Unretouched Photos: Empowering or Just More ‘Empower-tainment’?

Recently, there have been a few high-profile examples of magazines publishing images of “real” women: plus-sized models, or celebrities free of makeup and/or Photoshop. The ensuing publicity can make it feel that we’ve won body image victories–but let’s look closer at these images to find out how much we should really be celebrating.

February 2009: Love Magazine‘s first magazine cover features a nude Beth Ditto.

April 2009: French Elle’s no make-up edition features eight European models without make-up or digital touch ups.

September 2009: Glamour Magazine features “the woman on p.194” with a belly roll (and a smile).

January 2010: V Magazine‘s plus-size model spread, clothed and nude.

February 2010: Australian Marie Claire puts Miss Universe 2004, Jennifer Hawkins, on the cover nude and unaltered. A cover signed by Hawkins was auctioned on eBay, with proceeds donated to Australian eating-disorder support group The Butterfly Foundation.

March 2010: Tara Lynn graces the cover and the pages of French Elle’s “curvy girl” issue.

April 2010: French Marie Claire releases a non-airbrushed issue.

Just last week: Britney Spears releases unretouched photos alongside  the altered images for her new Candies campaign.

A few days later, Kim Kardashian releases nude photos for the May 2010 issue of Harper’s Bazaar sans digital alteration (and felt so empowered that she tweeted about it).

I’ll admit that I’ve gotten excited about more than a few of these body-image events, and looking at this list it would appear that there’s some real positive change occurring. But after news of Kate Hudson’s alleged breast enhancement made headlines less than 48 hours after Britney Spears released her unretouched photos, I had to ask, Do these efforts matter? Can these images combat the images below?

Yes, unadulterated images matter, but their impact is diluted by the millions of adulterated ones. As consumers we are exposed [PDF] to hundreds of advertisements per day that overwhelmingly feature unnaturally (or genetically predisposed) thin women who have been further retouched. Waists are made smaller, torsos and legs are elongated and thinned, thighs smoothed and  armpits all-but-disappeared.

In this context, the occasional plus-size model appears deeply incongruous: a spectacle, not a part of a spectrum.

In the cases of Spears and Kardashian, featuring striking women without airbrushing isn’t exactly revolutionary–and some speculate whether these images are actually all they claim to be. Kardashian’s body, at least, comes pre-altered by cellulite removal. These photographs set a new unattainable standard, this one for “real” bodies. Plus, both Spears and Kardashian have  published countless altered photographs of themselves, and Kardashian hawks diet pills as a side job.

Without an authentic and consistent message of  beauty empowerment in all its diversity, these attempts feel like gimmicks, or what Samantha Moore of Gender Across Borders calls “empower-tainment“:

It’s going to take more than a celebrity proclamation that my “unique” qualities are beautiful, despite what popular media—and the male gaze driving it—say. Because beauty standards are socially constructed, redefining what “beauty” means is a hairy, multifaceted venture that must consider entrenched social forces. Powerful influences such as patriarchy, historical context, consumerism, and media are embedded in the fabric of almost every society. While boosting women’s self-confidence is peachy, it cannot be a successful driver of social change. What we really need to contest is the beauty myth—the illusion that female beauty standards are natural, inevitable, and backed by some concrete “truth” about optimum femininity.

Images that fall outside the limiting standard can’t produce change when millions of taken-for-granted images constantly cultivate our expectations and solidify the standard. Publishing unadulterated images every so often, with great fanfare, does not successfully challenge the normative Eurocentric image of ideal beauty, which includes vast amounts of alteration. Rather than promoting real change and creating a critical dialogue that explores the creation and maintenance of unrealistic, confining and, often, dangerous images of beauty, the announcement of these unaltered photos can easily become a spectacle designed for publicity and ratings.

TOP:Tara Lynn in “curvy girl” issue of French Elle. BOTTOM: Collages by Nasser Samara.


  1. Jacqueline C says:

    Again, as Kim Kardashian seems to be of such a great interest to the public, and is excessively brought up in feminist articles, I absolutely must comment on how her nude photo, obviously does no justice to the rest of the “real women’s nude body shots”, as she has already been artificially enhancing her body pre-photo shoot. Therefore, her input should be excluded. However, in regard to the essence of the article, Kim’s post about her photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar simply proves how even she, KIM KARDASHIAN-modern day sex symbol- who has her cellulite removed and is the face of a diet pill company, is still insecure about her body. The fact that she includes just how “empowering” her nude shots were, proves that she still was not comfortable being photographed, even after her extensive efforts to achieve perfection. I’d say this is because she is already expected of to have achieved that, and maintain her perfect image, as the media industry depends on her to.

  2. Today we live in a mainstream culture where we are exposed to the vast amount of images of women who have been displayed on billboards/magazines and have had some sort of computer-retouching or cosmetic procedure. These images, which have been created by Photoshop, lighting, make-up, and diets, have created an image that is not even real. Therefore, it causes women in our culture to compare themselves to images that are ultimately unrealistic. Beauty is more important than ever before and the way a women looks is the number one value of a women. Beauty has become the most important factor because they will get scrutinized if they don’t meet the cultural standards of beauty. Although it may seem difficult for many women, I feel that women need to let go of the approval of our society and focus solely on how they want to look for themselves. Once they let go of meeting the cultural standards of beauty, they will be able to feel comfortable in their own skin and not be forced to go through eating disorders to compete with the “fake” images created by our media.

  3. Ashley B. says:

    I think if magazines slowly start to put out unretouched images of these models then it would be a good start to getting these images embraced by the media. In class, I learned that we live in a mediated culture where mass media has a direct impact on culture. The media puts out these images of skinny women with the “perfect” amount of curves with flawless skin and holds all women accountable for not having those kinds of bodies, where in reality, that kind of body is unattainable. Because young girls look up to these models photographed in magazines, they try and achieve their body type and put their own lives in danger in order to be accepted by society’s unrealistic standards. Putting unretouched images in magazines would help women feel empowered by their bodies. These celebrities being photographed should not allow their images to be altered. If Kim Kardashian was so empowered by her picture not being altered, then she should not allow photographers to alter her image in the first place. The problem is that these celebrities feel empowered for the moment by they too feel the scrutiny from the media for not having their photos retouched and they give in to using Photoshop. The media is to blame on the idealized standards of beauty set for women to achieve no matter what is at risk. The pressure to be accepted by society’s standards is very high and needs to be regulated.

  4. Daniella S. says:

    4) I personally think that showing the unedited images of women on these magazines will not change the way the media and society thinks, but every step does count and can make an impact on someone. People often forget to look at themselves in the mirror and love themselves and their bodies for what and who they are. The media puts constant pressure on women and the image they are supposed to have. This high demand in needing to be skinny and thin has affected women in many ways, from eating disorders to anorexia. I appreciate these unretouched photos because it shows me what is real in the world and shows me that not everyone is perfect and that it is okay to have flaws. The media expects things from us that are at most times impossible for some people to achieve. Photoshop is false advertising and should slowly be controlled. Women need to slowly lean that comparing themselves to others is not healthy and to appreciate their bodies.

  5. Melody S. says:

    It was so refreshing to look through the images in this article and see the natural and untouched women displayed in the magazines. We take part in a society where we expect to see the incredibly thin, almost emaciated and tall model with blue eyes and blonde hair; but something that most women don’t realize is that, this is hurting us the most. The models we often see in the magazines are often seen as these beautiful women that every other women wants to be like, but many still do not know the actions taken prior taking the model’s photo or most importantly, after the photo has been taken. First of all, obviously the model is under a huge cosmetic make-over with a team of 15 people trying to make her look good, and then finally after the photo has been taken, there’s another team of people touching up, or photoshopping the model. The aftermath of the photo taken is completely unrealistic and even pretty animated, therefore, most women who look at the front page of the next ELLE Magazine will feel completely insecure, not knowing the truth behind the images they see.

  6. Nathan P. says:

    I don’t think it is possible to know whether the companies in charge of these different magazines and sites have published these un-altered photos for the sake of benefiting the majority of women instead of conforming to the objectification, but I don’t think it is that important to find out why. The bottom line is that right now, change is extremely difficult to establish. Changing the norms is probably even along the lines of impossible because of the vast majority that believes these “norms” and the vast amount of resources that are at the disposal of these companies to produces these altered and objectifying images. I don’t think we should just take what we can get in terms of these few instances where the images were to the appeal of the women who don’t look like these false models, but I do think that if we question and doubt every motive that may seem moral, we will never progress towards change ourselves. We just need to increase our say and our power to show the right images and then fight fire with fire and hope that the trend can lean in our favor.

  7. While I agree completely that these sporadic photo shoots with unretouched models don’t challenge media cultivation and the Eurocentric beauty standard at all, I still think it’s important to recognize and appreciate that they even exist. There are definitely not enough ads like these to achieve some sort of cultural restructuring, but I would argue that the ads still make significant statements to girls, women, boys, and men who come across them. They remind us, however briefly, that the unattainable beauty standard isn’t necessarily required in order for a female to truly look and feel beautiful.

  8. This article causes the readers to question what beauty is. Is it something that we see for ourselves or are we told what it means to be beautiful. I imagine that it would be very difficult for the small puddle of real models to battle the large ocean of fake ones. These repeated images of women who are extremely thin and likely anorexic cause many women to think that it is a standard of beauty. If more women were educated and understood that these images are not only absurd as a standard of beauty, but also are photoshopped. There must be a coorelation between the increasing number of advertisements of anorexic women and the number of female patients with eating disorders. Many women take extreme measures such as surgery, smoking, diet pills, and disordering eating to try to gain the unrealistic image that is presented to them. We live in a society in which health is a price that is frequently payed in order to gain the image of “beauty” which is apparently more important.

  9. Tatiana Kohanzad says:

    It makes me happy to see that there are unaltered and unphotoshopped photos of women. It makes these women on the advertisements that we see everyday more relatable, but with all the millions and millions of altered photos of thin and tall and airbrushed models out there, then these photos will not take full effect. Pictures like the ones released by Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian will be viral for one day and used as reminders to girls that this is what a real woman’s body looks like, but then after they will fade away, people will forget, and all the altered photos of ‘perfect’ women will appear again. So in turn, these unaltered photos can’t produce change.

  10. As much as I would like to say how empowering, inspirational and amazing it is to see unretouched photos, I cannot. Many of the images that were not retouched in this magazine still send out the message of female subordination and male domination. Even though the images of the women in this article were not retouched they for the most part, strive to make themselves as thin and “beautiful” as they can in real life. For example the image of Kim Kardashian, she states that it was so empowering getting naked for the magazine. However she most likely had pounds of make up, stragtegically placed lighting and, spends several hours a day working on her figure. How are these photos empowering when these images still DO NOT accurately represent the average woman in america?

  11. Lindsay Grossman says:

    I feel that publishing unaltered photos is definitely a step in the right direction, however I feel that it is for the wrong reasons. I have noticed a pattern of more mainstream magazines releasing unaltered images and I feel that it is in order for them to gain publicity, not to empower young adults to feel secure in their own skin. The same magazines that release these images fill their pages with advertisements that flaunt altered women and only increase insecurities more. I feel that in order for real change to occur we need to collectively take a stand and not only publish articles and release photos of unaltered images but publish advertisements of natural women using the said product. The wheels for change are definitely in motion but nothing is really happening as of now.

  12. Much like the author of this article, I too was excited when untouched images began to be published or “unofficially” released. I have always been aware that these images I see on a daily basis aren’t real, but the line between real and fake starts to get blurred after a while and you start to convince yourself that these people must just naturally be this perfect. Not until I began to see the untouched images did I realize how fake the original images are. The images that photo retouching and Photoshop create are so unrealistic and unattainable. Not only does it obviously send the wrong message that these images are the ideal of perfection, it makes everyone look the same. We no longer celebrate the little nuances and characteristics that make each of us different. While I do agree that many of the untouched images that are released are done for publicity, I do hope it continues and that the media realizes that imperfection is desired, will sell, and should be encouraged.

  13. Raquel I-V says:

    I usually don’t read magazine but on a daily basis I am bombarded with ads not only on television but also on billboards, or store windows. Part of me does agree with this whole concept of “unretouched” photos to being Empowertainment. some of these models or celebrities had some work done, either plastic surgery or taking some time of supplements to keep their body a certain way. People like Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian are people who have tons of money compared to the rest of us. Some of them might have gotten a boob job, or a nose job, and they have time in their daily schedule to work out or go for a walk. Many people out there are not that lucky, there are women who work two jobs or just don’t have time to go for a run etc. They can in no way relate to these models/celebrities. Even if they don’t have makeup on, they still have someone fixing their hair, or they simply have the money to buy products that will make their skin look a certain way. Not everyone counts with that. Even me, I work don’t pay for rent, all I have to worry is about myself, but with school and work, I barely even have time to sit back and do nothing. And if I want to buy a product that will help my skin look at its best, that means that more than half of my paycheck is gone. And being a thicker person, in no way do I feel connected to these curvy models, because even when I do my makeup and hair and dress up nicely or simply look at myself at the mirror, my skin nor my body look closely to the ones in the ads. -R.I-V

  14. Ariela R. says:

    Looking at these photos, as a woman, definitely had a great impact on me. Being that the “flawless” photoshopped models do have an effect on my confidence, I was taken back by the curvy girls on some of these covers and especially the smiling girl with the belly role. These images helped show me that everyone has their own unique characteristics that make them beautiful and we don’t all have to look the same: skinny, light eyes, big boobs, perfect nose, perfect skin and other standards are socially constructed. These images help me better my body image because it attempts to redefines beauty and shows that you don’t have to be “flawless” to be considered beautiful. According to Jean Kilbourne’s film, “Killing Us Softly 4,” we can learn how much media subconsciously affects us. When young girls see these images and learn that these natural looking girls were beautiful enough to make it to a magazine cover, it will definitely help them see their body image in a better lens and this is important because of the rise of eating disorders and other forms of self-harm.

  15. Vanessa R. says:

    We have been exposed to the media telling us what is “pretty” that we are shocked to view something outside of that “norm” that the media created. Unfortunately, these few photos of unretouched women have a harder chance to change our perspective against the millions of photos we have seen of women with “perfect” bodies. It is sad how many girls are affected by these images that cause them to suffer with eating disorders as well as disordered eating in order to strive for something that is physically impossible. We need to realize that photoshopping the women in these photos helps no one, and learn to have confidence in our own beauty and ignoring these unrealistic “norms.”

  16. Although I agree that 1 unaltered image against hundreds of photoshopped ones is not going to make a huge impact, it sure is better than nothing. But that 1 image should literally be a real woman. A random found at the mall, or at work. Not millionaire Kim Kardashian who has afforded to have surgeries, botox, cellulite removal, hair extensions, and high quality workout trainers. Even her standard of real is unobtainable because not everyone can afford it! Although her intent is praise worthy, it still doesn’t help the problem. Likewise, images of “real” women do not go unnoticed. When you are so used to seeing stick skinny, tall girls on the cover of magazines, the one curvy, unphotoshopped women is bound to catch your eye. I think it is important to slowly make that transition into “real” women. Real doesn’t mean fat either. Some real women ARE naturally skinny. But by fake we are referring to the women who have been so photoshopped that they look like other worldly creature. “Real” women are tall, short, fat, thin, curvy, muscular, bony, whatever adjectives you want to use. But women across the cover of magazine who inspire little girls everyday need to be presenting an image that they can strive towards and obtain, not what that makes them depressed and ill.

  17. Pouya G. says:

    This idea of ‘perfection’ as it comes up in the media has started to grab my attention more often than it used to after I enrolled in the class. I will never understand why magazines will show these models which have been digitally altered and retouched. Yes, they may look “perfect”, but when the model herself does not look anything like her own picture what are people supposed to make of that. What magazines are telling people then is to try to live up to photoshopped images. Airbrushing and Photoshop effects only deceive people and give them false hope that the ultimate perfection is possible. Women don’t all have to be stick thin or have patriarchal society’s version of ‘amazing’ bodies. For a nation where self-harm and eating disorders are sky rocketing and self-esteem is plummeting, it is important to let people see actors and models in a natural state.

  18. Rachel Moreh says:

    The media creates this unattainable image of what is considered to be “beautiful”. However, they do not own up to how much they are photoshopping and altering these images. Though editing is commonplace in the fashion industry, it is not necessary. The media is sending the wrong message to women everywhere. These untouched images are gorgeous, and display what a real woman is. I believe that is baeutiful and what should be seen by our society and young girls as what is beautiful: showing your real self! The unique features of different women is what is beautiful. If we were all the same thing ,there would be no such thing as beautiful, we would all just be ordinary. The unique features of women should be celebrated, not shamed, changed or removed.

  19. Hasti Nowrozi says:

    After reading the article and looking at pictures, I believe that seeing images like these are better than nothing at all. However, we need to see more. Its crazy how there is a huge amount of skinny models seen in the media, and when you see a normal women which is not “skinny” at all , all of a sudden becomes unacceptable. Why cant we all accept how we look like and have every body type be shown to us in the magazine covers. The pictures above of “real” women is not technically “real” women because, they still have had photoshopped done to their body. The media has brainwashed us to the point that more skinnier you are, the more beautiful you are, which that is false.

  20. As difficult as it is for me to say, I was that girl. That girl who constantly compared every bit of herself to these well thought out, altered, photoshopped images. I was completely influenced by all of the 3,000 different images or advertisements that I was unconsciously viewing on an everyday basis. 3,000 images per day is a lot to consume and without even realizing it my perception of beauty was being molded very carefully by these large media conglomerates. Before attaining media literacy I used to strive to be like the girls in these magazines and although I was aware that these images were extremely altered I still attempted to achieve something that was merely impossible. At first glance you might think that having these “unaltered” or “untouched” photos is a fantastic thing but is it really? Stars like Kardashian and Spears releasing these types of photos have absolutely no meaning and quite frankly hold NO weight due to one simple fact, these women are being paid big bucks to look perfect. Perhaps these photos have not been edited with Photoshop but I am almost positive that they both have had plastic surgery on their bodies, hair and makeup done, maybe a spray tan along with plenty more. These are things young women do not have access to so freely in order to fulfill today’s socially constructed idea of “beauty.” I am not arguing that it is not refreshing to see a woman without makeup on the cover of a magazine or an individual that challenges the idea today’s perfect body size but we are battling a monster that is far too big. Just a couple of these images every year is not going change our beauty standards when millions of other images are altered and published daily. Media culture is the most powerful element of culture creation. Although some images deviate from the ideal, these are also the same images that are bringing in more revenue for these companies by reaching out to all “different” looking women.

  21. Daniella S says:

    I believe these messages come with both pros and cons. The pros are that magazines are finally showing true bodies and making a point and example out of them. Although they are slowly making positive changes, we see that they are just being used as a spectacle, and to have good publicity that they are
    “making a change” while the rest of the magazine is riddled with photoshopped and perfected bodies. I do praise them for doing these and providing their audience with a glimpse into reality, but then again these models and famous people who show their unaltered bodies are already close to perfect, and for some, you cant even tell which one is the photoshopped picture. Although yes, this is a step in the right direction, I don’t believe that these magazines are genuinely trying to make a change for the better, or else they would do this all the time and not just once to prove a point that they’re always photoshopping (which obviously isn’t true).

  22. Tamir M. says:

    I am not sure that just because people are exposed to some unaltered model images in fashion magazines, that that indicates a victory over the many altered images, and I don’t think we or feminists should be striving for more unaltered images than altered images in the media. I believe the point of there matter is to emphasize that many of the altered looks of models that other women in society look onto is in fact unrealistic and looks and beauty should not be something that women should make their priority. I believe that one simple unaltered image of the top model in the country next to her countless of past unaltered images is all that is needed to crush the “concern of flaws” and solidify the confidence AND standing of women next to men.
    So in all, it seems like having unaltered images is good progress but the intention should be modified so that we can truly enter the minds of women to emphasize the insignificance of body image and that praising ‘altered images’ only limits who they are as women.

  23. Cinthia Magaña says:

    Wow this caught me by surprise. This is why now I am so overwhelmed trying to acquire the perfect body celebrities always seems to have. Just when I thought that this was an actual reality women are coming out as the real self we find out that its nor really what they appear to be. Many women become very obsessed on how they look, which has unfortunately led to the rise of cosmetic use and plastic surgery. A perfect example is Kim Kardashian, a celebrity that is well known for being a bomb sell and having the curves and the “ideal” body most women are encouraged to have in order to be consider beautiful. It doesn’t astonish me that Kim Kardashian had a cellulitis removal procedure to make herself feel good, what disturbs me is images like this keep on being blasted on the front page of magazines showing our younger girls this body type they often feel they too have to acquire. The fact that images are now a days being altered from left to right making models looks skinnier and longer has been very disturbing because it had cultivated this one dimensional ideal of beauty many young girls feel they have to follow. What is even m ore sad is that many of these younger girls don’t even know the images or body had been altered before hand. In my opinion I find it very hypocrite for people to address this issue if they are not going to really be real. I agree with the article, in order to make a change we have to expose these realities more often and override the expectations that have already been so deeply cultivated in us. These few images that were exposed in this article definitely don’t cover as much as the millions that continue to be published in billboards, TV, and other mediums.

  24. Pnina O says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with these statements that these images are used as a spectacle for publicity rather than something helpful and meaningful in the long run. There is this hope, by some, or maybe even all of us, that these images can maybe spark some kind of “revolution.” But the sad fact is that there are not enough of them to actually combat any real damage that has been done on our psyches. We have already ingrained the “beauty image” into our brains and our Eurocentric judgment of beauty is what stands as comparison to everything else we see. Personally, I can attest that as much as I’ve tried to look at someone in my day-to-day life who I meet at the store, or even on the street – I judge them right away based on their appearance. I try to go back and think of the attributes that make them beautiful, even if they look ugly as sin, in my opinion, and slowly their beauty begins to take shape before my eyes. I believe that the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” really does have some meaning and power to it, because if we look for something beautiful in everyone, on our own (without mass publicity stands or ads and campaigns) we can really change the direction in which we are thinking and viewing other people. This will in turn, change how we interact with others and how we view the rest of the world, we will then be able to pass on this healthy outlook of life on to our friends, family, spouses, and children and hopefully, maybe in that way we can slowly begin to turn the world around with our positive thoughts and actions. I do not believe that going about it the way that these celebrities did – I believe that it is more harm done than anything else.

  25. Dorsa Mehrannia says:

    I think that showing images of these women without editing them or anything is a magazines attempt at showing normal people that everyone has their flaws or even that everyone can look beautiful with or without makeup or photoshop but to be honest, I think that in some cases, it doesn’t make the situation better at all. Some women may look at the magazine and see that most of these women, especially the European models, are just naturally skinny and beautiful and that might make them think even less of themselves. These unretouched images may push them to work even harder on themselves so that they too can look naturally beautiful just like the women they see in the media.

  26. Elena V. says:

    I agree with this article completely. Showing real women in magazines is great, but why isn’t it happening all the time? When these pictures of real women who are unretouched are put in magazines, the magazines make it seem like they are just as bothered by the fact that other photos that are usually posted are photoshopped. and then you start to have hope that maybe people are starting to come around and actually respect and accept real bodies. These unretouched photos are only included in magazines every once in a while, like it’s a special occasion. These photos aren’t going to make a change until they become a regular thing. We aren’t used to seeing real people in magazines. We are constantly exposed to the perfectly photoshopped women, that we forget even seeing the unretouched photos. Also, these unretouched photos are usually put in magazines that are aimed at females, like Glamour and Marie Claire. They don’t put those photos in men’s magazines. So, men are only being exposed to fake women…that do NOT exist. This sucks for women because men want real women to look like photoshopped images in magazines. If we are going to put unretouched photos in magazines, we need to be putting them in there all the time and replacing the photshoppped ones if there is to be any change made. If not, it’s pointless.

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