One of the main goals of the growing ethical fashion movement has been to make ethical fashion look like ‘regular’ fashion. Desperate to wash off an “earthy” label, sustainable fashion brands are aware of the fact that they are already sticking out – and when it comes to certain aspects of their brand image, they do their best to blend in. The conversation around the way models look, and what that does to consumers’ self-esteem, has stretched from body image to ethnicity, but there is one aspect where ethical fashion often actually looks just like any other fashion, and not in a good way: photo editing. In many cases, ethical brands’ imagery will mimic traditional fashion when it comes to who is wearing the clothes – commonly, it’s very young, very slim, predominantly white women, most of them cisgender. And even on the occasion that steps are taken towards inclusivity, you rarely see human occurrences as acne, wrinkles, stretch marks or other perceived “imperfections”.
In 2017, France brought a law into effect demanding that fashion brands be upfront about photo editing, and Norway is now implementing a law requiring influencers to label any photos that have been retouched. The aim is to improve the body image of shoppers and provide a more honest experience. But is labelling enough? A 2018 study by Fiona McCallum and Heather Widdows from the University of Warwick titled Altered Images: Understanding the influence of unrealistic images and beauty aspirations, found that “the increasing visual emphasis on these attributes over the last few decades has been paralleled by rises in rates of body dissatisfaction with both women and men feeling unhappy with their physical appearance.” What’s even more interesting, the study also found that labelling, such as what would happen under French and Norwegian law, doesn’t quite have the desired effect: “a growing number of studies have found no amelioration of the negative effects of media images by labelling, and in fact the opposite may be the case.”
It appears that what we need is, in fact, less photo editing, and it could be argued that brands that consider themselves ethically minded should extend that philosophy to include this aspect. After all, if their consumers don’t feel good about themselves when shopping with them, the experience can hardly be considered ethical.
One brand that caught on quite early was lingerie company Aerie, which famously stopped airbrushing models in 2014. Their president, Jennifer Foyle, told Business Insider that millennials – and, supposedly, generations after them – were “independent and stronger than ever”, calling for a new policy on the images of models’ bodies, which, Aerie being a lingerie brand, were constantly placed under scrutiny. “”We just knew that it would really resonate with this generation,” said Foyle to Business Insider. “Why would we even be airbrushing these models? They’re beautiful as is.”
Foyle’s idea paid off: following this bold move, Aerie’s sales soared. But critics pointed out that, despite their good intentions, Aerie evaded retouching by consistently choosing models who were often already beautiful by mainstream standards: white, slim, young, tall, able-bodied, and free from any so-called “imperfections” such as wrinkles, acne, cellulite, or stretch marks. It gave the idea that these women are so naturally perfect that they don’t need airbrushing. Returning to McCallum and Widdows’ study, this is how labelling has the potential to affect body image negatively: when confronted with the image of a flawless-looking woman, and reminded that she hasn’t even been retouched, she just looks better than you naturally, it’s no wonder consumers are left with the bitter taste of unfavourable comparison.
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Some eco-minded fashion companies are, in fact, including this factor into their ethical philosophy. London brand Birdsong has feminism and sustainability at its core – and they are one of the depressingly few sustainable fashion brands refusing to use Photoshop to alter the appearances of their models. “We came up with this policy back in 2014 when we founded the company,” says co-founder Sophie Slater to Eco Warrior Princess. “As we had a background in women’s charities and feminist activism, our brand has also always been centred around those values. To be honest, in the beginning it never even occurred to us to Photoshop, and as a tiny team doing everything ourselves, we wouldn’t have known how to. Now we may use Photoshop to tidy up the background in images, but still never our models.” Birdsong’s models are often people known to them, lending their brand identity a more personal feel: “We have shot on our friends and people who inspire us since the start, and we’ve never wanted to propagate unrealistic beauty standards.”
Birdsong does have some, albeit very little, company in the Photoshop-free ethical fashion landscape. Airbrushed Apparel is not what it sounds like: in fact, all the images used by this sustainable fashion company are free from Photoshop. Founder Mia Lewin said to Eco Warrior Princess: “The brand was founded following a personal exposure to the modelling industry, within which models were retouched without consideration to how this affected viewers and even the models themselves.”
There is, in fact a potential damage done to the women of the industry: model Amber Tolliver has spoken about retouching in ELLE, saying: “To recreate a human being using a computer process is a bit of an attack on who you naturally are. Like, if I’m not good enough or if I’m not beautiful enough, then why’d you book me?” Although she goes on to say that she “doesn’t mind” a bit of Photoshop in pictures of herself, ultimately Tolliver’s words reveal that the consumers aren’t the only ones being harmed by the unrealistic – and unethical – beauty standards perpetrated by photo editing. Unsurprisingly, it transpires that those images also hurt those who feature in them.
To move away from a system which sees models as part of the product rather than human beings, maybe we need to widen our perspective on who a model is, re-humanising them in the process. Birdsong has certainly done so. “It’s just not in our ethics to make anyone look differently,” says Slater. “We cast our models deliberately because they inspire us – they’re our customers, collaborators, community and friends.”
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Cover image via Gorodenkoff.