We had some professional photos taken of our son and when we got them back, I could not figure out why they looked…funny. The pictures were wonderful, well done, and showed my happy kid, smiling in his Cleveland Cavalier’s shirt. But, right away I knew something was off.
The photographers had retouched the photo and removed a scar my son has on his face from a dog bite. The photo, while beautiful, was not my son. It did not reflect who he is and what he has gone through in his still young life. It made me sad. I showed my son the photos and asked how he felt about his scar being gone and he said; “It doesn’t really look like me.” The scar is not huge and in a photo it might not be extremely noticeable to other people, so I can see how the photographers might have just thought it was a scrape or other blemish. So, I do not blame them for anything or have any problem with what they did.
However, seeing the retouched photo of my son immediately got me thinking about what messages we may be sending children when we retouch photos of them.
Retouching of children’s photos is not inherently evil. I think a lot of places automatically retouch for things like cuts and scrapes, acne, or a runny nose on a toddler. As I was researching for this blog post, I found a photographer, Stephanie Mauling of Imperfected, who talks about beauty, ethics, and the art of retouching. She posted a blog called Retouching Kids and in it she says:
“Our goal with kids is never to make them look different from themselves and never to make them look like adults. We usually are not smoothing out skin (Ruddiness and uneven skintone are actually just features of childhood if you look at a lot of kids and besides, kid skin is usually inherently smooth to start with…in a different way than adult skin.) We also aren’t removing many shadows because chubby cheeks and undereye features are often trademarks of certain kids. And we certainly aren’t emphasizing features to make them more prominent and provocative.”
After reading her post, I realized that the photos of my son hit me so viscerally because they made my son look different from himself. It took away his defining features. In fact, my son recently had to draw a self-portrait in art class and I immediately knew which portrait was his because he had drawn his scar on his face. I realized that what one person may think is an insignificant feature or blemish, may really be a defining part of a person's life story and to remove that feature removes their story.
For my son to see his face without his scar not only sent the message that the scar was something he should not have and something that made him less attractive, but he was reminded of what he would look like without the scar. He was reminded that his face is not what it could have been. In the beginning months of his healing after the dog bite, he was very concerned with having a scar on his face and what people would think of him. He projected out into the future and worried what his adult face would look like. Fortunately the scar is not that bad and our community is kind and loving and no one comments on his scar. He came to see his scar as part of him, as part of who he is, not a loss of who he was. Seeing a photo where this part of him was removed can be damaging to that healing process and self-acceptance.
As I thought about the accidental messages the photo sent to my son, I thought of so many other kids where someone else decided that something about a child needed to be removed. Such as retouching a port wine stain (birthmark) so the child has perfect skin. What about the kids who have had extensive surgery or burn scars, do we take those away too? I question even removing all blemishes because acne is a part of life and the more we send the message to kids that in order to be beautiful you have to have perfect skin, the more we are creating a culture that says people with acne or other skin blemishes as “less than.” We are accidentally telling kids that who they are is not good enough.
I hope that my immediate recognition that my son’s scar was missing and my instinct to say “Oh, we can just ask for the photo with your scar in it” showed him that he is perfect as he is. He has nothing to mourn and nothing about him is lost because he has a scar. Years from now, I want my son to look at his photos and see himself, not see a reminder that some people will think his face is not good enough.
I appreciate that photographers have a hard job and they retouch with integrity and, at least for the ones who took our son’s photo, do it as minimally as possible. It is not the photorgaphers fault. Our culture has set up a system where we expect photographers to retouch our kids. We have set photographers up in this position due to our cultures insistence that our kids need to look perfect. Usually now light retouching is just part of the package and you don’t even ask for it. Parents would be upset if they had to pay for or ask for retouching. However, putting photographers in this position puts them in a tough spot because we are telling them to decide what to retouch when they do not know what is defining about our kids. That is unfair to them. Our insistence on automatic retouching also runs the risk of it looking to our children like someone else gets to decide what is beautiful and right, what is okay about their bodies, and what is not.
I hope that this blog post helps us all, parents and photographers, think a little deeper before we retouch and assume we are just making a small change to a photo. Again, this post is not to say retouching is bad or that photographers are bad. This post is to ask us all to look at the culture we have created- one where we stress body perfectionism so much that we send the message that anything less than perfection is not good enough and certainly not good enough to be captured in a photo for all time.