I’ve been thinking about presents recently – no surprise, really, as this week marks the official start of the last-minute Christmas panic-buying rush. The irony being that I have spent so much time in the past few weeks immersed in our gift guide that I have not actually bought any gifts.

But the present I’ve been thinking about is more conceptual than real and it’s to do with something Lady Gaga recently suggested she was looking forward to: the end of airbrushing.

What Gaga said à propos of her appearance on the cover of the December issue of US Glamour was: “I felt my skin looked too perfect. I felt my hair looked too soft . . . do not look like this when I wake up in the morning.” Certainly, watching her with hair ratted out as she made that statement on stage at the Glamour Woman of the Year awards, it was hard to dispute her assessment.

“It is fair to write about the change in your magazines,” continued Gaga, “but what I want to see is the change on your covers . . . ” And I thought, me too.

Previously I have rolled my eyes when the airbrushing topic comes up, believing (1) everyone knows it happens, so we take these images with a pinch of salt; (2) we have bigger things to worry about; (3) if we really want this to change, all we need to do is not buy the magazines – and, since we still do buy the magazines, clearly we are not as upset about it as we pretend; and (4) isn’t it a little rich for celebrities to complain about being airbrushed when they also spend a lot of time tweeting to promote these covers?

Besides, it’s not as if Gaga’s anti-airbrushing comments are entirely selfless. She got a lot of press for her Glamour magazine stance (which, the cynics among us may say, was the point). And it’s not so long since her September 2012 US Vogue cover, which a behind-the-scenes video proved had been revised to trim her body and clean up her skin. This provoked no similar comments from Gaga herself (though Twitter went bananas). Added to that, Gaga’s current album, Artpop, appears not to be doing nearly as well as Born This Way (2011), so attacking the fashion world for its fakery is not a bad attention-getting distraction.

Still, whatever the motivation, it doesn’t undermine the validity of her point: that it’s time to call a stop to the image-polishing. For, just as the Glamour cover may have been Gaga’s wake-up call, a UK Vogue cover – December’s issue featuring Kate Moss – has been mine.

When it comes to acting/singing celebrities, I tend to think that, thanks to live appearances, red carpets and paparazzi photos, most of us actually have a pretty accurate sense of what they look like, and can identify when they have been “helped” by the photo-editing equipment.

On the other hand, when it comes to models, because our experience of them is 99 per cent through the prism of glossy magazines (the 1 per cent being the small set of fashion people who see them live at catwalk shows or on an actual shoot), and because their job is to look beautiful, we tend to believe that what we see is how they really look.

While this can often be true, at least for the 18-year-old models, it is less true of the older set, who are increasingly in demand as luxury brands begin to chase the older consumer. See, for example, Christy Turlington modelling underwear for Calvin Klein, and Stephanie Seymour modelling for Jason Wu.

It’s this older set who I think are increasingly the problem when it comes to giving women seriously unrealistic ideas of female beauty. Forget the effect all this may have on gullible 14-year-olds (the 14-year-olds I know are pretty savvy when it comes to image manipulation, in any case), what of the 40-year-olds?

Because here’s the thing: it’s an open secret in the fashion world – one whispered (not, I admit, without some gleeful Schadenfreude) besides the catwalk and in the halls of magazines – that Kate Moss, while still unquestionably beautiful, looks her age. She has laugh lines and, in unforgiving runway light, cellulite and the occasional spot. Sorry if that bursts any bubbles. My bad.

But on the covers of and inside magazines such as December’s UK Vogue or Playboy’s much-ballyhooed 60th anniversary edition, this has all been magically erased, leaving only her bone structure and attitude behind.

It is one of the great fashion lies, especially as Moss-loving newspapers and gossip sites tend to reproduce the airbrushed covers and pictures along with headlines such as “Amazing at 40!” Well, yes, with the right computer-generated assistance. But wouldn’t it be more amazing to see how good she looks even with what my daughter once called the “stripes” in her face? Jane Birkin managed it, after all.

I’m not advocating a no-make-up, every-flaw-revealed policy, you understand. I’m as much of a fan of a good cover-up as the next grown-up. But we’re turning women into newfangled versions of Dorian Gray. And we know how that story ended.

One of the great joys of Kate Moss, when she broke into the fashion scene as a teenager, was her gappy grin and her skinny, too-short body – her very imperfection, somehow elevated by her extreme personal magnetism. She proved that beauty was as much about charisma, and the sum of a bunch of fallible parts that added up to something unique, as a physical ideal – a message, as it happens, that also comes more consciously from Lady Gaga.

Ageing gracefully is a gift. We shouldn’t give it away.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com, @VVFriedman

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