Retouching School Pix—a Crazy, Growing IndustryS

Scabs, scrapes, zits, braces: They make us "imperfect," but they are part of life. And except for Brazilian supermodels, we all have to deal with them—especially during our growing-up years. So shouldn't our school pictures reflect that reality?

The New York Times takes up this question in an article that discusses how companies are retouching school photos to make them glossier and more "perfect." Retouching's one of America's growing industries, with companies reporting more and more requests from parents as the technology diversifies and word spreads. "Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one," the article says. One school pix company rep says the number goes up for seventh graders, and by senior year "sometimes half of a class requests retouching."

If this seems like a new thing, it's not: in 2008, Newsweek ran a lengthy article about these retouching services, which date back to the mid-aughts. Back then, no market data was available indicating how popular such services were. Now there is: at least 10 percent of all photos done by Lifetouch, which the Times reports is responsible for about 30 million school pictures a year. Other companies report retouching two to five percent of their pix.

We've known for a while now that every woman "deserves to see herself retouched"—and have known even longer that magazine editors give the Photoshop treatment to photo subjects with frequently disastrous, horrifying, and ridiculous results. But the business of extending the right to be retouched (which is in the Constitution) to every woman's child might come as a shock to some. As well as it should: though retouching has been done in some way or another for several decades, this new wave of services amounts to micro-managing the faces of people whose self-esteem and self-identity are still developing. If their parents are ordering all of their imperfections to be removed, then they're likely to develop the belief that they must be "fixed" somehow in order to be acceptable or presentable. That's not good.

One psychiatrist told the Times that retouching can be helpful for kids who have "some substantial socially stigmatizing features that they want to tone down. Fixing these features in a photograph supposedly helps raise their confidence. But no proof is given. And how does it help if the child is picked on every day at school (or in the home) for those "stigmatizing features"? Seems that retouching them away for a photograph only draws more attention to the issues that are making the child vulnerable, which no child needs. (If the plastic surgery industry skyrockets in a few years, we should not act surprised.)

The article mentions that some school photo company execs are uncomfortable with the requests they receive from parents, which gives one hope that maybe they'll establish some sort of standards or limitations to keep retouching from getting out of hand. Some parents have asked for their children's haircuts to be reworked; one can just imagine requests for different hair colors, eye colors, or fixes "so he doesn't look so much like his dad." The consequences of such actions by parents, well-meaning or otherwise, could be devastating.

Coming up next week: liposuction for embryos, and botox for zygotes.

No Boo-boos or Cowlicks? Only in School Pictures [NYT]

Say ‘Cheese!' And Now Say ‘Airbrush!' [Newsweek]