UK Store Debenhams Cuts Back On Airbrushing. Will More Retailers Get Body-Positive?

Left: Before retouching. Right: After retouching. (Photo by Debenhams)

A British department store Debenhams is vowing to scale back on airbrushing. According to a statement posted Wednesday on the company’s Facebook page, the clothing retailer will cut back on retouching photos of lingerie models.

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In an effort to illustrate how much re-touching is applied to images, the store posted a photo of a lingerie model whose body is marked up by common retouching directions. For example, smoothing out hair and removing any strays, whitening her teeth, softening creases and her collarbone, thinning out her arms, waist, and chin, removing wrinkles, brightening eyes, creating more definition and shadows in her cleavage, softening her hands, and flattening her stomach. Debenhams also released before-and-after images of the model to illustrate the unrealistic outcomes of retouching.

Click to enlarge (photo: Debenhams) Click to enlarge (photo: Debenhams) “We’re showing our commitment to encouraging positive body-image by using un-airbrushed lingerie photography," wrote a representative on Debenham's Facebook page, beneath side-by-side images of the model. "Here’s an example of how images are sometimes retouched, but we think our model is naturally gorgeous.” A rep from the company also responded to a Facebook commenter by writing, "As a company one of our main aims is to encourage positive body-image so we have pledged to do minimal retouching on lingerie images going forward."

While the reaction on Facebook has been positive (“Well done Debenhams! This is a great example. I will be choosing to shop with you over competitors because of this” wrote Facebook commenter Taryn Gleeson and “Excellent!” wrote Sue Doyle), and as of Thursday, the post had garnered 239 likes and 19 shares, the move doesn’t come as a surprise, given the store’s history with boosting body acceptance. 

According to the Daily Mail, in June 2010, Debenhams launched a similar campaign revealing the effects of re-touching by posting “before” and “after” photos of a swimwear model in their Oxford Street display windows. A sign also read: “We’ve not messed with natural beauty; this image is unairbrushed. What do you think?” The “after” photo was annotated with directives such as, “Waist, shoulder, and legs skimmed,” “removed fold of skin,” and “Face smoothed, blemish removed on lip, skin under eyes smoothed.”

At the time, Mark Woods, the director of creative and visual at Debenhams said, “As a responsible retailer we want to help customers make the most of their beauty without bombarding them with unattainable body images. Our campaign is all about making women feel good about themselves – not eroding their self belief and esteem by using false comparisons.

“Not only does it make sense from a moral point of view, it ticks the economic boxes as well. Millions of pounds a year are spent by organizations retouching perfectly good images.

“As a rule we only airbrush minor things like pigmentation or stray hair and rely on the natural beauty of models to make our product look great. We are proud to bring the issue of re-touching into the main stream when the likes of Britney Spears and Madonna are using un-airbrushed but over-lit images as a shock tactic.”

In August 2010, as part of a campaign with the television show “How To Look Good Naked,” Debenhams unveiled its Principles by Ben de Lisi fashion line with a cast of atypical models:  Shannon Murray, a disabled woman, bound to a wheelchair, Kate Fullman, size 16, Tess Montgomery, a petite 5ft 4in model and Tokumbo Daniel, a size 10. And a month prior, Debenhams used size 16 mannequins in their window after gathering customer feedback on customers wanting to see more average-sized models.  A rep for Debenhams could not be reached for comment.

Debenhams' latest move is timely in light of the body acceptance movement that’s been slowly picking up steam in the United States. On Tuesday, Italian designer Roberto Cavalli triggered an Internet firestorm after he released skinny sketches of curvy Beyonce wearing his latest designs. In response to criticism, Cavalli posted an explanation on his Facebook page saying the picture was only meant to be a “stylized and artistic vision” and that he “has always exalted and highlighted the female shape.” In May, controversial statements made by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries back in 2006 resurfaced in a Business Insider article. In the interview, Jeffries said, "Candidly, we go after the cool kids. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” The revived remarks triggered a national call to boycott the store until A&F expanded its range of sizes to include plus-size.

And later that month, H&M CEO Karl Johan-Persson admitted that in the past, his company had used too-thin models, telling the Metro, “We have a huge responsibility here. We’re a large company, many people see us, and we advertise a lot. I don’t think we’ve always been good. Some of the models we’ve had have been too skinny. That’s something we think a lot about and are working on. We want to show diversity in our advertising and not give people the impression that girls have to look a particular way. By and large, I think we’ve succeeded: We’ve many different kinds of models from different ethnic backgrounds." Weeks prior, H&M had debuted their swimsuit line featuring plus-size model Jennie Runk, reportedly a size 14-16.” As a result of the campaign, Runk’s Facebook page gained 2,000 new likes in 24 hours.

However, despite the progress made by fashion retailers, and companies such as Dove who have a history of campaigning for the body acceptance movement by refusing to cast young models in anti-aging ads and its long-running “Campaign for Real Beauty,” according to a March article published on the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, re-touching likely won't disappear. When asked whether handing in a photo that had not been retouched would evoke client complaints, Dan Strasser, an art director and associate creative director at Bensimon Byrne in Toronto told the paper, “hands down.”

Said Sharon MacLeod, Unilever Canada’s vice-president of marketing, “I’m not blaming anybody, or criticizing art directors. … It’s an entire culture, the entire industry. If I could find some clever way of getting [marketers] to think differently, I would do that too. …”

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