Panasonic recently unveiled a new camera that will make you look - and feel - like a celebrity. The 24-mm digital Lumix FX77 takes a picture and then offers on-the-spot options for improvement. The click of a "Beauty Retouch" button can remove crow's feet, whiten teeth or erase stray hairs. Another click will add some hot-pink eye shadow or lipstick.
Online examples suggest that the results can be dramatic, lending subjects looks that range from "perky" to "fresh from the casket." Finally, celebrity airbrushing for the masses - like we masses weren't feeling crappy enough about ourselves already.
Previously, retouching was mostly the domain of the famous (or at-home digital perfectionists). Beautiful alt-rocker and actress Zooey Deschanel is currently appearing in an ad for Rimmel makeup that has her resembling a distant cousin of Zooey Deschanel - a plainer, less aesthetically controversial cousin with billowy scarlet lips and skin as smooth as a ball of smoked mozzarella. The Lumix FX77 may not be quite so skilled, but it does do waxy - and perhaps there's something egalitarian in an invention that unites the privileged and the below-stairs crowd in inhuman plasticity.
Over the last decade, pictures of celebrities retouched beyond recognition have become the media standard. On this month's cover on InStyle, Tina Fey is without her signature face scar and appears to have had large eyeball implants. In ads and magazines, the new normal means arm amputations, giraffe necks and waists shaved to wrist-widths. Never in history has the image been so manipulated - and our eyes so deceived. In Plato's cave, we're not looking at the thing or the shadow of the thing, but a Photoshopped shadow of a thing. We are far from reality.
I shudder at the thought of a young girl who doesn't know what a woman over 30 actually looks like, who has never seen a mole or a laugh line. Men are airbrushed, too (poor, gold-dipped Matthew McConaughey), but the all-pervasive, impossible digital form is usually female, and numerous studies have shown that these fantasy images have negative effects on women, including eating disorders and chronic dieting. On a not-unrelated note, a Panasonic project manager, commenting on the genesis of the new camera, told Reuters: "According to data we've acquired, around 50 per cent of our digital-camera clients are not satisfied with the way their faces look in a photograph."
The detrimental impact of Photoshop is serious enough that politicians in both France and England have proposed legislation requiring warning labels on altered images. Last fall, the Canadian clothing company Jacob announced that it would stop airbrushing its ads out of concern for the healthy body image of female customers.
Yet there are those who will thrill to any opportunity to circumvent nature and look better by any means possible. We all chase beauty, and halt at our own lines in the sand: Mine is Photoshopping, yours might be lipstick, hers might be breast implants.
But a University of Toronto philosophy professor named Kathryn Pauly Morgan has argued that cosmetic surgery is less liberating than coercive. She identified the "paradox of conformity" wherein women utilize medical technology not to emphasize their distinct beauty but to strive for one, generic standard. It's an idea that could apply to photo retouching, too: "More often than not, what appear at first glance to be instances of choice turn out to be instances of conformity," Morgan wrote. Beauty becomes sameness.
The permanent record has always been altered in favour of the ideal: Overexposures and wide angles made celebrities like Marilyn Monroe look flawless, too. But early retouching was costly and hardly ubiquitous. A self-Photoshopping camera works like Facebook and Twitter, offering carefully controlled depictions of who we are, selected and groomed for public consumption. The camera's assumption is that you as you are not enough - you with your unkempt hair, your spinach in your teeth, your Zooey Deschanel-like lopsided grin. Better to smooth over all uniqueness like a good brand manager, with the self as the brand.
Many photographers who take school pictures now offer retouching, providing the possibility through technology of modifying not just the public record but also the private recollection. How sad this seems when messy, quirky and uncontrolled is the stuff of snapshots - and of memories.
Moments before my Grade 2 picture was taken, for instance, I jammed a hair clip into the centre of my bangs. I look at this photo - including my green seventies turtleneck and those clipped bangs rising like a palm tree from my forehead - and I love it. It evokes a weird and goofy childhood moment in which a seven-year-old gestured defiantly at adulthood: "I'll look how I damn well please." I wonder what the photo would mean if, were such technology around, my parents had chosen the "hair smoothing" option or erased the gap between my teeth, turning me into any other catalogue kid. I might not remember who I was.