Teen Activists Take On “Seventeen”
Have you heard the name Julia Bluhm? If you follow national news, you’ve probably seen her name making headlines. That’s because recently, Bluhm and her best friend Izzy Labbe, along with many other teen girls, have been speaking out against Photoshop. And not just any type of Photoshop use—the use of Photoshop in teen magazines. Specifically, these girls asked the editor of teen magazine sensation Seventeen to produce one page of unaltered photos per magazine.
Even though Seventeen may be one of the more diverse mainstream magazines, it still features and emphasizes a common contradiction: one minute it’s telling you how to be confident in your own skin. But turn the page, and you’ll see makeup tips, work-out plans, and images of highly Photoshopped super models. Labbe, Bluhm, and their sisters and brothers at SPARK feel that Photoshopping has very negative effects on girls. Girls looking at Photoshopped pictures in magazines can lead to bad self-esteem and a multitude of other problems. Not only do girls begin to feel bad about themselves, but our society as a whole is led to believe a mirage of things that are merely illusions. Luckily, social media has the power to these illusions.
Through the power of social media, Labbe and Bluhm, along with SPARK and Change.org, rallied the support of more than 70,000 people worldwide. The girls held a mock photo shoot outside the Seventeen office in New York, requesting that Seventeen’s editor meet with them to discuss the magazine’s Photoshop use. Teen Voices spoke to Labbe 13, Emma Stydahar, 17, and Crystal Ogar, 23, about their campaign and mock photo shoot. Read on to learn more about their reaction to Seventeen’s response.
TV: Where does your passion for healthy media, healthy self-esteem, and body-image issues stem from?
Izzy Labbe (IL): As I was growing up, my mom always showed me and talked to me about what it’s like to love yourself and to appreciate who you are. [She taught me] not to rely on the media to tell you what it means to be beautiful. I’ve also just thought from a young age that it’s ridiculous that girls seek the media to learn about body image. It’s not going to add up to being healthy. I think that I’ve taken examples from positive female roles in my life.
Crystal Ogar (CO): When I was younger, I never really saw people who looked like me in the media. Here and there, I would find great TV shows and movies that represented me, but not nearly enough. I want other young girls who feel the same way to be able to find themselves in places they look. Teens spend so much time consuming media that it has an incredible affect on how they view themselves and the world around them.
TV: What made you girls decide to address Seventeen and their image issues? What was your goal?
IL: I like Seventeen magazine and I read their magazine. But I’ve always thought it was kind of ironic: When you look through their magazine, they’ll have something about how it’s so great to love your body and how you should appreciate yourself the way you are. But then they have an advertisement right next to it contradicting this message and sending subliminal messages saying that [you are imperfect and] you should change your body. Originally, my goal was just to have Seventeen do something to show girls that they can be beautiful without Photoshop, such as putting girls in their magazine who aren’t Photoshopped.
Emma Stydahar (ES): Seventeen is a major perpetrator when it comes to endorsing negative self-esteems for girls and women. With their ridiculously Photoshopped images in their spreads and advertisements, and the countless articles pushing girls to "perfect" their physique, Seventeen is constantly adding to the never-ending sentiment girls hear subconsciously every day: you are not good enough. By addressing Seventeen, the goal was to begin to silence that voice once and for all. Seventeen magazine was going to be the start.
TV: Izzy, you made a video interviewing your peers about how reading Seventeen makes them feel. What was it like making the video?
IL: We had only 18 minutes to film the whole thing, because that’s how long our lunch is. We didn’t really eat lunch that day; we were just running around interviewing as many people as we could. I got it all on film and it ended up being almost 18 minutes as a film. It was crazy. It was a lot of film, so I went home and I tried to edit out stuff like pauses. I did it all on iMovie. I just edited it together, put some iLife music in it, and posted it to YouTube. All together, I spent four to five hours filming and editing it.
TV: Did any of the girls’ responses to Seventeen surprise you?
IL: There were certain kids who I never would have thought would have such strong opinions. For example, my friend Courtney, when she was looking through the magazine, she was saying, “What is this? No one looks like this.” She was so passionate about it! I was just like, “Wow, this is really great!” She never does any activist stuff, but this is eye opening for her.
I asked some boys and I was really surprised when they were saying, “This girl is wearing way too much makeup.” “She doesn’t look right.” Naturally, you think boys will find this look attractive. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of boys don’t see it that way. So I thought it was really important to get reactions from boys too.
TV: Explain to our readers how the SPARK campaign came to fruition. What is SPARK?
IL: SPARK is totally girl-powered. It’s basically a group working to stop the sexualization of girls in the media, especially young girls. When you look through a magazine, you see girls as young as four or five years old, like in Toddlers in Tiaras, having their nails done, their hair done, and completely Photoshopped to look skinnier. It’s really sick and wrong.
TV: Why did you decide to have a mock photo shoot?
CO: To show Seventeen what "actual" girls look like!! And to try and show a truer representation of diversity.
TV: What was the response of Seventeen staff to your petition? Once Seventeen magazine responded to your petition, what was your initial reaction?
IL: Here is the response sent to us from Seventeen's Editor in Chief, Ann Shoket, as quoted in the New York Times: "I think we do a phenomenal job of celebrating the authenticity of real girls, of celebrating them for all of their real authentic beauty, of skin tones, of ethnicity, of body shape and size. These are young girls. They look great." This feels like a really plastic response, talking about how they appreciate girls for who they are, and all of that stuff. In fact, they pretty much dodged the whole Photoshop issue and talked about how great their magazine is. They could have at least talked about us in their response, and given us a real answer.
CO: Seventeen's response to our petition is that they were excited to see a 13-year-old heading up the petition and they loved her drive. My initial reaction was: I understand how they believe that their magazine is representative, although it really isn't.
ES: The worst part for me was when they said, "We believe that Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that’s how we present them." It was like they were completely blowing off Julia, SPARK, and the petition in the most condescending and patronizing manor. I remember thinking to myself, “Do they seriously think that we will accept this answer and move on?” If there is any doubt in anyone's mind, I can tell you, we are far from giving up on this!
TV: Despite Seventeen’s response, what impact do you feel your petition made?
IL: The fact that a petition that had such a humble start could go on to get so many thousands of signatures and go on national news is really surreal. We feel like the impact has been in the responses—the mass support, the good wishes, the protests. The fact that there are girls looking at Julia and our whole team and thinking: Wow, I can do that too! I can make a difference!
A lot of people didn't really think about the issue before we brought it up, and now they've had a chance to think about it and realize that they should form an opinion about it.
CO: Not only are younger girls looking at magazines and the media they digest more critically, but so are adults. Thankfully, people who haven't before are now starting to think about the impact these images have on them.
ES: Body image is becoming an issue that more and more people are willing to fight against. Because let’s face it: Everyone knows, is, once was, cares about or loves at least one teen girl in their life, and I promise that the culture of low self-esteem that companies like Seventeen make so ubiquitous has the capacity to damage her.
TV: What do you think you learned from this experience? What can you take away from it? What do you hope teen girls, as a whole, can learn from the experience?
CO: Having a group like SPARK behind you when you want to get something done is life- changing. I hope that what teen girls can take from this experience is that their voices are important, no matter what anyone says. Speaking out about issues you feel matter is astounding and when you begin to do that, it can have a ripple effect.
ES: I want teen girls to love their bodies for their natural beauty. I want girls to understand that there is more than one definition of beauty, and that they have the power to define this concept for themselves. I want girls to know that skinny and healthy are not synonyms. And I especially want girls to know that they have the power to speak out against the systems that are set up against them, and that we can be our own agents of change. The incentive for healthy media is catching on like wild fire. Most recently, Glamour and Vogue changed their requirements regarding the age and weight of their models. Many high-end fashion magazines are beginning to realize that women are not all meant to look the same. Curves are beautiful and they aren’t meant to be pinned and prodded.
If you agree and you’d like to join this cause, please go to http://chn.ge/JLYuIr and sign the petition.
Here are some additional ways you can get involved in advocating for healthy media:
- Watch Miss Representation and take the pledge to speak up about unhealthy representation of women in the media.
- Subscribe to girl-empowering media, like Rookie, Bust, Bitch, and Ms. magazine, and of course, Teen Voices.
- Get involved with organizations like SPARK, or Change.org.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, July 3, 2012, Seventeen magazine agreed to go above and beyond what they were asked to do in the petition started by Bluhm and Labbe. With more than 84,500 people signed to the cause, Seventeen has agreed to do the following, published in an updated “Body Peace Treaty” to be featured in their August issue:
- leave the natural proportions of their models’ faces and bodies unaltered,
- promote a sense of confidence and self-esteem,
- embrace all types of real, healthy beauty, and
- publish behind-the-scenes pictures of their photo shoots on the magazine’s Tumblr page.
In addition, Seventeen has aligned themselves with the National Eating Disorders Association, Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls, and self-esteem “actionist” Jess Weiner. The hard work of Julia Bluhm, Izzy Labbe, DeDe Lahman, and the thousands of petition supporters has paid off! The satisfied team has moved on to a new petition, hoping to sway Teen Vogue to follow in the footsteps of Seventeen. Read and sign the new petition here.
For more information on SPARK, see: http://www.sparkmovement.org
Photo courtesy of SPARK. Pictured at their mock photo shoot(left to right) Crystal Ogar, Kaye Toal, Emma Stydahar, Julia Bluhm, Natasha Williams
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