Confessions Of An Anonymous Victoria's Secret Photoshopper

I’ve just left the airport, and as is typical on the days immediately following Miami Swim Week, South Florida curbside check-ins and departure lounges look even better than normal, littered with models donning freshly earned tans – even if nursing hangovers and depleted energy reserves from a week of no sleep and the rigor of Miami night/day life.

It’s a particularly ‘aesthetic’ city, filled with beautiful and transient people who strive to acquire and maintain a physical ideal they value not to stand out, but fit in; a paragon, some would say, of a trending superficial world. What sort of separates Miami from other places is probably the cultural and ethnic mix here that helps to spread what an ‘ideal’ body is. Also, that it’s hot all year ’round and people dress as though they want to be naked, sort of shifts what people want to look like. After all, as any fashion photographer knows, models chosen for swimwear aren’t necessarily perfectly suited for runway…

But even amidst all the various types of beautiful bodies and the uprising of ‘skindividuality’, even in this varied city in 2016, it’s without question that if the average person is asked to name a beauty ideal, the lion’s share of the time it will be a reference to a Victoria’s Secret model past or present. In fact, it seems VS models are often centered in debates about body positivity, and now, a Victoria’s Secret retoucher has come forward to Refinery29 to divulge how unreal the bodies we see in the end-product are.


‘Sarah’, as Refinery’s author Kelsey Miller has dubbed her, was clearly very good at her job, seems to be quite open about the practices she was involved in, and explains the practice with the type of perspective only someone educated and in the industry would. Yes, she divulges how all the models have hair-extensions; how ‘chicken cutlet’ pads are used to reshape breasts; how sometimes ‘fixing’ a body part means swapping it out for someone else’s (the practice of which she attributes to the sadly-common phenomena of missing limbs and extremities in sloppy photos), and about the fact that razor stubble, cellulite, and skin are all evened-out and made blemish free. But there’s a lot more to the story.

While most others who pick up and cover the story – like the rather primitive philistine example on Cosmo – I think there’s actually a lot to be taken away from the original. Sarah does a great job sort of calling it like it is, educating the reader about basic practices, dispelling some myths, and putting the onus on, well, us the public, and all without being entirely divisive or accusatory.
She explains (for those who get through the piece), that the use of posing techniques and lighting techniques are a form of retouching, and actually says that these days much of the digital manipulation is about making women look curvier instead of thinner; plumping up breasts and butts, and toning down ribs. 

This, coming from her, is poignant because she’s inadvertently calling out the hypocrisy and idiocy of #realwomenhavecurves, which is something I, and many find insulting and ignorant – especially given how iconized curvy women like the Kardashians, Jennifers Lopez & Lawrence, and Christina Hendricks, have become.

She also explains that really, it all comes down to selling, and that’s how the onus is on the purchasers of product. She uses the more commonly-praised Aerie as personification of this, as she points out that their choice to use non-photoshopped models as a company wasn’t based on people’s self worth, but on the bottom line.

"They did it because they wanted to see if it would sell…They didn’t do it to make a statement. They didn’t do it to make people feel good. They wanted to do it to see if it would sell, and it did. So then they kept doing it."

Sure, this is an opinion expressed, but it’s hard to argue with given that conventional wisdom dictates that if the ploy didn’t work and sales tanked, they wouldn’t have continued. Sarah points out too that VS has experimented with various looks but that the target market didn’t respond, and that clearly shows that the purchasers buy into the ideal. It’s all about sales, and people buy into an ideal, not the average.

I think, perhaps, this piece is well timed, but it still amazes me that Victoria’s Secret is thought of as the ideal. It’s ironic and, frankly, bizarre, given societal and cultural shifts pretty much highlight VS and their look (up until recently) as dated.

Understandably, to the average person uninvolved with photography, or even photographers who aren’t really in the world of retouch or beauty/fashion/swimwear, there’s no real understanding of how that world operates, but hopefully this sheds some light and maybe some perspective.

Miller does justice to the industry and Sarah with her well thought-out piece of reportage. Check it out here, and…what are your thoughts on the matter?