Photoshop, Beauty, and Body Image

Published: December 16, 2016

People both love and hate Photoshop. I hear two things all the time, “We shouldn’t photoshop models” and “You can just photoshop that out right?” Yes to both. Maybe… How do I look at photo editing? Why does it even matter and what the heck do you mean there are biological and psychological reasons.


Edit: prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

So what does something used to describe text have to do with photos? A lot, especially since the advent of Photoshop. What ever editing program a photographer uses, photoshop has become a verb, like google. Photographers are not condensing their work, but they are modifying and “correcting” it. But what does that mean? Why can’t we just accept beauty as it is? I hear this complaint about the fashion industry, beauty magazines, and even my own work sometimes. We have a pull between two forces: our moral desire to accept the world as we would have it be and our biological drives.

What? Biological drive?


As humans, we have certain predispositions for beauty. While I fully agree that society impacts beauty, I also acknowledge the role biology plays. We can all agree that the ideal female form has changed significantly in the last hundred years, and even before that. From Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe to Cindy Crawford and Adel, our idea of what a woman should look like has definitely morphed and shifted.

Much of it is fashion trends being pushed. Consequently, a reactionary “real women” have curves response to real women not having curves in magazines. Real women span the gamut from skinny to heavy, small chested to large posteriors. But what do we actually consider beautiful? For that we need to look at biology.


Beauty is about sexual attraction. Given, we can aesthetically discuss the beauty of a building, an animal, or a sculpture and have no inclination of sexual attraction, but when it comes to the human form, there is no mistaking, we tie beauty with sexiness. And because of that, there are certain things men find more pleasing in women and vice versa. A 2009 study by Dixson and others looked at eye tracking in men to see what they preferred in a woman’s waistline.1  Drum roll, a hip to waist ratio of 0.7 or 70%. In other words, a woman who has a waist that isn’t half her hips and isn’t equal to her hips. And it didn’t matter what size her boobs were!

Why the heck do men prefer this. Babies! No, not babe (or the stupid bae), but because it indicates a high probability to conceive and bear a child. If a woman is too thin, she may not have enough resources in her body to carry a child or even conceive. If she is too overweight, she may miscarry.2 The whole idea of a certain “body type” then comes down to reproduction? Yep. Sorry ladies. Sex is a major motivator for lots of human behavior. Procreation can even explain some forms of bigotry.


So the waistline is pretty scientific, doesn’t really matter what decade, it’s biological, not fashion based. So what about skin? Well, there is a biological explanation there too. Many factors play a role here, but simply, a person with young healthy skin is more attractive. Our skin is a reflection of what is happening in our bodies. Bad skin can indicate sickness or disease. Have you ever looked at someone and without seeing their face just knew they were sick? Yep, that is your biological response to keep you healthy. The healthier their skin looks, the healthier they must be. Now we know there are diseases that don’t show on the skin, but this is our biological brain making snap judgments here, not our intellect.

We also like skin to be smooth. Sharp, fuzzy, or rough looking things in nature would likely cause us harm. The stinging nettle plant, while not deadly, hurts. Splinters can cause infections. This means we are draw towards soft, smooth surfaces. Just watch a person walk through a store and try not touch the shiny smooth counter that looks pristine. Smooth skin is preferred. The color also matters as Ian Stephen, a researcher from Macquarie University points out in several of his works.

Even the contrast between the lips, eyes, and surrounding skin indicates a certain beauty. A 2009 study found that women have more contrast between these areas than men do. So, as a male, looking for a mate, one indicator of the sex of the person is his or her facial contrast.3 We can even go on to talk about how a woman’s cheeks and lips will change color when she becomes sexually aroused, a subtle biological indicator to a male. These are all things men find attractive and women know it. This is why they don vibrant lipsticks, blush their cheeks, put on layers of foundation, fight acne, and every other thing the cosmetic industry sells. All to look more healthy and reproductively fit.

Body Image

So now that we have an “objective” measure of body image to work with, we address beauty from a more objective standard. No, we are not talking about objectifying women here. While it may offend some of my readers, I agree with Stephen Crowder who asserts that if you have a really unhealthy body, you should have an unhealthy body image. A body image should match the body. Men find some things attractive and other unattractive. We have an epidemic obesity problem in the US,4 and to deny it is to fall into delusion.

Women of all body types should aim for a healthy body. Not an ideal body. Not a thin body, or a muscular body, or a fat body. No, be healthy. I am not advocating fat shaming. We should face the reality that being obese has a host of health risks associated with it. Also, in all my years of doing photography, I have yet to have a woman ask me to make her waistline look bigger or her thighs larger.

Healthy is sexy. It shows in your skin, in your hair, and in your waist. This doesn’t mean you have to spend 40 hours a week at the gym or give up eating cake. It does mean you have to care enough about how you look to take steps to be healthy. Visit a doctor. Be upset with me all you want, but if your doctor is telling you to loose 20 pounds, do it.

If your doctor says your weight and health are fine, tell the world to pound sand if they judge you!

It is more important that you live a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition so that you can enjoy the people around you. And trust me, every guy will find that attractive.


So now we know where our ideas of beauty come from, how does that influence editing a photo? I would totally agree that some photos have too much editing work done to them. When a teenage girl feels the need to starve herself because of a false depiction of the female form, that is ethically wrong on the advertisers part. I make the effort to enhance my client without taking away from their innate characteristics. If a model has a little extra weight in her thighs, I want to pose her, light her, and then edit her to minimize the effect of that weight. People should be looking at how beautiful she is, not judging her thigh gap.

The same goes for other parts of the body. I edit pimples, blemishes, scars, or other marks while leaving moles and requested scars. We all have things we aren’t happy about with our bodies. Heck, my ab muscles aren’t symmetrical. Does my wife notice, no. Do I, yep. Does it bother me, yes, but not enough to keep me from going swimming. If I was photographed topless, it would be an area I would want a photographer to fix. Ultimately, it comes down to what the client wants edited in their images and what they don’t.

Constructive Action

Women should love themselves and use any angst they have about their bodies to be proactive. If you feel you are overweight, then exercise and eat right. Being more healthy never killed anyone prematurely. Don’t worry about what the detractors say. You can love who you are and choose to make a difference about how you live. The worst thing you could do is surrender and then blame the world.


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