Seventeen magazine announced this week that its August issue will be the first to be published under the new "Body Peace Treaty," crafted by editor Ann Shoket, in which one unedited photograph of a model will be featured. The Treaty requires the magazine to publish one unedited photograph and to "celebrate every kind of beauty" while showing "real girls as they really are" with healthy models in each subsequent issue. The Treaty was created in response to a petition that was founded in April by 14-year old Julie Bluhm, who sought to make the magazine improve girls' body image after girls in her ballet class were complaining that they were fat.
This is a notable event for two reasons: first, a 14-year-old was able to get tens of thousands of signatures on her petition that became a driving force to change a huge publication for the better. It's an impressive accomplishment and one she should be proud of. The second is that it can be the first step in making the fashion industry healthier, for both the models who starve themselves to be the best and for the people who read the magazines and develop distorted body images. Seventeen has a readership of girls between the ages of 12 and 19, but maybe more sophisticated fashion magazines for women and men like Vogue and GQ will get a little more realistic, too. There's nothing wrong with touching up photos to make the models look good; advertisements need to make their products look appealing. There is something wrong with making them unrecognizable.
But there are also several issues underlying Bluhm's decision to make the petition and Shoket's decision to honor it. The first is that no one is perfect, and even those who may be considered aesthetically perfect may not consider themselves so. Body image is an issue for everyone. Girls especially are vulnerable to negative body image as they endure adolescence; puberty is fun for no one but Matthew Lewis. In some extreme cases, it can lead to eating disorders or self-inflicted harm, but in most cases, it just leads to a little whining in ballet class. It does bring to mind the episode in the cult classic Mean Girls where the three girls stand in front of a mirror and complain about their bodies, from their "man-shoulders" to their "weird hairline" to having "huge pores" ... until Cady (Lindsay Lohan) offers that she sometimes has morning breath.
Girls often bond over their jealousy for another's hair or breasts in a paradoxical manner that compliments the other, while also self-deprecating. But it is true that up to 50% of American women are on a diet at any given time and 90% of teenagers have dieted or attempted to. In a time when 62% of adult Americans are obese, is this healthy or stupid? Where do we draw the line between actually getting fit to avoid heart disease or diabetes and losing weight to be supermodel skinny? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the more beholders, the better.
The other issue that is at the essence of the female condition. Introduced in 1975 by Laura Melvy, the male gaze is a concept that emerged from cinematography but is pervasive in daily life. In film, the male gaze is when the camera's view is the perspective of a heterosexual man and the woman is displayed as both an erotic object for the male characters and the spectator watching them on screen. The man is actively gazing while the woman is gazed upon, which establishes a power dynamic that puts the man in the dominant position. While the male gaze is objectifying, the female gaze mimics it: women see themselves through the eyes of men. Therefore, when a teenage girl looks at a magazine to see a heavily made-up 20-something dripping with jewelry and with a finger by her mouth, she knows that the model 20-something is someone that men find appealing. It doesn't matter whether or not she knows that the photograph is airbrushed, Photoshopped, touched up, or edited. It matters that she realizes that that is what men want. She must be like the model to be what men want. This is the lie that magazines teach and this is what Seventeen is now trying to fight with so-called realism: let the imperfections of blemishes, crooked teeth, and scars show, because having them is being real, and being real is being beautiful.
This trend towards reality has been popular within the last decade. Excluding the concept of reality television, more pop culture has focused on finding the "real" person underneath celebrity, especially in politics. On television, shows like Mad Men and Girls have become wildly popular trying to exhibit real characters living real lives in real time. Perhaps Western culture is trending away from the glitz and the glam to being a healthy, normalized, realistic society that values natural beauty over plastic surgery. Maybe not, but keeping models healthy and girls who watch them healthy is not a bad place to be.