ModCloth’s Instagram feed is awash in color, a jittery jumble of vibrant hues competing for attention. Here you’ll find floral sundresses beside pink flamingoes, Hawaiian shirts beneath variegated umbrellas. The account hits the note many other established retailers aspire to, operating in the space between conventional catalog and nouveau lifestyle porn. You can buy most of those garments if you’re so inclined, but it could just as easily be the account of your most glamorous friend, the one who always manages to make Portland seem like Paris.
More than anything else, it’s the people in the pictures who contribute most to that illusion. Yes, they’re uniformly beautiful, but their bodies, varied in size and shape are real bodies—curves visible, imperfections occasionally apparent. That’s very much by design: ModCloth explains on its site that its “exclusive line of apparel is available in a full range of sizes―because we believe fashion is for every body.” This premise underlies ModCloth’s advertising, especially on social media, but it’s also a conceit that the company has elevated to the level of an ethical standard.
In recent months, the web-native retailer has thrown its support behind H.R. 4445, a bill that calls on the Federal Trade Commission to look into deceptive Photoshopping of bodies in advertisements. An Instagram post from Thursday depicts ModCloth co-founder Susan Gregg Koger in conversation with congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the bill’s sponsors. Ros-Lehtinen first introduced a version of the bill (then known as H.R. 4341) in 2014, but she put forward the current draft in February. Both build on the premise that “altered images [of models’ faces and bodies] can create distorted and unrealistic expectations and understandings of appropriate and healthy weight and body image.” Though the act wouldn’t ban such images outright, it calls on the FTC to establish clearer guidelines for how Photoshop can be used—and recommend strategies “to reduce the consumer harm” they reportedly cause.
Discussing H.R. 4341 in 2014, Slate’s Katy Waldman was skeptical that passing it would actually do anything to reduce the problem, pointing to the lack of “empirical evidence showing that Photoshop standards have an impact on the general public’s body image and eating disorders.” The 2016 bill suggests that “Decades of academic evidence links exposure to such altered images with emotional, mental, and physical health issues including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.” The public-facing version of the bill cites no specific evidence to support this claim, however, and Ros-Lehtinen’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the bill. The evidence may well show that distorted images have a negative effect on body image, but the assessment of Photoshop’s responsibility still seems nebulous—something for researchers to assess.
By my read, the bill relies primarily on popular distaste for Photoshop, distaste likely informed more by technopanic than real data. Though it doesn’t appear by name, that notorious computer program, and the digital culture from which it arises, rather than the fashion or advertising industry, is the implicit villain.
There’s a certain irony to ModCloth’s endorsement of H.R. 4445, then, since it’s a product of that same digital culture. It’s a business that couldn’t exist without the modern internet, one that relies heavily on social media and other forms of online infrastructure to reach the public and sell its products. Indeed, if anything, the company’s anti-Photoshop advocacy might be understood as an inoculation against any lingering public anxieties about shopping online—and perhaps about the effects of the internet more generally.
Addressing a crowd of hill staffers and assorted press last week, Koger suggested otherwise, repeatedly claiming that she had come to Washington, D.C., to show that the fashion industry backs Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts. Her own company’s commitments to the cause seem sincere: In 2014, ModCloth signed a pledge to avoid making postproduction changes to its models. But it’s a stretch to suggest that she speaks for clothing retailers more generally—pressed by an audience member after she brought this vow up, Koger admitted that, to the best of her knowledge, no other companies had joined ModCloth. (Brave Girls Alliance, which created the pledge, did not respond to a request for comment and appears to be defunct.) While ModCloth isn’t the only brand to have made such a commitment, it’s still not part of an especially organized commercial movement, despite the bipartisan, inclusive framing of H.R. 4445.
Ultimately, steering clear of Photoshop may not even require much effort from ModCloth. Built as it is around 21st-century notions of body positivity, ModCloth—a business founded in 2002—has a vested interest in showing its clothes on relatively real bodies, bodies that resemble those of its customers. The company regularly boasts that it has “never photoshopped [its] models’ bodies,” an assertion that Koger repeated during the Washington event. While that’s admirable, it also means that embracing the 2014 “Heroes Pledge” was hardly the “courageous movement” the company described it as at the time.
Unaltered images, in other words, are part of ModCloth’s business model, a way of creating “an emotional connection with [our] customers,” as Koger puts it. That plays out on the company’s site, where customers post lengthy, detailed reviews of products, often focusing on the minutiae of sizing. “Arms are a little constructive, but I have big arms, so that probably wouldn’t be a problem for most people,” a review of one dress reads in part. On another dress’s page, a customer writes, “For me, the belt came midway between my bust and my waist—impossible to wear. So sad! But I would say if you are under 5 feet 6, it would be great.” ModCloth invites such meticulous responses, notably allowing customers to list their own measurements and encouraging them to post pictures of themselves in the garments
Friends who patronize ModCloth praised this commitment to transparency, with many telling me that access to these more honest details kept them coming back. Observing that she thinks ModCloth isn’t “just giving lip service to the idea of showing real people in their clothes,” my friend Alison told me that the detailed reviews are “hugely helpful when you’re wondering if something will fit everywhere else but squish your boobs, just as an example.” Another acquaintance explained that she likes that she “can see what each item looks like on an actual person who has bought it,” especially because ModCloth sells clothing made by smaller, less known brands, making it more difficult to determine whether something is likely to fit.
This last point is critical, speaking to the realities of online commerce. As a brand that exists primarily online and that regularly updates its inventory, ModCloth has to provide its users with a reason to trust products that they can’t feel or try on. Representatives of other online-only brands have told me they work through ekphrasis—artistic descriptions of works of art—offering elaborately written narratives about the design and manufacture of their products to give visitors a sense that they’re already familiar with the garments. ModCloth’s promise of honest representation serves a similar purpose, giving site visitors the sense that they know what they’re getting into.
From this perspective, ModCloth’s advocacy for H.R. 4445 might be a little self-serving. If the legislation passed, it would put the already-transparent company at an advantage relative to more traditional retailers that still rely on photo manipulation in their advertising. Many American heritage brands take a similar tack when they call for made in the USA production, effectively arguing that their own business strategies should become normative standards for all businesses. That’s not to say Koger and co.’s stance is disingenuous, but it’s clear that it is certainly convenient, since it’s also a literal selling point for the company.
All of this suggests that legislation may not be the right way to deal with pernicious Photoshopping. Instead, the real solution may be to cultivate business models like ModCloth’s own—business models that make a virtue of transparency. Whether or not it’s altering its images, it’s clear that ModCloth is still selling a fantasy, as the idealized pictures on its carefully curated Instagram feed show. As always, the business of fashion is the business of desire. Koger touched on this very point, insisting, “For me, it’s really aspirational to show women as they are,” rather than according to societal standards. Whatever other purposes it serves, for ModCloth, eschewing photo manipulation of its models is just as much a sales technique as Photoshopping them would be.