Saying ‘No’ to Picture Perfect

December 17, 2012 | The University

By AUSTIN CONSIDINE

May 16, 2012

JULIA BLUHM, a 14-year-old in Waterville, Me., got angry looking at all the perfect models in Seventeen magazine, with their digitally retouched skin and super thin waistlines.

But instead of writing a letter to the editor, she turned to her fellow members at a young feminists’ group called Spark, an acronym for Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge. With its help, she started an online petition demanding that Seventeen include one photo spread in each issue that is not digitally retouched.

“To girls today, the word ‘pretty’ means skinny and blemish-free,” she wrote in the petition.

“Here’s what lots of girls don’t know,” she also wrote. “Those ‘pretty women’ that we see in magazines are fake.”

The response was overwhelming. Her petition has generated over 72,000 signatures and crashed the group’s site.

Spark was started by college professors in 2010 as a “girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media.” The founders are Deborah L. Tolman, a professor of social welfare and psychology at the Hunter College School of Social Work and the CUNY Graduate Center, and Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Waterville.

Targets of the group have included a line of wigs for little girls called Baby Bangs (“for the girl who has everything — except hair,” the Web site states), and a Halloween costume called Anna Rexia, which the group said trivialized eating disorders.

Spark, overseen by a staff of experienced activists, brings together 20 girls from 13 to 22, who each devise two actions a month, like a petition or demonstration, which they blog about on the group’s Web site and promote through Spark’s network of 60-plus partners including Girls Inc., and NOW.

A recent campaign, started by Stephanie Cole from Boston, 23, and Bailey Shoemaker Richards, from Findlay, Ohio, 22, protested a new line of Lego products for girls called Friends, which included sets for building a hair salon and cupcake shop.

“Your new Friends marketing campaign is not only insulting and condescending, but it is dangerous,” the group wrote in its letter to Lego. “This is not about the color of your building blocks,” the letter said. “It’s about your distorted notion that, in order to buy Lego, girls need messages about the value of shopping, clubbing, baking and tanning.

The petition, posted on Change.org, generated over 56,000 signatures and led to a meeting with Lego, where the young women presented the toy company with a 40-page “gender audit” of its marketing campaigns and product design. (Michael McNally, a spokesman for Lego, said the meeting with Spark was “very productive,” but noted that sales to girls were only 10 percent of the United States total in 2011 and had grown since the Friends line was introduced in January.)

The moment seems ripe for Spark’s girl-power message. Earlier this month, Vogue pledged to no longer use models who “appear to have an eating disorder.” In February, Glamour pledged to ask its photographers not to manipulate its models’ body sizes.

Groups like Spark are helping to “create a counterculture to this insane dominant culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Spark, I think, is a fantastic forum that is teaching girls daily how to get smart and outsmart these really stupid stereotypes,” she added.

The petition led to a meeting between Spark members and Seventeen’s editors. Ms. Bluhm called the meeting “really positive,” but added that the magazine had made “no promises just yet.”

“I chose Seventeen because I really love Seventeen, and they’re already doing a lot to make girls feel good about their bodies,” Ms. Bluhm added. “I thought they’d like to take it a step farther to make us love it even more.”

Regarding whether Seventeen would agree to a Photoshop-free spread, a spokesman said it was taking Miss Bluhm’s concerns “seriously” and “continuing our conversation.” Ann Shoket, the editor-in-chief of Seventeen, added: “Our goal at Seventeen is to make girls feel good about themselves, empower them and help them mature into smart, accomplished young women, and I believe that’s Spark’s goal as well.”

Originally published by The New York Times