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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. I don’t think that the epidemic of eating disorders and distorted body images among girls and women everywhere will not stop until photo-shopping in magazines stops completely. Even retouching a photo to get rid of a simple blemish supports the harmful message that blemishes or marks (things that certainly don’t ruin your face) are unacceptable. I also don’t think it helps that all these celebrities are posing naked and “unaltered” on the covers of magazines. That isn’t going to do anything for anyone’s self-esteem. Kim Kardashian’s job is to be unbelievably gorgeous. I’d think she was beautiful even if looked like she rolled out of bed hungover. She doesn’t represent most of the women who buy those magazines.

    And the whole widespread fad of calling girls with curves “real women” and stick thin girls “fake” isn’t helping anyone either. I don’t believe in starving and dieting yourself until your thin, but some girls are naturally like that, just like some girls are naturally curvy. Women come in all shapes and sizes. The acceptability of calling one body type “fake” and one “real” just pits groups of women against each other and continues to encourage girls to be ashamed and embarrassed of their bodies because they will always be under scrutiny.


  1. [...] posted at The Delphiad Blog by Dominique Millette in response to my post at Ms. Magazine yesterday, Unretouched Photos: Empowering or just more “Empower-tainment?” Cross-posted with [...]

  2. [...] Unretouched Photos: Empowering or Just More ‘Empower-tainment’? A really interesting commentary from the Ms. Magazine blog on the slew of unretouched photos and plus size models seen in mainstream magazines recently. I haven’t said much on the issue because I’m curious to see what happens next, but for a lot of media observers it has just been a bunch of “empower-tainment” porn rather than meaningful progression and discussion about body image. [...]

  3. [...] the “stick skinny models” on magazine covers, including Playboy. As I said in my recent article on Kim’s nude and unaltered photos, this is less about empowerment than it is about [...]

  4. [...] most interesting things about Kim’s empowerment tweet when she posed nude and “unaltered” for Harper’s Bazaar is that while Kim Kardashian is not stick thin, she definitely does not represent most women out [...]

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