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News & Insight

A Victoria’s Secret Model Retoucher Reveals How She Retouches To Make Them Impossibly Beautiful & Why

By Kishore Sawh on July 22nd 2016

I’ve just left the airport, and as is typical on the days immediately following Miami Swim Week, South Florida curbside check-ins and departure lounges look even better than normal, littered with models donning freshly earned tans – even if nursing hangovers and depleted energy reserves from a week of no sleep and the rigor of Miami night/day life.

It’s a particularly ‘aesthetic’ city, filled with beautiful and transient people who strive to acquire and maintain a physical ideal they value not to stand out, but fit in; a paragon, some would say, of a trending superficial world. What sort of separates Miami from other places is probably the cultural and ethnic mix here that helps to spread what an ‘ideal’ body is. Also, that it’s hot all year ’round and people dress as though they want to be naked, sort of shifts what people want to look like. After all, as any fashion photographer knows, models chosen for swimwear aren’t necessarily perfectly suited for runway…

Huge thanks to the @wsouthbeach for hosting me for #MiamiSwimWeek

A photo posted by Jenah Yamamoto (@gypsyone) on

But even amidst all  the various types of beautiful bodies and the uprising of ‘skindividuality’, even in this varied city in 2016, it’s without question that if the average person is asked to name a beauty ideal, the lion’s share of the time it will be a reference to a Victoria’s Secret model past or present. In fact, it seems VS models are often centered in debates about body positivity, and now, a Victoria’s Secret retoucher has come forward to Refinery29 to divulge how unreal the bodies we see in the end-product are.

Enter Anonymous ‘Sarah’

‘Sarah’, as Refinery’s author Kelsey Miller has dubbed her,  was clearly very good at her job, seems to be quite open about the practices she was involved in, and explains the practice with the type of perspective only someone educated and in the industry would. Yes, she divulges how all the models have hair-extensions; how ‘chicken cutlet’ pads are used to reshape breasts; how sometimes ‘fixing’ a body part means swapping it out for someone else’s (the practice of which she attributes to the sadly-common phenomena of missing limbs and extremities in sloppy photos), and about the fact that razor stubble, cellulite, and skin are all evened-out and made blemish free. But there’s a lot more to the story.

While most others who pick up and cover the story – like the rather primitive philistine example on Cosmo – I think there’s actually a lot to be taken away from the original. Sarah does a great job sort of calling it like it is, educating the reader about basic practices, dispelling some myths, and putting the onus on, well, us the public, and all without being entirely divisive or accusatory.

A Very Sexy #sneakpeek.

A photo posted by Victoria’s Secret (@victoriassecret) on

She explains (for those who get through the piece), that the use of posing techniques and lighting techniques are a form of retouching, and actually says that these days much of the digital manipulation is about making women look curvier instead of thinner; plumping up breasts and butts, and toning down ribs. This, coming from her, is poignant because she’s inadvertently calling out the hypocrisy and idiocy of #realwomenhavecurves, which is something I, and many find insulting and ignorant – especially given how iconized curvy women like the Kardashians, Jennifers Lopez & Lawrence, and Christina Hendricks, have become.

She also explains that really, it all comes down to selling, and that’s how the onus is on the purchasers of product. She uses the more commonly-praised Aerie as personification of this, as she points out that their choice to use non-photoshopped models as a company wasn’t based on people’s self worth, but on the bottom line.

They did it because they wanted to see if it would sell…They didn’t do it to make a statement. They didn’t do it to make people feel good. They wanted to do it to see if it would sell, and it did. So then they kept doing it.

A photo posted by aerie (@aerie) on

Sure, this is an opinion expressed, but it’s hard to argue with given that conventional wisdom dictates that if the ploy didn’t work and sales tanked, they wouldn’t have continued. Sarah points out too that VS has experimented with various looks but that the target market didn’t respond, and that clearly shows that the purchasers buy into the ideal. It’s all about sales, and people buy into an ideal, not the average.

[REWIND: Is Body Positivity A Photographer’s Responsibility?]

I think, perhaps, this piece is well timed, but it still amazes me that Victoria’s Secret is thought of as the ideal. It’s ironic and, frankly, bizarre, given societal and cultural shifts pretty much highlight VS and their look (up until recently) as dated.

Understandably, to the average person uninvolved with photography, or even photographers who aren’t really in the world of retouch or beauty/fashion/swimwear, there’s no real understanding of how that world operates, but hopefully this sheds some light and maybe some perspective.

Miller does justice to the industry and Sarah with her well thought-out piece of reportage. Check it out here, and…what are your thoughts on the matter?

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Pentafoto Tm

    I live in eastern europe and a lot of women look like victoria’s secret models. Whenever I have a shoot, I barely have to do any retouching to the body, it’s mostly the face skin that I retouch.
    Maybe if people ate right, cooked, drank less of fizzy drinks and exercised, you didn’t have to demonize and call photoshop on great looking women in pictures.

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  2. Adam Rubinstein

    Can you explain what you mean by “the hypocrisy and idiocy of #realwomenhavecurves”? I’m with you through the rest of this piece, but unless I’ve been under one hell of a rock, I believe we still worship the Kate Moss body. A small list of high-profile exceptions to our demands for thin bodies doesn’t convince me anything’s changed.

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    • Steve VanSickle

      To hear it from some of my female friends, the hypocrisy of that hashtag is that it just swaps one type of body-shaming for another. While it’s entirely plausible that more women are curvy than not, it’s still suggesting that those with a thin or athletic kind of body are somehow not “real” women. I get the reason for the backlash, but again, it didn’t say “we all deserve to feel beautiful”, the hashtag basically said “NO YOUR STUPID!”

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    • Adam Rubinstein

      I think that logic reads something into “real women have curves” that isn’t there. Not “all” or “only” “real women have curves,” remember—just “real women have curves.” I’ll have to think about it some more though, for sure.

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    • Leisa Meeuwen-Ristuben

      If you want to understand the backlash against this hashtag, you may want to look into the Healthy at Every Size movement. The people that speak the loudest in that movement hold prejudices against thin people who could be thin for any number of reasons and imply that these women are not really or don’t really deserve to be called women. A woman recovering from an eating disorder may feel shamed because the HAES movement derides her for not having curves. I was on medication that caused me to endure severe weight loss 13 years ago, and I still struggle with being thinner than average/still fitting into kid’s clothes. I realize it can be confounding to understand why some people find that hashtag hypocritical or insulting. Looking at how women judge each other for different body shapes/types is a good orientation at how this can get to be a very divisive issue for women even when the focus is not on Photoshopping.

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    • Adam Rubinstein

      Thanks, Leisa! That helps clarify a lot.

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  3. Kelvin Strepen

    Kishore Sawh, Are you from India???

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  4. Paul Wynn

    As with alot of marketing down the ages, aspiration is heavily used because its a key motivator. So in the digital age, its not surprising that retouching is used to create the ideal look to help sell. Whether you agree with the practice or not, it’s part of modern day life.

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