Julia Bluhm, an eighth-grader from Maine, is taking on the fashion industry with an online petition asking Seventeen magazine to "Commit to printing one unaltered — real — photo spread per month" in its pages.
Bluhm said she was inspired to create the petition while thumbing through the magazine: "I look at the pictures and they just don't look like girls I see walking down the street and stuff … I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that's supposed to be for me," she said.
Of course it shouldn't surprise anyone that the fashion models Bluhm sees in magazines don't look like her (or ordinary women she passes on the street); after all, we can't all be models. Bluhm's real issue is with digitally altered photographs: "For the sake of all the struggling girls all over America, who read Seventeen and think these fake images are what they should be, I'm stepping up. I know how hurtful these Photoshopped images can be. I'm a teenage girl, and I don't like what I see."
Artificially beautifying images and hiding imperfections is common in photography, though typically only fashion models are singled out for criticism.
For example, few people complain about the fact that the nation's top female news anchor, Diane Sawyer of "ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer," appears nightly with the digital airbrushing equivalent of soft-focus to hide flaws — and who can blame her? Nobody looks good close up in high definition.
Of course, it's not just professional photographers who digitally alter and artificially improve photographs. With the widespread use of photo editing software, everyone’s doing it: Who hasn't hit the "Enhance" button to watch a bad or mediocre photograph suddenly turn brighter, better and more colorful?
Last month Facebook purchased Instagram, a photo sharing program, for about $1 billion. Instagram has over 30 million accounts, and one of its most popular features is applying different filters and effects to digitally fake and alter photos before sharing them.
Despite Bluhm's meeting with the magazine's editor-in-chief, Seventeen demurred on committing to publish one “unaltered" photo spread per month — probably because it's not clear what an "unaltered" photo spread would look like.
Professional photography shoots (of any kind, regardless of whether the subject is a plate of pasta or a fashion model) are inherently contrived and artificial. There is nothing real or authentic about them — every element is carefully manipulated, from the lights to the colors, angles, textures and backgrounds.
The truth is that there are no "unaltered or real" images anywhere in Seventeen — —or any other mainstream magazine, and there likely never will be because the very process of creating an attractive, professional photograph is itself artificial. The commercial photographer's job is not to document reality accurately, but to make the subject look good and help sell a product.
The best that Bluhm can likely hope for are models posing without makeup or digital manipulation, as Jamie Lee Curtis once did for More magazine in September 2002.
Bluhm's complaints about digitally altering photographs also raises the question, why are a model's perfect lighting, meticulous makeup and carefully coiffed fan-blown hair acceptable, but airbrushing is wrong and detrimental? Does it matter whether a model's pimple or wrinkle is rendered invisible by a coat of makeup or by a few clicks of a software program?
Either way the imperfection is gone, and the result is the same. Digital editing is only one of many elements contributing to artificially attractive images.
Fortunately, studies suggest that most teen girls are well aware that the images they see in magazines are not realistic and are unattainable. A 2010 British poll found that nearly 90 percent of girls are aware that the majority of celebrity images are airbrushed and not an accurate representation of the model's real appearance.
And a 2010 Girl Scouts of America survey found that friends have much more influence over how teen girls feel about their bodies than fashion models do. Eighty-two percent said that their peers and friends most influenced how they felt about their bodies; thin fashion models ranked very last by a wide margin.
Furthermore, most teen girls reject the thin body image often seen in the fashion industry: When girls were asked what they thought about the typical fashion model's body, 65 percent stated it was "too skinny."
Whether Bluhm's petition succeeds or not remains to be seen, but she and other readers of women's magazines have the ultimate veto power: They can simply not buy the magazine. If every reader who agrees with Bluhm stopped buying Seventeen, the circulation would plummet and its editors would happily run as many "real" and "unaltered" photos as its readers like. Purses — not petitions — are likely to bring about real change.