A recent New York Times article about the now-widespread practice of school photographers offering retouching services conjured up my own cringe-worthy third-grade picture, beaming from beneath my Dorothy Hamill haircut and proudly showing off the gap between my two front teeth so useful for its screaming whistle and ability to hold the width of a Popsicle stick. Fast-forward to today, and my parents could close the gap, as it were, and even whiten my pre-brace choppers.
But what kind of parents would want to? That’s the question the Times story posed. As it turns out, plenty. “The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait….School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology…And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.”
It’s not the first time a major media outlet has voiced concern over retouching for tots. A 2008 Newsweek article warned that the rise in retouching is the byproduct of a culture consumed with the idea, as psychoanalyst Dr. Susie Orbach put it, “that the body is perfectible.” At Legacy Photo, an agency outside Philadelphia interviewed for the story, about half of all middle- and high-school orders were coming in with retouching requests. According to one Legacy photographer whose youngest students were sixth graders, “People want their kids to look perfect rather than teach them to appreciate their flaws.”
Understandably, the so-called mommy blogs have taken hold of this issue since these stories were published. As one blog entry on Cafemom.com asks, “What kind of message does it send to a kid when her mom doesn’t think her face is pretty enough on its own? ‘Here honey, this photo is nice, but wouldn’t you look so much better if we whitened your teeth, fixed that piece of flyaway hair and erased that mole? Ah, NOW you’re perfect.’”
Newsweek said that though there was only anecdotal evidence, the agencies it contacted agreed that retouching clients are getting younger. According to a 2004 global study by the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, the article noted, 42 percent of first-to third-grade girls want to be thinner, while 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of getting fat.
Still, parents are torn. On one hand, writers like Cafemom.com remind that “It’s cool to see that your parents were once young, but cooler still, I think, for them to realize that we too were as silly and unsure of ourselves as they probably feel. What impossible standard would it set if I looked perfectly retouched in every childhood photo?” On the other hand, one parent in the NYT article who’d paid for her child’s giant facial scratch to be Photoshopped away said, “My rationale was, this is not something that is part of her face. I didn’t feel like I was changing my child.”
I can agree from an efficiency standpoint about employing the kind of retoucher that one commenter mentioned: “[My friend] worked group photos and his main job was to find kids giving the finger and making gang signs. He worked from a massive "hand bank" that had every type of hand in every possible color… He loved turning a kid giving the finger into a kid giving a friendly wave.”
Most will agree that you can go too far, such as this pageant retouching service, which offers “enhancements” such as replacing teeth, blending skin, adding eyelashes and even replacing entire hairstyles.
But when it comes down to personal choice, where do you draw the line? I have a few years yet before my child goes into elementary school (and by that time, maybe you’ll have the option of checking the box for “avatar”), but I have no intention of glossing over her awkward years. Still, there’s a difference between cute-awkward and mortifying-awkward (such as the standard-issue pimple/boil that has a historical tendency to strike, mid-face, on either prom day or picture day). And it would be my pleasure to dig into my wallet to spare her some mortification and purchase one moment of revisionist pleasure for her. What about you?