Julia Bluhm’s Plea To Curb PhotoShop Sparks Change at Seventeen Mag

July 8, 2012 No secret the ‘world according to teen magazines’ is abysmal for girls, and we’ve seen mega-stats, studies and fact sheets about the impact on tweens and teens, (KFF pdf here) but as the adage goes…

“People don’t change when they see the light; they change when they feel the heat.”

We can thank 14-year old Julia Bluhm for sparking that bonfire.

In the upcoming August issue of Seventeen Magazine, editor Ann Shoket and the entire staff takes a vow in a Body Peace Treaty to “never change girls’ body or face shapes,” “be totally up-front about what goes into our photo shoots,” and “always feature real girls and models who are healthy,” among other promising media positives to reverse the damage to girls’ self-worth which plummets during preteen years.

The movement to ‘lift and reveal’ the veils of PhotoShop and convey a nobody’s perfect and that’s okay visual literacy stance is already earning Seventeen Magazine accolades and media coverage for taking a leadership role in truth-telling, sparking ‘who’s next’ public pressure for Teen Vogue to follow suit. (here’s the newest petition if you’d like to sign)

But wait…why is Seventeen offering a ‘new policy statement’ that ‘renews commitment’ to their prior photo enhancement stance, claiming they “never have, never will” alter teen bodies? What was left out of the splashy spread showcasing their August message? Let’s start with the reason for running the message…14-year old student and passionista Julia Bluhm.

The 8th grader wrote for the SPARK blog, ignited 84,000+ Change.org petitioners to turn up the heat on teen magazines and “show REAL girls how they really are,” by curbing the pervasive digital alterations so commonplace in today’s PhotoShop era…And yet Julia Bluhm doesn’t merit even a mention? Hmn.

What else was left out? In May, when the 8th-grader brought 25,000 signatures to the table in a bold request for “one unaltered photo spread per month, she was graciously rejected.

Maybe the Seventeen editors let it simmer for a couple months between May and June before realizing a SPARK can create a wildfire…

Or maybe the 3-day “Keep it Real” challenge June 27-29 fanned the flames with a mounting coalition led by Miss Representation, SPARK, Love Social, I Am That Girl and multiple aligned organizations paying it forward in social media.

Or maybe as the numbers of support swelled for youth voices to be heard on Change.org, Seventeen saw a great opportunity to snag a leadership role and position themselves as trailblazers (yay! If I were Seventeen editors I’d inspire readers by featuring Julia as readers’ ‘voice’ in the colossal back to school issue this fall, and encourage other youth voices to chime in; just sayin…)

We don’t know ‘why’ Seventeen shifted gears to give it some ink and own the conversation to champion more positive messaging, but it doesn’t matter; we’re all thankful. Why? Easy:

Mainstream media has given Julia Bluhm the microphone, and there’s no turning back now because the world is watching, leaving much less wiggle room for Seventeen NOT to follow through.

With each media segment and story covered, Julia’s powerful youth voice is articulating what many teen girls have frustratingly internalized about unobtainable beauty ideals.

She cut through the clutter of statistical harm, studies, clinical data and killer media cues of thinspiration by basically raising her hand like a stop sign to impart what no set of statistics could do, conveying a blindingly simple subtext not even media can look away from…

Stop it, you’re hurting us.

She may not have used those words, but there’s no doubt in my mind her petition distills into that potent public health bracer, putting a young face on the issue and a 14-year old voice to “represent” and implore with poignancy and clarity that the effect of teen magazines on girls needs some serious alteration. Julia is making waves of tsunami size.

You can’t PhotoShop internal damage to developing psyches by hitting the delete button or soften the lines of the soul when constant cues of ‘not good enough’ impact one’s sense of self.

Many have seen the Kaiser Family Foundation teen magazine analysis about the vapid values reflected in the top four teen publications, complete with content breakdown by subject matter in cringe-worthy detail.

Anita Gurian, Ph.D. of NYU Child Study Center gets even more granular in factual analysis of the impact on girls’ self-esteem, citing:

“Self-esteem is related to how we feel about ourselves: it’s not just how we look but how we feel about how we look. And it’s not just how successful or smart others say we are, but how confident we feel about our talents and abilities. Consider the following in order to understand the internal and external pressures girls feel and how these pressures affect the development of their self-esteem” (see fact sheet on eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression as the most common mental health problems in girls, along with adolescent sexualization as a corollary in pop culture cues to kids)

Julia Bluhm was able to shine the media spotlight on those stats by becoming a ‘media story’ herself.

As I’ve said all along in the change agent realm, YOUTH THEMSELVES are the ones we need speaking and writing and on cam…

They’re not only the ones able to amp up media coverage in a blink (any producer will tell you kids and animals steal the show every time) but they’re the ones directly impacted with first person storytelling that’s raw and real.

Teens can poignantly answer with candor when magazines like Glamour run surveys asking “How much is too much?” on photo retouching, or share insights with retouchers seeking career changes newly aware of the collateral damage and mental toll it’s taking among kids.

Youth are like the ultimate ‘reality TV’ packing surprise and wallops into a REAL and UNscripted conversation that can move the needle of worthy causes to the forefront, whether it’s body image or education reform.

Many are asking, “but will this DO anything? Will it be REAL change?”

After all, a quick glance at Seventeen’s spring 2012 “Pretty Amazing” contest to spotlight ‘real girls’ doing cool things comes with a ‘must be pretty’ caveat in the fine print that negates the purpose! Running a contest to highlight internal over external accomplishments then adding a pre-req to be ‘pretty’ shows Seventeen’s culture is in deep need of a makeover to get beyond the surface glow pancaked on top. Facepalm indeed.

Do we know if this crusade will ‘help’ teen magazines connect the dots any more than usual? As any media analyst would attest, the main tenets of critical thinking involve asking “What do you know…and NOT know?

We DO know what was left out(Julia, the backstory, any mention of the petition and organizations involved with the social media push, the Keep it Real campaign at the end of June which generated over 3000 tweets the first day, reaching an audience of 1.5 million in 24 hours, etc.)

We DO know what was put in… (‘signed vows’, with an incredulous stance akin to a BFF who doesn’t want to apologize because she doesn’t want to admit she did anything to ruffle feathers to begin with)…And a watch-worthy ‘never have, never will’ zero-admission of culpability (that hopefully is being debunked and obliterated with all the press and pundits eager to put a mike on Julia’s youth voice)…

We DO know that applauding and expanding efforts like these to other youth targeted media lead to better visibility of the issue, with youth mirroring the success to invoke ‘change’ for Teen Vogue next, (see new petition here)

We DO know that with every interview and video, Julia speaks for thousands and it gets more difficult for ‘mainstream media teen mags’ to dodge the issue, feign concern, or make empty promises (love how media trumps its own spin machine)

We DO know that if we applaud wildly when corporations veer in a positive direction, even if it’s with their own self-interest in mind, topics become more visible, get more ‘media play’ and serve us with  fresh opportunities to hold the bigwigs accountable.

We DO know we can encourage youth like Julia to boldly use the media to amplify, enlighten, applaud, critique and champion change, until we get to the REAL kind.

We do NOT know whether magazines will ‘get it’ that in an age of digital tinkering a ‘do no harm’ flag needs waved wildly in the impressionable youth sphere. Nor do we know whether there will be meaningful adherence vs lipservice at the magazine…

We do NOT know whether crusades like this will result in real change to curb the mental/physical health erosion and socioemotional landscapes that are creating a public health problem for girls, particularly preteens and teens like Julia (since reader ages skew considerably younger than “Seventeen”)

But we DO know that using media to unearth the power and potential of doing something good, tethered to unavoidable truths that uncork new conversations, often trump the original effort.

In sum, for me, Julia Bluhme’s activism expands far beyond the nuances of PhotoShop or even the complexity of digital adherence by teen magazines (more on that in a separate post).

It’s not about viewing media and marketing with a micro lens but a macro one…

Public health problems are being created by media and marketing that need more than a mop up, they need reversed.

Accountability and corporate social responsibility have been sorely lacking in the K-12 sphere far too long with lots of clucking and hand-wringing about the impact on kids, but few tangible commitments when it comes to a “do no harm” ethical compass pointing towards children…Whether it’s hawking junk food and energy shots or selling ‘shock and awe’ stupidity, sexism and relational aggression in music and ‘reality TV.’

Julia Bluhme is a spark of change and a clarion call to youth everywhere to rise up and be counted giving voice to raw, real storytelling and take back the conversation.

We’re way overdue in passing youth the media microphone to speak on issues that impact them every single day of their lives.

Who’s next? What’s your issue? Step up. Tell it.

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  1. Deb Tolman says

    Wow Amy! What an amazing and, finally, FULL account and AMAZING analysis of how SPARK, partners, SPARKteam, with Julia leading the charge, have really inspired? or maybe demanded is a better word? a real step forward. And I SO APPRECIATE your calling out the real shortcomings of that step. At SPARK, we need to push the momentum; but our fantastic partners–Shaping Youth a KEY partner–can flush out the details, what has been indeed left on the table. Thank you for this nuanced, complex, super smart report and assessment–love the multi-media!

  2. Thanks, Deb; seems classic that media will ultimately be the ‘watchdog’ by recording the intent in ‘easy to playback’ mode…

    It’s just way too convenient to sidestep and wordsmith otherwise…

    I think about healthier messaging in alternative mags like New Moon Girls who *always* ‘keep it real’ but just don’t have the traction in numbers, sans advertising, sigh.

    Makes me hope that Seventeen and ‘the big guys’ can see the first person plea from YOUTH, up close and personal to diversify and ‘do no harm’ even if they don’t fully ‘keep it real’…

    They’d make great strides deconstructing w/medialit about the techniques used; heck even McDonalds is doing this now with their ‘behind the scenes’ video to show the beauty shots of their burgers fergoshsakes! >>> http://mashable.com/2012/06/22/mcdonalds-photoshops-burgers/

    It’s a smart marketing/transparency-trust building step to put it all out there and say, ‘see? We’re not trying to trick you, this is *why* we do what we do, and how we do it’…(even that would help as they’ve done on the spread above) but the content and appearance cues have a looooooooong way to go if there will be any cultural shift to more depth/representation of ‘realness’ of girls in any meaningful way.

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