Photographic touch-ups were once reserved for supermodels on magazine covers. The rest of us had to live with whatever silver halides and available light granted. Only my sister understood the distant future of digital photography, where each of us would airbrush ourselves into our own version of ideal. Long before, she believed in only the best-looking photos of her friends and family. Red eye? Bulky chin? Fly away hair? Goofy expression? Those photos were chucked. In their place was a perfect universe where everyone was their best self.
I never liked this idea. “But then you forget what people really look like.” I told her. She disagreed. “This is what they look like,” she said. “Just not all the time.”
Now we don’t have to actually chuck the photo to resolve a flaw. We simply use software and suddenly our wrinkles are gone, our waist slightly smaller. It’s even gone one step further. We’re not just intent on a perfect representation of our faces. We’re trying to show our daily lives as perfect too. In Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter we offer only the most gilded sunsets, most colorful foods, most artsy angles on our friends. That moment a little too blah? Add the right filter. Scene not right? Crop away.
A friend of mine disagreed. The Thirty-Five-And-Up crowd may be airbrushing their lives, she said, but the Twenty-Somethings, who have grown up using images to represent themselves, aren’t interested in manicured versions. They’re more authentic about it, she insisted. You’re confusing their irony with vanity. Really, I said, and looked up the Facebook pages of my Twenty-Something friends. To me, each photo looked carefully curated. The definition of “perfect” may have expanded to “carefree” or “casual” or “self-effacing,” but the idea was the same. They had an ideal self and lifestyle in mind, and on the Internet, they were determined for it to prevail. Even if that perfect self was someone who doesn’t care about how they look.
This may not fool our close friends, who know the zigs and zags of our imperfections. And I hope we’re not fooling ourselves. I know my own flaws and the humdrum days of my life all too well. Would it be so bad to strive for my ideal self once in a while, see it in all its bright and hopeful sparkle? Perhaps my sister was right after all.
Caroline Paul is the author of “East Wind, Rain” and “Fighting Fire.” Her latest book is “Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology,” an illustrated collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton.