Our face falls: Positive Dove ads retouched to high heaven? [updated]

[Update 5/9/08: An article in AdAge today reports on a statement from Dove and the retoucher mentioned in the New Yorker article discussed below. See updates throughout this item. -J.B.]

Women of Dove Real Beauty campaign
[The Dove ads: Lots of retouching? Really? Did you have to break our hearts?]
[Update: Phew — turns out there may not have been much retouching after all.]

Ah, Photoshop retouching, how you pain us, how you confuse us all. Reading a very amazing (and very long) article in the New Yorker (May 12, 2008 issue) today, I learned about the techniques and life of master photo retoucher Pascal Dangin. I encourage About-Face visitors to take the time to read the entire article, either online or in the magazine itself.

My rose-colored glasses were cracked by this statement about his work on the Dove campaigns. From the article:

I [the article’s author] mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual “real women” in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. “Do you know how much retouching was on that?” he asked. “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

Retouchers, subjected to endless epistemological debates — are they simple conduits for social expectations of beauty, or shapers of such? — often resort to a don’t-shoot-the-messenger defense of their craft, familiar to repo guys and bail bondsmen. When I asked Dangin if the steroidal advantage that retouching gives to celebrities was unfair to ordinary people, he admitted that he was complicit in perpetuating unrealistic images of the human body, but said, “I’m just giving the supply to the demand.” (Fashion advertisements are not public-service announcements.)

Of course they had some retouching done — but a LOT of retouching? Wait a minute. Aren’t they supposed to be “real” women?

[Update: Dangin says he did not work on the “women in their undergarments” ad, said, “In my experienced opinion, based upon what I have seen, it does not appear that the women had been retouched.”

Turns out that he did work on the Dove Pro-Age ads, which were photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Per the AdAge article mentioned above:

In her statement, provided by Unilever, Ms. Leibovitz said, “Let’s be perfectly clear — Pascal does all kinds of work … and only does retouching when asked to. The idea for Dove was very clear at the beginning. There was to be NO retouching, and there was not.”]

In the article, Dangin comes across as an artist, but he’s still manipulating the public image. Then there are tons of other photo retouchers out there who, at the urging of their advertising and magazine clients, shave off too much hip, remove too much bulge, and create a Frankenstein’s monster. Case in point:

Gwyneth Paltrow on Vogue Cover
[Some bad image manipulation.]

The resulting image can have one of two effects: Girls, boys, women, and men can see the image and 1) perceive it as real, assuming that it is the way a beautiful woman should look, or 2) see it as a grotesque, malformed person. We make the choice, and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty makes the point well: we often can’t tell whether an image is retouched. (See the irony here?) Will we continue to believe our eyes and try to get ever more “perfect”?

I don’t believe that photographers should never use Photoshop on their photos — everyone wants a pimple removed in their family picture for posterity or their MySpace or Facebook page — but completely changing a body to within a centimeter of its former self? And selling us a literally unattainable form of beauty we are told we must fit into? That’s where I draw the line.

– J.B.

4 thoughts on “Our face falls: Positive Dove ads retouched to high heaven? [updated]

  1. Surely the problem is that our standard of ‘beauty’ is inhuman? The media celebrates extremes of (x qualitty) that can never be achieved in actual people, as a mechanism for creating insecurity about self image, and hence, consumption.

  2. There’s an interesting follow-up article on Ad Age.


    In the joint statement Mr. Dangin said, “The recent article published by The New Yorker incorrectly implies that I retouched the images in connection with the [2005] Dove ‘real women’ ad. I only worked on the [2007 Dove Pro-Age] campaign taken by Annie Leibovitz and was directed only to remove dust and do color correction — both the integrity of the photographs and the women’s natural beauty were maintained.”

  3. Yep, I saw the follow-up, and updated the article according to it.

    And to asd — unfortunately we don’t have the ability to discern what’s real and what’s not, as you can learn by clicking here. So we keep measuring ourselves against these ideals.


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