One thing I often find myself saying at work about food photography:
When you're looking at actual food, you experience it through many facets. You can smell the aroma. You can get a sense of its volume and texture as you look at it from different angles. You can move around it, watching how the glints and sparkles change, conveying a sense of moistness and smoothness. You can see the steam rise and the sauces flow. All those different forms of experience help convey its appetite appeal.
In a photograph, none of those extra experiences are available; the image has to do all the work. That's why food that seems to look great sitting in front of you may still need a lot of work from a stylist to photograph well.
The same logic applies to people. How often have we all had the experience of wanting to photograph a friend whom we find absolutely charming, captivating and delightful... only to find once s/he is in front of the camera that much of that effect comes from the way the person moves, the play of expressions across the face, the things s/he says, etc.? Take all those elements away, and you're frustrated to find that your photo of your friend just doesn't do him/her justice.
A huge part of the challenge is finding a way to "translate" these aspects into something that can be communicated through photography. We're not trying to make our friend into something s/he is not; we're just trying to work around the limitations of photography to show more accurately what s/he IS.
Where you draw the line about what sorts of "translations" are acceptable and what aren't is always going to be a slippery issue. So I think we have to look at the question from a more utilitarian perspective:
If some aspect of our culture makes healthy, productive, well-adjusted people -- people who are entitled to be comfortable with themselves -- instead feel UNcomfortable, and if there's no good reason for it, then that aspect of culture arguably is bad and should be changed.
Are we there yet with the whole body-image thing?
I'm not sure. Obviously if teenage girls are eating unhealthful diets trying to look like photos of models, and teenage boys are taking dangerous muscle-building hormones trying to look like photos of rap stars, then they're endangering themselves for no good reason.
But I don't know how much of that is really happening, as opposed to what's being played out in sensationalized media coverage. I read and hear about it a lot, but I almost never see it among teenagers I actually know.
And when we're talking about photo retouching, context seems to make a big difference. The subject who has requested a "glamorous" look in his/her photo is probably going to want to be slimmed down and glossed up to the max. Meanwhile, that same person posting party pics on Facebook is perfectly happy with the wild-haired, pasty-skinned photos a friend took with her phone cam. What gives?
I'm not sure, but I suspect this is a more complex question than it seems. And I suspect that a lot of this task of getting people comfortable with their own appearance involves getting them comfortable with the context within which their images will be seen.
I think the real source of insecurity for many people may not about appearance, but of being judged: of being held up to a standard and found wanting.
And maybe that's where we can apply our creativity as photographers. "Worried that people won't think you look like a fashion model? Fine, let's not even try to make you look like a fashion model. Let's be rebels and screw the cultural stereotypes. Let's create a photo with so much artistic authority that you become the standard."
That may not be practical for professionals such as Guy, who admittedly have to take the customer's preconceptions as they come.
But for those of us who are amateurs and/or artists... why not?