Magazine advertisements for alcohol and cigarettes come with warning labels. Now, some groups suggest that the celebrity photos should, too.
A number of researchers and government regulators want photographs of movie stars and models to come with warnings that say the photos have been extensively altered with retouching software, such as Adobe Photoshop.
The idea stems from scientific research that found that vulnerable consumers, particularly children and teens, might be fooled by the photos' convincing illusions of perfection and suffer negative physical and mental health consequences as a result.
"Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to 'perfect' models of adults and children their age in the media," said Carolyn Landis, a clinical psychologist at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.
So far, the most notable calls for Photoshop warning labels have come from Europe. Legislators in France, Britain and Norway have supported government efforts to slap warning labels on photos to alert consumers when they have been digitally altered.
But in June, the American Medical Association denounced the doctoring of photographs, urging advertisers to work with child and teen health experts to set limits on Photoshopping. Two Dartmouth researchers have come up with a novel solution -- a software tool that would detect how much fashion and beauty photographs have been altered, assigning them a rating from one (minimally altered) to five (starkly changed) -- that was reported in the New York Times.
Calls to several fashion and beauty magazines about their policies on retouching photographs or their thoughts on photo warning labels were not immediately returned.
Research indicates that there is cause for worry about how celebrities and models, who appear forever trim and blemish-free, may affect how children view their own bodies. Several studies have linked manipulated photographs to eating disorders and other health problems.
But child psychologists say the most effective solution to helping children develop healthy and realistic body images comes not from warning labels and photo-rating systems but from active parenting.
Janis Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, said parents could start by not focusing too much attention on a child's looks or appearance.
"Young children are normally not aware of physical traits until their attention is brought to it," Rosenberg said. "Parents who draw too much attention to beauty, comparing their children's physical attributes and causing a child to be overly aware of physical traits can be a great source of anxiety for a child."
Parents may be able to spot a few warning signs if their child is becoming overly fixated on looks. Kids may start making negative comments about their appearance, compare themselves unfavorably to others or begin restricting what they eat to avoid getting fat.
While parents should certainly encourage children to eat a healthy diet, avoid oversize portions and exercise regularly, Landis said they can also restrict their comments about physical appearance in the light of what is healthy, not what looks attractive or desirable.
With young children, parents can steer conversations about physical appearance to what children like about themselves and the positive physical attributes they see in others. As children get older, Landis said parents should talk to their kids about the images they see on television, on the Internet and even in the mall.
"Parents can talk to their kids about what marketing is and what advertisers do to make people want to buy their products," she said. "It's good to show children what Photoshopping is and what it does to these images, so they understand that that's not what people actually look like."
In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended teaching media literacy to children and teens, noting that some studies have estimated that children see more than 3,000 advertisements each day on television, the Internet, billboards and magazines.
Rosenberg said slapping warning labels on retouched photos might seem like a tempting solution, but ultimately, a conversation with a parent can be more effective.
"It would be better for parents to tell children, just like monsters or ghosts or Harry Potter, these images are not real," Rosenberg said.