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Bend Me, Shape Me

If perfection is just a mouse click away, where does that leave reality?

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Jerry Malik and I are sitting at his computer one recent afternoon, looking at digital images of women in various stages of undress. He points his cursor to a softly lit photo he took of a svelte naked woman. She's leaning on her elbows against the arm of a couch, her back slightly arched and her eyes lightly shut. Just as I'm thinking that the woman looks like she's about to fake an orgasm, Malik says, "I don't see why every woman on the planet wouldn't want at least one picture like that of herself."

For a moment I think he's joking. But he's not.

Last year, after a decade and a half spent doing hair and makeup for commercials, movies, and photo shoots, the 48-year-old cosmetologist decided to go into business shooting "sensual and erotic" photos of women. The commercial actors' union had gone on strike, and Malik, feeling the pinch, saw erotic photography as a way to fill the gaps in his schedule. He had worked with a boudoir photographer back in the 80s and early 90s, and the experience had left him with the distinct impression that women generally have a "blast" getting makeovers and taking off their clothes for the camera.

Never mind that, at that point, Malik hadn't taken himself seriously as a photographer in about 30 years, or that when he had--back in high school--he'd specialized in documentary work, shooting primarily sports events for his school paper and the local biweekly in his hometown of Mentor, Ohio. And never mind that he didn't have a studio photographer's equipment or know-how. With a digital camera, he figured he could compensate for his "shortcomings" on his computer.

Malik shows me how he can achieve effects in Photoshop that other photographers create with expensive equipment and lighting techniques. He opens images from his own archives as well as ones he's downloaded from the Web and scanned into his computer. With a few drags and clicks he eliminates shadows, corrects for poor exposures, and changes the perspective of shots to make them look as though they've been taken with different lenses.

But he doesn't just compensate for his own shortcomings. He believes that only 5 to 10 percent of the population is "truly beautiful," that 5 to 10 percent is "really unfortunately ugly," and that everybody in between could benefit greatly from grooming. So before the shoot, Malik offers his clients makeovers. And what makeovers can't fix, digital surgery can.

"Look how big her butt is," he says, pointing to a photo of a woman who is wearing only elbow-length striped gloves. Then--click--he scales down her rear. Malik will later tell me that he wasn't editorializing about the woman's body--that, rather, he was just correcting for the unfortunate angle of the shot.

It's a strange distinction, and not altogether convincing given that Malik has named his business Digital TransformHer. "Digital retouching," says his press release, "can do everything from removing wrinkles and scars to digitally taking 'inches' off a figure that doesn't quite represent the woman at her physical best."

Almost anything is possible. Tummy tucks, arm flab removal, deveining. Malik once "evened out" a client with asymmetrical breasts. "I literally moved the nipple up," he says.

He thought the intervention "made for a nicer picture," and Malik wants his clients to like the way they look. If they like the way they look, there's a better chance they'll order photos. "I'm like any other person selling a product, so I'll maybe make some things a little skinnier, do a little of this, a little of that, with the hope of them going, 'God, I look great and I have to have it.'"

According to Malik, most clients welcome the retouching. Often they request it. "After women have had kids, you know, if you can trim the waistline a little bit, trim the thigh a little bit, they're thrilled." But he doesn't always consult his clients about every nip and tuck. If the retouching is subtle enough, he says, "they don't need to be beat over the head with their imperfections."

Malik shows me a glamour shot of a smooth-skinned, red-haired, green-eyed babe in a boa. She looks about 25. Then he shocks me with the original. She has wrinkles on her face, age spots on her chest, and folds of flesh that form creases where her arms join her torso.

To demonstrate how he shaves age off his clients, he calls up a recent shot he took of his high school girlfriend. She no longer looks like she's in high school, but Malik does what he can to restore her youthful appearance. He copies an unblemished patch of skin from her cheek and transplants it under her eyes to lighten the dark circles. Then he erases her crow's-feet. "Believe me," he says, "every Hollywood star does it."

The way Malik sees it he is offering regular women what the rich and famous have long had access to: meticulous attention from a hairstylist, makeup artist, and skilled retoucher. Almost anyone can possess magazine-quality beauty, he says. It might be a contrived, inauthentic beauty, but so what? See how good you could look.

The implications of retouching disturb me, and though I'd probably have a hard time proving my case, I believe there are social consequences when it's done routinely. The latest issue of Esquire, for example, bills its cover story as a "man's survival guide" to how women age, as if the phenomenon is a trauma cruelly inflicted on its male readers.

I want to talk to Malik about the ethics and politics of altering images of women to conform to cultural standards of beauty. But Malik doesn't worry much about a culture whose media privilege youth, eradicate signs of age, and obsessively eroticize women's bodies. Nor does it bother him that the fashion and beauty industries bombard us with--and profit from--images of unattainable ideals. He doesn't blame these industries or the media for the body-image neuroses that plague American girls and women.

Men experience societal pressure to look good too, he argues. "Whenever women talk about all the pressure of modeling magazines and men's magazines and all that, and they talk about Barbie, I go, 'G.I. Joe had a six-pack! G.I. Joe had muscles! Ken wasn't some big fat guy with a beer belly!'"

Malik is a self-described "pretty regular guy" with a boyish face and unobtrusive glasses who favors baseball caps, shorts, and T-shirts. He might struggle with his weight and refer to himself as "follicly challenged," but he says he doesn't obsess about his looks, despite the ubiquity of fitness magazines and Calvin Klein billboards featuring buffer-than-thou men.

Malik says that when he retouches images he isn't passing judgment on his subjects. He tried to explain this to his brother one day after retouching a photo of themselves they'd planned to give to their mother for her birthday.

After his brother chewed him out, Malik recalls, "I said, 'Jim, it's a picture--I didn't buy you a gift certificate for cosmetic surgery. It's just a stupid picture.'"

Malik thinks of Digital TransformHer as "something just for fun," as a "glorified novelty effort," nothing to be taken too seriously.

At one point he starts to worry that I am going to portray him as "some frustrated Hugh Hefner" and sends me an E-mail saying "I'm not trying to convey a personal message that women 'need' to be thin, perfect, flawless, at their best, etc. I have the software to tweak a photograph to get the same results as the pictures in the magazines and while my clients appreciate the technology, I also think they (and I) keep things in perspective."

Digital retouching is about much more than body sculpting. Malik uses Photoshop to smooth down flyaway strands of hair and to make lint on garments disappear. He also sometimes drops his clients into different backgrounds, adds solarized or sepia effects, tints the images different colors, and creates prints that more closely resemble drawings than photos. When Malik is at his computer, he is in the throes of the creative process. It reminds him of his days working on the school paper, when he'd show up at 6 PM, get to work, and the next thing he knew it was midnight.

Watching him work I begin to understand how it's easy to get carried away. Digital retouching is fun. But it's a slippery slope from making subtle changes, like removing lint, to radical ones, like tummy tucks.

I get further confused when I watch Malik erase a woman's tattoos. I do not feel uneasy, as I did when I saw him remove wrinkles. Instead I wonder which is a more "natural" photo of the woman, the one with or without her tattoos?

If the transformations are done with the clients' consent, are they really so different from all the others we put ourselves through? We reinvent ourselves all the time, often in far more permanent ways. We alter our appearances with tattoos and piercings and wires that pull together our teeth. We dye and transplant our hair, wear padded push-up bras, paint our nails, and use makeup to hide our blemishes and accent our features. Sometimes the transformations carry great meaning and are done as rituals. At other times they're just for fun or vanity.

I'm not a purist--I don't object to these efforts. But my feelings about any particular modification largely depend on my own personal tastes and values. How else can I account for why breast implants offend me but braces don't?

I also realize that part of what's bothering me is that Malik is blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. I am used to thinking of photos--even stylized portraits--as authentic depictions of moments in time, as historical documents. Malik, with his unapologetic and sly airbrush, is taking the tricks of the studio photographer one step further and committing instant historical revision. He's forcing me to reassess my ideas about the relationship between representation and reality.

And he isn't the only one.

One day I notice a sign for digital retouching at a one-hour photo shop in my neighborhood. I flip through the sample book on the counter and learn that you can insert yourself into a photo with someone you've never met or erase people standing next to you. It doesn't take much imagination to see where this is headed. One of the sample photos shows a pretty young woman on former governor Jim Edgar's arm. The digitally retouched copy bears no trace of her. I also learn that you can transplant yourself to different locations. A couple sitting on their suburban lawn in one photo sit in front of the Eiffel Tower--still on their lawn--in another. What is the purpose of that if not to falsely represent yourself and your experiences? I see it on the same continuum of deceit as hanging up a fake diploma.

On his Web site Malik promises prospective clients photos in which they will look their "absolute best." When I ask him how he can make such a claim, given that the end result is usually a figment of his--or his clients'--imagination, he says he is giving clients a representation of their potential, and tells me about a woman who started working out after she saw proofs of a slimmed-down version of herself. "Or if it is just fantasy," he says, "that's not so awful."

As he says, it's just for fun.

And I start to wonder, what would I look like with bangs? With different color eyes? When Malik offers to shoot me for free, I accept.

Malik usually photographs his clients in their homes--for their own comfort, he says--but I am in the middle of moving and my apartment is an obstacle course of boxes, so we've agreed to meet at his place. He E-mails me wardrobe suggestions: a white bra that fastens in the front, white panties or a G-string, a camisole or slip.

I look over the list, then delete it.

On the day of the shoot I throw everyday clothes--jeans, tank tops, a skirt--into a garbage bag and head over to his Lincoln Park apartment.

Malik has dragged his bed into the living room to use as a prop, which doesn't exactly put me at ease. On one wall is a promotional poster for the film Shampoo, in which Warren Beatty plays a lothario who works in a Beverly Hills salon. Malik was almost through beauty school when it came out, so no one can legitimately accuse him of choosing his career because of the movie. But that's not to say the women weren't a perk. As one of the few straight men in his class, he got more than his fair share of dates. When he worked at Sassoon, from 1979 to '83, he dated some of his clients, but now he's not interested in mixing business and pleasure. He says his clients don't have to worry--he's not going to lust after them. He wants only two things from them, he says: a check and a referral.

Malik hands me a questionnaire to fill out. This is how he assesses his clients' comfort level with various poses. "Stretch your limits," he says. The form contains three questions about crotch shots. Can he shoot it covered? Semiexposed? Exposed? You are supposed to check yes, no, or possibly.

"No means no," he assures me. "Where things say no, I won't suggest them."

I leave Malik little room to make suggestions. This is not going to be a typical shoot. Most of his clients want to pose nude, he tells me.

I empty my trash bag of clothes. He chooses a crumpled button-down shirt and jeans to start us off, and then breaks out his iron. I wonder why he's bothering. Can't he just take the wrinkles out in Photoshop?

Next it's on to the makeover. He asks for permission to tweeze my eyebrows, and when I hesitate--I've never tweezed--he tells me it's no big deal.

"I do mine," he says.

We talk while he's applying foundation, blush, and eye shadow, but he doesn't seem fully present. He's concentrating hard on my face and interrupting me at every turn, asking me to hold still. He curls my eyelashes with a heated curler and tells me to pucker my lips so he can see if the color is even. "Don't worry," he promises. "I won't kiss you."

Malik preps me on how to hold my body. "Vertical is just not attractive, hunched over is not attractive. You almost always want to be putting some kind of S to yourself."

He shows me examples of successful and unsuccessful poses. "This woman comes off the page," he says. "This woman is like, 'Why am I here?'"

He asks me to sit on the bed. I am stiff and vertical, too self-conscious to form an S, wondering, like the unsuccessful model, why am I here? It doesn't help when he asks me to "get on all fours." Sorry, I tell him. I am not that much of a sport.

During the second wardrobe change, Malik's frustration becomes apparent. "You're making me feel like I'm torturing you!" he exclaims. "You need to have more fun." Several times he mentions that there is tension in my face.

After he's used up the first 128-megabyte memory card, he plugs it into the card reader that's attached to his computer and downloads the 50 images. To my surprise, he sees some he can work with. "We're doing well," he says, and then takes his cursor to my face and erases a smile line. When I ask why he's doing that, he responds, "We're in the glamour business here."

We do two more wardrobe changes and another makeover--this one "over-the-top," complete with false eyelashes.

When we're finished with the shoot we sit at the computer again and study the results.

I ask him if he can give me bangs in one of the head shots. He copies some of my hair and then places it over my forehead. Suddenly I have bangs, which I'll consider seriously the next time I get my hair cut. Can you give me auburn hair? I ask. What about platinum? Now we are having fun.

"I know what you're wondering," he says. "You're wondering, 'Jerry, how would I look with a third eye?'"

Now I know. Not pretty.

Malik delivers the retouched photos a couple of weeks later. They are slick and well composed, on par with images you'd find in any fashion magazine. But I feel little connection to them. This is not me at my "absolute best." This is me as I've never been. This is me without bags under my eyes or freckles on my nose. I am like a map without the details. Where are the roads and rivers? This is me wearing too much makeup--and in shades of loathsome pink. He has even whitened the whites of my eyes. It's as though I'm seeing myself in Technicolor. I think I look about as natural and as healthy as an embalmed corpse.

I pull aside a retouched photo, one I am smiling in, and then glance at a copy Malik has given me of the original. I see lines around my eyes that I have never noticed before and make a beeline for the bathroom mirror.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Digital TransformHer 2001.

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