Miss Representation

Miss Representation

14-year-old Julia Bluhm started an online petition asking Seventeen magazine to stop Photoshopping its models to make them "skinnier, blemish-free, light-skinned, etc." She ended up with over 80,000 signatures and a meeting with Seventeen's editor-in-chief.

I was thirteen when I discovered "SPARK Movement," an organization dedicated to fighting sexualization in the media and many of the issues that affect girls and women. As one of a number of teenage bloggers from all over the world and a newbie to the group, I looked up to the other girls who had already helped launch petitions and actions that had gathered lots of news coverage. I guess it was hard to imagine myself helping out with all that magic. I was one of the youngest members, I was shy, and I felt kind of clueless about feminism compared to all the other girls. I'd soon discover that all of that didn't really matter, because I wasn't doing anything alone. As a group, we were basically invincible.

I got my first big taste of the world of activism when I wrote a petition that SPARK had been stewing up for a while. The petition specifically asked Seventeen magazine to stop digitally altering their models to make them look skinnier, blemish-free, light-skinned etc. We were inspired to start the petition because we knew how huge an effect unrealistically edited pictures can have on people's self esteem. After all, three-quarters of girls feel unhappy with their bodies after looking through a fashion magazine for three minutes. Why does this happen? Because we start believing that these perfect images are the definition of beauty, and it makes us feel inadequate. This unrealistic idea of beauty can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders.

So the petition I wrote went up on Change.org and started gathering signatures fast. Change.org sent out emails, SPARK members shared it on Facebook, and many of our partner organizations helped spread the news as well. Soon, about 25,000 signatures in, I was invited to fly to New York City to speak on behalf of the SPARK team on CNN and ABC news. During the trip we held a mock "photo shoot" outside Seventeen magazine's headquarters, where we held signs and reporters asked us questions. I guess we were noticed, because I was invited to go up and speak with Ann Shocket, the editor-in-chief of Seventeen, with my mom and Dana Edell (the director of SPARK). We talked for about an hour, mostly about body image and self esteem among teenage girls, and how perfectly-edited images can have an effect on that. She didn't promise anything, but said that she would "get in touch with us in the future." So we left feeling pretty good. Then, 3 months and 86,000 signatures later, I received news that Seventeen had published something in their August issue about promising not to digitally alter images. Sure enough, I opened up the latest issue and saw what they called a "Body Peace Treaty," where they vowed not to digitally alter "girls' body or face shapes" and also to feature diverse pictures of girls in their magazine. Sure, they claimed that they "never had, and never will" edit girls' bodies and faces, but we were still happy with their response . . .Because it was a response! We got the most popular fashion and beauty magazine in the U.S. to not only listen to us, but also to dedicate an entire page of their magazine to the digital alteration commonly called Photoshopping. Also, since they have now made an official public promise about these issues, we can totally call them out in the future if we find that they aren't following through.

Now, over a year later, I'm still happy that Seventeen responded the way they did. Sure, I wish they would have recognized SPARK, or admitted to digitally altering images previously, but I also know that getting exactly what we wanted is unrealistic. They are a huge company with a ton of power, so what they did do was pretty amazing.

Seventeen is far from perfect. Very, very far. I still grimace every time I see an article about "Body Peace" followed by a diet plan for "flat abs." I still know that a few pages away from a photo spread celebrating plus size models, there will be a guide on how to dress so you look "slimmer." All that aside, I do think that Seventeen is making baby steps in the right direction. Getting them to come clean about the issue of digital alteration was one of those steps. I think we have definitely made an impact. I'm sure Ann Shocket still thinks of us in the back of her mind when she is choosing between a model who is size 00 and a model who is size 6. And it's not just Seventeen. I bet a lot of magazines are starting to at least think about body image and whether their pages are sending good or bad messages. In that sense, we have made progress.

My hope is that the petition we created will help pave the road for other activist teams, organizations, and outspoken teenagers to take a stand against these issues, too. That's how the progress will keep growing.

For Reflection

1. Have you ever participated in a campaign for social or political change? How did you get your voice heard?
2. What local, national, or global issue do you most want to see changed?

Julia Bluhm is a 15-year-old who attends the First Congregational UCC Church of Waterville, Maine. She is a blogger and activist for SPARK Movement. Julia attends Maine Central Institute, and is currently training to be a ballet dancer.