When it comes to retouching photos, how much is too much?
This topic has come up a few times with friends over meals, and almost everyone has a story or two to relate.
My friend Rina shared how a pal fretted about meeting her future mother-in-law. “That’s because the mum-in-law had only seen her ‘glamourised’ photos on Facebook. In person, my friend didn’t look that good.”
So Rina and a few buddies helped their friend doll up before the meeting. “We piled on the make-up and did her hair … and finally suggested she pray.”
Another friend James recalled the time he met a blind date at a cafe, after chatting with her on Tinder. He patiently waited for his potential soulmate to show up. “The whole time, she was actually standing in front of me. I didn’t recognise her, as she didn’t look like her photos at all.”
“Now when I look at pictures on dating sites, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Is that what they really look like?’ Because we know people are tweaking their photos,” James quipped.
That brought to mind a recent incident in China, where a couple met for the first time in public and ended up fighting. Their altercation was filmed by a passerby and shared on social media. Both accused the other of “false advertising”, ie looking different from his/her profile pictures.
Where this scribe is concerned, I once encountered a popular “influencer” at a fashion event, and didn’t recognise him at first. In his (heavily-edited) Instagram pictures, he looked like a K-Pop star with defined cheekbones and flawless skin. In person, his complexion was so bad, I wanted to rush him to the nearest dermatologist.
With the advent of technology and digital wizardry, one can manipulate images easier than ever before. On smartphones, there are hundreds of apps to help users alter their selfies before they upload the pictures on websites.
In an interesting Glamour feature which touched on this particular subject, the magazine surveyed 1,000 women. It found that 60% feel it’s acceptable for a woman to tweak her personal pictures, and 23% of women aged between 25 and 29 do it; that number climbs to 41% among those aged 18 to 24.
“Ten years ago, we weren’t able to do the things we do today,” said Hany Farid in the article; he is a professor of computer science and digital forensics at Dartmouth College who has studied retouching. “Altering photographs used to happen in the darkroom, then on the computer screen. Now it’s something people are doing directly on their phone or camera.”
The same article interviewed Giles Fabris, CEO of lookbetteronline.com, a photo and retouching service. Aptly enough, its company slogan is “Better photos, better dates.”
Thousands of people have hired Fabris’ service, usually to get the best possible image of themselves to post on dating websites. “The right photo,” he explained, “makes a huge difference in how people perceive you on the web.”
Fabris is an expert with “digital dermatology”: erasing blemishes and lightening undereye circles.
Nowadays, one just needs to Google “personal photo retouching” and you’ll get over one million results for similar professional services, do-it-yourself software and YouTube tutorials.
It’s no secret that most magazines, catalogues and advertisements are given the Photoshop treatment before being shown to the world.
Tummies are flattened, legs lengthened and sometimes photos are completely changed. But a good graphic designer hides all traces of his manipulation.
If not, there are sites like Photoshop Disasters which immortalise the worst Photoshop mistakes such as missing legs or horrific cut-and-paste jobs.
In 2013, Lucky magazine’s cover of Kerry Washington was criticised as it made the actress unrecognisable. “She appears to be lit from below and slightly to the right, giving her face odd shadows and creating a flattened, blown-out look. The overzealous undereye concealer doesn’t help matters,” pointed out a fashion website.
When the Scandal star, 38, graced Instyle the following year, another “scandal” erupted; this time Netizens accused the fashion mag of making her skin tone lighter than it is.
Late last year, an Instagram picture of John Mayer was declared a “Photoshop fail”. In the image that went viral, the 37-year-old singer looked almost cartoonish, as many of his facial features were blurred out.
Another male singer embroiled in controversy was none other than 21-year-old Justin Bieber. The subject of whether his body parts had been digitally enhanced in an ad campaign for Calvin Klein underwear was the talk of Twitter. Not surprisingly, Bieber’s team insisted that the photos were not altered in any way.
Let’s not forget the movie poster for The Heat, which sparked outrage due to the botched Photoshop job on 44-year-old star Melissa McCarthy.
“The actress looks completely unrecognisable in the promotional material, with her face notably slimmed, her eye colour changed, her skin heavily smoothed and even her facial expression altered,” huffed The Huffington Post.
At the end of day, I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to editing pictures before they appear online. My favourite filter on Instagram is Valencia, which reduces wrinkles and eyebags but to a realistic extent.
In this selfie-obsessed social media age, a little retouching doesn’t hurt anyone. After all, who doesn’t want to present the best version of themselves?
But c’mon, let’s not do a John Mayer.
William K.C. Kee’s colleagues once gave him a T-shirt which said “Guilty of excessive selfies”. He denies the claim.