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'Effortless perfection': Much Photoshopping required

A side-by-side comparison of a Redbook cover image of Faith Hill and the original shows how manufactured images of beauty have become.

Girls and women are under all sorts of pressure to look perfect--and to make it look easy in the process. Duke University identified this new unattainable standard as "effortless perfection."

As individual women, it can be easy to wonder why we fall into the trap of trying to live up to an unattainable standard. It's something we absorb on an almost subconscious level. Deconstructing this month's Redbook magazine cover shows us just how manufactured the images of beauty we see really are.

I didn't think twice about the cover image of country singer and actress Faith Hill when I first saw it. But an untouched original photo obtained by Jezebel shows just how much "digital magic" even a certified star needs to be ready for her close-up.

Faith Hill photo before retouching, as shown on

One might expect a little airbrushing to smooth out crow's feet, but the alterations are truly inhuman, like the "new and improved" robotic woman Faith Hill herself played in the movie The Stepford Wives.

One of her arms was thinned by about 40 percent, an unflattering roll of flab was removed, and her left hand was turned into a left forearm pose. Most disturbingly to me, her face shape was distorted, like a Barbie doll's can be molded by squeezing it.

Faith Hill is a beautiful woman. She's just a year older than I am, heading toward her 40th birthday this fall, already looking better than 99 percent of the rest of us. The disturbing thing for me was that as I watched the images flash by in alternating comparison on Jezebel, eventually, the real Faith Hill did start to look flawed. "Elastic reality, indeed" as my husband said when I showed him the animation.

As our faces in the mirror get older, what does it mean that our public images need to stay Stepfordized? Will we be more disappointed as every year goes by and our attempts at perfection, effortless or otherwise, fail time and again in the real world?

The side-by-side comparison reminds us that we are continually fed ridiculously unrealistic images of beauty and perfection. We don't really have the option to turn away. Even if we don't read fashion magazines, the cover images are everywhere. And women's magazines aren't all bad.

Glamour, in particular, has surprised me by including thoughtful and serious original reporting. Ironically, I am actually quoted in the July Redbook whose cover I am criticizing. The magazine has a feature called What We Share, a ongoing series asking women what they value in the coming 2008 election. There I am on page 148, sharing my thoughts and an untouched photo that my Mom took of me standing on my front porch.

I am at a loss for ways to combat the media's standards of beauty. But seeing the curtains of digital magic pulled back to reveal reality can remind each of us to give ourselves a break when we look in the mirror.