Christmas cards with family photos tempt parents to retouch them. But should they?

In early October, my family of three got dressed up in green and posed for our local family photographer. I eagerly opened up the proofs the following week only to discover that, while my family looked adorable sitting in front of fir trees, my toddler Elle’s black-stained teeth were visible in almost every shot.

I’d planned to print the photo on 75 Christmas cards and send them to everyone we knew. I’d also intended to put it on an extra-large canvas and hang it over the fireplace for years to come. I wondered: Would my daughter mind if I retouched her smile?

Something about her smile, and the picture, now seemed too perfect. So perfect that it didn’t seem right.

Just a few weeks before, my husband and I thought we’d found the perfect solution to the cavities the dentist told us our 2-year-old had on three of her front teeth: Instead of fillings, and the general anesthesia that goes with them, Elle could get a fluoride treatment that halts the cavities’ growth but turns the affected area black. 

While the stains were a little odd, and would last until her baby teeth fell out, I thought they looked fine enough. I was happy with the decision — until I examined the pictures.

Elle’s teeth stains forced me to grapple with one of the modern dilemmas of parenthood, one that frequently hovers over Instagram and Facebook posts but becomes nearly inescapable when putting together the annual holiday card: to edit or not to edit. A plethora of apps makes it easier than ever to craft perfection — but should we?

It’s understandable that many parents are making the choice to touch up pictures. As my family’s historian and proud card maker, I know that taking a photo where everyone looks good can be tricky. And, hey, even Kim Kardashian is doing it. 

The reality TV star famously edited her daughter into her Christmas card one year when the girl “refused” to participate in the photo shoot. Meanwhile, photo editors advertising their services show off videos cutting and pasting a “good” picture of a toddler smiling over a less-ideal shot, Frankenstein-ing together a photo where the whole crew looks good. 

Joseph Sell, New York area manager for Lifetouch, a company known for taking family and school portraits, told The New York Times that about 10% of their portraits of elementary school students are retouched. 

Plus, lots of people use their own beauty filters on the photos they share online, with Consumer Reports finding that 9% “always or nearly always” use a filter, which presumably includes snapshots that feature their kids. And a 2021 study by City University of London found that 90% of young women claim to use a filter or edit their pictures before posting in order to “even out their skin tone, reshape their jaw or nose, shave off weight, brighten or bronze their skin or whiten their teeth.”

It was hard to resist a little editing, especially when it’s become so commonplace that posting a less-than-polished image can feel like a misstep. “When following your friends on Instagram and Facebook, you know their photos are all being edited to make them look better, and make their lives look more exciting,” Jeff McGregor, CEO of TruePic told NBC News in 2017.

The pull I felt increased when I recalled the pictures from my own youth that I wish I could have airbrushed — or even burned. For my sixth grade school photo, I pushed my signature bangs back under a hairband in an effort to look more mature. The result was an awkward image of me with a pale, greasy forehead that was later blown up and laminated for my elementary school graduation.

I didn’t want anyone to see that awkward photo then, and I wouldn’t want to share a picture of my daughter that she doesn’t like when she’s older. She’ll see the photo over the fireplace for years to come and, since I keep a copy of every family Christmas card in a special album, this picture will probably be in her life for years. One day, she might be glad that I edited out those stains.

But I felt conflicted about changing my daughter’s likeness, especially since at this point it wasn’t really for her benefit but for mine. 

It had only been a matter of weeks since we found the cavities and, embarrassed about my sense of parental shortcomings, I still hadn’t told many people. I’d even avoided posting close-up photos online because I didn’t feel ready to tell the world I’d let my daughter, and her teeth, down. 

I knew the people on my Christmas card list wouldn’t be cruel about my daughter’s stains. But I was sure a handful of them would be curious. While I didn’t mind talking about my daughter’s teeth if a fellow parent at the park asked, I thought it would be different when the questions were coming from in-laws, workmates or a more successful sorority sister whose four kids all have perfect dental hygiene.

At the same time, I was afraid of sending the wrong message to Elle. I didn’t want her to think she — or her appearance — is anything less than perfect to me. And I definitely didn’t want to give her any harmful ideas about body image.

By not retouching the photos, I like to think I’ve left the choice with my daughter.

Still weighing my options, I emailed my photographer to see if she had the name of a good photo editor. She did, and at a reasonable price, so I emailed back asking for her to make my toddler’s teeth gleam. I was surprised at how easily I hit “send.” Maybe, I thought, editing was the right choice after all. 

When I got the picture back a few days later, I looked at it for a long time. My daughter’s teeth were clean and white, just as I’d asked — but I didn’t like the change. Something about her smile, and the picture, now seemed too perfect. So perfect that it didn’t seem right.

I went online and ordered 75 Christmas cards and a canvas print using the original photo. I even posted the holiday picture online, stains and all. I felt good doing it, like I was choosing the more ethical, truthful path rather than giving into a sense of vanity. 

Yet even after the cards were mailed and the canvas hung over the fireplace, I still have pangs of doubt about my decision. I worry that one day soon Elle will start noticing that her teeth look a little different and feel embarrassed. 

But by not retouching the photos, I like to think I’ve left the choice with my daughter. I’ll keep the edited photo on my computer, just in case she wants me to reprint another canvas and Christmas card for our photo book. But I think our portrait looks perfect as is — and now she’ll know that.

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