Seventeen and Vogue Magazine Have Issues, Like Body Image Issues

It’s not a secret that magazines make women feel bad. We talk about it all the time. Like many other teenagers, as a youngster I never saw myself reflected in the photoshopped images and super-skinny smiling blondes of popular teen magazines and as an adult that hasn’t really changed much. Photoshop technologies continue advancing and the industry relies on increasingly younger models. But this past week, two mainstream magazines were confronted about their publications’ relationship to underage and underweight models and the glorification of eating disorders. They took vastly divergent courses of action.

Seventeen Magazine Has Something To Hide, No Shame About It

I started reading Seventeen magazine at thirteen, so it makes sense to me that my colleague Julia Bluhm at SPARK — an organization focused on girls’ sexualization and the media representation of young women — is only fourteen and is actively engaged in a conversation with Seventeen Magazine about how they represent young women’s bodies.

Bluhm is a ballerina and a feminist, and has a keen eye for what makes girls her age feel anxious and uncomfortable about their bodies. Anyone who reads Seventeen knows that images of super-blonde, leggy, white women in magazines for people going through puberty and high school can lead to some of those feelings. I distinctly remember flipping through Seventeen as a teenager and wondering when I was going to — POOF! — turn into one of those models. (Funny story… I never did.)

Julia took action, coordinating a widely successful petition that garnered media attention and over 25,000 signatures in its first days. Her request was simple: publish one photo spread per issue that is not altered, in any way, by using digital technology like Photoshop. She was also present at a NYC demonstration outside of their offices with her SPARKmates in the area:

Bluhm — an 8th grader from Waterville, Maine, who took the day off from school to come to the New York demonstration with her mother — decided to start the petition because, she says, “We know that Photoshop can be very harmful to girls because they think they have to look like these images. But it’s not even real, it’s Photoshop. So it’s kind of impossible to look like that in real life.” Bluhm coordinated her petition with SPARK, a group she’s active in and which organized today’s protest — on the SPARK Web site, you can see posts Bluhm has written about body image and ballet, her chosen extra-curricular, women athletes she admires, and why it bugs her when her classmates call her “ladylike.”

“I chose Seventeen to target because I know that Seventeen is already doing a lot to help girls to feel better about their body image,” Bluhm said, citing the magazine’s Pretty Amazing contest, which offers college scholarships to girls who make outstanding contributions to their communities through volunteer work.

Seventeen offered her a meeting, but instead of directly responding to Bluhm’s call to action, they offered a defensive view of the magazine’s publishing routine that completely skirted the issue:

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.

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Vogue Magazine Makes Rules, Is One of My Favorite Publications of All Time

Vogue Magazine chose a more proactive defense. The magazine, especially international publishers, has been hit with some harsh criticism in the past over their use of underage models and their sickly-looking spread girls (one of Vogue’s many problems regarding diversity).

It hasn’t helped that editor Anna Wintour has remained a staunch defender of such practices. In 1998, Wintour told Oprah that she needed to lose weight for her covershoot, and when questioned about that incident recently she defended the use of Photoshop to make people “look their best,” and condemned Americans for worrying too much over anorexia instead of obesity, citing a recent trip to Minnesota where  she said she could “only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses.”

Conde Nast, the organization publishing Vogue internationally, announced Thursday that every editor, beginning with the June issues for this year, would have to uphold the following principles and guidelines. This is called “The Health Initiative,” and is a pact among 19 Vogue editors from around the globe:

1. We will not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. We will work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image.

2. We will ask agents not to knowingly send us underage girls and casting directors to check IDs when casting shoots, shows and campaigns.

3. We will help to structure mentoring programs where more mature models are able to give advice and guidance to younger girls, and we will help to raise industry-wide awareness through education, as has been integral to the Council of Fashion Designers of America Health Initiative.

4. We will encourage producers to create healthy backstage working conditions, including healthy food options and a respect for privacy. We will encourage casting agents not to keep models unreasonably late.

5. We encourage designers to consider the consequences of unrealistically small sample sizes of their clothing, which limits the range of women who can be photographed in their clothes, and encourages the use of extremely thin models.

6. We will be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.

Vogue is the only specific Conde Nast publication expected to adhere to or apply these guidelines in their work.

Although it remains unclear how these guidelines will be interpreted and who will be watching out to make sure they’re followed, this is definitely a beacon of hope in an extended industry that typically focuses more on financial gain and aesthetic appearance than on goodwill:

As British Vogue notes, the stated goals of the initiative hew closely to those of the CFDA’s Health Guidelines, which include a minimum age requirement (16 years) and a commitment to preventing eating disorders through education.

The practical innovation of Vogue’s Health Initiative, however, is a focus on magazines rather than the runway. The past efforts of the CFDA (and Britain’s British Fashion Council) were only effective to the point of addressing problems during Fashion Week. With Vogue’s new move, models working year-round in photo spreads will meet the same requirements — and get the same help.

It also extends the impact on viewers, as arguably more women read fashion magazines than watch runway shows.

One of the main concerns, and criticisms, of the new policy is, ironically, that all of the good done by these standards could invariably be undone by Photoshop, which is often used to make women appear younger, thinner, and more typically idealized than they would ever appear in real life.

This Is How I Feel

Magazines, as mentioned above, play a hugely important role in the development and sustaining of girls’ and women’s self-images. They’re also hugely prevalent pieces of our culture, with Vogue and Seventeen leading the way because of their sheer popularity and branding power. Vogue took good steps last week, although we will have to wait to see how the results appear to us. (As a subscriber I am constantly disappointed in their lack of true diversity in race, ethnicity, and body size, as well as their use of “tribal” themes – some of which may be allieviated by these guidelines.) As for Seventeen, well, it is a truly pathetic moment for a culture and a business when 25,000 real and authentic audience voices are overpowered by an outdated and cruel industry standard of beauty.

These two incidents also show us, however, that the power of being heard is affecting how the media represents our experiences. When we express outrage, we sometimes are heard. And using the direct route of feedback to your favorite publications and public action when they don’t listen is stil a tried-and-true path to success. These are both victories. Let’s never disregard that.

As I always say: live bravely and live honestly. Maybe one day, Vogue will publish a spread called “You Do You.” For now, there’s always our girl galleries.

Carmen is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. , host of Bitch Media's POPAGANDA podcast and co-founder and Contributing Editor at Argot magazine. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 926 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. “Live bravely and honestly” so true! But i think mainstream media is only ever going to sell what they’ve built up at their own version of aesthetic beauty, because they think it’s what people want to see.

    But I have faith in humanity!!
    We all know ‘you do you’ is TRUE beauty, does it matter what magazine output is? After all, them young impressionable girls do grow up and do realise it’s not real, right?

  2. maybe this is wrong of me and maybe i shouldn’t be BUT i cannot stop laughing over this:

    …citing a recent trip to Minnesota where she said she could “only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses.”

    #IMDONE

    Anna Wintour, the meanest little Polly Pocket ever…

  3. when i was growing up, i wasn’t allowed to read magazines like seventeen/cosmogirl/etc. because my mom didn’t like the messages they sent young girls. at the time i thought she was the LAMEST MOM EVER, but now i get it! thank you mom for not letting me fall prey to the fashion magazine industry!

  4. Maybe I’m just too cynical, or maybe I just got my hopes up too high, but I’m kind of disappointed by the guidelines. Although they’re great in theory and you could certainly argue that it’s a step in the right direction, I feel like in practice not much will change. I mean, how easy would it be for them to say that they didn’t “knowingly” work with an underage model? And the part about “encouraging” designers to “consider the consequences” of their work? I wish I could be more optimistic about it, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

    On a related note, there’s this German magazine called Brigitte that uses “real women” or something like that? Like I think they don’t hire professional models for their cover shoots or something along those lines. Now, I KNOW that the idea of a model not being a “real women” is deeply problematic and there’s probably some body-shaming going on (assuming they’re deliberately not hiring any skinny women because they’re not “real”). Trust me, I know, and I’m not defending what they’re doing as 100% perfect. I actually don’t know the details since it’s just something I heard about through my mom (who gets the magazines), and it’s 2 am and I’m too tired to research this further, but I thought it was interesting to bring up.

    • unfortunately i was thinking the exact same thing. the outcomes of the guidelines would be almost impossible to measure, like how do you prove that you have “encouraged” designers? it seems like there are loopholes errywhere.

  5. Julie Bluhm > Judy Bloom?

    Julie just go rogue and make a zine. Seventeen is just shite. it’s all fucking shite and inciting.

    Everyone is beautiful! Why are people sad? You’re all beautiful!!! fuck the mainstream ideals…umm/ I love you

  6. Those are some disappointing guidelines. I … guess they’re a step in the right direction? But I fail to see how this will change anything at all.

    “We encourage designers to consider the consequences of unrealistically small sample sizes of their clothing…”

    Just don’t hire designers who only bring size minus 5 chlothes. Duh. If designers want to be seen in Vogue, wouldn’t they do whatever Vogue asks? I’ve only opened a Vogue once at the dentist because it was that or Woman’s Day or some housewife crap, but I get the feeling Vogue is like, the shit, in the fashion industry. They have such power to set a trend in the way fashion industry deals with body image.

  7. I have a lot of issues with the phase “who appear to have an eating disorder”. Appear to whom? The general public? A dietician or someone who specializes in eating disorders? Or someone who works in the industry and spends all day around very thin models?

    My sister is currently majoring in fashion at a very well known art school in Chicago. Last week I went to her end of the year fashion show, where the school hires professional models to show their clothes. They were all so thin it was concerning. I’m also in recovery from an eating disorder and many of the women (and men) on the stage were just as emaciated as people I was in treatment with who had a feeding tube up their nose. I talked to my sister about it after the show and she mentioned that many of the models were 14 and 15 years old. I don’t really know what else to say… I’m not very good at putting my thoughts onto paper. I guess just that it’s a huge problem and I want to think that setting these guidelines will help but I think the mindset of the fashion industry is too firmly set in it’s ways for a piece of paper to do anything.

    • A piece of paper with suggestions to engourage other people to do or not do certain things. Honestly it’s ridiculous!

      That fashion show at your sister’s school sounds disturbing :(

      Congratulations on your ongoing recovery!

  8. My mother’s opinion on those magazines was that all that glamorous semi-nudity would subconsciously encourage lesbianism. She thought women’s magazines should display dudes, in the same way lads’ mags have girls all over them. I guess I stayed sort of awkwardly silent at the time, but there are so many debatable, infuriating layers to that statement. This happened other French ‘Elle’ a few years ago, which is sort of like ‘Vogue’ in some aspects, but is also an historic landmark in the French feminist movement in printed press.

  9. As someone who works in fashion (specifically, juniors) I worry about this issue all the time. How is my industry making girls feel, and how can we improve that? I hope more teen publications can strike a happy medium- you want aspirational, yes, images of girls at their best- but why can’t we see girls of all sizes at their best, girls of all colors and girls not traditionally feminine? I honestly don’t think Photoshop itself is a problem, when used sparingly and judiciously, but lack of diversity (of all kinds) is more the issue.

  10. I honestly don’t see magazines every changing. They’re a part of the beauty industry. They don’t WANT women to feel beautiful. As long as we feel insecure and ugly and imperfect, we’ll keep buying their magazines and cosmetics and clothes. The day women become confident will be the death of the beauty industry, and they’re not going down without a fight.

  11. I’m a fashion designer and all the issues above are something I care about a lot. All I want to do is go to elementary schools and explain to the precious babies how it works. We take a model, who is a pretty girl, and we put on three to four pounds of makeup, making her look completely different. Accompany that by 10 pounds of hairspray. Then we shoot for five hours, followed by editing for days. It’s an art collaboration that is not meant to look real.

    It breaks my heart when girls try to be like the models they see. Most of my friends who model professionally work out on the regular or are just naturally tiny. It’s their job to look good and a certain way. Even when I was younger I knew that the photos weren’t real and that the models do not like that in real life.

    That being said, I do think magazines need to include a bigger variety of models, and as a designer I’m always trying to figure out ways to contribute to a healthy body image.

    After all, I went into fashion design to make clothes that make girls feel confident and beautiful, not to make them feel like they are not good enough. I think some designers forget why they do what they do.

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