Retouching Childhood

I don’t think, looking back honestly, that I could be called “attractive” in any of my school pictures. Even my senior picture, the one I chose from among 20 proofs, makes me cringe when I peruse it with the benefit of 30 years’ perspective.
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I don’t think, looking back honestly, that I could be called “attractive” in any of my school pictures. Even my senior picture, the one I chose from among 20 proofs, makes me cringe when I peruse it with the benefit of 30 years’ perspective. Why did I think it was a good idea to pluck my eyebrows until they were about two inches apart? Why didn’t someone take the tweezers away from me?

But it was my seventh-grade picture that really set the bar low.

I had decided earlier that week to give myself a haircut, and tragically I’d come up with the innovative approach of using my father’s shaving razor — another instance of my parents not controlling the use of grooming instruments. I think what I had in mind was a shag; this being 1972. What I ended up with was more like a frizzy mullet covering the whole of my left ear but only half of my right.

If I had that same disastrous seventh-grade photo taken today, though, I could have it retouched by a professional and not only get a new hairstyle but have the metal braces removed from my teeth at the same time.

This is true. I just read about it in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine. As one of the benefits of being in the digital age, many school photographers and lots of websites now offer re-touching for school photos that includes getting rid of freckles or blemishes, whitening teeth, re-styling hair, erasing braces, etc . And apparently business is booming.

I guess it’s too late for me, but it’s just in time for my second- and fourth-grade children. Yes, I said second- and fourth-grade, because many of those having their photos retouched are in grade school, and according to Newsweek, parents are signing their kids up at younger and younger ages. Even some of the retouchers themselves are taken aback. “It surprises me so much when a mom comes and asks for retouching on a second-grader," says Danielle Stephens, a production manager for Prestige Portraits, which has studios in nearly every state and starts its service at $6.

I guess maybe we’re all bound to develop negative opinions of our own bodies. Nearly every woman I know is fixated on her flaws and under-appreciative of her strong points, myself included. Readers of my books know I’m no stranger to plastic surgery, either. But I don’t want my nine-year old daughter, Belle, to feel that way. I don’t want her to think she needs retouching — that she doesn’t even look good enough for a grade-school picture. She’s too young!

And as embarrassing as my seventh-grade photo is, I appreciate it, too. It’s humbling that I looked so unattractive and maybe it’s good to be reminded that I did it to myself. I’m kind of fond of it actually. It’s a good example of the fact that you can grow out of certain things, that you can change, and that in fact you can actually succeed in life despite having looked like a nincompoop. Besides, most of the other seventh-graders didn’t look so hot either.

From what I remember, that was okay. There was no expectation of perfection. We were just kids, after all. But now the pursuit of the perfect face and body isn’t just the province of adults, and we’ve created "a culture of kids who are being socialized to unrealistic images," according to Cornell University historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project,"

Newsweek also quoted Kelly Price, a photographer at Legacy, whose youngest students are sixth-graders. "People want their kids to look perfect rather than teach them to appreciate their flaws."

Well, not me. I don’t need my kids to look perfect, in fact I know they’ll benefit from having looked ridiculous at some point. And that’s why, as Belle and Joe get older and more vain, I’m planning to leave all our grooming instruments right out in plain sight.

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