On July 11th, teenage girls of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones gathered outside Teen Vogue’s Time Square offices. Their mission? To protest the magazine’s habit of doctoring photos of women and girls to make them tiny, light skinned, straight-haired, and flawless — in other words, for promoting a very narrow, unrealistic definition of what teen beauty should look like.
As CBS News reports, the recent teen protest is part of a larger movement fueled by SPARK, a grassroots organization that is committed to combatting the sexualization of women and girls in mainstream media. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer recently interviewed Dana Edell, SPARK Executive director, and two high school members of the organization, Carina Cruz and Emma Stydahar.
Emma, who cancelled her subscription to Teen Vogue after finding it too depressing, hit on an image that is probably familiar to those of us who came of age in the era of teen magazines:
Well, I remember being in about 6th grade and flipping through the magazine and just thinking to myself, “Oh I wish I had her body, I wish I had her legs, I wish I had her hair,” and never thinking, “Wow, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” and feeling positive about myself.
She’s definitely not alone. Lehrer mentioned that although publications like Teen Vogue sell over 1 million copies annually, 75% of teen girls feel bad about themselves after a few minutes of flipping through the glossy pages. Carina, who’s Puerto Rican, had this to say:
As a young woman of color, and dealing with weight issues and naturally curly hair, I’ve always had a problem trying to find, um, somebody to look up to in these magazines, and I know many other girls have…I’ve been part of that 75%, and–and it’s hard to find a girl who’s relatable to us, but we still keep going back because it’s still what society tells us to look like.
It’s not just the “going back” to these magazines that counts, it’s the fact that each time they do, teen girls receive more and more confirmation that how they look should be their number one priority. Dana Edell:
We live in a world where we tell little girls, pretty much from birth, that the most important thing is what they look like…From the time they’re babies, they’re told they’re beautiful, pretty little princesses, and we focus so much on girls’ appearance from a very, very young age, that by the time they get to be teenagers, they do learn…that the most important thing is what you look like.
As one Brian Lehrer listener pointed out, teen girls have plenty of other worthwhile things to focus on. For many, high school’s a make it or break it time. The effort girls put into studying and preparing for college will have a much greater impact on their lives than the hour they spend in front of the mirror each morning getting ready for school. So…easy, right? Girls should just focus on academics. We should all burn our fashion magazines, shatter our mirrors (despite the bad luck), renounce make-up and hair straighteners, and refuse to feel bad about how we naturally look! Hooray!
Not so fast. Dana Edell points out that it’s more complicated than that:
These are the images that we see 99% around us, and we live in a world now where the media is literally on every billboard, on our cell phones, on the internet. We are surrounded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — every single minute — we are looking at these images. So it becomes nearly impossible, despite how hard we try to…look at these images and look in the mirror and not see the differences between the two.
Given the omnipresence of media and advertising in our lives, something has to change. As teens like Emma and Carina have obviously already figured out, it’s not us — the real women and girls — that need a makeover, it’s the images we’re exposed to and those who manipulate them. Again, Dana Edell:
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, it’s when the definition of looking good is so narrow and so limiting, [it becomes] so dangerous to attain.
So far, SPARK — whose activism is driven by teenage girls themselves — has successfully convinced Ann Shoket, Editor in Chief of Seventeen Magazine, to publish a Body Peace Treaty. The treaty, signed by all Seventeen staff members, promises the magazine will include models of various body types, skin tones, and hair textures, only feature models and girls that are healthy, and never use Photoshop to alter girls’ bodies or facial structure. Apparently, Teen Vogue likewise agreed to feature healthy girls and varying body types in its publication. However, despite the 30,000 signatures on SPARK’s petition for the publication to follow Seventeen’s example, the magazine hasn’t committed to printing its promise.
Regardless of Teen Vogue’s decision, these girls deserve some serious kudos for refusing to accept a damaging, unrealistic norm and standing up to mainstream teen publications.
Well done, SPARK!
Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr