Psychiatrist, Writer, Commentator

Airbrush my life

Wednesday, 02nd April 2014

Vanity fascinates me - partly because I’m a victim myself. It’s mostly frowned upon but permeates so many aspects of our everyday life. Recently I brushed up against my own vanity, and it wasn’t completely comfortable.

I won a gift certificate for a professional family portrait. I headed along with my son, had the photo taken, and two weeks later hung the handsome result in my living room.

A few friends dropped by, and the smirks were barely concealed – “you look pretty young in that photo, Steve.” To my shame they were right; the photo had been airbrushed, and it was pretty extreme.

Rising discomfort

About a week later I read an article in the Herald Sun about the increasing phenomenon of school photographers offering to airbrush your child for a small fee. My discomfort started to rise.

I began looking closely at various family photos in friends' houses. To my surprise I found widespread evidence of airbrushing – photos of kids, parents, and grandparents with evidence of touch ups. Not a bit of snot in sight, just the right light, blurring of the photographic edges, and skin to rival a supermodel.

And not just the professional portraits – I found multiple cases of family happy snaps that had been touched up too. I checked various Facebook photos and the result was the same. I had discovered a new disease – personal airbrushing - and it has reached epidemic proportions.

Luciano Consolini/flickr

Personal versus professional

We all know airbrushing (sometimes called photoshopping) in professional magazines is rife; there are many reports linking the professional airbrushing epidemic to low self esteem, higher cosmetic surgery rates and problems such as depression and eating disorders.

There are also reports suggesting the average punter is prepared to consider quick fixes like fad diets, steroids, and cosmetic surgery to look more like the magazine depictions of people. But when did the magazine airbrushing epidemic spread to everyday life?

My initial reaction to this trend is horror – is our vanity rising, or is this simply a reaction to the magazines depicting the human form in less and less realistic ways? Perhaps it’s more about the means: there are so many basic programs and apps out there that can fix photos that we’ve bypassed all the hard work at the gym and the dining room table and gone straight to the easy task of faking our photos to create the self we want rather than the self we are.

Cute kids

I’m especially uncomfortable with all the photos of kids that I’ve seen airbrushed. Personal vanity is one thing; you’re the only one suffering, but inflicting your vanity on your kids seems like a subtle form of abuse.

As well as the school photographers offering the service, you can use any number of websites such as this one offering to fix your slightly less than perfect offspring. What message does this send your kids?: they’re not good enough the way they are?

Line in the sand

Should there be a line in the sand? Regardless of whether it’s yourself or your child that you are embellishing, there must be a point at which you know you have gone too far - a point at which you have abandoned reality and stepped through the looking glass? Is any faking crossing a line?

Courtney Rhodes/flickr

What about make-up, teeth whitening, hair dye, clothes to make you look slim, not to mention botox and the whole cosmetic medicine industry? Isn’t all that a form of personal airbrushing?

A certain amount of faking is normal – and each of us has our own sense of what’s normal. So why do the airbrushed family photos bother me so much? Why did I find that so offensive?

Degrees, ownership and purpose

Perhaps it’s all a matter of degrees, ownership and the purpose of the photos. Degrees in that a little faking is okay, but too much and the emphasis in life might end up being on the airbrushed product rather than the real thing.

Ownership in that if you do it to yourself, you’re only messing with your own mind - you’re only playing with your own vanity. But if you do it to your kids or loved ones you’re messing with their minds without permission - you’re massaging your own vanity, but they also pay the price.

Or is it more about the purpose of the photo – is it to record reality, trigger happy memories, present you in your best light, or is it a creative, artistic endeavour?


Finally, there is one ingredient in the whole faking/airbrushing epidemic that seems essential. Without it, the faking becomes the goal, rather than just a little bit of harmless fun. And that key ingredient is self-awareness.

You have to know when you are faking. You have to have a tinge of embarrassment. You have to feel uncomfortable about your faking. This is the acid test – if you don’t feel just a little shame I think you’ve crossed the line.

I’ll know when I’ve gone too far if I find myself vehemently defending my fake life when I get caught, rather than blushing and blurting “I’m so embarrassed, you got me!” Hopefully followed by a laugh.

Incidentally, the professional portrait I won is now hanging in my study next to my desk for my own personal pleasure. Oh, and in case you mistakenly think I’ve cured my own vanity, when I had my photo taken for this website, I gave the photographer clear instructions: “Make me beautiful – use your most magical airbrush!"


This article first appeared in The Conversation