image in fashion industry is not to obliterate the empowering capacity of Photoshop retouching. Women have been using makeup to alter their facial definitions long before Photoshop came along. The pursuit of beauty is no crime but a human frailty. I do not endorse the idea that Photoshop retouching should be eliminated. Of course it is violation without obtaining the permission from the person photographed. Yet I find that women themselves should be entitled to gloss over any minor defects in personal photos, and the society should keep an open mind to it.

Scrutinizing the tricks with which fashion professionals made unbelievable photos more convincing taught me a few things about the digital makeup. Recently, plus-size model Ashley Graham went on the cover of Vogue magazine.

From left to right: Liu Wen, Ashley Graham, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Adwoa Aboah, Imaan Hammam, Vittoria Ceretti.
As the cover page looks like a regular glamour photo of lean models at first glance, the inside page exposes Ashley’s true body size.

Without altering her body shape in an uncanny manner, the shooting team strategically positioned her between Kendall Jenner and Chinese model Liu Wen. Liu Wen pulled her thigh closer to Ashley, covering much of Ashley’s exposed body parts. Ashley also placed

her own palm on her thigh to minimize the exposed skin area. Gigi’s hand is airbrushed to look as long as a tentacle, visually slimming down Ashley’s waist. Ashley’s presence on Vogue cover not only manifests that the fashion industry has been fighting body-shaming by admitting diverse models, but also makes it evident that high-end fashion designers have started to market to women of Ashley’s size.

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Ashley Graham on March Vogue.

I found another Vogue cover of Ashley to be very inspirational. Ashley wears a yin-yang dress that is largely black. Not only has the photo been adjusted to black and white to highlight her curves and hide her bulging stomach, the white part of the dress is also toned down to blend into the shadowy, white background as if it no longer is part of her body. The black part of the dress is saturated to hide any wrinkles in the belly area. Ashley looks curvaceous, voluptuous and powerful.

I primarily used Adobe Photoshop to modify pictures. Then I made GIF on to display what “magic” has been done. To insert gif into my blog post, I download the gif, upload it onto and inserted the url. I turned a regular picture I took with my friend Cleo (left) and Lydia (middle), and turned GLAMOUR PHOTO 1.0 into GLAMOUR PHOTO 3.0 with a series of operations with Photoshop.

GLAMOUR PHOTO 1.0, as shown below, is a picture taken with iPhone. With insufficient and too yellowish lighting, the image was very crude.The first stage of the transformation was highlighting the contrast without over-brightening the background. Instead of hitting up the exposure and contrast slider, I adjusted the numbers in the luminosity slider to achieve a lighter and evened-out skin tone. I brought down the reds and the greens to make the skin look fairer. I also brought down the saturation in hue/saturation slider to just a little more than the midpoint to black-and-white image, because the skin will look so much glossier and less reddish with low saturation.

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Step Two was to remove eye-bags and red spots on skin, enlarge pupils, slim down my shin and give Cleo a chic high hip. I used Spot Healing brush to remove the red spots, dark circles and eye bags. To sharpen the eyes, I duplicated the layer, went to Filter > Other > High Pass, set it to 30. Then I added a black mask, keeping the mask selected while I went on the enlarge the pupils. Using a white brush at 50% opacity, I brushed the eyes.

Narrowing down the body is as easy. I duplicated the layer, locked the background layer, went to Filter > Liquify. Froze the areas (Lydia, me, Cleo’s torso and head) that I don’t want to alter with Freezer Mask Tool, caved in her back with Forward Warp Tool. To make her butt tinier her thigh skinnier, I chose Pucker Tool, brought the brush size to 250, clicked areas I wanted to slim down. With these steps I entirely altered Cleo’s pose, turning a bag of potatoes into a peach. I followed the same steps with my jawlines and shin. By extended Lydia’s finger towards my cheek, my cheek visually appears smaller without noticeable trace of editing my face.

In Step Three, I smudged Lydia’s hair line to make her hair fluffier, her face smaller.

The making of GLAMOUR PHOTO 2.0.

To make my glamour photo cover-page style, I replaced the background. GLAMOUR PHOTO 3.0 compared to 2.0 has a few salient points: the majestic palace background adds shade to the human figures. Lydia’s hair blended into the background, making her face tinier. Her black dress blended into the background too, and the v-neck area stands out against the dark background. As she looks bloated off the beige wall in 2.0, she looks phenomenally leaner here. My right leg and half of my left thigh are covered by the feline, only a quarter of the shin is shown. I look paler and leggier. Since Cleo is on the far left, it is easy to slim down her thigh without fear of curving Lydia’s body shape, even more so with all the columns in the side space visually narrowing down her body. The bright floral crown direct the first attention to the facial areas, therefore the viewer will be less likely to notice the obvious traces of photoshop retouching.

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After adjusting all layers to appropriate sizes and overlapping one another in the right order, merge all layers to create a single image.
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As the frontal image is still jarring with the background, I used the spot healing brush tool to blur the whitish line around human figures.
GLAMOUR PHOTO 3.0. So all the layers are now more blended together. Still, it could have been done professionally by filling the image with 50% grey for a natural finish and a camera raw filter for a vignette hue, so that every object will come together as if exposed to a same intensity of lighting. If I used the burning tool to trim the edge of the human figures in the first step, the result would look a lot less horrible! It is also not a great choice to shoot with a linear object in the frame (a brick wall, a porch railing, or in this case the marble table) — traces of Photoshopping can be easily detected by testing the edge of the object with a ruler.

These operations are by no means subtle, since this project is supposed to be a parody. Although the eye-widening and the skin tone liquifying can be easily achieved through lighting, makeup, dressing and posing, what I did was consciously conforming to a set of visual criteria surrounding the female beauty in my digital body makeover, a discourse that is consistently conditioned by my culture and the social media of the specific culture. The omnipresent beauty contest in my culture compliments only the limited few traits–white and immaculate skin, pointy chin, big eyes, fragile physique, not-too-meaty boobs, the perfectly effortless 3-hour makeup–and through “liking” (or not “liking”) selfies on social networking applications, the unstated beauty criteria is reinforced by common contribution. By airbrushing themselves thin before posting a selfie to compete for recognition on social networking media, women are unconsciously resisting that beauty can be diverse. Asian women’s pursuit for that “limited beauty” has extended from the digital body makeover to actual plastic surgery, while the true femininity of those who altered their looks under the scalpel is in abjection. I was once an intern in Shanghai, patiently persuaded by my Airbnb Landlady during my stay, who insistently referred me to her botox surgeon. Photoshop retouching can still be a positive tool, but there is a thin line between digital makeup and digital surgery. Digital makeup is not dangerous. What is dangerous is women getting used to altering their looks, only to cater to the homogeneous, monotonous, mainstream, vicious idea of beauty. Then beauty is truly in abjection.

I also performed the same procedures of liquifying and narrowing on famous oil paintings. But in this 1.0 vs 2.0 beauty contest, which side does it better? The answer is obvious.

Mona Lisa by Da Vinci. From Busty Mona Lisa to emaciated Mona Lisa.
The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Before and After body.
Venus at her Mirror by Velazquez. This is an example of failed PS retouching. Narrow the image in the mirror too, like a pro.