Keep It Real: A Digital Retoucher Rethinks His Career

“I don’t know what happens next”

by Roy A. Cui

My name is Roy A. Cui and I live and work in Los Angeles, California. You may be familiar with my work. I have worked on many clothing and beauty advertising campaigns. I’ve worked on covers and editorial spreads for popular magazines that you see in the grocery store. You’ve probably even seen my handiwork on the billboards or bus stops you pass by on your way to work. You may have even seen my work in well-known art galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Europe.

If you’re thinking that I’m a photographer, I’m not. I’m a photographer’s best friend. My pseudonym is EyeConArtist: I con the eye, and my tagline is “making the unreal appear real.” My chosen profession is being a digital retoucher. I’m a part of the media machine that has suckered you into thinking that you need to look like this flawless person who does not exist anywhere in the world. You then feel unhappy with how you really look, so you buy the products that the person of perfection is using in the image that I retouched.

I didn’t enter this profession with the intention of deceiving people. My first passion was photography and I worked as an assistant to many Los Angeles based photographers in the early 90’s. Then I was introduced to the “magic” of Photoshop and I was in awe of the endless possibilities that Photoshop offered.

When I started out as a retoucher, photographers made every effort to make sure they had near flawless sets, models, apparel, makeup, and products. They shot their images with film, which were scanned and then retouched. If the images needed digital retouching, it was extremely expensive and only large companies could afford to have it done. If small commercial companies needed retouching back then, it was minimal.

Today, with photographic technology where it is, it’s not just the major campaigns that have retouching done. It’s every image produced for public consumption that is retouched, whether it’s a model, a bar of soap or even a dog. EVERY image used in advertising is retouched.

It’s standard for me to thin and elongate legs, thin down the waist and arms, remove any bulging flesh, remove wrinkles, bags under the eyes, blemishes, freckles, tattoos, fix a lazy eye, remove or minimize creases where there should be creases, like the underarm or the neck. As more and more has been asked of me technology made it easier to do more in less time, I never questioned the ethics of what I was being asked to manipulate.

It never occurred to me that what I was doing was causing anyone any harm. Everyone knows everything is retouched right? If they don’t, it’s not that big of a deal. We take everything we see with a grain of salt, right? It didn’t cross my mind until about ten years ago when I was out with a friend at a popular apparel store. The store had several images of their product all over the store that I had worked on. I mentioned this to the young woman that was helping us and she looked at me in disbelief and wanted to know what was done on the images. I pointed at one image and explained that I had cleaned up every square inch of that model’s skin, brought in the bulges from where the bra and panties were tight on her hips, torso and shoulders, thinned down the sides of her body to give her a smooth hourglass look, and even changed the color of some of the garments. She was horrified. She told me that she had no idea and that she came to work everyday thinking that something was wrong with her because she didn’t look like the girls modeling the clothes in the pictures. I told her that everything that she sees in print media has been retouched, especially women in ANY ad, and reassured her that she looked fine…the MODELS don’t even look like that.

She was only one person. How many other women feel that way when they look at the images I’ve had a hand at retouching? Maybe those thoughts filled my head that day, but I had more important things to focus on like making living with what I know how to do, retouching… What was pressing me to keep going: Feeding and clothing my two sons and daughter.

My daughter is 11 now. She’s old enough to internalize what she sees. I think she’s beautiful inside and out and I’d hate to think I had anything to do with making her dislike herself. So, I tell her about how retouching is used in every printed image she sees and even show her before and after’s of files I’ve worked on, because I’m on the inside. But what about all those other girls, young women and ladies that have no clue as to how the images they see affect them? I’ve felt, for years, that I should do something about it.

These thoughts of needing to spread the truth have haunted me and grown greater with every passing year. It all came boiling to the surface after seeing the screening of Miss Representation at the California Endowment on May 17, 2012. Periodically during the movie there were images flashing on the screen that were taken from print ads to show examples of how women are being negatively portrayed in media. Then one of the covers that I retouched popped up in the movie and a lightning bolt of anxiety shot through me.

During the Q&A after the screening I mustered up the courage to go up and ask the director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, how I could help turn things around, stop being a part of how the media portrays women, and maybe still be able to make a living. She was so impressed by me coming forward to start being part of the change that I decided to get my story out, risking career suicide, just to try and do my part to change the culture.

Which leads me to here, my first video blog. Now that I’ve decided to make this change, I don’t know what happens next. I’m scared, but I know it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know where, when, or how, but I need to find a way to use my talents in a positive and constructive way.

Hopefully my story can help women understand how they are being manipulated and maybe even get magazines, photographers, art directors, ad agencies AND their clients to realize what they are doing to the women of the world.

So, please help me support to get magazines to have ONE UNretouched image of a model printed per publication for this summer.

Thanks for listening to my story and stay tuned to see how this turns out for me.


This blog was originally posted at Re-posted here with permission.


  1. Liana says:

    Hey I am really touched by this and it gives me hope that not everyone is just in it for the money and actually thinks about what they do. I wish you all the best. Thanks for writing!
    Liana :-)

  2. Teri Rees-Momeyer says:

    I went to high school with you. You were talented then and you are talented now. It is amazing to see you reaching out to give girls, boys, women and men a true picture of what happens behind the scenes with all marketing and advertising images. I am in marketing and advertising, too, and I tell my 7 year old daughter constantly that everything she sees on television, in movies and especially in print media is FAKE! I admire the Keep It Real campaign and am doing my part, but the truth is perfection sells and I don’t foresee sweeping changes in either the fashion or beauty industry. However, people like you, imparting your knowledge, may save a girl’s self-esteem and make her realize there is truly nothing wrong with her as she is or convince a boy that the girls he looks at are real and the images are not. Thank you, Roy, for going with your conscience despite the possibility of career-suicide. You are truly an everyday hero and the world needs lots of those.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Wow, Teri, thanks. It’s good to hear from you after all these years and thank you for your inspiring words. You say that “I’m” an every day hero, but you are too. By telling your daughter about the truth in media, and she will enlighten others too. Thanks again, your words hit deep.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Amazing!! So brave. I had tears in my eyes. Mr. Cui, I applaud you for taking a stand. This fills my heart with hope that maybe – just maybe – we can turn things around, and my beautiful 11 and 13 year old daughters are not doomed to become just another body-hating statistic.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      I’m in awe that I was able to reach and move you Kathleen. I was showing my kids this page when your comment popped up and as I read it to them I was so moved that I had to pause to catch my breath. Great that we did that for each other. Just keep talking to your girls about being aware of the reality of the world around them and they should be fine. Sounds like youu’re a great mother.

  4. Paula Grieco says:

    Congratulations for being brave enough to share your personal experience and to do the right thing!! No doubt, you made your daughter proud and she will always remember you for it. And I am going to show your blog to my daughter today.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Thanks Paula! I’m so enthused that you’re going to show this to your daughter, hope it helps her see the world, and herself, more clearly. And apparently my daughter IS proud of me. Read Talula Cui’s comment below.

  5. Adrienne says:

    Thank you for taking this courageous step for women. I have an eight year old daughter and I can see how she is already affected by images of women in the media. I’d love to see a video of you manipulating a photograph to show young girls what’s really going on out there and I will be showing your blog to my daughter!

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      You read my mind Adrienne. I’m planning on getting a time-laps video of what is done to show our kids how it’s done. The change starts with us, but will grow with them. Thanks so much for the encouraging words, it motivates me to continue.

  6. Talula Cui (Daughter of RoyACui) says:

    That’s my Dad up there!! I know this is his first time but you did great dad! I love him for teaching me that all those women were retouched. And he taught me that it’s not always about being pretty. Remeber women, it’s not always about beauty! Just be your self and you’ll be fine. If people don’t like you the way you are then there aren’t the right friends. Thanks Dad for teaching this to me! I <3 you!!! :)

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Wow, Talula, you make ME so proud. You’re 11 and got such a level head on your shoulders and by you telling me this, I feel like I’m doing something right in raising you (and your siblings). You’re on your way to becoming a great woman; human being. I <3 you too baby.

  7. Jeremy Gaywood says:

    I am also the father of daughters approaching the adolescence and I’m losing sleep over it. My thoughts are churning, thinking of what I should be to do the right thing by them. I’m

  8. Jeremy Gaywood says:

    I am also the father of daughters approaching the adolescence and I’m losing sleep over it. My thoughts are churning, thinking of what I should be to do the right thing by them. I’m proud of what you are doing and wish you the best.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Thanks Jeremy. Sounds like you’re already doing right by them by being concerned and conscientious about how to raise them right and be a good role model. Just keep open and honest dialog moving between you guys. Maybe showing them my video blog will help open up a new line of dialog for you and your daughters to where you can start getting more sleep. For what it’s worth, good luck, but I’m sure you’re going to do great.

  9. Brendan says:

    What you say is so true. the dilemma is that we who work in advertising and especially photography struggle to make a living as it is so are really over a barrel when it comes to integrity. I do take comfort from the hope that there will be a swing away from this “perfection” thing. I think the porn industry has experienced it i.e “real couples” etc and if you look at European advertising, it has had a focus on “real” for quite some time now. although their “real” is still an ad land ideal of real

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      I couldn’t agree more Brendan. In order to do what we love and be compensated in order to live comfortably we have to sell a part of our soul. There is a change in Europe in regards to retouching, but it’s just that it’s not supposed to look retouched IF there is retouching. Regardless it’s still about the “perfection obsession” that sells. Don’t give up hope though.

  10. angela says:

    you are already making a difference with your daughter. mine is 12 turning 13, and i am a photographer. i do not retouch my images, but know how to. and my kid knows i know how to as well, she actually did a science project on it one year showing how the affect of the post processing effected the viewer. big stuff for a kid…but they get it. as long as they have the right information. what you are doing is important. it affects everyone, boys, girls…all of us. i am 42 and need reminding once in awhile. i watched miss representation with my daughter and my 16 year old son. they were shocked by some stuff and nonchalant about other parts…that freaked me out. but they are getting that real is good and that they can not trust what they see as *normal* in the media. because, for the most part? it is not normal. good for you and i hope i see untouched images near me soon.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      You sound like a kindred spirit Angela. Interesting what you said about them being nonchalant about certain parts of the film. Seems that if we don’t show them what’s not natural or right, they’ll just go along with what they see as being *normal*, however, their generation already has some of that ingrained in them, but hopefully with some of the truth seeping in it can reach other areas later that we can’t now. And keep the NONretoucing going sister!

  11. Roy A. Cui says:

    You read my mind Adrienne. I’m planning on getting a time-laps video of what is done to show our kids how it’s done. The change starts with us, but will grow with them. Thanks so much for the encouraging words, it motivates me to continue.

  12. Melissa Carr says:

    AMEN!! You are an amazing dad, and amazing man and an amazing human being! I am giving you a standing ovation at my desk right now. Thank you for speaking out!

  13. Bonnie says:

    Thank you SO much for telling your story and I completely appreciate how you were doing your job without understanding the real way it affected so many. You are so brave to take this first step which could be the demise of your career. You are a wonderful person and just the fact that you have put this out there so honestly is special. What a wonderful father and man. Thank you!

  14. Jm Foley says:

    Dear Roy,

    I am tremendously impressed, and grateful for your act of leadership (because that’s what it is). I would love to speak to you about ways to accomplish your goals, and how my organization might possibly help. Specifically, I’m thinking that you need to get in front of kids – boys as well as girls – to tell your story, and I have some thoughts on ways to do that which might also lead to some income possibilities for you. I am an educator, as well a father, so I have a vested interest in helping you!

    My school is planning a possible screening of Miss Representation next year, which presents a great opportunity for action. You can find out more about my organization at, and if you’re interested in a conversation I’d love to have one. If not, just know that I am tremendously grateful for what you’re doing!

    Jim Foley

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Hello Jim,

      Can’t tell you how exciting it was to read your reply. I have just wanted to help women of all ages (but I think it starts with the children) to realize that they don’t have to feel bad about about the way they look and subsequently feeling bad about who they are. And now after you stating that there might be a way to do this AND make a living at it has tremendously moved me.

      I am very interested in talking with you to see how I can help you with you cause.

      Sincere thanks,

    • Jim says:


      Fantastic! How about a call next week? My emai is foleyj at

      Look forward to talking soon.


      • Roy A. Cui says:

        Hey Jim,

        I just noticed your reply here. Perhaps you should leave a comment on my blog ( too so that I can be notified of when it is posted. Thanks for your email address and I’ll contact you in the next day or two. Thank you so much for your interest in helping me.

  15. [...] stuff! Also, #keepitreal, ya’ll. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was [...]

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  17. This video brought tears to my eyes, Mr. Cui. I never realized the extent to which photographs are altered in magazines. Thank you so much for telling us the truth!

  18. Lisa Moon says:

    Thank you, Roy!! I, too, had tears reading of your courageous actions!

    Others have already said words similar to what comes to mind for me, but I’m telling you anyway, lol!

    You can be proud your conscience is alive and kicking, that you’re not only giving your kids an excellent foundation in life, but you have the opportunity to help SO many people by further exposing the truth!

    I also believe in the concept of karma and very much believe your new passion for helping others with your experiences will lead you to a very rewarding vocation.

    Losing income when you have family is especially terrifying, for sure. Looks like others with similar goals are already reaching out… I wish you financial security along with the peace of mind comes from making a real difference.

    Thank you again. What an inspiration!

    Best wishes.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Thank you SO much for your kind words Lisa. Even though you feel that others here have already said what you wanted to say, it’s the way that you said it. You have inspired me to keep going. I too believe in Karma and have faith that something truly wonderful will come out of this for ALL parties involved. Please, if you have time, post your wonderful words on my blog ( I would appreciate it so much. Keep the dialog going!

  19. Alison says:

    So touched by this story! Roy, you have chutzpah! The good kind :)

    I’m 42 but even the retouching way back when affected me. I remember being 23 and noticing that I suddenly had pores. And thinking that the 40 year old celebrities that I saw in magazines didn’t have pores. I felt like a monster for a few months until I began the long process of REALLY looking at real women. At that point, I noticed I looked just about like everyone else and stopped obsessing.

    Thanks for being part of the solution and a great Dad! Much appreciated!

    Question: do you think it’s possible to do minor/ subtle retouching in way that keeps women looking real? For example, fixing an odd shadow, or random blemish, etc. I like the Dove Campaign. I wonder if they retouch their photos at all?

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Thanks for the great comment Alison, and to answer your question, YES! Nothing is impossible when it comes to Photoshop and the same goes for minimal esthetic retouching. Things have gotten so easy to manipulate that art directors/ad agencies tend to go too far and to an ultra-clean level of imagery that it’s unreal and standard.

  20. Erin says:

    Tell the boy’s and men too. They need to know what is deceiving their eyes too. Women know, OK, most women know about the crazy unattainable standards placed upon them via media and advertising. Now might be a good time to assure men that what they see and dream about is an illusion.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      I totally agree and feel that men need to know that they are being trained to want unrealistic women. Even if they get women that “look” like the ones in the media, there will be a lot of issues that come along with that coveted beauty. Men also need to know how this process is affecting women and that men are also being deceived and manipulated by the media.

  21. Gwen says:

    You’re doing the right thing. I wish I believed that good things happen to good people, but I don’t…I’m a skeptic. However, what you have done, even though it will cause you hard times and some financial insecurity, is the right thing and I hope it will be it’s own reward. Good luck and thanks for the honesty.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Thanks Gwen, for reassuring me that I AM doing the right thing. I like to think that I’m a good person and I am banking on my faith that something will great will come from my sacrifices by putting myself out there, but so long as people start to realize the truth and what I’m doing plays some small part, then that would be rewarding. Even if I start working retail, at least I helped bring the truth to light some. Thanks for your support. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog too ( :)

  22. Gregory Ellett says:

    Roy, as a father of 3 girls this is very important for them to hear.


  23. Lisa Brewster says:

    Roy, you are my hero and I’m sure a hero to millions of people. Thank you for standing up and telling it like it really is. As a proud mom of 3 now grown adults, I have always been aware and angry of the industry that you describe. There is nothing good that has comes out of deception, only girls and boys too, hating their bodies and battleing a life time of eating disorders and various other saddnesses. I’m so proud of you and honor the man that you are.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Wow, thanks Lisa. Great to hear from an aware mother that is truly concerned about the future of our children, even if yours are grown, I know you are still concerned about them. Be sure to tell them about what’s going on so that they might teach their children and/or others as well. Thanks for the kind words.

  24. Deanna McRae says:

    Wow – I applaud you. Tisha posted this and I was intrigued to see what it was about. People like you make the world a better place! Thank you for standing up for what you believe in even though it may cost you more than most of us would allow in our lives. Being the grandmother of two very lovely grand-daughters and two special grandsons, 2 daughters also,I am excited to show them your site!!!! I just spend 3 days shopping with my 10 year old grand-daughter for a summer wardrobe for her birthday. I know the difficulties she found in outfits not fitting her like they do the models and mannequins. How unfair of society to put that pressure on young women. You truly are a man that your children be proud of!!! and great standards for them (and the rest of us) to live by. again – THANK-YOU!!

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Deanna, thank you so much for your beautiful comment. I hear you when it comes to buying clothes for girls, Jr.s and women too. Most of the clothes out there for females aren’t made for “average” women. If the bust or tush is bigger that a thin model it’s difficult to find what WILL fit. That, in turn, makes females feel inadequate and insecure about their bodies, well that’s one way that makes them feel like that. Please keep the dialog going and get people thinking about it. Thanks again for your support.

  25. [...] run surveys asking “How much is too much?” on photo retouching, or share insights with retouchers seeking career changes newly aware of the collateral damage and mental toll it’s taking among [...]

  26. Sandi de Verteuil says:

    I received this from my Niece Deanna and I am overjoyed that you have had the courage to come forward as you did, jeopardizing your career as you have in support of our young women. I am a mother (step mother as well) of 4 girls, and 5 granddaughters. I have over the years watched them trying to emulate the stars on tv and in magazines. I have been very adament about the don’t be so critical of yourself you are beautiful as you are, which is difficult for our young women to do what with peer pressure and all. The amount of money spent on cosmetic in this house could feed a small country I am sure! I will surly bring this article and blog to their attention as three of my grand daughters are very young yet and maybe it will be of some help to them as they grow into young women. As for the older ones, maybe it will help them to be a little less citical of themselves. Again, I thank you for your courage and conviction to our women, young and old.

    • Roy A. Cui says:

      Hi Sandi, it sounds like that you are in good company with Deanna and that the young women in your family are lucky to have you both looking out for them, showing them the realities of self recognition and appreciation. Please, do show them my video, and videos to come (subscribe to my blog: for future videos on how imagery is manipulated) and especially the movie Miss Representation. Jennifer has done an amazing job of helping expose the truth. Please, keep the dialog going and people thinking about what they see everyday in the media. Hope to hear from you soon. :)

  27. Jen says:

    Roy, I think the most helpful thing you could do is to publish all the details of what you did – in a book, a blog, a film, in every way that you can (and maybe in some ways that help you pay the rent). I’ve heard of photoshopping of course, though only in the last year, but knowing the details of the distortions really helps. I felt a sense of relief when you mentioned the thing about bra and panty bulges. If I know that even a model has those, then maybe I can stop hating the sight of my little bulges every time I see them. Yes, a lot of us hate what we see in our bodies. That’s what the fashion industry and the constant bombardment with diet ads does to us. It goes beyond making us desire something and beyond making us less than satisfied. The barrage is so constant and comes at us so many times every single day, that it makes us hate ourselves. For me the only relief came when I decided I didn’t give a damn about whether my body looked OK and just saw myself as a brain on a stick, with more important things to do.

    And as for your being scared, sometimes that’s a good sign. Sometimes that means that you’ve started doing something worthwhile with your life and suddenly it matters a lot more if you get things right. Sometimes anxiety is good and pushes you forward and directs you onto the right path. Let it fuel you.

  28. [...] since creating the video – which was used as part of the Miss Representation Keep it Real campaign, and posted to his own brand new blog – by the profuse thanks and emotional response he has seen [...]

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