For many, there's nothing quite like School Picture Day to trigger a clammy rush of panic about bad hair, bad teeth and bad skin.
Think of it as teen angst, forever captured on a glossy 8-by-10 - and of course the endless duplicates preserved for eternity in class yearbooks, passed out in wallet size to relatives near and far, and hung on stairway walls at home.
These days, though, school photo anxiety can be so 20th century.
Thanks to digital technology that makes the art of altering photographs much easier, more affordable and increasingly common, perfection can be just a few mouse clicks away.
Not happy with the stray hairs sticking straight up from Junior's head? Distressed by the untimely blemish on little Susie's nose? Braces obscuring an adorable smile? No worries. Just order those little irritations digitally erased.
"When I saw the proofs from my senior portraits, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, how can that be me?'" said Marci Hoover, 17, a student at Warren Hills Regional High School in Washington, N.J. "I had pimples everywhere!"
Simply mortified, Hoover was consoled by Robert Kerr of Royal Photographics Inc. in Bethlehem, Pa., who took seconds to digitally retouch her portrait, clicking away her pimples, the shine on her forehead and laugh lines.
"Afterward, I looked like me, of course, but better," Hoover said. "It was pretty amazing. I felt like a model. My mom loved it. She said, 'You look perfect.'"
Photo airbrushing used to be a tedious and expensive process that involved using liquid dyes on negatives and then painting color back onto each print and subsequent duplicates. The service was mostly reserved for those all-important senior portraits that could cost parents several hundred dollars.
These days, computer software enables studios to manipulate images on files instead of film, and in large quantities quickly and easily. As a small but growing segment of the $1.5 billion school photo industry converts to digital and searches for new ways to market an old school tradition to families, the option of retouching is being offered to kids from preschool age to senior high.
"It's mind-boggling," said James Pool, technical adviser for the Professional School Photographers Association in Michigan. "You can do almost anything you want with pictures these days. You can change backgrounds, change the color of a child's hair, make teeth whiter, remove a person, add a person, make them thinner.
"It's becoming a popular service for parents and students," Pool said. "They love it."
Some studios have even started using sophisticated software that automatically scans faces and corrects minor defects, saving more time and money, said Albert Leung, director of operations for Jostens Canada, which handles school picture processing for parent Jostens Inc. in Minneapolis.
The service is catching on, slowly but surely.
Teens may love the concept, but persuading Mom and Dad to pay for it isn't always easy. In some cases, school photo packages can cost more than $50, not including retouching services which can add $5 to $7.
Paige Kirtscher said she wishes she had checked the little box on the order form to request retouching. When she saw her portraits a couple of weeks ago, she groaned.
"Two little pimples on my chin," the 13-year-old eighth-grader at Havre de Grace Middle School said with a sigh. "I told my mom we should have gotten retouching. It wasn't horrible, but it was like, 'Aw, man.'"
For parents, such flaws symbolize a sweet reminder of their child's growing pains. For kids, it's not so fun.
"Both my ninth- and 10th-grade pictures were horrible," said Kari Rutkowski, 15, a sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School in Churchville. "All the girls want retouching. I wanted it, too, but my mom said she wasn't paying for it."
Maryland photo studios that offer the service say about a third of the order forms request retouching, but in many cases, it's the student, not the parent, who desires it.
Staci Payne said she didn't know her 13-year-old, Haley, signed up for photo retouching at Cradlerock School in Columbia.
The eighth-grader took one look at her first photos and declared them foul - bad smile, frizzy hair, too many freckles. She opted for a retake, plus retouching. Haley has not seen the second set of photos yet, but she's hoping retouching will lighten up some of her freckles and cover up any blemishes.
"They're at an age when they're really self-conscious," said Haley's mother, who paid about $7 more for retouching. "Photos can be really stressful on them. ... If it makes them feel better about their pictures, anything helps."
Experts say there is a fine line between using technology to give a child's self-esteem a boost and using it to pry perfection from puberty.
"Beauty is an important factor in society, and it carries a lot of weight," said T. Joel Wade, a professor and chairman of the psychology department at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania who researches adolescent self-esteem and body image issues. "Technology is contributing to that, whether it's through individuals using digital cameras and Photoshop software to change pictures themselves or all the shows that glorify plastic surgery. There's so much emphasis on beauty now that it's putting a lot more pressure on people.
"You can't assume that you'll always be that tall, gangly awkward kid in school with a lot of blemishes," Wade said. "Sometimes it's painful and awful, but that's part of puberty and growing up and dealing with things. ... It's hard for me to fault parents, though. Every parent wants to make their child's life easier and they don't want their children to suffer, so if it means retouching a photo, I can't say that I would or wouldn't do it myself."
'A bit much'
While most retouching - also known as digital imaging - for underclass photos focuses only on making pimples or small scars disappear, photographers say some parents have started calling in with unusual requests, which can cost $35 or more.
"I had a woman call me who said her daughter just lost her baby teeth," said Bill Spano, co-owner of School Pictures Inc. in Columbia, which shoots pictures for about 65 schools from kindergarten to eighth grade. "She had a special request for us to remove the decay from the remaining baby teeth in the photo. Another call I got, the family was out camping the day before and the child got a spider bite on the cheek. They didn't want the mark to show in the photo."
There is no ethics policy on altering student photos, according to the school photographers association, but parents and some studios worry that image manipulation can go too far in an effort to reach flawlessness.
Rose Eney, a 17-year-old at Towson High, said that she didn't order retouching but that when she got her senior portraits back, the studio had erased a part of her long brown hair that was draped across her shoulder.
"It looked terrible," Eney said. "You could see that it didn't look right. There was a line that didn't match my skin."
Angela Ballard-Landers ordered retouching for her 17-year-old son, Clarence, in his River Hill High senior portraits. She paid $400 for his pictures, which included erasing blemishes he had. "You could tell the difference. It was a smoother-looking picture," she said.
But Ballard-Landers drew the line at ordering that option for 7-year-old Cheridan and 11-year-old Cordney.
"Retouching braces out? That's a bit much," said Ballard-Landers, who lives in Ellicott City. "When you start trickling that sort of thing down to middle-schoolers, you're putting too much focus on image. ... You want to be able to recognize your child in his photo."
Gail Reinking, who has a 16-year-old at Glenelg High, agreed.
"It gets scarier and scarier all the time," said Reinking, who didn't order retouching for her son's photos. "We live in a world where everything has to be perfect. If it makes someone feel better, I don't oppose it. But you'd think they'd want a photo to show who they really are."
Fat chance, teens said, if it means flashbacks of zits, hair gone wrong and crooked teeth.
"I hate school pictures," said Stephanie Jones, 16, recalling forehead pimples marring her junior class photos at C. Milton Wright. "It's sorta like, 'Let's see how ugly we can make you look for your yearbook pictures.'"
Many photographers said they are careful to encourage enhancements, not major alterations, for younger students. Some say time constraints in processing thousands of photos at a time make it harder to offer more detailed retouching for all school photos, at least for now.
"The market will decide in the future" how much image manipulation is proper, Leung said. But for now, "there's a big difference between glamour pictures and school pictures. Down the road, nothing is impossible. It really depends on what parents want."
"Getting rid of a stray lock of hair is appropriate, changing the color of skin from black to white is manipulation," Pool said. "That's bad. But then, I'm old-fashioned. Some people may feel differently. I think it's a Catch-22. Darned if you do, darned if you don't."