It was with predictable panic that I remembered at two minutes to 8am that it was school photo day.
As I bundled my daughters out of the door I did a quick scan of their school uniforms – both were toothpaste-free and fairly dog hair-free too, although my eight-year-old does spend large portions of her life lying on the floor with her arms around the dog, so that’s a battle I‘m never going to win.
We had moved as a family of four from Manchester, England, to Phoenix, Arizona, five months before and this was the first picture day at their new school. My 12-year-old daughter thrust a crumpled order form at me and I smoothed it on my knee to look over. It looked standard, with various packs and add-ons to choose from, all costing a fortune.
Then, I saw some options I hadn’t seen before, next to the keyrings and USB sticks. Not one, but two different “retouching” packages, promising to “remove blemishes” and in the more expensive option to also “whiten teeth, remove scars and even out skin tone”.
For $12 you could choose to airbrush your primary school child.
Sam Walker (@WalkerSam)
The girls have their school photo today and there is the option to AIRBRUSH the picture! There are two levels offered!! What the….?! Have complained! What 8 yr old needs to be paranoid about an “uneven skin tone” pic.twitter.com/6BGCx3FRZ9
My husband asked school staff why they were offering this when he dropped the girls off, and they shrugged and said it was common practice. He then bumped into the photographer himself and asked the same. “Kids get zits, you don’t want to be reminded of that.” And the teeth and skin tone? “Who doesn’t want to look their best?”
When did “looking your best” become not looking like you do in real life? When did we start to tell kids altered versions of themselves are more attractive, better than the real version?
My youngest daughter has mastocytosis, an autoimmune condition that presents itself as skin lesions. She has them all over her body and face. She has always had them and although they have faded a lot, she will always have them.
Since she could understand what the lesions are, we’ve talked about the fact that they are as much a part of her as anything else. “My spots are part of the family,” she always says. Any “evening out” of her skin tone would be airbrushing away the person she is. As part of the same condition, she also has an issue with the enamel on her teeth. They’re a pretty shade of yellow. They are also what makes her her.
When you order pictures, you get the class group photo thrown in. It’s not clear if you click “enhance” whether they pick your child out of the crowd to clean them up, or do a job lot. Will my girls be the only two without DayGlo smiles and perfectly contoured skin?
Surely the joy of the school photograph is in the revisiting decades later. The dodgy haircut, the chipped tooth and wonky tie are part of the memory. Where’s the joy in homogeny?