But new advances in relatively cheap photo retouching apps and computer software are making it astonishingly simple for anyone to look hot at the push of a button. Computer photo-retouching software options include Portrait Professional (www.portraitprofessional.com, $29.95). Download or buy the CD and it guides you through reshaping your face, smoothing your skin, whitening your teeth and eyes as well as removing pimples, moles and freckles.
Then there's the Smartphone app designed for both iPhone and iPad called Pimple Eraser, which is sold on iTunes for 99 cents and promoted as a way to "Give yourself clear skin before uploading your next photo to Facebook or Twitter."
Other photo retouching apps and programs include the free PicTreat program (motto: "Everybody's Perfect") and the free More Beauté2 and 99-cent Photo Makeover apps. There are even cameras, such as several Casio models, that have a "Makeup Mode" to even out and brighten your complexion.
Consumers seem eager to take advantage of the possibilities. Alex Vlachos, owner of Black Frog Industries, the company behind Pimple Eraser, says a free version of the app that's not quite as advanced as the 99-cent option has been downloaded about 2 million times, largely by consumers in Asia, over a period of about 16 months. He estimated that over the last two years, the paid version of the app had been downloaded between 100,000 and 200,000 times.
Portrait Professional reports sales of more than 300,000 copies of its software worldwide, with about half of them in the United States.
Often the technology is used for major life events, such as wedding photographs and formal portraits, says Andrew Berend, chief executive of Anthropics Technology Ltd., which developed Portrait Professional. But it's also being used in more day-to-day ways, such as in profile pictures on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Some people may be aghast at the thought of gussying up photos so that they don't portray real-life looks. But it's nothing new. Historically, Berend says, "In traditional portraits, people were made to look much more interesting and beautiful than they actually were." King Henry VIII, for instance, was said to be very upset that his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, looked nothing like the portrait he'd seen of her before their wedding.
Many modern-day daters can sympathize with the monarch. Stories abound of the date who shows up looking nothing like his or her online photo.
So how far should you go in reinventing your image and when does touching up your photo cross over to committing fraud?
Even Berend, who says it's a personal decision as to how much someone wants to alter a photo, believes it's important not to represent yourself unrealistically on dating sites.
"I'm a middle-aged balding man and I can make myself look like Brad Pitt" by using retouching software, he says. "But what am I going to do? Only meet people in a dark club? It's a good thing that people can improve their image, but there is reality — you do actually have to go outside and meet people."
Job seekers should also be cautious. Jennifer McClure, a human resources executive and consultant with more than 20 years experience, says you want to look your best in a professional head shot, such as you'd use on LinkedIn.
"So removing a pimple [with a photo retouching app] isn't that big of a deal," she says. But she is disappointed when a job candidate walks into her office looking much different — say grayer or less fit — than his or her online photos.
"You don't want to start off that initial meeting with the recruiter making up a story in their own mind as to why you don't look like your photo," McClure says. Still, she says, she's seen people in their 50s posting high school photos.
"They tell me they do it because they don't want to be discriminated against," McClure says. "The kind of person who is going to discriminate against you is eventually going to do it anyway when they meet you in person."
And meanwhile, you may have damaged your chances. "It goes to your trustworthiness and your credibility if you show up as something different than the way you portray yourself online in your resume or visually," she says. "The hit to your credibility can outweigh any potential benefits to altering your online appearance significantly in order to get in front of somebody."
McClure advises updating your professional head shot if you significantly alter your appearance. No matter how you look, exude confidence and portray your experience — not your looks — as the answer to the employer's hiring goals.
Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, co-author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement," says some photo enhancement is an adaptation to realities such as age discrimination, but at other times, it can signify narcissism.
"It's all a matter of degrees," Twenge says. "Everyone has a few narcissistic traits, but how far do you take it? [Digitally] taking off 80 pounds? That's an example that's reached a stage that you want to look better but you don't want to actually earn it."
Twenge gives talks to undergraduates who tell her that that their generation has to be concerned about image to be successful.
"Photo retouching is a single tool," Twenge tells them. "Focus on performance."