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Is that guy in the weight-loss ad really as buff as he looks? How far can you enhance that snapshot for the school newspaper and still have it represent reality? This software tool rates photographs on how far they have been manipulated.

The photographs of celebrities and models in fashion advertisements and magazines are routinely buffed with a helping of digital polish. The retouching can be slight — colors brightened, a stray hair put in place, a pimple healed. Or it can be drastic — shedding 10 or 20 pounds, adding a few inches in height and erasing all wrinkles and blemishes, done using Adobe’s Photoshop software, the photo retoucher’s magic wand.

“Fix one thing, then another and pretty soon you end up with Barbie,” said Hany Farid, a professor of computer science and a digital forensics expert at Dartmouth.

And that is a problem, feminist legislators in France, Britain and Norway say, and they want digitally altered photos to be labeled. In June, the American Medical Association adopted a policy on body image and advertising that urged advertisers and others to “discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”

Dr. Farid said he became intrigued by the problem after reading about the photo-labeling proposals in Europe. Categorizing photos as either altered or not altered seemed too blunt an approach, he said.

Dr. Farid and Eric Kee, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Dartmouth, are proposing a software tool for measuring how much fashion and beauty photos have been altered, a 1-to-5 scale that distinguishes the infinitesimal from the fantastic. Their research is being published this week in a scholarly journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences….

From left to right, photographs show the five levels of retouching….The effect, from slight to drastic, may discourage retouching. “Models, for example, might well say, ‘I don’t want to be a 5. I want to be a 1,’ ” he said.

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