When images of Kelly Clarkson on the cover of the September issue of Self hit the Internets last week, a storm started raging. Apparently, it’s still going strong, with Self‘s Editor in Chief Lucy Danziger appearing on Today just this morning to try to defuse the flap (video embedded after the jump). As is plainly clear to anyone in possession of halfway decent eyesight, the Self cover photo has been drastically altered, retouched within an inch — or rather, ounce — of its life. All summer, we’ve seen Clarkson performing across the country looking slightly heavier than perhaps she appeared in the past — and by the way: big frickin’ deal! — and suddenly, here she is on the cover of a magazine, looking as svelte as she did when she was crowned the very first American Idol back in 2002. The Self picture was taken in May. So was the one you see to the left of it, above. Go figure.

Far be it for me to claim that EW has never retouched a photo. As Danziger said in an item she posted on last week, every magazine under the sun digitally alters images. But I do believe that both the extent of the retouching and the context in which it’s done are important distinctions. What message is Self sending, as a magazine that prides itself on encouraging women to adopt healthy(!), well-adjusted (!!) attitudes about themselves, when it trumpets Clarkson as the picture of “Total Body Confidence,” then distorts what she actually looks like? As my colleague Annie Barrett so wisely pointed out in an email to me this afternoon, it’s called Self, not Self, Idealized Version of. What’s more, Clarkson happens to be just fine with the way she looks, stating in the pages of that very issue: “My happy weight changes…. Sometimes I eat more; sometimes I play more. I’ll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I’m like, ‘You seem to have a problem with it; I don’t. I’m fine!’ I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the red carpet or anything.” Hear, hear! You are beautiful just the way you are, Kelly.

So far, Danziger’s strategy in responding to the controversy has been to downplay it. “Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best,” she says on her mag’s website. “Did we publish an act of fiction? No. Not unless you think all photos are that. But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.” On Today this morning, she restated that defense: “We’re saying that she’s essentially like she was on the cover.” Yowza. That kind of semantic jujitsu could make President Clinton blush.

Check out the video and sound off, PopWatchers. Did Self commit a blunder here, or is this just another example of the new normal? Is it more sinful for some magazines to retouch their photos than others? And do you, like me, wish certain publications offered more realistic depictions of actual human beings, not hyper-perfected humanoids? Sheesh, some of those mag covers have me thinking I might as well get a subscription to a sci-fi geek fanzine if that’s what I want to see smiling out at me from the front of a glossy each month.PHOTO CREDIT: Jen Lowery/