Nearly everyone has heard of teenager Julia Bluhm’s petition that succeeded in getting Seventeen Magazine and Teen Vogue to print one un-photoshopped spread in each issue. There are many on both sides of the issue, some arguing that magazines aren’t intended to represent reality in the first place and that this infringes on the rights of magazine companies, pressuring them to resign control of their product. Meanwhile many others hail this as a victory for women and girls everywhere who are reading magazines that thrust expectations of what they should look like not only onto themselves, but onto their peers. Her Campus has been inundated with debate since publishing the Op-Ed by Alice Chen, In Defense of Photoshop. This is a complicated issue and thus multiple viewpoints should be expressed. I’m here to share my thoughts on this topic, some of which were originally posted as a comment to the aforementioned article.
As far as Julia Bluhm’s petition, which I happily signed months ago, I think the spirit of the campaign for non-photoshopped spreads was not to get rid of the ability and authority of magazines to edit their work, but rather as a way for models and girls pictured to regain control of their own bodies and the ways they are portrayed in the media. We've all seen a story or two about a celebrity who was angry at the way their body was digitally sculpted and enhanced. If you don't have authority over your own body, even in print form, then what do you have? A body is literally one of the most personal things in your possession, if not the most personal thing. I think that it would be wrong for over-zealous photoshoppers to take that away from those photographed.
You can argue that as an industry standard, models know what they are getting into, but dozens of reports talk about the way that models push themselves to look like their digitally-enhanced selves, often resorting to dangerous measures. In addition, these two magazines in particular cater to a younger audience and often feature said girls in their pages. How do you think a girl lucky enough to be chosen for a magazine photoshoot would feel after seeing herself drastically altered, as if something was wrong with her? That’s not what she signed up for when she agreed and excitedly told her friends and family that she’d be in an upcoming issue.
Our ideas about our bodies are not solely based on real-life experiences, but the messages we consume every day and the patterns we see in the media. Say all you want about how magazines aren’t made to be a reflection on reality, but magazines are not considered fiction and it’s time we recognized that the bodies of women and girls should not fall under that category either.
Now this is not to say that I don't think photoshop should be used at all. It saves precious time and man hours to just edit out that stray lock of hair when you've got a photoshoot involving a fan. It makes things very pretty in ways that are more affordable and easier than getting tons of equipment and coordinating zillions of props. Anyone who has been bitten by the Instagram bug knows that you can do some really cool stuff to your photos digitally. I think the real root of the issue here is that photoshop is there to fix things-- blemishes, off lighting, color balance, stray hairs, uneven makeup, etc. When you start "fixing" people's bodies that sends a really different message than adjusting light balance and contrast. It says that they're not thin enough or curvy enough or that there is something about their body that is just generally wrong. Which is not something I'm down for.
While there is an issue of real versus fake, the true issue at stake is not about real bodies and fake ones-- It's about right bodies and wrong ones.
Every one of us has engaged in some sort of visual witchcraft to look our best-- whether it's makeup or piercings or hair products or tattoos or clothing in general. Take it from me-- I had plastic surgery (and yes, it is possible to do that without it being based on insecurity or public pressure). The point is, it’s not about being 100% all natural and real all the time-- it's about having an appearance you are proud of and feel good about, one that you have chosen for yourself out of your own free will, and asserting your identity. It's not shallow-- it's empowering, because you have made those decisions on what to wear and how to wear it or apply it and chosen to have that be how you present yourself to the world-- But when we take that away from people, when we praise one sort of look or body above all others, it takes away our feeling of freedom and autonomy and replaces it with feelings of fear and shame. It creates a "right" way to look and things that don’t fit into that category are often seen as the “wrong” way to look-- especially so if you had to get “fixed.” When we see one type of girl in a magazine all the time, we don't think "oh that's the magazine's standard," we think "Why not someone like me?" then "Why not ever someone like me?" and eventually "Because they don't want to show-off some like me."
It's not just an issue of body shape either, but often times even color. Women of color are often recolored to be paler, reinforcing a colonial view on people of color that they, too, are "not right" and need to be "fixed" to be up to beauty standards in a process known as white-washing. This also reinforces an idea of a "right" way of looking and a "wrong" way of looking. (And I could go on about the cultural impacts this has had on afrocentric, latin@, and south asian cultures in particular, among others).
As a woman of color, I am proud when someone on TV does justice to an Asian character instead of making them a ridiculous stereotype. Likewise, I find myself deeply offended when the cast of a movie whose story was originally about POCs is white-washed. They tell us things like “this way it will appeal to a broader American audience” when last time I checked, the broader American audience is full of people of many varying backgrounds who are growing tired of being told that only white people have interesting stories and only white people are worthy of main-characterhood and only white people are relatable. (I’m looking at you 21, Dragon Ball Z, The Last Airbender, etc.) Not to say that I don’t appreciate movies with mostly white people in them, but the implication in changing that feature when the character was originally supposed to be a person of color implies that it was something that needed to be changed. That something is “better off” with these changes in place.
Like actors in blockbuster movies, people in magazines are not just glamorous because of what they are wearing or doing, but because someone very intentionally chose to put them there. To say that we should be satisfied by seeing "real" people in our mirrors and around us, as Chen stated, is very much true, but at the same time, there is a difference between the art you make in art class and the art that goes in museums-- someone wants to show it off because they have deemed it valuable enough to deserve that space. When we see that people like us are being filtered out, it sends a very clear message because it is a very deliberate choice. It is this, and not some lack of self-esteem in the reader, that gives weight and a profound power over how the reader sees the photos within. We don’t believe the photos in magazines represent how we’re supposed to look because the photos exist, we believe this is how we’re supposed to look because all these professionals in the world of fashion and art and design said, “yep, this is it!”
The tall and skinny size zeros of the world are indeed beautiful people, but so are the size sixes and tens and fourteens. When magazines for young girls of varying sizes and backgrounds don’t see anyone like themselves inside, they get the same feelings my parents did growing up Korean immigrants in America during the 70s and 80s where there were few Asians in the media-- This wonderful world is one you will not be a part of. (Unless you’re a kung fu master, comedic token character, or hypersexualized exotic disposable love interest.)
Once again, I'm not against the use of photoshop to keep things looking sharp and on point with editorial and visual standards. I just think that people themselves and their bodies should not fall under anyone's jurisdiction to be judged as "beneath the standard" or to "require fixing." It is such an insidious way of telling the world that we are not good enough under the veil of “improving” the way we look, taking away our say in how we as women are portrayed, and in some sense holding our bodies hostage, calling our face and bodies their property to commit visual slander with.
Exclusionary ideas about what beautiful can and can’t be are the inevitable result of a magazine industry that deliberately chooses to be exclusionary about what types of people can and can’t be showcased. It’s even worse when girls and women are put under the digital knife and photoshopped to the point where she can’t recognize the thighs she worked so hard for or the jawline inherited from her grandfather or the broad powerful shoulders that won her so many swimming championships or the arm fat that it took her years to make peace with. I refuse to believe that it is okay to take girls’ ownership of their bodies and their appearance away from them or that it is okay to tell her that there is only one “right” kind of body, no matter how subtly the message is communicated. So kudos to Miss Bluhm, a girl unafraid to challenge a system that she found to be damaging to girls and women across the country, a girl who asked that real girls and their real bodies be put in a place in the sun, where they belong. What Julia did not only put an empowering spread in those pages, but pushed the industry to see that nowadays, we don’t want to buy things that tell us how to be perfect or who we are supposed to be. We buy things because they make us feel good about ourselves. We like things that are authentic. So here’s to Julia Bluhm, and her victory for women everywhere who have been told that their thighs were too big, their hair was not sleek enough, their chests were too small, their belly was too large, their cheeks too full, and their legs were too scrawny.