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The Anti-Airbrushing Campaign: Now Girls Take Charge

Jessica Alba... before and after

You’ve probably seen the story in the news the last couple of days: a Maine middle schooler, Julia Bluhm, is directly challenging Seventeen magazine re the whole unrealistic body image issue. To that end, she’s gathered thousands of signatures in the hope that the publication, which she actually likes, will at least feature one un-retouched photo shoot every month.

Although this is not Bluhm’s first gender-related bit of activism, I can’t help but feel that her campaign, and the way that it’s earning media attention, represents something of watershed. No longer is the topic of magazine covers solely the province of docs such as Miss Representation, adult feminists, the AMA, and media literacy folks like me. Now girls themselves are taking action.

Which is really the whole point of media literacy education, isn’t it?

I don’t mean that the goal is to have tweens take to the barricades. It’s actually a much more profound development we’re dealing with: it’s about young people realizing that they have clout as the audience, the ones for whom so media messages are made in the first place—remember, Bluhm likes the magazine. As a request made by supporter, not an enemy, her cause is harder for TPTB to shrug off. Now that’s empowerment.

Anyway, here’s where I read the news. The blog post, on Yahoo!, does a nice job of linking the story to other related events.

But please allow me a couple of quick observations related to the story itself:

  • Illustrating it is the same cover of Seventeen with Jennifer Lawrence (no indication as to whether its image has been altered, but I’m guessing yes) that I used in my Hunger Games post that touched on magazines.
  • The outlet in this case is kind of ironic in that Yahoo! News is notorious in its pandering images of young women and celebrities. A typical front page slide will feature Obama, J. Lo in a “daring” get-up, Mitt Romney, bikini pics of some other celebrity, a sports-related item, and then a teen star (e.g., Miley Cyrus) in a “racy” or “revealing” outfit.

All of which points to a couple of final issues that I should probably wind down with…

  1. There are actually two things going on here. Yes, for gender-targeted publications such as Seventeen or Glamour, the concern is around the false examples established by near-perfect yet unachievable images. But let’s remember that the primacy of the image, of physical beauty itself, also deserves critical scrutiny. That is, if all cover models were presented sans digital touch-ups or even makeup, would editors start purposely featuring non-striking models or celebrities? I doubt it. The embedded value of “beauty” would still trump almost everything else. (And obviously it’s a value that, although far less often, is imposed on men as well—otherwise, why would we have male models?)
  2. And lastly, although deconstructing the covers of magazines that young people bring to school, or that you make available in the library, is a great place to start with these issues, let’s not forget that magazines are just one medium. What about billboards? Web ads? Authorized publicity photos? Posters? CD covers? Even Photoshopped Facebook photos?

Images are everywhere and are at work 24/7. What Julia Bluhm did was simply decide to wake up and take some responsibility for “consuming” them, not just lament them intellectually.

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Nefariousdro says:

    photo-manipulation is as old as photography. The gender-based standards that happen are to be questioned I agree, but let’s not forget that the phrase “a photo never lies” was never true. I learned that first hand when I did work in a photo dark-room 30 years ago. This in no way is meant to diminish the concerns about the covers of these kinds of magazines or the body-esthetic they represent. But I prefer to target the disease, not the symptom. You’re absolutely right that the subject of their photos is the main issue, and how they treat their subject. These magazines are rife with very unrealistic ideas of what a woman or girl “should be like” either in appearance or behavior. I applaud you for recognizing that, and recognizing that the photo-manipulation is driven by that.

    • Peter Gutierrez says:

      Great points! I’m not sure about the symptom/disease framework but I think a teaching librarian or other media educator could use your ideas to really enrich instruction by connecting these relatively current concerns to topics in photographic history — the fake “fairy” and occult/medium photos of a century or more ago, for example. “The Lie of ‘A Photo Never Lies'” might be unit title/topic that addresses both media and visual literacy. Thanks again for the insight. :)