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You know the culture is oversaturated in images of perfection when a mole on someone's cheek is enough to stop you dead in your tracks during a flip through a glossy magazine. That it hasn't been airbrushed out is like putting a speling mistake in the middle of an otherwise lovely sentence, just to draw attention to itself, to arrest the eye for a beat or two.

The mole – or beauty spot – has a rich cultural history, of course. Ancient Greeks believed that moles or birthmarks could foretell a person's destiny. The pseudoscience of moleomancy was like astrology for the body – a mole on the ear was lucky; one on the outer corner of the eye meant the person was reliable and forthright, etc. In medieval times, patches made of felt were used to cover pock marks, functioning as a mask for disease. At the height of their popularity in the 18th century, moles were drawn on the face with kohl marks or a small patch of black taffeta was affixed to the cheek. They were a show of playful extravagance and in retrospect, evidence of the upper classes' risible affectations of superiority. In the fifties, on Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, beauty spots signified a heightened sexual allure, a promise or a yearning concentrated into a tiny, dark point on porcelain skin.

And now, the mole is acquiring new meaning in an age that increasingly values "authenticity" – the buzzword of social media, which has brought unfiltered access to celebrities and taste makers. "That extra dot," as Cindy Crawford's famous mole at the edge of her lip was once called, has become a silent communication that speaks of a shift in perceptions and standards of modern beauty. What Lena Dunham's much-discussed cover is to the February issue of Vogue magazine, on newsstands this week, is what moles are on the beautiful face of Jennifer Lawrence in last year's fall ad campaign for Miss Dior.

It makes the point that style doesn't equal perfection and acknowledges the growing importance of realism in fashion imagery. Such is the interest in the "reality" of Dunham that Jezebel, the feminist website, offered a $10,000 reward for unretouched versions of the Annie Leibovitz shoot. In Vogue, Dunham says that the nudity on her hit HBO show, Girls, is meant to "normalize" sex, not glamorize it. Through her fictive alter-ego, Hannah Horvath, she celebrates a kind of "unvarnished naturalism." On the cover and in the pages of Vogue, she is doing the same thing for fashion, which shouldn't be intimidating – not a set of seasonal edicts that women should conform to or else face social censure. Rather, fashion should conform to individuality and the need for personal expression. It is for real people, people with character, not just for robo-beauties with tall, reedy frames, thin thighs and skin like a skating rink.

Maybe we're growing disenchanted with the idea that fashion is all about fantasy, that it is a joyful art, an idealized, glimmering vision of how to be and look in the world. That, after all, is how many have justified the use of teenagers to model clothing only middle-aged women could afford to buy. But what does it say, that intelligent women are expected to find inspiration in an image they could never truly inhabit? That we're delusional – or gluttons for punishment?

And yet, the controversy last year over the removal – and subsequent restoration – of Lawrence's neck and facial moles in the Miss Dior advertising campaign suggests that women (and men) actually prefer their icons real. In her spring debut last year as the new face of Miss Dior, Lawrence appeared like a perfect doll in sculpted clothes, a veiled retro fascinator and serious red lips. Her skin was flawless. But the image did not suit her cute, anti-Hollywood appeal, which was on full show when she tripped up the stairs to the podium to collect her Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook around the same time.

Outrage about her missing moles – Molegate? – lit up Twitter. Her fans were irked. It was as if the fashion industry had white-washed her quirky character. Her moles make her beauty authentic, and in turn, render her more approachable, the girl next door with a scattering of dots and luminous blue eyes. "Possibly one of my most favourite things about Jennifer Lawrence is all her moles. "She's speckled. It's rad. You don't see that enough," one person tweeted. "Her chest moles are God's chocolate chips," a man wrote. "I looked up #HungerGames wiki fully thinking Jennifer Lawrence's moles would get equal billing," someone else tweeted. "I'm still slightly disappointed."

A few months later, in the fall campaign for Miss Dior, Lawrence posed in profile, her chocolate chips on full display. She wore barely any makeup. Her hair was in a messy bun. The clothes were more relaxed. There was about her a sense of being at ease with her appearance, which made her seem all the more adorable.

Similar discontent arose over Kate Winslet's air-brushed, mole-free appearance on the cover of Vogue in November 2013. She looked like "a CGI version of herself," the Guardian quipped. In the current Lancôme skin care campaign for Rénergie Lift Multi-Action Reviva-Concentrate, her facial moles are untouched.

A mole has even become a feminist statement. (Some mole-centric websites – yes, they exist – refer to them as "lady lumps," an object of male sexual obsession, like those other lumps called breasts.) You don't see Morgan Freeman's archipelago of freckles wiped off his face in images of the actor. They're part of his identity. And now, more and more actresses are proudly baring their moles in defiance. "Having a mole on my cheek was the biggest thing," Natalie Portman told Allure magazine recently. "When I did photo shoots, they would Photoshop it out. No one ever said anything to my face, but I felt like I was being told it was ugly. Finally, I had to say, 'No, this is part of me.'"

This is the thing magazine editors don't seem to understand a lot of the time: Women appreciate beauty in other women, and are more engaged by it, feeling less diminished or excluded, when it's captured with some truth. (I say "some" because we all know the magic of professional photography and good lighting.) Being force-fed perfect, airbrushed images of models assumes the audience lacks imagination to understand how beauty really exists in the world – in tandem with the average, with imperfections, with bad hair days and blemishes.

There's an honest, harmless truth in a mole. You can be rich and thin and famous, and still have some. You can have trainers and diet coaches, but they won't be able to get rid of them. A mole is a very visible way of claiming your I'm-justlike– you humanity, which makes it that much more powerful on an exceptionally beautiful face. It's a little dot of reality.

Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites