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The Art of Airbrushing

Airbrushing, the process of manipulating a photograph to hide flaws and create a better image, is nothing new. In fact, photo manipulation has been around for a long time. One of the earliest manipulated photos is a famous image of President Lincoln — in reality, a composite of Lincoln’s head on another politician’s body.

Politicians always have interfered with images, wielding their power to rewrite history, purge opponents from pictures and promote their own agenda. How funny that today it’s used to make stars flawless, more glamorous, thinner and less like us (i.e., human).

Airbrushing has gone from the crude use of the digital wand — with images like that of Oprah in 1989’s TV Guide when her head was fused with another actress’s body (available at the same site as the Lincoln photo) — to a more sophisticated, though not always subtle art of trimming waistlines, enhancing body parts and removing wrinkles and blemishes, among other “improvements.”

Oprah TV Guide cover


Lingerie model

Even though all images are airbrushed to some extent, some are manipulated more dramatically than others. Take Jessica Simpson on the cover of this September’s Elle, whose hips were, unfortunately and not so subtly, chopped off.

Jessica Simpson

Several weeks ago, December’s Vanity Fair featured a racy spread with Kate Winslet and received some flak when the photos were suspected of extensive airbrushing. Some publications even had retouching experts play detectives — picking apart the photos to identify specific touch-ups.

Kate Winslet - Vanity Fair 2008

Even though Winslet’s rep denied everything but minor, standard retouching to her face, in The First Post, one airbrushing specialist listed a litany of touch-ups done to her entire face and body.

Last week, the latest Parade magazine cover also was criticized for alleged airbrushing. The Daily Mail declared, “Surely there’s no denying Kate Winslet’s been airbrushed for THIS magazine cover!” also writing that she had “fallen victim to a heavy-handed airbrush.”

Kate Winslet - Parade Magazine 2008 - airbrushed

Today, it appears, more and more starlets are becoming victims of heavy-handed airbrushing. In fact, I’d be shocked to see a photo that wasn’t retouched.

Even feel-good magazines like Redbook — whose tag line is “Love Your Life” and whose target audience consists mainly of mature married women — observe the art of airbrushing. Below are the original and retouched photos of Faith Hill.

Faith Hill airbrushed

Magazines that target a younger, more impressionable demographic also employ airbrushing. Several months ago, Seventeen thinned the face of Gossip Girl actress Blake Lively, who barely resembles herself on the cover. She appropriately wears Hollywood’s signature hollow cheeks, slightly sunken-in eyes and svelte face.

Why this photo required so much airbrushing is puzzling. Is it really necessary to airbrush the covers of magazines geared toward tweens and teens? For the most part, adult women are aware that magazines are airbrushed (though sometimes it’s ambiguous what changes were made) but that doesn’t stop us from feeling bad or trying to aspire to these images. What happens to kids when they view these covers?

Blake Lively 2008 airbrushed

One columnist believes airbrushing is what separates celebs from mere mortals like us. She explains that with Botox and breast implants — once reserved for the rich and famous — coming into the mainstream, stars have nothing but airbrushing to lift them well above the masses.

“Extreme airbrushing is just a way to create more distance between themselves and a public for whom getting Botox or a breast enlargement is no longer a biggie.”

Whatever the magazines’ motives for airbrushing — satisfying demanding publicists, advertisers or their own vision — the reality is that retouching is here to stay and many of us still buy (and buy into) these magazines.

As a long-time subscriber of Marie Claire and YM before that, I used to get so excited waiting for my subscriptions to arrive in the mail so I could gobble up every page. But after spending years reading recycled articles on diet, weight-loss and workouts and seeing flawless photos in magazines that purport to make us feel great about ourselves, I let my subscriptions run out. If the goal of magazines is to serve us, the readers, why aren’t they trying to do a better job of it?

Oftentimes, magazines defend their retouching decisions by saying that these airbrushed photos are just images or fantasy, but I’m not sure why family-friendly Redbook and geared-toward-young-readers Seventeen need to feign perfection when they’re promoting loving your life. Presumably, it’s tough to love your life when magazines are selling perfection and pushing a standard that doesn’t even exist.

But should we really be up in arms about airbrushed photos or just accept it, roll our eyes and move on? After all, it’s so commonplace today that we can even do it with the click of a mouse on our personal computers.

In a society where we’re constantly working on our weight, distressed about going to holiday parties because we fear that we’ll feast on everything in sight, aspiring to look forever-young, allowing our daughters to get nipped and tucked and seeing thongs and other inappropriate clothing marketed to young girls, I’m not so sure that a fake photo is that harmless.

Research already has found that sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandise and media can have damaging effects. Simply scroll through scores of MySpace accounts showcasing young teens in provocative photos, and you’ll see the effects of magazine images. An airbrushed picture isn’t to blame for all of society’s woes, but by lying and deceiving the public it certainly adds fuel to an already-raging fire.

The Art of Airbrushing

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). The Art of Airbrushing. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Dec 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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