11/14/2011 09:37 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

Natural Beauty: A Lost Art?

Each stroke of the airbrush contributes to turning the term 'natural beauty' into an oxymoron. While the word 'natural' seems to denote purity -- people sans makeup or other forms of visual enhancement -- the phrase now commonly includes "barely there" makeup and airbrushing. But when does retouching become too much? If you airbrush the divots and bruises on a picture of a potato, could you still identify it?

Extensive airbrushing and cropping involved in the photo-editing process even leads to the occasional ghastly accident: the mysterious hand grasping AnnaLynne McCord's shoulder as she ostensibly strolled the beach in solitude; L'Oreal elongating Penelope Cruz's neck to resemble that of an ostrich's to promote skin care products in 2009.

Clearly, resembling disproportionate and feckless birds naturally seems undesirable, yet many aspire to look like models in other advertisements that are just as edited and just as artificial. Can Toyota edit the shape of its cars to mimic the sleek lines of an Aston Martin? Absolutely not. Customers would be livid. If companies want to modify their advertisements or fashion spreads, please, be my guest. Everyone has the right to artistic license. But, until that photo fully separates itself from reality, it should require a disclaimer: Warning: Models in photo are different than they appear. Without adequate disclosure, advertisements will continue to deceive people.

Recently, Britain's Advertising Standards Agency outlawed two advertisements for L'Oreal's Maybelline Eraser anti-aging foundation and Lancôme Teint Miracle featuring actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington, respectively. They feared the severe airbrushing would deceive potential consumers. I thought editing was supposed to refine a photo, not reinvent it.

Now, when people see fashion spreads with "gorgeous" models, many begin to idolize a naturally unattainable body image. Yes, a corrupt idea of perfection has influenced society for decades -- Barbie dates back to the '60s -- but advances in editing technologies have blurred the delineation between reality and artistic fantasy. While aspiring to look like a doll seems irrational, aspiring to look like models in magazines seems feasible; they are real people after all. But they are not. They are technologically altered versions of real people.

Unaware of this discrepancy, many people, especially teens and preteens, develop false senses of natural beauty. An astonishing number of teens self-impose outrageous diets in their endless pursuit of a naturally unattainable figure. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, more than half of teenage girls and almost one-third of teenage boys follow harmful weight-control methods, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. Considering that, according to a Bariatric Surgery Source study, 18.9 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds are medically obese, there are not many healthy teens remaining. Furthermore, this corrupted conception of perfection continues to afflict younger and younger kids. 12-year-olds count calories and wear spanx under their shorts in 98 degree weather. In a world where almost half of fifth to 12th-grade girls want to lose weight because of magazine pictures, when only 17 percent of them are overweight, something needs to change. And that change starts with the media.

The bar has been set too high. Most models, even considering their innate beauty, fear not retouching their photos to perfection. Model, singer, and actress Victoria Summer, who prefers to only remove temporary blemishes, recently told me that sometimes she compares "someone's retouched shot to their natural shot, and it's like night and day. If you have lines on your face, you should have lines in your headshot."

Some companies have already begun to follow a similar mantra. Debenhams, a British department store that has consistently combatted various techniques employed by the media, banned airbrushing in its 2010 swim and lingerie campaigns. Debenhams juxtaposed unedited and retouched photos for observers to compare with the following caption: "We've not messed with natural beauty; this image is unairbrushed. What do you think?" I love it.

In a culture of mass media, where surgically altered bodies and crash diets are accepted, our notion of natural beauty is under assault. As people struggle to obtain the "perfect" body, most succumb to unhealthy and detrimental methods. The media needs to reinvent their conception of perfection, or at least display some sort of disclaimer; otherwise, the number of people sacrificing their lives in pursuit of a false reality will only increase. Joan Rivers says it best: "The ideal beauty is a fugitive who is never found." So let's end this search.