Retouching childhood

My 8th grade school photo day was easily the worst of all school photo days in the history of the world ever. The day before, I had ventured to my mother’s hair salon asking to change my hair from the long, well-brushed, one-length style of my childhood for “wisps” – that new style of bangs that the pretty girls wore, all tendril-y and wispy and touchable. It looked fabulous on blonde cheerleaders.

It did not look fabulous on me.

But the hair stylist did not consider my frizzy, product-free, wisp-unfriendly hair. She just started cutting.

My forehead was now marred with these laughable half-bangs, faint bits of hair that jutted out in uneven directions like an ugly wet bird newborn emu, then finally curling into the center of my forehead from either side to form a perfect circle in the center. I had a circle of bangs on my forehead. This, coupled with a “natural blowdry” (she used a diffuser, people!) coerced my already poofy hair into a state of frizz never before seen within the confines of Westchester County. I could just imagine the finger/light socket jokes in homeroom the next day.

ostrich. Or me.
 Like this. Only frizzier. And with ribbon barrettes.

My father walked in our front door for our weekly visit that night, I took one look at him, and burst into tears.

It all made for quite the awesome 8th grade photo the next morning: Me with my puffy eyes made worse by the fat stripe of sparkly teal Maybelline eyeliner, a half-hearted closed-mouth smile, and of course those horrible, horrible wisps that never were.

Would I have changed it? Would you?

Today, according to the New York Times, parents are now retouching their children’s school photos. Eliminating scars or scratches, brightening teeth, taming frizz. You can even add a tie. Take out braces. Heck, one parent removed a congenital strawberry mark from her child’s face.

What better way to say I love you just the way you are, honey!

I always thought school photos served to chronicle your life. Your real life, not your fantasy life. Not who you wish you could be, but who you actually are: braces, puffy eyes, freckles, bike accident scars, frizzy hair and all. That’s the reality of childhood. It is imperfect.

Funny enough, when I look back at that horrible school photo of mine in my mother’s photo albums, what I see now is more than the worst hair ever. (Although it is hard to miss.)

What I see is a transition from sweet young 7th grader to made-up 8th grader. I see the dawn of wisdom and self-awareness. I see the beginning of me.

Edited to add: Ha! So many of you asking me to post the photo! The truth is I don’t have it here to post (that you know of). Maybe I’ll have a change of heart sometime. But for what it’s worth, my dad read this and said, “I remember that day. And you’re telling the truth.”


52 thoughts on “Retouching childhood”

  1. Retouching is wrong on so many levels. The message these kids will get is that they aren't good enough. They can always go on America's Top Model if they want that point driven home. Leave things alone and NEVER get a new hairstyle the day before picture day

  2. I think taking out a purple eye or a big scratch for a special family photo (like the christmas card) is fair game. As a photographer I regularly take out my pimples and black underbags, but I agree with you that -although it is tempting- it sends out a very clear message…. and I'mnot sure it's the message that I want to send

    …hmmm, food for thought

  3. I agree with you 100%. I was shocked that they offered retouching at my son's recent school photo shoot. Funny enough, the day before pictures, he tripped up the stairs at school and scraped his chin, creating a nice burn-type rub all over that portion of his face. I laughed because I knew that it would be chronicled in his pictures and I like it. He's only in 4th grade and now we'll never forget his fall up the stairs. More than anything, I am absolutely APPALLED at the mother who had the congenital strawberry removed from her daughter's picture. My son has a port wine stain that covers about 1/4 of his face and I would never, EVER have it removed in pictures or otherwise. I LOVE him, I think he's absolutely gorgeous, and his birthmark doesn't bother me one bit. It is who he is and he's “stuck” with it. I really am infuriated at that mother right now. It just speaks of the conditional love that parents have for their children based on looks, performance, and popularity. Disgusting.

  4. The parents are only hurting the kids, because this will be the kids' best record of their past, and it is being airbrushed by someone else. Whatever happened to letting children make their own decisions later in life? If children want to burn their photos or photoshop them, let them do it when they turn 18 and become adults.

    I hate to criticize such a wonderful post, but I would like to SEE that school photo of you, just for the historical record, and maybe for a mild chuckle.

  5. My six year old daughter has alopecia which results in a lot of hair loss every few years. Her sizeable bald spot is growing back in, but she currently has a blank spot right in the center of her forehead. We could have had the hair “filled in” on her school picture, but if we had done that, how could we continue to teach her that it's just hair, and she's beautiful with it or without it? We want her to love herself hair or no hair — if we can't model that behavior then what are we doing as parents?

  6. What is it about 8th grade photos? Mine was also horrible, with red eyes from crying about something- I can't even remember what.

    Of course, getting the pictures later made me cry all over again.

    My mom just gave me a hug, told me she thought I was beautiful. And then she pulled out her own school pictures (she was a teacher) and pointed out how she looked more like her little brother than herself. (And she did- something about school photos turned my gorgeous mother into her little brother. Very weird.)

  7. Yeah, we have retouched our kids's photos. I'll admit it. And before I get lambasted for being a horrible person who doesn't love her kids for who they are not matter how they look, we aren't taking out anything that is essential to the look of the kids. We don't do it on our regular, candid shots, only those that are going to be on Christmas cards and the like. If they had birthmarks, those would stay – but the odd pimple or scratch or whatever I don't feel is important to keep. It's the little fleeting thing that might draw your attention away from their soulful eyes or delighted smiles that we might chose to eliminate so that we can share the kids we see everyday with those people who aren't blessed by their presence regularly.

  8. I cringed at that article. Cringed. Yes, I read it cringefaced so now I need either Botox or to be retouched in real life.

    Our school photographer doesn't retouch, but they do pose the kids in front of those backgrounds that makes it seem like they're attending school in the rain forest as opposed to NYC. What's up with that?

    And I demand to see that 7th grade photo of you. Yes, demand. With my cringed face.

  9. For my son's school pictures, they marked if we wanted them retouched. In small print though, it read the only marks they can remove are acne. Which I can understand I suppose. But my son is thankfully only 7 so I didn't need to worry about it.

    Like you said, though, school pictures are like a timeline of his school years. I prefer to remember them just the way they are.

  10. As a photographer (fine art, not portrait) I think there's a world of difference between removing something transient like an unfortunately timed gash from falling off the monkey bars the day before and removing something that is an intrinsic part of your child. Removing a scrape – if it is the CHILD who wants it removed – says “I understand that you wish you hadn't done this right before pictures and respect your desire to memorialize the way you ACTUALLY look and not the stupid stunt you pulled yesterday by showing off on the monkey bars. Removing something like a birthmark, part of who that child is every day of their life, sends the entirely different and very wrong message that you are not good enough for us the way you are.

    Huge difference. HUGE.

    My photography is available for purchase – visit Around the Island Photography and bring home something beautiful today!

  11. I would like to retouch my 4th grade photo—limp hair, gigundo glasses, pastel cowl neck, clip-on koala bear—but I'd replace it with someone else more attractive.

    Ok, not really—I look back at this photo and laugh hysterically at how awful I looked. If my mother had offered to make me “more beautiful”, I would have said ok but wonder what I would have thought about that message.

  12. When I retouch photographs for people the only thing I do without a thought is acne. Gone. Other than that – if there is a hair tweak that is clearly not part of the basic look I'll remove it.

    When my daughter was a toddler she had a hemangioma (?) on the end of her nose. I loved that spot, it was actually so cute… and whenever I took her to have her portrait done they always asked if they should remove it. NO!!!

  13. I can't fathom having my kids' photos retouched. Like you, I'm a school picture purist.

    And, though we have very different types of hair, I too was stuck with a weird gap in my newly minted bangs in my 8th grade picture.

  14. School pictures are supposed to be horrible and cringe-worthy (except to parents who should find all but the most unrecognizable shot adorable).

    There's always at least one year with horrible hair. There's the years in early to mid grade school when they think smiling with mouth closed is the best and they look totally goofy. There's always one year with an expression/face that you've never seen before on your child and will never see again.

    I can see removing something as people say, transient and out of the ordinary for some pictures, I guess — family shot, obviously retouched for all. But that ad on TV now for the mom who redoes the Christmas picture? Our whole family agrees it's a much better shot before she fixes it.

  15. Interesting…I've seen the box to check to retouch my kids' school photos, and it never occurred to me to do it. Can't say that it was a conscious thing – I think it cost more.

    My 8th grade photo was HORRIBLE. I had had a bunch of teeth pulled on either side of my two huge front teeth. And I wore these huge round glasses that were in fashion at the time. The kids' think the picture is hilarious.

  16. An over zealous photo re-toucher ruined my 10th grade pics. I asked for a couple of zits to be removed from my chin. They also “fixed” my hooded eyes and turned my freckles into a tan. I looked like an alien.

    A week before her Kindergarten pictures my daughter cut her own bangs. Her hair looked too short and really quirky, but I cherish those pictures.

  17. I would like to join the chorus calling for a reveal of the 8th grade photo.

    As for re-touching, I think a certain amount of photo correction is OK. Removing red-eye is considered pretty much universally acceptable. I would also be cool with someone removing an unsightly bit of something stuck between my teeth. These are things which are not so much chronicles of a person growing up. And most every school that I know of offers re-takes, when you can try again because you didn't like the photo.

    I can't see re-touching my kids' school photos. But I also don't think that means ANY photo editing is a sign of overzealous, perfectionist parenting. In the grand scheme of things, there are way more important parenting issues.

  18. It has been two decades and I'm still upset that a photographer decided to erase a cute by-the-mouth mole from my senior portraits. My parents and I hadn't asked for any retouching, but apparently instead of seeing a beauty mark, the photographer saw a flaw. Alas, since my various moles come and go, that one WENT, and isn't documented at a time that I felt really pretty. Some folks actually use mascara wands to paint in those Marilyn Monroe / Cindy Crawford moles, and I had one for real!

  19. We just got my 1st grader's school photos back and it looks like she was juuuust starting a blink. Totally adorable, but not the sparkly eyes she usually has when she smiles. My first thought was “retakes.” But I was afraid she would think there was something wrong with how she looked. So I showed them to her and asked her what she thought, not letting on that I didn't think they were her best picture. She loved them and starred at them for 10 minutes. No retakes. 🙂

  20. whoever the photographer was this year at my son's school, he did an AWFUL job – the expression on Jake's face makes him look like Adam Sandler making a goofy face – not. cool. And that is NOT what my child looks like. So I didn't order them, and I took him to JCPenny for some quick studio pictures that will stand in for school pics – it took us a few times to get him to relax and not make weird faces (ah, 2nd graders . . . ) but now I have some pictures that look like him. (And they cost WAY less than they were asking for school pics – WTH is up with THAT?)

    Also, I use Photoshop almost entirely for scrapbooking, and I regularly clone out my own blemishes, as well as the very annoying but persistent residual crusties from bloody noses that Jake gets but I never notice until they're in a picture. (I deal with the bloody noses, of course, but the after-effects sometimes escape notice.)

    Yes, they're part of our life, but I don't need the reminder when I look at photos on the wall.

  21. I agree with Robin – but then, if my grade 8 photo didn't have the smashed-in-face scabs on it, I wouldn't have such a good story, so there's that to consider, too – the lore and legend of your own childhood.

    This isn't new, ftr, Misterpie claims his high school grad photo was retouched to remove acne way back in 1989. (Yes, we are old now, shut up.)

  22. An hour before my 4th grade photo I walked into a TV antenna and got a nasty bloody scratch under my eye that was healed a week later. I think of that every time I check the box for the retouch option on my kids' school photo form.

    This year, my son started half day kindergarten at the Montessori school, and the night before pictures he tripped and split open the bridge of his nose. He went to school the next day all bruised and scabby and then looked fine a week later. I don't want to change my kids with the retouch option, I just want to see them as their normally cute, less temporarily marred, selves.

  23. I was a little concerned when retouching was offered with my 1st grader's school picture. What are they retouching? her crow's feet? I just can't imagine doing this, it just sends the wrong message.

    My 7th grade picture was also awful, bad glasses, blue eyeliner, wispy bang and pimples.It was probably the first picture day where I chose my outfit, hair and those god awful glasses….eighth grade was a little better.

  24. Middle School photos are supposed to be cringe-worthy. That way when you are older you can look back at them and laugh at them and think “those crazy fads!” or “wow, I've certainly grown beautiful since!”

    Also, touching up red-eye is ok in my book. Also, when the time comes and only if they want me to, I'll let my teenagers retouch their zits, if only to preserve their self-esteem.

  25. Did the barrettes have those LONG ribbons? You know the ones that were braided and then let to flow loose?
    Cause that only makes the picture MORE awesome in my opinion. I regularly tell Emily that I was seriously fashion forward.

    Otherwise, we must be forced to embrace our teen awkwardness…it is what helps to make us thoughtful compassionate Adults.

    No one looks good as a teenager, and those who do are going to make some seriously fugly adults.

  26. I often have my kids' pictures retouched. School pictures haven't mattered as much, since mine are still young, and the cost to retouch is outrageous. But professional pictures I do all the time and I am so glad it is available.

    You might wonder I would do this, especially because I so agree that we need to let our kids be who they are, even if the photos are less than perfect. All three of my kids wear glasses and part of the retouching will remove the glare that is almost always there, since kids (and sometimes photographers) don't understand about angles of light. If I didn't retouch, I would have hardly any professional photos of my 4 year old where I could see his eyes.

    And I don't have them take their glasses off because they are a part of who they are. 😉

  27. Those old, horrible photographs made us who we are. I was looking forward to seeing that 8th grade photo, couldn't have been worse than my own!

  28. My kindergarten picture was taken with peanut butter & jelly on my face. The photographer realized it AFTER taking the pic, and took another. They sent both to my mom to choose from. She took the PB&J shot. Reality. It is what it is. And today, we can all look back and smile at that picture.

  29. I won't be re-touching anything of my kids' photos! What poppy-cock!

    I suffered through some bad ones and they will too. HA! It's a rite of passage that we all must endure.

    Now scan that photo and share with us, won't you?

    {I double-dog dare you…}

  30. We debated having a re-take of our son's grade 4 photo as he is scowling. Positively unhappy. But then we thought, “This is how he feels and this is what his year looks like.” Sometimes I second guess that decision but the photo is an accurate snapshot of my boy and his life in grade 4.

  31. School pics are supposed to be bad! That's what makes them so damn funny!! That being said, if my 14 year old kid woke up with a baseball-sized pimple on his/her forehead on picture day, I would absolutely re-touch it OR sign up for a re-take. Same with a giant, scabby wound. BUT I have a very strict policy against re-takes and re-touching in general cases. My boys have taken some FREAKY school pictures and the way I see it is that they have these pictures to look back on and laugh and remember how they looked on an ordinary school day. I don't even make them wear special outfits…they go to school as if it's any other normal day. And if I want pictures of them all polished up and fancy? I'll go to JCPenney picture studio and get 85 pictures for the same price as the 3 pictures I got from school.

  32. I have friends who are teenagers and they retouch their photos. Their friends retouch their photos, too. They bump up saturation levels and whiten up teeth. Tools like Picnik add more features like this all the time. Instagram (an app) builds in settings that soften/blur/pretty up the pics. I heard, long ago, that Flickr auto-saturated photos to give them more “glow.”

    At 13, when you can sign up for Facebook, you either start choosing your very best shot for your profile photo, or you learn to edit so you can make it the best.

    Knowing how to keep the best and discard the rest is increasingly becoming a vital skill set. Editing our own writing is an important skill set. Why shouldn't editing our photos be an important skill, too? Acne, red-eye and ex-boyfriends are extraneous. They don't add to the story.

    As for removing birth marks. There's someone in my family who took their little girl in for surgery to have a birth mark removed. She didn't make it out of surgery.

    So, if I had to choose between surgical removal of a birth mark or Photoshopping it out? I'd choose Photoshop.

    But let's take this a step further. Let's use this conversation as an opportunity to be mindful of the ways in which we edit in all areas of our lives. When we apply for a job we “edit out” any experience with a previous boss that may make us look bad. When we tell a love story gone wrong, we edit out the part where we did such and such. We fail to mention our role in a project becoming derailed.

    Kids are smart. They notice all the editing out we do in our daily lives. Whether with under-eye concealer or a rug under which we sweep unsavory stories. We must be vigilant about the ways in which we use the “edit” button in our daily lives. We can be vigilant for all the ways we're retouching our life experience.

    Here's a challenge for us: if you're on Facebook or another social network, upload a photo of yourself that you truly hate. I'm not comparing doing so to brushing up photos. It's simply a challenge. An opportunity to see how the ego responds, at any age, to putting less than our best forward.

  33. I have my fair share of bad school photos…grades 1-12…I was cute in kindergarten! Like you nowadays I see the transformation that took place and the beginning of the metamorphosis that was completed when I was an adult, a wife and a mother.
    Having said all that, I have to admit that yes I do pay the bad school photography company to re-touch my kids' photos when they are in high school. My high school aged kids have requested it so I honor their request. The bad hair, the crazy makeup, the braces and even one daughter's birth mark on her neck that resembles a hickey remain but I request the blemishes be air brushed out. I see nothing wrong with that. But this nationwide company not only takes bad portraits, they can't even get re-touching right as there always remain a zit or two.
    Oh well!
    But as for my youngest in elementary school, there is no airbrushing so the light reflections on his glasses, the dirt on his face and his Harry Potter scar-like birthmark on his forehead remain.
    Wonderful post!

  34. Having read Gwen's comment, I might need to post one of my high school portraits. Am not sure that I have the nerve, but yeah. Maybe.

  35. Great food for thought. I'm a portrait photog and I get asked to retouch stuff all the time, and I usually do. Runny noses are a big one.

    Personally, I love love love Gwen's comment. She is just a genius. We all edit our lives, every day, ESPECIALLY online.

  36. Great food for thought. I'm a portrait photog and I get asked to retouch stuff all the time, and I usually do. Runny noses are a big one.

    Personally, I love love love Gwen's comment. She is just a genius. We all edit our lives, every day, ESPECIALLY online.

  37. My kids' school allows us to choose to retouch photos, but they emphasize that the only retouching they do is the removal of temporary blemishes. It still makes me wonder about this “need” to hide flaws, and now that I've read this post I also wonder if this is just the beginning? Will they add more “retouching” services each year?

  38. That Gwen is a smart cookie. I've edited a lot of crap out of my life, especially the stuff that made me look and feel stupid.

    Even so, I'm glad that CJ waited until after our portrait session to chop her bangs off at the scalp.

  39. Gwen is so smart…I totally knew what I was going to say until I read her comment…

    In the case of kids, I remove snot from photos. Weird crusty bits from canvas portraits that are going to be large. Otherwise, nothing. Nadda. They come with bruises, they have bruises. Scratches, scars, stamps on their hands from attending the circus…it tells a story. A REAL-but-not-repulsive story.

    I have an extra 10 pounds and can most certainly retouch it out for photos — but then you'll be shocked when you meet me in real life. And that's much worse than just seeing it on Facebook. 😉

  40. I've been thinking about these comments all week. And especially Gwenn's.

    I see a difference between omitting facts and changing facts. So I can understand where a temporary black and blue mark or a scrape might come out–and of course red eye or flash glare, which isn't changing your child but correcting a technical issue.

    I also think it's possible that I'm thinking of my own children (and those in the article) who are in grade school, as opposed to some of the great examples here of teens who are retouching Facebook photos.

    No doubt my kids will correct their own pictures at some point! But for now, I want them to know I love them, birthmarks, stray hairs, imperfectly white teeth, and all.

  41. I was a homely, homely child from about the age of 6 until…well…maybe I started getting better around 16? All skinny legs and pigtails and big teeth (or big gaps waiting for teeth) in a pale, freckly face. And I LOVE the photos of me from that era. They are so real, and so me–just the way I really was. Similarly I love the pictures of my kids with their collar messed up or the scab or the bad hair. It's just a snapshot of a moment in time as it actually was. It's not supposed to win any awards.

  42. The awful awkward photo is a rite of passage. . and I can't imagine not wanting my kid to look like anything other than the way they look. So sad.

  43. Interestingly enough, my mom told me that her high school photos were all retouched – her freckles were removed because they were considered ugly. So this is apparently not all new.

    I had a horrid 8th grade picture (I wanted crimped hair, and had it permed that way). I'm glad now that it wasn't retouched. That said, I have a family portrait where my daughter is around 15 months old. Her eyes are crossed. Her eyes started crossing at 9 months, and she got glasses to correct it, and eventually surgery to help them align and work together. It is so hard for me to look at old photos and see her eyes crossed, it brings me back to doing what I could for her vision and it not working. I don't think I'd retouch that photo, but I'll admit I have a hard time looking at it, and it doesn't make me feel good the way a family photo should.

  44. i kind of feel like a bad mama because i don't entirely see the harm in removing something like a fresh new cut or scrape. i mean, i have personal photos of that to preserve the memories. for a school photo, i guess i can understand the desire not to have it preserved in that way…

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