Seventeen Makes A Pledge, But What Does It Mean?

The iconic teen magazine has agreed "not to alter body sizes or face shapes of young women featured in its editorial pages," and will discuss the pledge in more detail in the August issue.

Jul 6, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Hello, Katy!

Remember Julia Bluhm? She launched a campaign in April asking Seventeen to feature unaltered images of women in at least one editorial spread per month. This week, following a petition with over 85,000 signatures and a protest outside their offices, the magazine has responded. Seventeen agreed "not to alter body sizes or face shapes of young women featured in its editorial pages," and will discuss the pledge in more detail in the August issue. 

Of course, Seventeen can pledge to clean up its editorials, but the advertisements don't have to adhere to the same pledge. Which means that young readers will still see altered images of young women when they open up their copies of the magazine, and those images will undoubtedly have an impact on their self-perception. The content in the magazine is another potential issue; young women and girls seeing unedited pictures are still getting the editorial content, which is not necessarily body positive or affirming. 

However, overall, Bluhm's campaign was a win. She highlighted an ongoing issue, got some actual traction, and managed to get Seventeen to commit to a change. Hopefully the magazine will stick with it, and the petitions inspired by Bluhm's campaigns will be equally successful, changing the magazine landscape for young readers. 

Not only that, but editor-in-chief Ann Shoket has been openly transparent about the process, which bodes well. She agreed to meet with Bluhm, she's discussing the issue in August, and she's encouraging readers to email and Tweet her with questions and concerns, rather than walling herself off behind the doors of a corner office. Of course, interns may be sifting through those communications, but her openness speaks of a genuine desire to want to communicate with readers and respond to their needs. (We shall see if, like Jane, she starts inviting readers to editorial meetings.)

But, and there's always a but, a lot of the framing around this campaign really intrigues me, and Lesley covered two of the issues that concern me most: the idea that magazines "should use real models" and that "models should be healthy." Seventeen's "Body Peace Treaty" includes both of these ideas, echoing Bluhm's own petition, along with other pledges like a promise to include more racial and ethnic diversity in its pages. 

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Committing the pledge to paper is an important step. 

But here's the thing: Who defines a "real" woman or girl? Because this is dangerous territory that Seventeen is treading on. Will the magazine actually include women and girls with a truly diverse array of sizes and backgrounds? Will it include women with disabilities? Will it include women of all races? Will it include trans women and girls? Will it include butches alongside femmes? Will it include girls with natural hair?

It's something that's always bothered me about the "real women have curves" campaigns intended to promote body positivity. Because the fact of the matter is that, uh, real women are women. Some of them have curves and some of them do not. Curves are irrelevant to womanly status and saying otherwise suggests that women without curves, or women who don't have "definition" in their shape, aren't "real."

I want girls of all shapes, sizes, races, and backgrounds to be able to open magazines like Seventeen and see themselves because they are real. And I fear that some aren't going to see themselves -- to quote Seventeen, "never have, never will" -- because they don't fit within the definition of "real." Not just the extremely narrow definition created by the fashion industry, but also the limited definition created in the name of body positivity, one that stops just short of including all women. 

And this is not necessarily Seventeen's fault, but a larger issue across the industry. The magazine can't pretend its not a problem if it wants to stay in business. 

And what does healthy mean? As Lesley pointed out in her piece on the subject, you can't diagnose someone by looking at them. One woman who generally fits into a size zero may have an eating disorder. Another woman who fits in a size 26 could have an eating disorder too. Other size zeros and 26s are naturally that size. In discussions about "healthy models," people often reinforce the idea that it's possible to casually determine someone's health status at a glance; very small women, and very large women, must be "unhealthy" by nature of their size. 

But that's not actually the case. And telling readers that the magazine's models will look "healthy" in the future is setting them up for believing that they can make judgements about people on the basis of their looks. Which is deeply unfortunate, because, yes, the fashion industry can be extremely unhealthy, and may drive women in the industry to dangerous lengths to stay employable, and this is an issue that should be confronted. And is, by groups like the Model Alliance, which fights for healthier working conditions in fashion.

The solution to this problem isn't framing this in terms of which kinds of women look "real" and "healthy," though. 

This is an ongoing discussion that isn't going to end with Bluhm's successful petition, and I hope that Seventeen continues to do some soul-searching as it thinks about what kind of editorial content it wants to present to young women and girls, and how it wants to frame that content. There's a lot of potential capacity to reach a huge and sometimes vulnerable audience, as the magazine itself admits, and that could become a powerful thing.