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When advertisers and magazines alter digital photographs, there’s a big difference between a few touch-ups and a completely doctored image. But at this point, consumers can’t tell the difference. Impossibly good-looking models can help sell products, but those images can also set unrealistic - even harmful - standards for the rest of the world.

Earlier this year, the American Medical Association began discouraging advertisers and magazines from altering photographs in a way that “promotes unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.’’ And legislators in France, Britain, and Norway have gone so far as to propose rules mandating that digitally altered photos be labeled to help viewers distinguish what’s real and what’s fantasy. Those countries are headed in the right direction, but their proposals fail to distinguish between photographs that have been slightly and drastically edited. That’s a problem, because erasing a model’s errant pimple has a much different effect than giving her a digital breast enhancement.


Researchers at Dartmouth have developed a nuanced solution, software that can detect the degree to which a photograph has been altered. US consumers should follow the lead of public-health activists and European legislators in demanding that significantly altered photos be labeled as “photo illustrations,’’ and take this new detection technology into account. A uniform system that labels the degree of manipulation would help consumers determine what’s just too good to be true - and maybe even encourage advertisers and fashion magazines to put down the digital airbrush in the first place.