The War on Teen Vogue: Young Readers Fight for “Real Girls”
Are girls in teen magazines “real” enough? The magazines say yes. Readers say no—and they’re ready for battle. Abigail Pesta reports.
Does Teen Vogue digitally zap zits? The magazine’s photos of young women are at the center of a growing squall, sparked by a pair of teenagers who have asked the magazine to show more “real girls.” The magazine says it does not digitally alter anyone's body size and that it shows a slew of real girls. It declines to say whether it removes facial flaws. The result: a public-relations nightmare.
The debate started when two teens in New York, Emma Stydahar and Carina Cruz, launched a petition on the site Change.org in early July, asking the magazine to “pledge not to alter body or face size in your models and to celebrate beauty in all its forms.” The petition continued, “It’s time for an end to the digitally enhanced, unrealistic beauty we see in the pages of magazines.”
Stydahar, a 17-year-old in New York's Westchester County, says she used to be “really into Teen Vogue,” but stopped reading it several years ago because she found it “such a depressing experience.” She says she flipped through a recent issue and found that “it was exactly the same—super-skinny white models, with just a few variations in ethnicity. I don’t look like this. My friends don’t look like this.” She says she herself has acne scars from picking at her face in attempt to create perfection. “We want to know when a zit has been taken out of a photo,” she says, “so girls won’t think this is what their skin should look like at 14 or 15.” She says she did not contact the magazine before starting the petition.
Her friend Cruz, a 16-year-old in Queens, N.Y., describes herself as an occasional reader of the magazine and says she has “never been able to find a good role model for me” in its pages. “I’m a Latina. I’ve struggled with weight issues. I’ve got curly hair,” she says. “We don’t all want to be white-skinned girls with blond hair.”
The two girls were inspired by a similar campaign, launched in April by a 14-year-old girl in Waterville, Maine, named Julia Bluhm. She started a petition on Change.org asking Seventeen magazine to feature one unretouched photo shoot a month. Within days, she had collected 25,000 signatures. In May, the magazine’s editor in chief, Ann Shoket, met Bluhm at the magazine’s offices in the Hearst Tower in Manhattan. Shoket served up cupcakes and ultimately created a “Body Peace Treaty.” Published in the August issue, which hit newsstands in early July, the treaty vows to “never change girls’ body or face shapes.”
Seventeen admits in its August issue that it removes blemishes, but says it has never changed the size or shape of girls’ faces or bodies. So there doesn’t actually appear to be a change in policy. But the very public statement worked. “Seventeen listened! They’re saying they won't use Photoshop to digitally alter their models! This is a huge victory, and I'm so unbelievably happy,” Bluhm said on Change.org, where her petition had collected more than 86,000 signatures.
Shareeza Bhola, a communications manager at Change.org, said of the magazine, “I think the most important thing they said is that they made a very public commitment—now they can be held accountable.”
Last week, Stydahar and Cruz had a chance to express their views to the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, Amy Astley. They started the day with a demonstration in Times Square in Manhattan, rolling out a red carpet and walking it like runway models, to “show what we want to see—real girls,” says Stydahar. Then they went around the corner to the Condé Nast building, home to Teen Vogue, and met with the editor and a public-relations representative for the magazine.
Bolstered by the success of the Seventeen campaign, they expected the meeting to go well. It didn’t exactly go as hoped, they say.
“They made us wait for 15, 20 minutes. When we walked in, there were no introductions, no handshakes,” says Stydahar. “They were like, ‘You wanted this meeting. What do you want to say?’ They took out this huge stack of Teen Vogues, all with little cards marking what they perceived as culturally diverse models. They were all very thin African-American models. We were like, ‘These are examples of diversity, but not in body type.’”
She adds, “I kind of felt like I was at the principal’s office. They were super-defensive, saying we were accusing them of all this horrible stuff. The meeting ended in about five minutes, with them calling us horrible accusers. Beauty comes in so many shapes, sizes, and colors—we just want them to portray that in their magazine.”
Cruz describes the encounter as “like an interrogation.” She says, “The second we walked in, we could tell we weren’t welcome. They told us to do our homework before we start a campaign like this. They wanted to defend their magazine, which is normal. But they weren't there to listen to us.” She adds, “I’m not gonna just blame the media, but it is one of the main influencers of our generation.”
After the meeting, a flurry of angry headlines hit the blogosphere: “Young Activists Say Teen Vogue Was Shockingly Rude to Them After Photoshop Protest,” “Teen Vogue Defends Photoshopping in Spite of Teenage Protests,” “Girls Ask Teen Vogue to Ditch Photoshop, Get Berated by Editor in Chief.”
T he magazine issued a statement in response, saying, “Teen Vogue makes a conscious and continuous effort to promote a positive body image among our readers. We feature healthy models on the pages of our magazine and shoot dozens of nonmodels and readers every year and do not retouch them to alter their body size. Teen Vogue pledges to continue this practice."
Cruz and Stydahar say they don't think they are being taken seriously enough. They believe images of "perfect girls," as Cruz says, can lead to problems such as depression and eating disorders. ”I’ve never personally gone so far as to have an eating disorder, but I definitely have friends that have ," says Cruz. Stydahar says eating disorders and “weird diets” are an issue among her friends as well, along with self-cutting. “I remember in sixth grade, my friends and I would all meet in the cafeteria and sit down at a table, but none of us would eat anything. There would be no food. The images in these magazines definitely lead to self-destructive things—it’s been so ingrained in our minds that this is beauty.”
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and author of a guide to preventing eating disorders called Full of Ourselves, says she believes magazines need to be more accountable for the images on their pages. “These magazines are defining beauty as one body type,” she says. “No organization can consider itself pro-girl if it doesn’t reflect the full range of girls in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I’ve worked with magazines for 30 years on these issues—they decline to accept accountability. Publicists say, ‘This is what people want.’ But look at Glee. Look at the Dove campaign. They’ve been incredibly successful showing images of a range of women’s bodies.”
In the August issues of Teen Vogue and Seventeen, thin white women dominate. While one issue of a magazine does not reflect a year’s worth of content, The Daily Beast conducted an informal study to get a general sense of the images. On the editorial pages of Teen Vogue in August, we counted 95 images that include white women and 19 images that include ethnically diverse women. On the editorial pages of Seventeen in August, we counted 154 images that include white women and 72 images that include ethnically diverse women. The cover of Seventeen features a Filipino-Spanish-Irish actress named Shay Mitchell. On the cover of Teen Vogue are Spider Man stars Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield.
“Teens hate hypocrisy,” says Steiner-Adair of the imbalanced images. “If you’re really trying to sell beauty and body acceptance, walk the walk.”
Steiner-Adair, who has counseled teen girls for decades and conducted a six-year research project at Harvard for her book on eating disorders, says she teaches girls to “analyze and counter the media culture” and to “deconstruct the messages in the culture that tell girls dieting or a new pair of skinny jeans are the key to success.” She adds, “There’s no question that ano-chic—creating a beauty image out of an illness like anorexia—has done huge damage to girls. We’re going into schools and saying, ‘Don’t buy these magazines. They’ll make you feel bad about yourselves.’”
She describes a recent session with a 20-year-old woman who has had an eating disorder since her early teens. “She told me, ‘When I was 12, I became obsessed with reading Teen Vogue; I was obsessed with the models—they all had like 24-inch waists,” she says. Australian model Gemma Ward became a particular focus. The teenager posted photos of Ward in her bedroom, alongside photos of herself, trimmed thinner so her body mirrored the model’s. A lifelong battle began.
Teen Vogue and Seventeen declined to comment for this article.
Magazines have long been accused of showing only one type of body—and airbrushing that body to perfection. Waists have been whittled, skin lightened, and breasts enhanced to ridiculous proportions.
Amid a growing backlash from readers about images of impossibly thin, perfectly sculpted women, some magazines have taken note. Glamour magazine said this spring that it would “take a stronger role” in setting limits on retouching. “You told us you don’t want little things like freckles and scars removed, and we agree; those are the kinds of details that make each woman on the planet unique and beautiful,” editor in chief Cindi Leive said in the March issue. “And while our policy has always been not to alter a woman’s body shape, we’ll also be asking photographers we hire not to manipulate body size in the photos we commission, even if a celebrity or model requests a digital diet (alas, it happens).”
Vogue and its international editions followed suit, vowing to depict “healthy body images in our magazines”. Editor in chief Anna Wintour said in the June issue, “At Vogue we’ve just finished a commemorative book … and I was startled to see how many of the wonderful models we've worked with over the years—the super era included—would be considered far too big by today’s standards.”
At the same time, Wintour defended the fashion industry and noted that eating disorders are not black and white. “Of course, oversimplification of this crucial issue doesn’t help. Fashion has often been (wrongly) held up as an active agent in making women want to be excruciatingly thin, ignoring the complex genetic and psychosocial factors that contribute to eating disorders,” she said. “Knee-jerk condemnation of many of the girls working today who are naturally blessed with slim bodies and exercise and eat well to maintain them is to be scrupulously avoided. So, too, is ignoring the way that obesity levels are rocketing upward, especially among the young, paving the way for all sorts of problems in the future.”
Stydahar and Cruz vow to continue their campaign to see more "real girls" in Teen Vogue. Their petition has now collected more than 33,000 signatures. “We’re just gonna keep pushing it out there,” says Stydahar. The two girls, along with Bluhm, who started the Seventeen petition, all blog for a site called Spark, which describes itself as a “girl-fueled activist movement.”
“We won’t give up,” says Cruz. “This is just fuel to the fire.”