An Editor's Mea Culpa On Making Thin Models Look Bigger

Inspired by the controversy over Healthy magazine making an "unwell" cover model look heavier, a former Cosmo U.K. editor has written an article in which she explains why magazines use "reverse retouching," and apologizes for promoting unrealistic images of women.

In the Daily Mail piece, Leah Hardy says that the practice of retouching models to make them look larger is actually more common than most people think, and admits that while editing British Cosmopolitan "I also faced the dilemma of what to do with models who were, frankly, frighteningly thin."

While it may make sense to us plebes to simply hire a larger models, Hardy explains that's not how things work in the fashion world. Designer Johnnie Boden tells her he'd like to feature larger models in his catalog and, "We try to book models who are a healthy size, but we constantly find that when they come to the shoot a few weeks later, they have lost too much weight. It's a real problem."

But obviously you can't call off the shoot after spending weeks coordinating the location, photographer, make-up artists, and hairstylists, just because you're unhappy with what the model looks like when she shows up. Says Hardy:

I have taken anguished calls from a fashion editor who has put together this finely orchestrated production, only to find that the model they picked six weeks ago for her luscious curves and gleaming skin, is now an anorexic waif with jutting bones and acne. Or she might pitch up covered in mysterious bruises (many models have a baffling penchant for horrible boyfriends), or smelling of drink and hung over, as many models live on coffee and vodka just to stay slim.

Those pesky models! They're always getting abused by their boyfriends and suddenly developing eating disorders at the most inconvenient times.

But why are models striving to be so thin if this isn't the look magazine editors want? Hardy blames fashion designers. Sample sizes keep getting smaller, and "to fit these clothes, made by men for boyish bodies, the top model agencies only take on the thinnest girls." The images in their portfolios are retouched by the agency to make them look healthier, then magazines make them look bigger too:

Thanks to retouching, our readers - and those of Vogue, and Self, and Healthy magazine – never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. That these underweight girls didn't look glamorous in the flesh. Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology, leaving only the allure of coltish limbs and Bambi eyes.

Now that she no longer works at fashion magazines, Hardy has realized that telling readers they should strive look like women who don't exist is actually a bad thing! She concludes:

It's a crazy system, and one that's bad for all of us. When the ideal woman is emaciated yet smooth-skinned and glowing, more of us will hate our own unretouched bodies which stubbornly refuse to fit into an impossible ideal. All I can say is that I'm sorry for my small part in this madness. It is time it stopped - for all our sakes.

It's great that Hardy has finally admitted she was wrong, but she doesn't explain how we're supposed to stop the "madness." Maybe every article that bashes retouching is a step in the right direction, but it's too bad Hardy didn't have this revelation while she was still working at Cosmo — not that she would have been able to change anything. According to her description, magazine editors are stuck with Photoshoppping super-thin models because that's who's available. Agencies won't hire larger models because they can't fit in sample sizes, which are "made by men" (there are no female fashion designers?) If you ask the designers, they'll claim the samples have to be small because the fabric is expensive. No matter how many people agree that the fashion world pushing models to unhealthy extremes is bad for everyone, it's always someone else' responsibility to speak up and change the system.

A Big Fat (And Very Dangerous) Lie: A Former Cosmo Editor Lifts The Lid On Airbrushing Skinny Models To Look Healthy [Daily Mail]

Earlier: Healthy Magazine Makes "Unwell" Model Bigger