Photoshopping beauty: An international experiment

Esther Honig, unretouched

“In the U.S., Photoshop has become a symbol of our society’s unobtainable [sic.] standards for beauty. My project, Before & After, examines how these standards vary across cultures on a global level,” Esther Honig writes.

Honig is a 24-year-old human interest journalist who recently discovered cultural gaps in an entirely new light. Via websites that allowed her to connect with freelance Photoshoppers in more than 27 countries around the world, Honig paid between five and thirty dollars to “make [her] look beautiful,” to discover if there really is a global standard for beauty.

According to one of her ads on SimplyHired, she sent an unretouched portrait of herself without makeup and with minimal lighting…



to have it altered and enhanced by photoshop experts from all over the world. To clarify, I want someone to take the time to truly alter this portrait, NOT just retouch. The idea is that you, the photoshop pro, take whatever creative direction you see necessary to make this image more beautiful and attractive. Imagine that this image would be for publication in a beauty magazine in your home country. I DON’T want you to make changes that you think will please me. Instead ask yourself, ‘what aspects of this portrait must be physically altered in order for it to reflect my standard of beauty.’”

The results ranged from astonishingly unlike the original to mild retouching. “What I’ve learned from this project,” Honig says, “is this: Photoshop [may] allow us to achieve our unobtainable standards of beauty, but when we compare those standards on a global scale, achieving the ideal remains all the more elusive.”

I personally am amazed by how, even in primarily dark-skinned, brown-eyed countries, the results of Honig’s requests were almost all pale-skinned and blue or green-eyed, showing just how Eurocentric many countries’ beauty ideals are. Granted, though, this required minor manipulation on the part of the photoshoppers, as she was already fair-skinned and grey-green eyed.

I was also astounded by just how different even the submissions from the same country looked; so not only is there not really a global standard, there’s also not really a country-wide standard.

What amazed me the most, though, was that the most dramatic changes in the images were not Honig herself (except whatever happened in the American submissions), but the makeup she was wearing. Practically every altered image features make-up to some extent, differing from subtle eye-shadow and slight lip color to bright green eye-shadow and very pink lips. Some countries even clothed Honig; Morocco even had her take hijab (shout-out to the Philippines, though, for giving her a business outfit!). Other countries, notably UK, airbrushed her face to the point that she looks cartoon-drawn. Vietnam didn’t smooth her skin at all, even leaving puffiness under her eyes.

Essentially, the few conclusions that can be drawn from this project are that, although there may not be a universal standard of beauty, certain things most certainly are universally considered beautiful to some extent. All the women retained clear skin and slender features; most had at least hints of makeup and largely light skin.

Honig continues to receive submissions from around the world and then updating them on her website.