Navigating the gazillion options on your child's school portrait form requires the time and patience of a glorified soul. I am no such thing, which is why when my kindergartner handed me that bulging packet her first week of school, I marked off the second cheapest option (so not to seem as cheap as I actually am) and prepared to cut a check and find a place to stash all of those 2.5-inch x 3.5-inch pics (your kid can be pageant-cute, but I challenge you to locate six people who want to carry her photo in their wallet). As I skimmed the column to write $27 on the last box, I noticed an interesting offer. For an additional $5, I could check off the retouch box that would give the school photographer permission to erase my 5-year-old's facial flaws.
You know that feeling you get when someone's creepy uncle party-hugs you for 15 seconds too long? That's how I felt imagining the conversation that took place among the adults who thought retouching kids' photos is a solid money-making idea.
Now, I understand this one photo form is probably the same one my daughter's school hands out to the fifth graders (some of whom are going through puberty and have the rare pimple or two). It's also the same form, I'm sure, they give to the neighboring high school students, 99 percent of whom probably feel they have hundreds of facial flaws they'd just love to obliterate.
It's one thing to offer tweens and teens a retouching option that zaps their acne and fixes uneven skin tone — and, in fact, I think it's a wonderful option. Going through life as a 15-year-old with raging hormones and a new body that doesn't feel completely yours yet is awkward enough; having to stare at a crater-size pimple on your cheek every day because your mom refuses to remove the "stunningly gorgeous" portrait of her baby from the living room coffee table is torture.
If digitally removing acne helps your adolescent feel better about himself, then I'm all for it. Hell, at this point, it would be refreshing to find out that's the only thing that has been retouched when we see flawless pics of celebrities in magazines. But the offer to "whiten" our children's teeth? To lighten the color beneath their eyes? Stop right there — because no child needs to be sent the message that his or her body isn't good enough for picture day.
Like lots of kids, including your child, my daughter is gorgeous. Her skin is flawless and shows no sign of living yet, which is expected of someone whose greatest life stress is choosing a doll to take to bed at night. She has a tinge of purple beneath her eyes that is noticeable because her skin is almost translucent. Chalk it up to genetics — those mini-circles never disappear, no matter how far back I push her bedtime. She has an under-bite that our dentist has already assured me will require braces in a few years. She may come out of puberty looking like Kaia Gerber — but there will be so-called flaws along the way that she may curse every time she sees a photo of herself.
And that thought makes me want to cry. We are taught to always be working toward some ideal of physical perfection that includes pearly teeth, smooth skin and zero traces of life's hardships showing up on your skin and your body and in your hair. The reality is, if any of us ever feel like we've achieved a heightened state of flawlessness, it can be whisked away from us in the next breath — because, literally, walk outside and the wind will show you how little it cares about your perfect hair.
These things we (or photographers) consider flaws in our children are merely signs of their genetic makeup (in the case of teeth and under-eye circles), and in the case of hormonal acne, beautiful signs that they are growing and maturing into healthy young adults. What's wrong with wanting to document their childhood, year by year, exactly how they are?
By all means, erase the pimples that will make your teen cry — in my opinion, her emotional health and self-esteem are far more important than holding firm to the belief that all retouching is wrong. But it needs to stop somewhere. Teeth? Eyes? In kindergarten (or high school)? Just hand my daughter a comb seconds before the bulbs are set to flash and remind her to smile. She's still young enough to love herself — that, and not more beige under her eyes, makes the most beautiful photo of all .
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