Question: Should parents retouch their kids' school photos?


Yes, the technology is out there, so why be a stick-in-the-mud and not use it?!

No, life isn't perfect and we shouldn't expect our kids to be, either!

Maybe ... if it's a really nasty zit!

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Sometimes I look back at my school photos and wonder, "What was mom thinking?" There’s the one from second grade, where the big red ball on my ponytail holder is perched atop my head like a giant red cherry crowning a hairy ice cream sundae. There’s the one from third grade where I look like I just rolled out of bed. And why didn’t she put her foot down when I walked out of the house on the day of my high school sophomore class photo, with my bangs fashioned into wings so hairspray-stiff they could stand on their own?

Still, after wincing, those old pics make me smile. Selective memory may have me fooled into believing that I was one cool kid, but those class pictures tell the unvarnished truth: I was a geek.

Childhood is a fumbling, awkward, funny, dorky time. Where would we be without our old school portraits to remind us of that?

Which makes me wonder if today’s kids are going to miss out on that lesson. Last week, my kids brought home the annual, overpriced school picture envelope and, as usual, I chose the cheapest option. But a little box in the corner caught my eye. "Retouching," it said. Apparently Lifetouch – the photo studio that has monopolized school photos for 70 years – now offers a digital retouching option in elementary school. For a single, undisclosed fee, your child’s blemishes can be quietly wiped away.

Forget about saying "cheese." Everybody, on the count of three, say … "Airbrush!"

It’s not enough that parents today want their kids to be straight-A students with Olympic-quality athletic skills and Carnegie Hall-like musical abilities. Now we’re demanding digital perfection, too.

What kind of message does it send to a kid when her mom doesn’t think her face is pretty enough on its own? "Here honey, this photo is nice, but wouldn’t you look so much better if we whitened your teeth, fixed that piece of flyaway hair and erased that mole? Ah, NOW you’re perfect."

My kids, like most, love looking at old photos of me and my husband. It’s cool to see that your parents were once young, but cooler still, I think, for them to realize that we, too, were once as silly and unsure of ourselves as they probably feel. What impossible standard would it set if I looked perfectly retouched in every childhood photo?

Photos are supposed to be memories, and memories should be real, not edited, don’t you think? Just because Photoshop gives us the power to easily alter our images doesn’t mean we should abuse that power. School portraits should not look like a Vogue cover shoot.

Soft focus on a senior portrait? OK. It’s a milestone moment and it’s common knowledge that everybody tries to look their best. Airbrushing every zit and mole on your face? Not OK. That’s who you are at that moment in time. We are imperfect vessels; it’s what’s inside that you need to work on, remember?

We as parents need to remind our kids every day that they are amazing human beings in their own right. Everybody needs someone in their life like that; someone who gives you unconditional love, who reminds you to work with what you have – your own unique qualities – and not try to be someone else. "Love thyself, baby, because I love you just the way you are." Don’t worry, there will be plenty of other people in their lives to point out their flaws.

It’s bad enough that most women today are chasing the unattainable beauty standard set by doctored magazine covers. Now we’re laying that trip on our own daughters. Last week, an 8-year-old on my soccer team told me she didn’t want to wear shin pads because they made her look fat. "You don’t look fat, you look like a soccer player," I told her. "That scab on your knee? That’s a badge of honor."

When we take our team photo, I’m going to make sure ALL the girls are wearing their shin pads – with scabs and crooked smiles to match. Hopefully, years from now, their daughter’s daughter will look at that photo and recognize a bit of herself in that wonderfully imperfect image.


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Oct. 14, 2009 at 6:06 PM

That happened to my senior photos! My pic in the yearbook has me in all my brace-faced glory, but my dad saw fit to have them edit out my braces (which I had for 8 years off and on, and also went through major jaw surgery with) in the final pics we got - why? Because I was getting them off right before school was over. I was sooooo ticked off.... they were a big part of my life and WHO I WAS then. I never, ever had a problem with them.

I would never, ever retouch a school photo. There's a certain charm about how you look in them that when you look back many years later, it brings back memories of those times, good or bad.

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Oct. 14, 2009 at 6:16 PM

Oh man, what is this world coming to... I would NEVER retouch a school photo! Why teach our kids that they're not good enough the way they are? And isn't part of having pictures like these taken having the chance to look at them years from now, and laugh at ourselves? I love looking at my old pictures and seeing the badly trimmed bangs, the horrible clothes, the glasses, and yes, even the zits. They're a part of my past, and that makes them special...

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Oct. 14, 2009 at 6:49 PM

I would never do it.  When my daughter was smaller she would scream and cry every time a photographer came near her.  I hated that none of the pictures turned out. 

Now I cherish those pictures.  That is who she is and was.  I wouldn't change one ounce of her.

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Oct. 14, 2009 at 6:59 PM

I totally agree. I snorted out loud about the ponytail holder. I have so many of those kinds of pictures. I remember a few doozies my sisters took too. All the better to tease them with at holidays..."Remember that school picture when you decided you wanted to do your own hair?"

BTW, nice profile pic. I love Dorothea Lange. :)

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Oct. 14, 2009 at 10:01 PM

As a photographer - I HATE retouching portraits! Not just because it's time consuming but because it's fake! I'll remove blemishes if asked, and whiten teeth and I refuse, no matter how much you pay me, to make you thinner, fatter, taller, shorter, bigger up top or smaller down below. I won't remove birth marks and I won't smooth out a newborn baby's skin. The whole reason why I photograph people over landscapes is because they have a story to tell or they are just starting one and those stories are found in those imperfections. My own children get so mad at me because I refuse to removed their zits...lol They wish I'd pay for Lifetouch school pictures instead.......... lol

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