Retouch reckoning: the cases for and against image labelling

As countries impose laws against publishing manipulated images without a label, the mental health benefits are clear, but could it curb creative expression?


In April Khloe Kardashian unwittingly exposed the soul of social media with one image. Sans-doe eye filters, she squints at the pool. Her waist is not cartoonishly snatched, her skin is not deep and poreless as it usually appears on the posts she shares with her 172 million Instagram followers. Once posted she created a Streisand effect, leading the masses charged up on schadenfreude directly to the image by trying to get it pulled down from the internet. A peddler of perfection actually looking the way they look? That’s extremely rare to see.

Norway has decided to clamp down on retouching so that people, Kardashians included, don’t feel they have to live up to unrealistic standards. From 2022 the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs will make it illegal to publish commercial images where body shapes, lip size and skin have been altered without having a standardised label.

“If they’re scared these things may cause harm they should educate children.”

Matthew Xavier Praley

It’s not just brands that will have to adhere to these rules, technically anyone who “receives any payment or other benefit” on platforms like Instagram and TikTok could be slapped with fines or imprisonment for peddling false images without making it clear that manipulation has occurred. In an age where social media is so heavily monetised and an influencer’s image is the commodity, labelling their content as fake might be bad for their personal branding moving forward (jeopardising their need to appear relatable to their audience).

In recent years research has started to show social media’s impact on how we view ourselves. In 2019 the Mental Health Foundation, the UK’s leading charity for wellbeing, surveyed over 4,500 adults and 1,100 teens to see how apps like Instagram pressure people to feel like they have to look a certain way. One in five adults said social media was impacting their body image, meanwhile, over half of the teenage girls asked admitted to struggling. Similarly, Norway has been gripped by a public debate about kroppspress, which translates to “body pressure” and how beauty standards are impacting the self-esteem of Nordic teens.

Some remain unconvinced as to whether labelling will curb this effect and reverse the tide on a very well-established culture or just limit freedom of expression. One of those people is Matthew Xavier Praley, a 24-year-old photographer and retoucher. “Should the government control how images are seen and labelled?” he asks over the phone. “If they’re scared these things may cause harm they should educate children.” Praley thinks labels might make it “edgier” and appealing in a taboo sense – like a parental advisory sticker on music.

According to the Washington Post, some experts have theorised that additional labelling might cause viewers to pause to analyse what has been changed. Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor in the psychiatry and human behaviour department at Brown University told the publication that increasing attention and therefore more “cognitive capacity being devoted to those photos” is ultimately “probably not a good thing”.

“Everything is going to end up labelled at the end of the day, everyone edits their photos and changes things.”

Matthew Xavier Praley

Certain corners of the creative industries lean heavily into retouching. For newcomers like David Uzochukwu and Lou Escobar editing is a substantial part of the craft, a vehicle for creating new dreamlike worlds. These worlds offer escape for minority creatives to realise their ideal selves. Photographer Adama Jalloh and artist Hamed Maiye explored the use of surrealism and otherworldliness to understand the contemporary Black experience in a recent exhibition at the Horniman museum.

Similarly, Praley sees photoshop as a tool to elevate art, with creatives using retouching to “stretch the experience of an image”. With queer-identifying people, Praley believes editing is a tool for exploration and experimentation. “The whole idea [of refuting people’s image] just kind of grosses me out. Photoshop helped me get away from the very basic forms of photography which were very hetero and white. There are certain ways you can use any new form of technology smartly,” he adds. “Everything is going to end up labelled at the end of the day, everyone edits their photos and changes things.”

Birmingham-based photographer Ambient Jade thinks that creatives can push the boundaries even further to make a comment on the unreality of how we present ourselves. She recently did a solo exhibition named Reimagining The Self which included surrealist self-portraits that accentuated her lips, lengthened her neck and edited her figure to extremes. Ambient Jade does support the law as it would expose a lot of influencers who make money off fake likenesses that are presented as their true form. In her work, the retouching is deliberately absurd. “I try to make it very obvious that it’s been manipulated, I don’t try to make my work look human. It’s a direct response to unrealistic beauty standards that we are given.”

In the last decade, we’ve idealised thigh gaps and tiny waists at the same time as large breasts and bums. The latter has led to a BBL epidemic that has seen the popularity of the surgery skyrocket by 77.6 per cent since 2015, according to a recent survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

In a statement to It’s Nice That, Reid Ivar Bjorland Dahl a spokesperson for the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Families said that they want to “change the attitude” among creatives and influencers. “We want them to show people as they really are and encourage the use of models of all sizes and shapes,” he writes. “The City of Oslo has already reported that in anticipation of the new regulation, the advertisers who use billboards on public properties, have stopped using retouched models in their advertisements.”

Correctly, he’s identified that there are key players in the creative industries who can have a hand in what looks are classed as desirable, whose opinions may impact what creatives and viewers feel need to be tweaked when bodies are on show in pictures.

“We want them to show people as they really are and encourage the use of models of all sizes and shapes.”

Reid Ivar Bjorland Dahl

As a retoucher for publications like Vogue, Praley makes changes to models’ proportions (“like stretching the body and making the neck longer”) and skin, but in his experiences, the changes are not “ridiculous” and so, therefore, are likelier to be perceived as real than Ambient Jade’s portfolio. Usually, these are made with permission from the photographer or subject who “deserve to have an opinion on what they look like” in the final edit. But there are hints of what edits are deemed as routine or necessary as he adds the caveat: “The edits weren’t that dramatic, she was already a skinny girl.”

Bookers like Amar Faiz, the director of Oslo-based modelling agency Idol Looks, are influential in showing who gets to be booked for jobs in Norway. He explains how his own beliefs on what bodies should be promoted impacts his decisions on who gets signed. “I do not support XXL, I support curvy, I support healthy-looking models,” he says, describing the shift as a money-making gimmick for brands. “This is a new trend that we haven’t signed [any new models for], even though we have a lot of clients asking us.”

Faiz says he increasingly sees girls trying to get into modelling who “look just like filters”, as the trend in people seeking out surgery to emulate their online faces without the need for edits increases. He suggests that having to label images as fake might “push people to look like unrealistic images”.

Faiz is a purist when it comes to his models looking like the photos they take and also remaining natural. “I can take a picture of my girls with good light, with no filters and the whole world will think that she has filters because the person is already absolutely beautiful,” he explains. Idol Looks will often make requests to dial down retouching – particularly when Asian publications manipulate non-Asian model’s eyes to look pan-Asian. “If it looks unreal, we go back and say they need to fix it,” he says.

Norway is not the first country to try to tackle the prevalence of misleading imagery. In 2017, France announced a similar law that requires commercial photos of models who are made to look thinner or thicker by digital editing to use the label: “photo retouched.” There is a chance that as governments wrestle for more control over what happens in the online sphere that labelling laws could take off despite valid arguments against the criminalisation of covert editing.

However, because there are already set beauty ideals globally, Faiz remains unconvinced that it’s not already too late to change the culture of editing. Especially via Norway, with a population of 5.3 million people and not a major fashion city like New York or London. “When it comes to normal people,” that is you and I mere mortals, “or social media influencers, will the trend change or will [labelling] stop people? No, absolutely not. It’s bullshit.”

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Kemi-Olivia Alemoru

Kemi-Olivia Alemoru is a London-based writer, editor, host and consultant. She is culture editor at gal-dem and writes for Dazed, Vogue and The Guardian.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.