I’ve been following an interesting story the last week or so, one that at first glance might not seem immediately applicable to young adults in their 20s or 30s. That’s because it involves a teenager who’s trying to change how photographed images of other teens are presented in a particular magazine. Still, I think some of her observations about the influential power of images are applicable to all of us, not just her teen peers.
In April, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm launched a petition at Change.org asking Seventeen magazine to publish at least one un-retouched photo in its magazine each issue. “I’ve always noticed how a lot of the images in magazines look Photoshopped,” the eighth grader from Waterville, Maine, told Yahoo! Shine. “Girls shouldn’t compare themselves to pictures in magazines, because they are fake.” Since then, more than 60,000 people have signed her petition.
Last week, Bluhm took her petition to Seventeen’s New York City offices and met with the magazine’s editor in chief, Ann Shoket. Afterward, the magazine issued a somewhat squishy statement that affirmed Julia’s initiative but stopped well short of anything like a pledge to make the changes Julia’s petition has asked for.
“We’re proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue — it’s exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers — so we invited her to our office to meet with editor in chief Ann Shoket this morning. They had a great discussion, and we believe that Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that’s how we present them. We feature real girls in our pages and there is no other magazine that highlights such a diversity of size, shape, skin tone and ethnicity.”
San Francisco Chronicle blogger Margot Magowan deconstructed what the magazine’s statement really said: “Listen, it may not seem like a big request, but if Seventeen published one un-Photoshopped picture of a teen per month, it would be pretty obvious that all of the other photos in our magazine are Photoshopped. If Seventeen Magazine made girls that aware that they are aspiring to look like the non-humans who the magazine celebrates, our readers might be less inclined to purchase all of the fine make-up, hair products, and clothing advertised in the pages of our magazine. Unfortunately for Julia and all teen girls, those advertising dollars keep our Photoshopped magazine on the racks and pay our salaries.”
I think Magowan is right on the money — literally — with her translation. Reality doesn’t sell. Fantasy does.
Teen girls (who are just beginning to form their identities) may be especially vulnerable to such idealized images of perfection. In a press release publicizing her petition, Bluhm talked about how they might undermine a girl’s self-esteem. “I’m a teenage girl,” she said, “and I know how it feels to think you’re not good enough.”
But just because we’re not teens anymore doesn’t mean we’re not similarly susceptible to our culture’s seductive visions of perfection. Whether it’s how we look, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, advertising bombards us daily with hundreds (or, some researchers suggest, even thousands) of messages that who we are and what have isn’t enough.
It’s not just models that are airbrushed. In a metaphorical sense, reality gets a makeover on the checkout stand, in commercials on TV, in banner ads alongside the Internet content we engage with. The message: Buy this, possess this, look like this, and your life will be better.
Frankly, I know that I’m vulnerable to such images and messages. My particular struggle has less to do with the way I look (I’m almost 42, and my ripped ab days have been gone for a couple decades now) and more to do with the materialistic things I’m tempted to believe would make me happy.
I know better, of course. But it’s so easy to let those images begin to influence our imagination. Before we know it, we grow discontent with some aspect of our life when in reality, God has truly blessed us.
In moments when we find ourselves comparing what we look like (or not) and what we have (or not) with those gleaming, radiant, Photoshopped images of perfection, we’d do well to take a moment to talk to God about what’s real and what matters, and ask Him to refocus our hearts on what’s real and true and good.