Graphic Novel Debut From Bold New Voice Sofia Szamosi Tackles Social Media and Image Manipulation

If you’re on any type of visually-driven social media platform, you will be familiar with the way these sites have contributed to negative self-esteem, body image and self-perception. With the rise of easily-accessible photo editing and enhancement tools, the pressure to look like your fave famously-airbrushed celebs has never been more intense. So we’re here to take the pressure off by zooming out a few levels, and diving into a new graphic novel that examines this phenomenon through a fictional (LBH it will be all too relatable IRL…) lens.

This September Graphic Universe, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, will publish Sofia Szamosi’s graphic novel debut titled ‘Unretouchable‘. Equally timely and thoughtful, Szamosi’s debut provides an unforgettable take on social media and our image-conscious society.

In ‘Unretouchable’, Olive is spending the summer before art school at a coveted internship, helping one of the fashion industry’s elite digital-imaging specialists. After a glamorous New York photoshoot, she learns that taking pictures is only the first step. She discovers the “violent verbs” (cut, crop, slice, lasso) of image retouching software and the secrets behind “virtual models.” Soon Olive is fixating on her own appearance and pondering the ethics of her work behind the scenes. As college gets closer, she’ll try to get out of her own head, attempt to quit the Internet, and finally embrace image-making on her own terms. ‘Unretouchable’ is a window into the little-known, hugely influential world of photo retouching and a tribute to self-acceptance.

“Having been a young woman facing these very real issues, I am excited to offer a new angle on the many anxieties young women face in our hyper-image focused world,” said cartoonist Sofia Szamosi in a press release.

Sofia Szamosi’s bold graphic novel debut tackles serious topics with a winning combination of curiosity, sensitivity, and wit through its lively, appealing black-and-white illustration and relatable main character. ‘Unretouchable’ ushers in a charming creative voice to the world of comics. Graphic Universe will publish Sofia Szamosi’s ‘Unretouchable’ on September 13, 2022.

Ahead of her release, we spoke with Sofia about her creative process, the inspiration she drew from her own life for this story, and what message she hopes her young daughter will grow up hearing with regard to body image and self-esteem.

Where did the idea for ‘Unretouchable’ come from? 

‘Unretouchable’ started out as a zine I made in 2016 after doing an internship with a photo retoucher in NYC. The zine was an illustrated personal essay about my experiences and musings on the power of images, quitting social media, and the importance of “unretouchable” art and experiences. When I shared the zine with my agent, Jennifer Weltz of JVNLA, she saw the seeds of a graphic novel in its pages. 

Where did your visual arts career begin?

I have always been an artist (although there were a few years when I found it cringey to use that word). My first love was drawing. In my teens and twenties I became obsessed with black and white analog photo booths, and photo booth strips became my primary creative medium. I would make backdrops and pose with the most elaborate props and costumes I could fit into the booth. Then there were a couple of years where all I wanted to make was photo and video self portraits of myself being covered in food. I returned to drawing in my mid-twenties via zine-making. The first works I ever sold were my zines and artists’ books, through the very cool book arts organization, Booklyn, Inc. 

We love the way you incorporate real issues such as body image, social media pressure and social norms into this story. Why did you decide to tackle these topics? 

How social media and unrealistic beauty standards affect body image is something we should all be confronting as much as possible. I had eating disorders for much of my teens and twenties, and it was actually around the time of the internship that inspired this book that I got more serious about my recovery. The internship and self-work I was doing led me to really question the role that social media (and popular media in general) played in how I saw myself and my body. As I worked on having a more healthy relationship to food and my body, I realized how much mindful media consumption (and creation) was a necessary part of self-care. 

Your graphic novel is aimed at YA readers. Why is this target audience important to you, especially in light of the topics covered in ‘Unretouchable’?

I was 27 when I did the internship and created the zine that inspired this book, but having struggled with eating disorders in my teens, I knew firsthand how damaging unrealistic beauty standards can be for young people. I loved the idea of making something cool for teenagers that might also add to larger conversations about social media, image manipulation and unrealistic beauty standards, and hopefully be part of some positive change.

Photo retouching has pretty much become a normal (and expected, in some ways!) part of social media platforms like Instagram, with many celebs know for editing their images. What are your thoughts on the long-term impact for young women especially? 

Yes, it is so interesting how much more ubiquitous and accepted retouching on social media has become since 2016 when I did the internship that inspired this book. Beauty filters and retouching apps that would have once seemed shocking or maybe a little embarrassing are now totally normal. How we portray ourselves and put ourselves out into the world is a personal choice, and I don’t judge anyone for wanting to experiment with or change their appearances, online or off. But I do think it’s important to think hard about what messages we are sending others and sending ourselves when we use apps or other means to change ourselves in accordance with capitalistic goals or very narrow standards of beauty.

You have a young daughter who is very young now, but as she grows up how do you hope your work will have an impact on the way she sees herself? 

Obviously I hope she always adores herself, expresses herself freely and fully, and feels at home in her skin and the world. But I know how hard growing up (and just being a person) can be, so I’m sure there will be times she questions herself and struggles with her self-image. I hope I can help her gather tools to move through her feelings – to feel them / talk / write / make art about them… And I hope she’ll stay curious and awake to the forces that shape the way she sees herself and the world. 

What cartoon styles do you draw inspiration from when creating your characters and scenes? 

I never got too deep into the world of comics or cartoons, but growing up I did love R. Crumb. I discovered graphic novels as an adult and immediately fell in love with artists like Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi. 

How long did it take for you to complete ‘Unretouchable’? And do you come up with the story first, or the illustrations? 

I did the internship that inspired the book in 2016, and signed the contract with Lerner to create the book in 2019. Then it took me two years to write the script, create the sketches and then finalize the artwork. 

Aside from ‘Unretouchable’, you are also working on your second YA graphic novel, a memoir about your adolescence in the troubled teen industry. Can you tell us more about this and what we can expect? 

Yes, I’m very excited about my next book, a graphic memoir about my experiences being sent away as a teen. I’m hard at work on it as we speak. Stay tuned for more! 

What do you hope readers will love most about ‘Unretouchable’? And what do you love most about your debut graphic novel? 

I love that this idea grew from a humble zine into a real graphic novel, going off into the world and having a life of its own! And I’m so grateful to the team of people who helped make it happen. It’s such an awesome feeling to get totally absorbed in a graphic novel, and if this book could give that feeling to even a few people, it would be so gratifying!

You can pre-order a copy of ‘Unretouchable’ by clicking HERE, and see more of Sofia Szamosi’s work on her website as well as Instagram.

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