Real Girls in a Photoshopped World

A 14-year-old student’s protest against the unrealistic bodies of models in teen fashion magazines leads to a mini-revolution. But can it tamp down our culture’s obsession with idealized and overly sexual images in the media?

With the annual hype surrounding New York’s Fashion Week winding down, I’m reminded of a news story from the beauty and fashion industry from earlier this year. Back in July, Seventeen magazine editor Ann Shoket announced the implantation of a “Body Peace Treaty” in which she and the her magazine’s team pledged to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” in published images, explaining that they will “leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.” She also promised that they will only feature “real girls and models who are healthy.”

The treaty came in response to the campaign of Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old activist whose online petition against the magazine’s use of airbrushed images garnered more than 84,000 signatures. In the petition, called “Give Girls Images of Real Girls,” Bluhm implored the magazine to keep it real. I consider this to be very impressive and it shows some of the influence of online networking and social media, not to mention the grit and character possessed by many of our young people today. (Julia’s pro-Real Girl movement inspired a separate campaign targeting the publishers of Teen Vogue.)

Frankly, though, I doubt Seventeen will stick to its promise.

My cynicism is based on the magazine’s response in the article and my knowledge of the image-making industries (like the ones we’ve seen out in full force during Fashion Week). Here are a few quotes from a Washington Post article about the issue:

A 14-year-old Maine ballet dancer who led a crusade against altered photos in Seventeen magazine now has a promise from top editor Ann Shoket to leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.

According to the article, a promise was made. Great.

 “Shoket’s promises are included in a “body peace treaty” that also commits the magazine to always feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size.”

Okay. The editor may have submitted some promises to the “Body Peace Treaty” but the above promise mentioned in the first quote is not in there and neither are any that require Seventeen to do anything.

 “Shoket did not identify Julia by name in her full-page declaration, which also denied the magazine ever changed the shapes of bodies and faces.”

Whaaattttt? So the editor promises to leave body shape alone yet denies ever changing the cover models’ body shapes and faces? So, is Seventeen really admitting to anything?

RED CARPET REALITY: In July, teen protesters demonstrated in front of the Times Square headquarters of Teen Vogue, demanding that the magazine’s publishers use real girls, healthy looking models, and unaltered images in its pages. (Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom)

My first job after graduating college was as a graphic designer at an international relief and development organization. Back then, Photoshop was used only by designers because it was expensive and had a huge learning curve. This organization received a photo from the field that included an adult male with shoulder-length hair. The group was concerned about its conservative donors’ reaction to the hair length, so my supervisor asked me to give him a Photoshop haircut. I was happy to oblige, just to show off my skills.

Well, I scanned (who scans anymore?) the photo, altered it, and placed it in one of the org’s publications. The young man eventually saw the photo and became upset. He felt we had no right to alter his appearance. That was my first foray into the ethical issues of altering photos of people for publication. Although magazines have been airbrushing for years, and have professional contracts with its models/celebrities to do so, Photoshop allows for detailed retouching that pushes it over the boundary of reality. Consequently, I stopped trusting the images I see in magazines.

Also, the “Body Peace Treaty” on Seventeen’s page is good but most of it does not mention what the magazine itself is willing to do.

If the quotes from Washington Post article are true and the treaty is more of a therapeutic “love-myself” list for girls (which is not a bad thing), my concern is that Seventeen’s editor is not being completely honest. It sounds like all the heavy lifting will still be done on the reader’s part. The disturbing thing about this is that many of these magazines know they are selling an illusion but won’t admit to it. They portray it as real life with article titles layered over the photo (“Get This Body in 5 Days,” “The New Grass and Twigs Diet,” etc.). Over time, as the young activist said on a morning news show, these words and images are harmful. I can tell my daughter not to buy the magazine, but there is a larger issue at stake here.

A few questions to ponder:

• Why is the sexualization of girls not an issue in our society?

• Beyond getting girls to love themselves, what does it look like for the image industry to feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size?

• When we laugh at the way celebrities are exposed in tabloid magazines, have we bought into the illusion that every body must look the same way?

About the author, Ron Tinsley

Ron Tinsley is a teacher and communications director at a private Christian school in Philadelphia. He has a BFA in graphic design from Philly's The University of the Arts and a master's in urban studies from Eastern University. For the past 20 years, he has worked with children, youth, and families in disadvantaged communities in Philadelphia, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware. He owns Prophetik Soul, a company that promotes his t-shirt designs and his writings on media, culture and theology. He is also an adjunct college instructor. He resides in his native Philadelphia with his family and attends Oxford Circle Mennonite Church. He is fearfully entertaining the idea of getting a Ph.D.
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  2. I feel that God has constructed us to have the images He created us to have. Who are we to alter our bodies to produce a dollar? If you were’nt born with it, then maybe His plans were for you to do something else! Be happy with what God has blessed you to have! Great article Mr. Tinsley!

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