A Real Girl, 14, Takes a Stand Against the Flawless Faces in Magazines

Posted on 4 May 2012


Published: May 3, 2012

In Julia Bluhm’s ballet class, girls arrived and often declared that they were having a fat day. Or that their skin was pimply or blemished. Or that they looked disgusting. When she hears complaints in her middle school, where she is in the eighth grade, Julia said, she has one answer: “Are you crazy?”

Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Julia Bluhm, an eighth grader from Maine,
reasoned that many girls had bad body images
because of the perfect faces in fashion magazines.
She met with an editor from Seventeen to press her case Thursday.

Then, she said, she came up with another answer, thumbing through one of her favorite magazines, Seventeen.

“I look at the pictures and they just don’t look like girls I see walking down the street and stuff,” said Julia, who turned 14 last month.

A blogger for the last year with Spark, a project that fights the sexualization of girls, Julia had given the subject some thought, and talked it over with the other bloggers. Then she started an online petition drive through change.org asking Seventeen to “commit to printing one unaltered — real — photo spread per month.”

“We brought Seventeen magazine to lunch and showed it to a bunch of kids to see if they agreed with the petition,” she said. “A lot of them signed it.”

Boys too?

“Actually some boys signed it, too,” she said. “I think a lot of them just signed it because they thought it was cool that I was getting so many people to sign.”

No kidding. As of Thursday evening, the petition had been signed by 46,000 people. Julia and her mother, Mary Beiter, came to New York this week from their home in Waterville, Me., for a demonstration organized by Change.org and Spark outside the offices of Seventeen in Midtown. There, Julia and five other girls posed for a mock photo shoot, with no retouching. A crew from ABC’s “Nightline” followed her for the day. And the editor in chief of Seventeen, Ann Shoket, invited Julia and her mother to visit the office.

The people at Seventeen were, it should be said, feeling slightly aggrieved that they had been singled out for picture-doctoring practices that are common in virtually all glossy fashion magazines, and, for that matter, on the Facebook accounts of millions of people who retouch photographs before posting them. At some magazines, the practices are far more extreme than at Seventeen, which, Ms. Shoket says, does not alter the body shapes of the girls in its pages, contrary to a charge in the petition.

An article in the May issue includes pictures of girls with melanoma scars; a regular feature, “Body Peace,” has a picture of a girl who has drawn a peace symbol on a body part that she had been troubled by.

“I think we do a phenomenal job of celebrating the authenticity of real girls, of celebrating them for all of their real authentic beauty, of skin tones, of ethnicity, of body shape and size,” Ms. Shoket said. “These are young girls. They look great.”

On Thursday, as Julia and her mom headed toward the airport, she said she appreciated that the magazine was doing things to include girls with many body types. She also gave an unvarnished description of what she sees in its pages.

“I look at the girls, and a lot of them, like, they don’t have freckles, or moles, anywhere on their bodies,” she said. “You can’t, like, see the pores in their face, they’re perfectly smooth. Their skin is shiny. They don’t have any tan lines or cuts and bruises or anything like that.”

These ordinary features of human flesh, she said, can be disguised with makeup and lights. “At the same time, they can’t cover up everything,” Julia said. That leaves only digital retouching.

Back to Ms. Shoket: So, does the magazine airbrush pictures of the girls in its pages?

“I don’t want to get into the specifics of what we do and don’t do,” Ms. Shoket said.

Julia said the unreal pictures of girls were trouble for boys, as well. “It shows them unrealistic images of girls,” she said. “Also, a lot of the boys in Seventeen magazine have, like, 12-packs, and that’s definitely not very realistic either.”

Both sides said they had agreed to keep in touch, but no promises were made about publishing an unretouched photo spread. “I gave her my e-mail,” Julia said.

Ms. Shoket, reeling from a barrage of unpleasant publicity that she felt did not reflect the reality of her magazine, said she admired Julia. “What power she has to have an idea and to make her mark on the world,” she said.

As Julia returned home to the eighth grade, she said that people from home had kept in touch.

“Facebook and the school are flipping out,” she said.