In April, Julia Bluhm, an eighth grader from Maine, took on the fashion industry by asking Seventeen magazine to “Commit to printing one unaltered — real — photo spread per month” in its pages. Bluhm said she was inspired to create the petition while thumbing through the magazine. The online petition can be seen here.
“I look at the pictures and they just don’t look like girls I see walking down the street and stuff… I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that’s supposed to be for me,” she said.
Bluhm took her protest to the streets, created an online petition, and even met with Seventeen editor-in-chief Ann Shoket. A few days ago she won; the magazine vowed to adopt eight goals for their readers including to “celebrate every kind of beauty” in its pages.
The new policy is being celebrated as a victory in the war against unrealistic fashion images in the media — but are the changes substantive or merely cosmetic?
On Bluhm’s petition page is a short blog titled “How we won,” stating that “After over 84,000 people signed Julia’s petition… the magazine has made a commitment to not alter the body size or face shape of the girls and models in the magazine and to feature a diverse range of beauty in its pages. Julia’s message to all her supporters: ‘Seventeen listened! They’re saying they won’t use photoshop to digitally alter their models! This is a huge victory, and I’m so unbelievably happy.’”
A Policy Change, Kind Of
Actually Seventeen did not say they wouldn’t use Photoshop or other software to digitally manipulate models in their photographs. Instead Shoket and the magazine vowed to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” adding that they have never done so in the past and would not change that policy.
This of course raises a curious question: If Seventeen had never digitally altered their models’ bodies or faces in previous issues, then it’s not clear that Bluhm’s grievances are being addressed. In fact Seventeen actually rejected what Bluhm asked for: to publish one “unaltered” photo spread per month — probably because it’s not clear what an “unaltered” photo spread would look like. Professional photography shoots (of any kind, regardless of whether the subject is a plate of pasta or a fashion model) are inherently contrived and artificial. There is nothing real or authentic about them: every element is carefully manipulated, from the lights to the colors, angles, textures, and backgrounds.
Seventeen’s vow to “always feature real girls and models who are healthy” seems at face value to satisfy Bluhm and other critics, but is virtually meaningless because you can’t necessarily tell by looking at a photo of someone whether they are healthy or not. There are many perfectly healthy, naturally thin models who could still appear in the pages — and it’s not as if Seventeen was known for featuring skeletal models in the first place.
The “real girls” that Bluhm and other readers want to see more of in Seventeen come in all shapes and sizes. Heavier models may join the crowd, but the thin ones likely aren’t going anywhere.
What Will Change?
So what, if anything, will change in the pages of Seventeen? It’s not clear.
Readers can expect to see more diversity in the fashion models and more articles on self-esteem; for example Seventeen is encouraging readers to join their Body Peace Project pledge and vow to follow about twenty guidelines (such as “Quit judging a person solely by how his or her body looks,” and “Surround myself with positive people”).
Perhaps the biggest change will be in the amount of transparency in the production of photo shoots. Instead of eliminating digital photo retouching they’re being more open about it. Seventeen promises to “be totally up-front about what goes into our photo shoots,” even allowing readers to see the step-by-step changes and photo alterations on their Tumblr page.
Contrary to popular belief, studies show that most girls are not fooled by airbrushed images, and are well aware that the photographs they see in fashion magazines are digitally altered and unrealistic. So this behind-the-scenes look won’t likely surprise anyone, but it will certainly help increase teens’ media savvy.