Cowlicks and Pimples

According to The New York Times, you can forget all about those charmingly flawed photos of school children.  Parents are asking photography companies to get rid of their kids’ cowlicks, scabs and other imperfections.  If you didn’t sire designer children, the logic seems to go, you can at least have designer memories.

I know a little something about this photoshopping world, as it happens.  (It’s not in my own repertoire, of course.  As you may have noticed, this blog averages about two photos a year.  Usually, I have to nag my husband to take a picture, then I have to work like a dog to transfer it to my computer.  Sometimes it looks okay, but it’s rarely worth the struggle, even though every blogging expert on earth tells you you have to include lots of photos to “break up” all the boring writing that’s such an Internet turnoff.  By the time I’ve finally managed to center and publish a photo, I’m so exhausted I have to rest for several months.)

Still, I do have experience on the other side of the camera — in front of it — a place where I’m equally uncomfortable.  Two or three years ago, I agreed to take part in some kind of Lance Armstrong tell-cancer-to-fuck-off campaign (I am paraphrasing just a bit here).  On video, I was supposed to get tough with cancer and insult it or something.  I don’t think I did that particularly well — not being the combative sort — so my video time was limited.  But posters and photos of me in a yellow T-shirt, with my hands on my hips, trying to look tough, surface now and then.  If you look closely enough, you can see my little “I am a SURVIVOR” nametag, with my own penned-in addition of “so far.”  Which probably tells you everything you need to know about me and my lack of pugnacious spirit; when it comes to cancer, I’m superstitious, not pugnacious.

Anyway, let me get to the photoshopping point.  Every time someone spies one of these posters, they report back to me how great I look in it.  At first, I was flattered.  Then, I started looking more closely at the photo.  I quickly realized that I looked good since every crease and sag in my face had been airbrushed out.  Hell, half my face was missing.

“You look so great!”

“It’s not me!  It’s photoshop!”  Either I say it or I think it.

Unlike today’s kids, I didn’t grow up in a world like this, where photo imperfections and sartorial mistakes can simply be edited away to make a more pleasing image.  In fact, I think back at the old black-and-white images of my sister and me — especially those of my extended awkward years that lasted, roughly, from ages 3 to 18.  What if I hadn’t usually closed my eyes or grimaced?  What if my teeth had been straight?  What if my posture had been good and I’d been a little more svelte?  What if — let’s dream big — the backdrop had been Hawaii or Nepal, instead of Oklahoma or West Texas?

“If you could, would you have any of your bad memories erased?” the CNN poll asked today — in what I took to be a photoshopping question.  I stared at the question and answered it, finally, saying no.  According to the survey, the no’s had it, 54-46 percent, which I found quite interesting.

I’d like to give myself a lot of credit for my answer — how I’m reality-based and wise and oh-so honest.  I could claim that bad memories like pimples and braces and shyness and bad family vacations have formed me as much as any good luck or hard work.  Which is true, but too limited.

But I think the more accurate appraisal is that I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had horrific memories in my life that are so unbearable I need to erase them.

Then I have to add, well, so far, since, as I mentioned, I’m superstitious.  In fact, I’m as superstitious about life as I am about cancer.  If you have to ask why, then you haven’t been paying much attention to the world around you.  Some things you can’t photoshop away.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts called — I kid you not — 25 Things About Me, Part 1

19 comments… add one
  • Wouldn’t it be better for kids to think that they are fine just the way they are? Yikes, people are strange.

  • I always have the option of clicking airbrushing on my kids’ school photos for an extra $5. I always take it. One year I didn’t and my daughter had a fit b/c she had a pimple and some blemishes and the photo hung on the wall year displaying them. I think that the next time I get a headshot done for work purposes I am going to avail myself of technology and let them fix me up. The people who see that photo never meet me, so I might as well make as positive an impression as possible.

  • Those extended awkward years…I had them, too. I thought I’d never get out of them, in fact. And no airbrushing back then has made me appreciate passing through the awkward years and coming out better on the other side. Such is the way with cancer, too…passing through and coming out (better?) on the other side kind of makes me feel that I do not want to erase that bad memory….

  • I’m glad it wasn’t an option for my school pictures. Those weird little awkward imperfections kind of capture a moment for me–like the year I was caught biting my lip because my mother had told me to do that before the photo so that my lips would look rosy.

  • We had professional photos done and the photographer photoshopped out MY WRINKLES. I hate that he did that and I was kind of surprised. I like how I look and I don’t want to be airbrushed, thank you very much. And as you mention so eloquently, some things cannot be photoshopped away. I’ll have to read that Times article now. And maybe write about it. Thanks for this post!

  • I agree. I actually do photoediting of my own photos, but never take out so-called “imperfections” (I don’t even know how to do that)- more, I adjust color and whatnot, which makes the picture more true-to-life than my own camera typically captures. True-to-life is my motto. It’s pretty shocking that school pictures are being airbrushed! (We live abroad so our kids have never had school pictures taken).

  • First I love the “tell cancer to fuck off campaign.” Just had to mention that.

    Second, I feel the same way about my photo shopped photos. I want my photos to look like me. If someone can’t recognize me in real life after seeing the photos, then I’m not so such they really are photos of me after all — even if I posed for them.

  • Merr Link

    I know that when I was a senior in high school I was a-very happy they did the ole “touch up.” But I saw with my kids they were starting to do this kind of touching up at younger grades. It seemed odd. The other thing that was ridiculous (while I’m on the subject) was the astronomical price of the photo packets. I mean, really…for a regular grade photo package? Honestly.

  • Susan Link

    My younger brother had his braces and acne Photoshopped out of his senior portrait several years ago. I think those are legitimate changes, because you want to remember the clothes you wore and that youthful look of mischief, not the fact that your mouth was full of painful metal and your face looked like a pepperoni pizza. I can understand kids wanted to have a better version of themselves, especially when parents pass around photos and display them around the house.

  • My goodness, my school photos would be no fun with airbrushing. I rocked the Elaine super-high hairdo like no one else–and I smiled with a full set of braces too. Then again, that was before someone could post it immediately on FB.

  • Oh I remember my extended awkward period, although i don’t think I have ever completely gotten beyond it. But photos in those early years definitely capture that stage!

  • I wish there had been a way to touch up my frizzy hair in high school photographs. I looked like Little Orphan Annie. But touch ups didn’t exist then and now I’m glad. I am who I am.

  • I also would’ve liked a bit of photoshop options when my school photos were taken. They could’ve eliminated the braces.

  • But wouldn’t it be nice if we could airbrush out the brains of some people.

  • After a generation or two of all this airbrushing, no one will know what anyone looks like anymore. You won’t run into someone on the street and think, hmm, I saw a picture of her last week. It’ll be, hmm, I saw a picture of someone who looks like her but the person in the picture is flawless so it can’t be the same person.

    We’re a rapidly disappearing society.

  • What an interesting topic. I love the cancer campaign. All of the survivors I know are beautiful and don’t need touch ups.

    I hadn’t heard about airbrushing of kids (I tend to live under a rock). I wouldn’t change a thing about my beautiful daughter’s pictures. But to be totally honest, I despise seeing pictures of myself. I’ve never photoshopped myself, but I will take twenty pictures to try to get a “decent” one. I get nervous when the shutter clicks, so I throw out an idiotic, crooked grin at the last second. I doubt that could be airbrushed away.

    I probably send mixed messages to my daughter. I tell her to love herself for who she is, yet I obsess over my idiotic grin in my own pictures. Egad.

  • I’m with you…”fuck” photoshop.
    Yesterday on Oprah she featured a number of “real” women….got a good look at my contemporary Cybil Shephard. She looked so real and I was glad; not much make-up, a 50 something face, and she was beautiful in her un-photoshopped look.

    Like I said, “fuck” photoshop.

    We are beautiful as we are.

  • Way to get kids worrying even more about their appearance. In my mind, imperfections are what make us who we are.

    As for photos in general: Now that we all have our images plastered all over the web it kind of cracks me up when people meet me and say — not in a good way — something like “oh, you don’t look like your avatar at all.”

    Um, time to introduce some cyber civilities, don’t you think?

    I usually throw back something flip like: “well, this is me, just tireder and older!”

  • I tend to covet my bad memories in some weird Little Miss Martyr sort of way. They made me who I am today, and god dammit, I heart my bad attitude and bitter snarkiness!

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