In a 1993 article published in the media watch group FAIR’s Extra! magazine, 17-year-old intern Kimberly Phillips criticized Seventeen magazine’s preoccupation with fashion and beauty, and its failure to encourage young women to think about important issues. Balking at the criticism, Seventeen’s managing editor responded with a defensive letter to the editor, insisting that the magazine’s focus on appearance was consistent with the interests of its adolescent readers.
Nearly 20 years later, almost nothing had changed — until now. Within the span of two months, a 14-year-old Maine girl named Julia Bluhm mobilized more than 80,000 supporters to lobby Seventeen to commit to a more modest goal: printing one photo spread per issue without an unaltered image. Bluhm’s efforts are part of Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge or SPARK, a girl-fueled activist movement that is demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media.
This time, the editors had a different response. In the magazine’s August issue, Seventeen editor Ann Shoket responded to the campaign with a carefully worded statement that vowed that the magazine will “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and will publish only images of “real girls and models who are healthy.”
While cynics may roll their eyes at the gaping loopholes Shoket left open, this still represents a meaningful victory for young women seeking reality-based images in a seemingly unwinnable war against big publishing, big advertising and big fashion. After all, just last month, Cosmopolitan’s cover photo of teen star Demi Lovato included obvious alterations to her midline, and a created a stunning blind spot for irony considering that the bulk of Lovato’s interview was about her struggle with eating disorders.
This, of course, is nothing new. Images of blemish-free cover models displaying skeletal arms, enhanced chests and disappearing waistlines are a time-honored magazine tradition. Never mind that these women — mostly actresses, models and pop singers — are already hand-picked for their beauty and, unaltered, are intimidating enough to the average teenager.
Yet, the breakthrough success of Bluhm’s campaign represents more than a possible end to the era of digital nip/tuck. It also represents the beginning of a new era of female empowerment.
Bluhm started her movement on the online organizing site Change.org, which allows users to share electronic petitions with their social networks. When petitions like Bluhm’s rally significant support, the site offers the additional assistance of its expert organizing staff and broad activist network. The same model is used by SignOn.org, a similar service launched by powerhouse MoveOn.org, which reported hosting 18,000 petitions on a range of issues in just the past year.
With the power of insta-organization at their fingertips and their inherent social media savvy as digital mavens, young women are discovering new ways to leverage their collective influence and amplify their voices on issues that matter to them. Now, with the momentum of a successful campaign, Bluhm and her peers have turned their attention to transforming the policies of other magazines, including Teen Vogue and Cosmo Girl.
The crusade against Photoshop might sound like a relatively trivial issue, but these magazines play an important role in the lives of young women and in our culture. Teenagers draw social cues from their pages even as they shun the guidance of many other adult influences in their lives.
A widespread commitment by teen magazines to more accurately reflect the reality their readers live could generate a ripple effect, transforming the way women are portrayed in other media as well. Indeed, the success of “Girls,” the unabashedly honest and unedited HBO series written and produced by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, is another testament to the burgeoning power of young women. With its frank humor and unapologetically real-body imagery, the wildly popular show offers real-life girls a healthy dose of self-awareness and acceptance, while implicitly questioning outmoded beauty paradigms.
It remains to be seen whether these developments do, in fact, signal the brewing of a new kind of women’s liberation movement. But the signs are positive. Armed with an arsenal that enables them to instantly mobilize thousands and wage multi-front wars via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the blogosphere, these activist young women are finding their voices.
If they continue this trend — taking advantage of the new platforms available to them — their opportunities to create real change are limitless. It’s easy to imagine the short leap from campaigning against the air-brushing of women’s bodies to protesting against those who are legislating women’s bodies. A new generation that trades digital enhancement for digital empowerment is well-equipped for the fight.