In just one month, Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old girl from Waterville, Maine, has collected more than 66,000 signatures on Change.org for a petition to get Seventeen magazine to feature real girls rather than airbrushed models. I have to admire someone her age who is willing to stand up to the tastemakers on behalf of all of us who don’t look like we just stepped off the set of a Noxzema commercial. But I don’t blame the magazines: I blame social media. No, scratch that. I blame us.
In high school, my mother used to tell me how lucky I was that I didn’t have to wear a girdle under my dress every day. When she was that age, confining undergarments were considered good manners. Her generation eventually tossed their girdles and pointy bras in the trash and set them on fire, metaphorically speaking, to free women from being uncomfortable for the sake of beauty.
I should have grown up with a more positive self-image (and back problems) than I did. By the time I was a teenager, girls were held to a standard that the magazine writers called “heroin chic.” Kate Moss and her legion of super models invaded our lives with false notion that everyone should be lanky, hollow-cheeked, and look sexy wearing an old man’s bowling shirt from a thrift store. (For me, the day that Cindy Crawford pranced around a department store in a frumpy house coat on MTV’s “House of Style” was the day the music died.) I wish someone had told me about control-top pantyhose – I was always more of a milkmaid than a waif.
But I don’t blame the models, either. No matter what the season, popular fashion will always favor one body type over another, and it will always be the one that you don’t have. In the ’90s I wore a baby tee under my spaghetti straps, bought a second-hand pair of Doc Martens that were Mary Janes instead of boots, and lived another decade to fight the rise of skinny jeans.
Others coped with starvation, excessive exercise, and/or weird diet pills. And since then, more and more women have turned to plastic surgery to give themselves the kinds of bodies that can wear unlined dresses without the help of Spanx.
In 2011, Americans spent $10.1 billlion on nearly 14 million cosmetic procedures from breast augmentation to collagen and Botox injections, according to a study posted by The Guardian. The biggest growth was in mentoplasty, or chin reconstruction, which went up 71 percent from 2010. Among teenagers ages 13 to 19, laser skin resurfacing procedures rose 21 percent.
For these particular statistics, we only have ourselves to blame.
Back when film was a precious resource, Picture Day used to happen once a school year and only at important events. We’d show up in nice clothing, with our hair brushed and faces made up, and take a couple of pictures that would come out as golden and blurry as an Instagram photo. We could see the zits on our noses, but not the stretch marks on our upper arms. That’s not to say that the pictures always came out well, but there were fewer of them, and because the prints cost money, no one bothered to make copies of them if they were ugly.
Now we have high-definition cameras to capture every stray hair and greasy pore in microscopic detail.
Although digital photography makes it easier to take multiple photos and delete the ones that are unflattering, very few people actually do this.
Instead, the technology has given rise to an entire generation of amateur paparazzi whose subjects range from the mundane (friends at home eating snack food) to the incriminating (classmates drinking beer from a funnel). They dump their entire cache of photos online without editing, or even curating, the contents. More than 250 million photos are uploaded on Facebook every day.
In an age when even my wedding photos aren’t private, I’ve found myself monitoring my blinking, slouching, and putting cake in my mouth for fear that these candid, fleeting moments will end up on the Internet for eternity. This could happen. In February, Ars Technica reported that Facebook was still storing pictures that were supposedly deleted three years ago.
And forget bathing suits. Summer at my apartment looks more like the cover of US Weekly than Seventeen – and that dimpled butt, sadly, is mine. Unfortunately, Jenny Craig is not beating down my door to sponsor my miraculous weight loss. I am a Before Model for whom there is no happily ever After.
I’m not especially old or fat. But when well-intentioned friends and relatives take pictures of me in bad lighting and from weird angles, I can look up to a hundred years old and three miles wide with the click of a button. It’s no wonder so many women want laser skin resurfacing and chin lifts.
Dede Lahman, a former editor at Seventeen Magazine, recently joined Julia’s campaign on Change.org with a practical solution for keeping beauty standards in check.
“In an ideal world, Julia wouldn’t need to request one unaltered photo spread a month, because unaltered photos would already be the norm,” said Lahman in a statement. “However, in the glossy world of magazines, truth and beauty are not always one and the same. I think a reasonable first step for Seventeen to take toward Julia’s ultimate goal would be to do a behind-the-scenes piece about how a photo shoot comes together. After all, girls can only run the world if they’re privy to its tricks.”
She’s right about that much. If you ask me, “truth and beauty are not always one and the same” in the real world, either. Girls are at war with their looks all the time, with or without images in magazines.
A behind-the-scenes look at a photo shoot would empower women to pick up a brush instead of a scalpel.
Just look at what this viral YouTube star can do with makeup:
Why not teach girls to use Photoshop while we’re at it? Photo editing tools – much like makeup, hair products, and shapewear – are more affordable, temporary, and painless than surgery. They can’t cure serious eating disorders or other emotional problems, but they can at least smooth away zits and crop out fat rolls so that girls don’t have to risk their lives with unnecessary medical procedures. Pictures should make people feel nostalgic, not exposed.
At some point, women will learn to represent themselves truthfully in their profiles in the same way they learned not to cake on so much foundation that it leaves a line under their chins. They might even turn their captured moments into works of art.
More importantly, photo editing is a skill that young women can later take with them to work.
Our sibling blog, 10,000 Words, has a list of 21 online photo-editing tools that are free to use. To test them out, click here.