Nov 25, 2009 10:56 AM by Laura T. Coffey
If not for the mention of babies' adorable, squishy fat rolls, no one may have noticed.
As members of the viewing and reading public, we tend to understand that magazine cover photos are mussed with, fussed with and retouched so that everything looks as perfect as it possibly can. Skin tones are smoothed out; large pores are hidden; stray hairs are concealed.
But when a casting director for a UK magazine announced on a British reality show that he had airbrushed a baby's photo so as to hide the creases on his chubby little arms, the world came unglued. On both sides of the Atlantic, the practice was decried as shocking - even by politicians.
"People will be appalled that a magazine would not think images of beautiful healthy babies are all right as they are and instead have to conform to some standard," Member of Parliament Jo Swinson told the UK's Telegraph newspaper. "The idea that babies must look more perfect - that they can't have creases in their skin - shows the obsession with a particular ideal. Where does this end?"
The brouhaha began on the BBC television program "My Supermodel Baby," a reality show that reveals the rigors some parents are willing to endure in order to get their babies featured on glossy magazine covers and in TV commercials.
"In this behind-the-scenes look at an industry worth billions, where experts cast kids on their ability to smile to order and reject those who do not come up to scratch, we follow three sets of parents who think their babies have what it takes to become baby supermodels," the BBC's Web site explains.
Two of those parents - Esther and Paul Corbett of North London, England - were so smitten with their baby boy Hadley that they pursued a modeling career for him with great dedication. Esther Corbett even taught little Hadley how to lie on his belly and push himself up when she heard that was required of babies who get featured on magazine covers.
As demonstrated on "My Supermodel Baby," her efforts paid off: At the ripe old age of 5 months, Hadley was featured on the cover of the magazine Practical Parenting and Pregnancy.
And that's where the drama began. A casting director for Practical Parenting magazine explained - on camera - what happened to get Hadley's photo ready for prime time.
"We lightened his eyes and his general skin tone, smoothed out any blotches and the creases on his arms," he said. "But we want it to look natural."
Esther Corbett told the Telegraph that she wasn't at all bothered - or remotely surprised - about what was done to her son's photo.
"You kind of know that they do it because if you look at the front cover of magazines, most of the images don't look really real," she said. "But it didn't put me off."
The retouching job may not have troubled Hadley's mom, but critics quickly emerged to denounce the practice.
"It is terrible and shocking if it has got to the stage where babies' folds of fat are being got rid of," Belinda Coleman of the retouching agency The Shoemakers Elves told the Telegraph. "This sounds like very dangerous territory. You will have parents thinking, ‘My baby isn't attractive enough. How do I make my baby more attractive?'"
The revelation that images of babies - much like images of supermodels, actors and food - would be doctored to make them look "more perfect" touched off a media firestorm and plenty of hand-wringing. Editors of numerous publications spoke up about when they may allow images of babies to be retouched slightly - when they'd draw the line. (See box at right.)
Daniella Delaney is the editor of the Practical Parenting and Pregnancy, the magazine whose cover photo of little Hadley caused all the hubbub. Delaney did not respond to questions for this story. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, she said her magazine does minimal amounts of airbrushing.
"We'll remove things and even up skin tone, that sort of thing," she said. "But very little is done, in fact, because obviously babies are beautiful the way they are and that is what we want to get across."
When asked whether the kinds of changes described by the casting director - lightening a baby's eyes, altering skin tone and smoothing out fat rolls - are done routinely, Delaney replied: "It is a photograph, isn't it, so you have to make sure that you are putting the baby across in the best light.
"Babies are not like adults. You can't stop them from dribbling, so you might remove that bit of dribble from the chin. Or if the baby has just been crying, and their eyes are red, we might lighten the eyes. Or if they have just woken up because they have had a nap on the way in and we photograph them, we might remove a little bit of sleep. It is just those kind of things, very little really."
The interview went on, with the main issue on everybody's minds - the removal of babies' fat rolls - being pressed.
"I can't really comment, but we don't have a hit list of thing we look out for," Delaney said.
She later acknowledged that fat rolls may have been smoothed out to make sure headlines on the cover of the magazine would be legible and wouldn't appear over a dark area.