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.