The earlier we learn something, the more likely it is to stick with us for life. In the case of six-year-old Mahli Guise, one lesson that is being instilled early is body hatred.
The Burke Ward Public School student was reportedly reduced to tears after the birthmark on her neck was digitally removed from her school photo without her or her parents’ consent.
Mahli’s mother, Kendi Simmons told the Barrier Daily Truth where the story first appeared, ‘We’ve always told Mahli the birthmark is her beauty spot’.
‘It’s saddening that somebody who we don’t know sat behind a computer and thought “We’ll get rid of that”.’
And it wasn’t just Mahli’s birthmark that was deemed unacceptable by the photography company. The colour of the bow in her hair was also changed and her face was digitally cleaned.
‘I don’t want a perfect photo, I want a photo of my perfect child. It’s her first school photo for primary school and that’s kindergarten gone,’ Ms Simmons told her local paper.
Good on her for valuing her daughter’s self-esteem more than a ‘memento’ of how a re-touching artist thought her daughter should look.
There are so many things wrong with this story — the disregard for parents’ and children’s wishes, the obsession with appearance, inducing body insecurity in the school yard — that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Let’s start with the obvious: body image. What’s the point of pumping school curricula choc-full of lessons about positive body image and the importance of diversity, if it’s undermined by the informal curriculum that comes with school life?
The messy business of actual childhood has been erased, and replaced by an idealised childhood — and an idealised child. The lesson here is that children are no longer permitted to look like children. Instead, they need to look like a feature spread in the pages of Studio Bambini.
Of course school photos have always been contrived affairs; full of unnatural postures, hair parted just so and smiles that wouldn’t be out of place at a Miss Universe contest. But the Photoshopping of school photos takes the artifice to a whole new level. At least in the past the photos were of actual children. What Mahli’s case shows is that you can’t even depend on that anymore.
Philosophers have a name for this. It’s called a simulacrum. A simulacrum is “an image without the substance or qualities of the original“. The photographic company has effectively reduced Mahli’s likeness to a simulacrum. It’s a memory of a child who never quite existed.
In the process, photography’s purpose is no longer about capturing the essence of a person in a moment of time. It’s about confecting a public image that’s as homogenous as possible. And the image we project to the world takes precedence over who we really are. Even at six, children are being taught that life must be a performance.
It’s particularly galling, since young people are often blamed for being a bunch of self-promoting narcissists incapable of getting through the day without taking a selfie or four. Critics often lament this, but given what happened to the photos taken at Burke Ward Public School, are we suprised that children are hyper-aware of their appearance and their public image?
It’s little wonder that body image is among the top three concerns for young people, when something as common-place as a school photo teaches children their bodies are unacceptable and need to be fixed.
While this is an extreme case, the practice of digitally altering photos without consent goes on in some secondary schools too. And many schools now offer a Photoshopping option on photo order forms. Where will the quest for the perfect Disney-fied child end? Do we start lightening skin of children deemed to be too dark, straightening hair and teeth, lengthening limbs, making eyes rounder or thinning out waists in the same way that the magazine industry now does routinely?
A few months ago Mahli received a ‘Respect others and their things’ award at school. It’s a shame she was not afforded the same courtesy.