In early February, 22-year-old Dakota Rose (née Dakota Ostrenga) posted a pensive, airbrushed photo of herself, kneeling on the ground and twirling her pigtailed hair on Instagram. The frail vlogger turned model’s poreless skin and pouty lips made her look girlish and mature all at once, a persona she had worked hard to cultivate since she began posting kawaii makeup tutorials in late 2011. After earning a reputation among niche online communities as the “real-life Barbie” and collecting hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers, Rose landed a handful of modeling and television gigs in Japan. Since then, she has worked hard to grow her following in Asia, feeding the content beast with video diaries and images of her various purchases, meals, and outfits.
To an unknowing observer scrolling through their feed, the post might scan as an internet celebrity’s unremarkable contribution to an endless stream of vanity photos. To a trained eye, it might read as a pretty white woman appropriating Japanese culture. But Rose’s dedicated followers immediately identified it as a rich text for an entirely different reason. Like clockwork, a screengrab of the image appeared on a forum called Pretty Ugly Little Liar (or PULL). There, a handful of users picked it apart, paying special attention to how the photo was altered. “Looks like she also forgot to edit her right thigh (the one closest to the camera),” a user named dreaminjapanese wrote. “Her entire body’s stick-thin except for that one right thigh, suddenly her actual proportion.” “At least her outfit looks nice . . . first time in a while,” a user named Kenz0 offered. “I know it has been addressed before, but the way she has decided to shop herself recently just creeps me out,” concluded a user named Rolzroz. “She has the body of a woman, but is editing herself to look SO young. If she’s gonna shop herself, I wish she’d at least do a shop that did not look like a pre-teen girl.”
For the average Rose fan, identifying the jaw-trimming, waist-cinching, frizz-blurring techniques of any given social media post is part of the reason they became infatuated with her in the first place. Swaths of Rose’s “hater followers,” as BuzzFeed once called them, gather on online forums like PULL, Tumblr, lolcow, and Kiwi Farms to compare notes on the evolution of her and other online celebrities’ Photoshopping—sometimes called “shooping”—decisions. As one user on the forum lolcow blithely put it: “the only reason I still follow Dakota is to compare her to the hot shit she thought she was in 2012.” (Dakota Rose did not respond to requests for comment.)
As long as celebrities have existed, so have people who track and critique every aspect of their existence. Our modern-day celebrity gossip industrial complex—pioneered by websites like TMZ, Oh No They Didn’t, and PerezHilton.com—was built by publishers who homed in on the mortal flaws of celebrities. But social media’s expansion has allowed the rich and famous to more tightly control the public’s access to their pregnancies, exercise routines, and romantic relationships—illustrated through a feed of flawless photos. This quest to curate has caused its own intense scrutiny. Gossip outlets frequently report rumors that the Kardashians employ full-time Photoshoppers and have go-to selfie-editing apps. Travel bloggers have been accused of Photoshopping sunsets into their enviable Instagrams. When Vanity Fair accidentally published a behind-the-scenes photo of its Hollywood cover in which Oprah had three hands, it became a national story. Aiming for perfection has pushed even the most careful stars and media outfits to commit storied “Photoshop fails”—a well-known term used to describe egregiously bad image manipulation that results in the absence of a crotch, or in Oprah’s case, an excessive number of appendages.
In recent years, a crop of Z-listers has emerged to whet our appetites for something slightly messier. These aspiring models, viral news subjects, Instagram power users, and prolific vloggers have created a demand for new, internet-centric gossip vehicles. “As the rise of social media demolishes the leverage that celebrity tabloids once had over their most famous subjects, the gossip industry keeps defining celebrity downward,” The New York Times’ Amanda Hess recently wrote.
Almost in tandem, a burgeoning class of Photoshop critics have emerged as their watchdogs. In lieu of magazine covers, they have a cache of online ephemera. Armed with an inherent knowledge of face filters, editing software, lighting tricks, and production skills, young fans on message boards and Tumblrs can now chronicle the morphing personal brands of fledgling internet celebrities from their conception. Everything from the length of a social media star’s legs to the size of her forehead can become a topic of heated discussion. By piecing together small software-editing slipups on each new post, they evaluate their idols’ authenticity and, more generally, discuss what authenticity means in a culture chock full of face filters.
As long as Adobe’s pioneering photo-editing software has existed, so has the concept of the Photoshop fail. The phrase wasn’t popularized until the late aughts, around the time that internet media companies began regularly covering slipups. When Jezebel launched in 2007, founding editor Anna Holmes sought to position the site as a kind of watchdog of the women’s magazines where she had previously worked. She organized a contest that would award $10,000 to the source that provided the best unretouched photo from a magazine shoot. The winner was a photo of Faith Hill from the cover of Redbook that showed how drastically her face and body had been altered. The post became a milestone in what would become a regular beat for the site, filed under the tag “Photoshop of Horrors.”
“I don’t know that we spearheaded Photoshop analysis, but I think we certainly mainstreamed it,” Holmes recently told me. “People found those posts to be fun to look at, but also somewhat cathartic in terms of gender politics and media representation.”
Embedded within this area of coverage was a critique of how women were portrayed unnaturally. Following Jezebel’s lead, bloggers frequently went point-by-point through an unretouched photo, explaining the editing techniques at play for each body part. “Her cleavage appears sculpted and inflated,” read one such 2010 post on The Cut, in reference to leaked unretouched photos of Demi Moore. “Her armpit is missing a prominent wrinkle. Her sternum has disappeared. Her hair is smoother and more voluminous. Her neck has no wrinkles. Actually, none of her has wrinkles.” A 2014 post on BuzzFeed offered a similar analysis for unretouched images obtained by Jezebel of Mariah Carey: “Mariah’s breasts have been made bigger, her waist and stomach slimmed down and her jawline brought in.” One controversial 2014 Jezebel story surfaced an unretouched Vogue photoshoot of Lena Dunham—an outspoken advocate for body positivity. “Shoulder/back of neck shaved down, lengthening the neck, line near mouth on face removed, jawline sharpened, neckline of dress pulled up, cleavage altered, armpit covered, waist/hip smoothed, made narrower, elbow shadow/dimple removed, hands smoothed,” wrote then-editor Jessica Coen in the post. According to Coen, raising awareness of each small change was crucial to communicating just how far from reality these photos were.
“We all know that photos are being retouched, right?” Coen said. “It’s not like Jezebel revealed this. But to go through jawline by jawline, and arm by arm, for a single image to point to how specifically things were altered, that’s a very shocking thing. That can be very powerful.”
This early era of Photoshop hawks hoisted the issue of unretouched photos upon models and celebrities. The subjects of these leaked images discussed them in subsequent interviews and social media posts. Eventually a handful of skeptical young stars began criticizing outlets that published unrecognizable photos of themselves. In an acceptance speech for Glamour’s 2013 Women of Year award, Lady Gaga criticized the magazine for over-editing her recent cover shoot. “I felt my skin looked too perfect. I felt my hair looked too soft. I do not look like this when I wake up in the morning,” she said. In 2015, Zendaya Instagrammed a side-by-side comparison of unretouched and Photoshopped images of herself in Modeliste. “Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated,” the singer wrote. “These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.” The magazine’s website swiftly replaced the edited photo with a more natural one.
Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated. These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have. Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love. So I took it upon myself to release the real pic (right side) and I love it Thank you @modelistemagazine for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch issue.
Despite the fact that more A-listers are advocating for more natural depictions, beautifying apps have made many of the same glossy magazine photo-editing techniques mainstream and effortless for the masses. Social photo apps like Snapchat and Instagram allow users to apply face filters that automatically smooth and lighten their subjects’ complexion, enhance their eyes, and thin their face. In China, a photo-enhancing app called Meitu generates some 6 billion images a month. Face-altering software has become so commonplace there that, as The New Yorker recently reported, it’s considered impolite to post an image of a person without editing it first. (China has a term to describe the aesthetic of these selfies: wang hong lian, or “internet-celebrity face.”) In 2013, a portrait-editing app called Facetune premiered and rocketed to the no. 1 paid app in 120 countries, according to the company. It has been downloaded more than 7 million times; since then Khloé Kardashian has publicly praised the product, declaring, “It’s the only way to live.”
Even if the Kardashian-Jenner gossip factory is often candid about beautifying apps and makeup tips, the family is also the subject of frequent Photoshop controversies. Altered social media posts from the sisters are so frequent that they populate an endless number of “Photoshop fail” slideshows. Fans frequently draw red arrows and circles over the images to highlight how blurring tools have altered the background of a setting. One memorable set of selfies Kim took with Blac Chyna inspired The Cut to form a brain trust dedicated to analyzing her Photoshopping techniques. “It does look enhanced, because if you look at the door in the first one, the handle part curves in (which makes the boobs bigger), and in the other one, the handle curves in the other direction, making the waist smaller,” wrote the site’s photo editor. “Both doors are curved, but NOT in the same way.” Kim’s recent appearance in a Calvin Klein campaign also set off accusations of excessive photo editing. For their most obsessive followers, the Kardashian’s behind-the-scenes image alteration is just as engaging as, if not more engaging than, the images themselves.
Forums like Pretty Ugly Little Liar revolve around this norm, but for a much lower rung of fame. The two-year-old site’s homepage banner includes an illustration of several frequently discussed social media stars, sometimes referred to as “snowflakes.” Rose’s character wears a hair clip adorned with the Photoshop symbol. Nearby are Venus Angelic, a Lolita-inspired “living doll” YouTuber who has publicly feuded with her mother-manager, and Kiki Kannibal, Rose’s older sister, who was the subject of a Rolling Stone profile about internet fame and cyberstalking in 2011. Snowflakes, per the loose definitions of these sites, are online personalities who fraudulently represent themselves and manipulate their followers. Though many of the social media celebrities featured on PULL have amassed unquestioning admirers, their fame is partly derived from people’s obsession with their inauthenticity. In sum: The need for users to discuss a snowflake’s Photoshopped images ad nauseam is part of what helps a snowflake stay relevant in the first place.
On PULL, each internet celebrity in question is assigned a master thread, where old, unedited photos are posted for posterity. To PULL regulars, it’s a given that theses influencers use Photoshop.The topic of debate, rather, is what kind of shopping techniques are appropriate. Much like early-aughts gossip blogs, the tone of these forums shifts among adoring, petty, and concerningly stalkerish. (Last year New York called Kiwi Farms, a site that’s similar to PULL, “the web’s biggest community of stalkers.”) But there’s also a shared sense of CSIesque determination: companionship in the search for truth.
“Now that it’s extremely common knowledge that 17 different things will be retouched before a photo goes to publication, you have a generation of people that knows photos have been altered and are on the lookout for it,” Coen told me. “It’s a social experience for people to look at pictures together, and nitpick them together.”
This week Rose posted another selfie, this time of her in a pail pink sweater, dark lipstick, and a BDSM-inspired choker. PULL members went to town. Some inquired about her shade of lipstick and where to get it. Another user offered her own edit of the photo (a common occurance on the site). “Her version took her: 3 hours to edit,” wrote the user Shucksboy alongside a side-by-side comparison of the same image. “Mine took: 4 minutes.” A few days later, the same user came back to post another image she’d worked on, with the sarcastic caption “ ~uNsHoOpEd GuYz this Is ReAlLy Me*~`.” It looked like Rose had been reflected in a fun-house mirror, her head bulbous like an extraterrestrial, her eyes giant, her mouth tiny. It reminded me of the times I’d given my Barbie dolls ugly makeovers as a child. Maybe it was a way to poke fun at this social media star, but it also reflected the larger philosophy of a generation raised on face-editing software and an endless feed of social media celebrities. Appearance is relative. With the right editing tools and lighting techniques, anyone can be an idealized, infantilized, or demented version of themselves.