Julia Bluhm is one of my heroes. Recently, the 14-year-old took on Seventeen magazine, armed only with an online petition and a passion for seeing the mag publish more authentic photos of young women. And she seems to have won that battle. At least that’s the impression we got this week from articles in the mainstream media. But before we claim a slam-dunk victory here, it’s worth taking a closer look at the specific vows made in Seventeen‘s new “Body Peace Treaty.”
First, you may recall that this all began when Julia expressed concern that girls in her ballet class complained of feeling fat. She connected the dots to teen magazines, which are notorious for retouching photos in order to present an idealized image of adolescent attractiveness. So Julia asked Seventeen to publish at least one undoctored photo in each issue—a brilliant request! After all, the easiest response for Seventeen would’ve been, “We already do that.” End of discussion. But the editors didn’t say that. Why? They couldn’t. This left editor in chief Ann Shoket with a PR crisis and some explaining to do. Plan B: Seventeen’s “Body Peace Treaty.”
So let’s analyze the eight-point pact published in the magazine’s August issue (bold emphasis theirs), both what it says and what it doesn’t say. “Seventeen vows to…”
1. “… Help make your life amazing! You have big dreams and we want you to achieve every single one of them!”
Translation: “Trust us. We’re not out to deceive or manipulate you. We’re on your side. Keep reading Seventeen!” This may be sincere, but it also reads like ad copy for anything from a new car to retirement planning services.
2. “… Never change girls’ body or face shapes. (Never have, never will.)”
I’m willing to take Shoket’s word for it. Now let’s consider what she isn’t saying. By focusing on “shape” here, plenty of other details fall outside of that pledge. Fuller brows? Thinner brows? Eye color. Whiter teeth. And what about improving a model’s complexion by removing blotches or pimples? (How many adolescents do you know who can show up to a photo shoot with perfect skin on any given day?) It’s not uncommon for magazines to Photoshop everything from smile lines to the tint of a model’s makeup—all without changing the contour of her body or face. So I think there’s some hedging going on here.
3. “…Celebrate every kind of beauty in our pages. Without a range of body types, skin tones, heights and hair textures, the magazine—and the world—would be boring!”
Agreed, and I hope this diversity becomes the norm. I’ve read that the typical model is 5’10” and 108 lbs soaking wet, while the average woman is 5’4″ and 144 lbs. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see more representative young females featured throughout each issue? Keep in mind, context is everything. It’s one thing to run a human-interest story about, for example, a plus-sized teen. It’s another to have someone with that body type modeling fashion or representing one of the magazine’s sponsors. That’s right, advertising matters, too. To have any impact this needs to be a cover-to-cover commitment.
4. “… Always feature real girls and models who are healthy. Regardless of clothing size, being healthy is about honoring your natural shape.”
Again, kudos. This is a terrific goal. Ultimately, however, most women’s magazines end up preaching a very different message. Several years ago, Girls Inc. cited a study indicating that 75 percent of the covers of the leading women’s magazines teased readers with at least one message about how to alter their appearance. If Seventeen is serious about making girls feel confident in their “natural shape … regardless of clothing size,” we should anticipate more articles and cover blurbs about self-acceptance rather than self-improvement.
5. “… Be totally up-front about what goes into our photo shoots. You can go behind the scenes on our Tumblr (seventeen.tumblr.com) and see the whole shebang!
This should be interesting. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect Seventeen to reveal the tinkering done to every photo it runs—way too much work. Therefore, they’ll need to choose which examples to post. Based on the “before” and “after” images published alongside the “Body Peace Treaty” (above) we’d be naïve to expect to see the more extreme examples. A flyaway hair? A rogue bra strap? Maybe in this pic, but other photos are guaranteed to get more extensive touch-ups.
6. “… Help you make the best choices for your body—food that fuels you, exercise that energizes you—so you can feel your absolute best each day.”
Great decision. When it comes to diet and exercise, I trust Seventeen to do a decent job of educating teens. In other areas, however, this mag and its peers have not helped girls make the best choices for their bodies, particularly when it comes to sexuality. I remember getting a letter from a 13-year-old named Katie who was disturbed by a Seventeen article titled “Sex: Dealing with Pressure, Guys and What You Really Want.” She had concluded, “They have a totally wrong perspective about love, and say the only way to feel like you have fulfillment is to have sex. They also encourage condoms and say that it’s safe sex when ‘safe sex’ is waiting until you’re married.” Something to keep in mind before turning teens over to the magazine’s resident experts and advice columnists.
7. “… Give you the confidence to walk into any room and own it. Say bye-bye to those nagging insecurities that you’re not good enough or pretty enough—they’re holding you back from being awesome in the world!”
How could anyone argue with cheerleading like this? It’s true that girls rock. I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I’m all for empowering young women. Sadly, however, the brand of girl power historically advocated by magazines such as Seventeen would make a lot of parents uncomfortable. For a better sense of what that entails, I recommend Lindy Keffer’s article “Teen Magazines and the New Feminism.”
8. “… Listen carefully to you. If something in the magazine confuses you or makes you feel bad, we want to hear about it. You can e-mail us anytime at email@example.com or reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
This is a nice parting thought and invitation. An even better way for girls to process media messages and appreciate how truly valuable and beautiful they are is to listen carefully to God, realizing that He designed them, knows them inside out (Psalm 139) and loves them more than they can fathom (John 3:16, Ephesians 3:16-19). The Creator of the universe wants to hear from them, too, and is available 24/7.
I’m excited for Julia Bluhm and the strides she’s made. Maybe her success will inspire other teens to make a difference in their culture. More than anything, I hope that Seventeen‘s promises to its readers are more than a slick PR move by a publisher backed into a corner by one savvy 14-year-old.