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Photoshopped: The Ugly Truth Behind Pretty Pictures

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By Sierra Filucci, Common Sense Media editor

Walk past a supermarket checkout stand near summertime and you can't help but see models and celebs in bikinis plastered across magazine covers. Tween favorites like Selena Gomez and Katy Perry appear all over the Internet in glamorous outfits with incredible hair and makeup. Ads on billboards, buses and subways display long-legged models selling everything from liquor to lipstick.

Kids are bombarded with images of men and women -- famous or not -- who look incredibly perfect. Too perfect, in fact. And that's thanks to photo editing, which, as many of us parents know, can eliminate a model's pimples, make a celeb's cellulite disappear and make legs longer, waists slimmer and erase wrinkles.

Pull Back the Curtain

But kids aren't always so savvy. Kids who see unrealistic bodies or faces or clothing -- especially on folks they admire -- can feel inadequate as a result. In fact, several studies have shown that reading women's fashion magazines or looking at images of models has a negative effect on women's and girls' self-esteem.

That's why it's important to teach kids about the reality behind the images that surround them. Empowering kids to see behind the photo spreads and the advertisements can help combat the negative effects of these images.

Add Your Voice

The good news is, some kids -- and even celebrities -- are talking back to the beauty and advertising industries and taking action to encourage more realistic images. Maine eighth grader Julia Bluhm recently started a petition (with support from Spark Summit) that garnered more than 25,000 signatures, asking Seventeen magazine for regular photo spreads that don't use Photoshop.

Celebrities (including Taylor Swift, Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears) have stepped up to show a more realistic image of themselves in photo shoots and online, and in doing so help pull back the curtain on the amount of retouching that goes on in Hollywood and beyond.

Not sure how to approach this subject with your kid? Here are some ideas:

Do a reality check. Make sure kids know that almost every photo in magazines and advertisements has been altered. Show examples of models and celebrities where the before and after examples are starkly different. (Pop Studio is a great site to help kids understand what goes on behind the scenes at a magazine, etc.)

Play "spot the Photoshop." See who can spot the retouching on any ads or photos you come across. (Search online for "Photoshop fail" and you'll come across some amazing examples of how poorly the tool can be used.)

Connect the dots. Discuss the difference between fantasy images and products being marketed. Talk about how photos are used to sell magazines, specific products, celebrities' brands and more.

Ask questions. Get kids to think about how images affect viewers (both boys and girls) and how images can distort our ideas about what's healthy or beautiful. What would your kids say to a friend who felt bad after looking at an unrealistic image? How could you encourage them to celebrate their inner qualities? What kinds of things besides looking at magazines or celebrity blogs can you do to make you feel good?

Look for backup. Help kids locate resources to take action. Find out how to sign or start petitions. Encourage kids to speak up about these images in their classrooms, through their social networks, and among friends. (Check out our list of sites that encourage social action.)