Call it a hunch.
Julia Bluhm, an eighth grader from Waterville Junior High, had a sneaking suspicion that not all young women were beautiful, thin and fit.
Yet, as Bluhm flipped through the pages of last May’s Seventeen magazine, there they were, in glorious color, one perfect teen after another.
Of course, it wasn’t just May’s issue. And it wasn’t just Seventeen magazine. These smiling stick-figures in minimalist fashions were everywhere, she discovered, seemingly taunting her.
“All fake,” Bluhm concluded.
Riding a mantra of “if you don’t like something, change it,” Bluhm and her Waterville Junior High partner Izzy Labbe set out on a campaign to shake up the good folks who, for starters, publish Seventeen. The magazine’s current circulation is 20 million worldwide.
“When girls read magazines like Seventeen, they shouldn’t have to be subjected to Photoshopped images and subliminal messages about the way they are supposed to look,” Labbe said.
“Girls deserve better, and they deserve to know what they are truthfully seeing,” Bluhm added.
Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge (SPARK) is a global coalition and activist movement determined to end sexualization of women in media. At its core, SPARK is a team of 30 girls and young women ages 13 to 22, scattered across the United States. Bluhm is a blogger for SPARK and its local Maine partner, Hardy Girls Healthy Women.
Fueled by Bluhm’s heightened awareness of exploitation, Labbe used her MLTI-issued MacBook computer to create a documentary that captured the reactions and opinions of fellow junior high teens toward the images found in Seventeen. While polling dozens of classmates on camera, Bluhm and Labbe were finding a common thread – the barrage of ultra-skinny teen beauties in the publication were making girls feel inadequate about themselves.
“No girl is that symmetrical,” noted one student. “These images set an unrealistic bar for girls, and all they do is create low self-esteem.”
Labbe put the finishing touches on her 15-minute documentary and then put a stake in the ground. They circulated the video and pointed viewers to an online petition that Bluhm had created earlier, with SPARK’s guidance. The goal of the petition was to lobby Seventeen to “change the rules” by printing at least one feature each month using unaltered photos.
The petition quickly went viral and attracted more than 85,000 signatures. In one unified voice, teen girls had spoken.
And then that voice grew louder. Bluhm, her mom, and SPARK Director Dana Edell led a teen team to New York City, where they staged a mock photo shoot of “real girls” to protest Seventeen‘s practices. The shoot was in front of the Hearst Corporation’s headquarters on West 57th Street, where Seventeen is published.
And then that voice grew even louder. The story was picked up by ABC’s Nightly News, then by “Good Morning, America.”
“We want to show Seventeen we love our bodies just the way they are,” Bluhm told the GMA cameras. “We don’t need Photoshop to ‘fix’ us.”
In a letter to readers in the magazine’s August issue, Seventeen editor Ann Shocket pledged to “always feature real girls and models who are healthy.” The magazine will continue to airbrush away its models’ flyaway hairs and clothing folds, she went on, but it will start posting before-and-after pictures from its photo shoots on its Tumblr account.
Even the publishers of Teen Vogue, with its parent publication considered by many the benchmark for fashion magazines, have taken notice. Quoted as saying ultra-young and ultra-skinny models were now “out of style,” Teen Vogue committed to ban the use of underage models or those with eating disorders on its pages.
Bluhm and Labbe had won and had achieved rock-star status in the process. Not bad for a couple of 14-year-old “real” kids from Maine with a computer and an ideal.
“Young people like Julia and Izzy are not waiting to become tomorrow’s leaders. They are leaders today,” said Charlie Hartman, MLTI Project Manager for the Maine Department of Education.
“The MLTI MacBook computers have given them the tools to reach out to the world and make their voices heard in a way no one could have imagined a mere decade ago,” Hartman added. “These are young women showing us that we should watch and follow them, because they are a powerful force.”