Anytime a celebrity's image is digitally altered in a magazine, a buzz is created.
But the latest incident of retouched photographs being scrutinized - a Redbook magazine cover of country singer Faith Hill - has reignited the discussion in a fast and furious way.
Since the Web site Jezebel.com revealed an un-retouched photograph of the 39-year-old star and mother of three and compared it to the thinner, younger-looking image that appeared on Redbook's cover, bloggers have been emoting right and left, NBC's Today show devoted a five-minute segment to the issue of altered photos, and even noted columnist Simon Dumenco, from Advertising Age, felt compelled to give his 2 cents on the matter:
"Hey, would you want your back fat on the cover of Redbook?" his Monday column asked.
But experts say the Hill photo has struck a particular chord because the singer already is a beautiful, thin woman - calling into question the beauty industry's idea of "perfection."
"When you looked at the two pictures side by side, there was something inhuman about the retouched photo," says Anna Holmes, managing editor of Jezebel.com, which got the picture by offering $10,000 to anyone who could provide the site with a great example of a raw magazine cover. "I don't think we expected how much they would slim her down."
The dueling images are striking.
In the original photograph, Hill has evident crow's feet and some puffiness under the eyes. Her posture is ever-so-slightly slouched, creating a roundness in her back. She balances herself on one slender arm.
But in the digitally altered picture, Hill has the face of a 25-year-old. Her posture is corrected and angular, her waist and thigh slimmed by what, in real life, could be 10 or 15 pounds ("back fat" erased, of course). And her once slender arm looks freakishly skinny.
"Do you know anyone who is female who wouldn't want to look like the real Faith Hill?" asks Michael Levine, professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. "And yet looking like Faith Hill isn't enough for the [beauty] business."
The fashion and beauty industry is constantly under fire for promoting images of women that many experts call unattainable. Runway models are way too thin. Women in magazines and movies have perfect hair and makeup.
There have been many notable instances of this kind of photo-fakery: Oprah Winfrey's smiling face on Ann-Margret's body on the cover of TV Guide in 1989. Martha Stewart's head on a model's body on a Newsweek cover in 2003. Katie Couric's much-slimmer body in a CBS magazine photo last year.
"What's the problem with this deceptive practice? The destructive toll it takes on girls' ... and women's self-esteem, the eating disorders and body image self-hatred it helps create and perpetuate, and 'the big lie' that these perfect bodies actually exist," says Boston family therapist Carleton Kendrick.
Redbook editors wouldn't comment for this article; other major women's magazines did not return phone calls inquiring about their cover-photo practices.
But Redbook - which has been in the hot seat before for doctored images of Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts - has released this statement from editor-in-chief Stacy Morrison about the July cover of Hill:
"Magazine covers are meant to be enticing. In the end, they are beautiful images, in the same way that album covers, movie posters and ads for TV programs and news shows are images," she says.
But many readers may have difficulty telling the difference between image and reality, says Peter Southwick, director of the photojournalism program at Boston University.
"Magazine people say, 'People understand that the cover is a vehicle for selling the magazine and it's not necessarily supposed to be a real or accurate picture.' Well, I've never accepted that," says Southwick, former director of photography at the Boston Globe. "I think that people look at pictures and either they can trust it or they can't."
Hill has remained silent about the altered photograph. But proponents of retouching say celebrities and models often want their photos enhanced, to prevent embarrassing or unflattering pictures from circulating.
Dumenco, of Advertising Age, called Hill's untouched eyes "over-the-top, raccoon-eyed" and saw her real arm as looking "unnaturally huge."
In his column, Dumenco faulted the "deception of the celebrity-industrial complex" and the willingness of Americans to buy the lies, more than the magazines who sell it to them.
Genma Stringer Holmes of Nashville, Tenn., has been a print model for 21 years and agrees that there are times when a little cosmetic help from a computer program is desirable. But there should be a limit, she says.
"I don't mind saying, 'See that mole that's under my eye? That wasn't there five years ago. So do that,'" says Stringer Holmes, 41, who has appeared in such magazines as Essence and Southern Women. "But I'm not going to go from a size 10 to 12 to a size 0 or 1."
Holmes, the managing editor of Jezebel, came to the Web site after working at popular women's magazines such as Glamour and InStyle.
"I'm sure [Hill] was aware that they were going to retouch her. I'm not sure she was aware what they were going to do to her exactly," Holmes says. "But I don't think this is something specific to Faith Hill or even to Redbook. The blame is not with her; the blame is with the unrealistic images that are fed to us throughout our lives."
By publishing the two cover photographs, Holmes hopes that women will see the problem with striving to look like celebrities, who, in reality, don't even look like their public image.
"I think that women, hopefully, will get to a certain point and realize that's ridiculous," she says.