July brought big news in the world of teen magazines. Seventeen pledged never to Photoshop the shape of models’ bodies or faces. All thanks to a petition created by Julia Bluhm, 14, a Waterville resident who brought the issue to Change.org.
The story of Bluhm’s petition, which garnered more than 85,000 signatures and got the editor of Seventeen magazine to agree to a meeting with Bluhm, is actually much bigger than the hundreds of media outlets that covered it would have you believe. And it all started with Professor of Education Lyn Mikel Brown.
In April Bluhm posted a petition describing how unrealistic images of girls push her peers to strive to attain unrealistic physical ideals. “Here’s what lots of girls don’t know,” Bluhm wrote. “Those ‘pretty women’ that we see in magazines are fake. They’re often photoshopped, air-brushed, edited to look thinner, and to appear like they have perfect skin. A girl you see in a magazine probably looks a lot different in real life.”
She asked Seventeen to commit one non-Photoshopped spread per month. The petition took off and the media took notice. But what most news outlets missed was that this movement actually began long before the petition, and that Bluhm, as bold and articulate as she is, was not acting alone.
Bluhm is a member of SPARK, a movement cofounded by Brown (who also cofounded Hardy Girls Healthy Women, which was featured in the Winter 2011 Colby). SPARK—which stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge—began in response to an American Psychological Association report assessing the damage caused by the sexualization of girls. Brown and Hunter College professor Deborah Tolman developed the concept of a girl-powered movement to inspire change.
In order to address the issues that girls find most compelling, Brown and Tolman put together a core group of girls from the United States and Canada to blog and to learn about activism and media literacy. SPARK partnered with Hardy Girls as a leadership organization, and with 60 other organizations with related missions to develop a network for cross-promotion.
“The idea is to give [girls] the critical vocabulary, the critical thinking skills, and the lens to see the sexualization and understand what they’re seeing, and see the larger patterns—and then to support them when they run with it,” said Brown. “That’s our goal.”
Through SPARK, Bluhm, who is the daughter of Mary Beiter and Colby Physics and Astronomy Department Chair Robert Bluhm, gained an understanding of how the media affects the ways girls see themselves. She, along with 20 or so team members, also learned how to leverage social media. “They’ve learned from amazing young women activists,” said Brown, “like Shelby Knox, who has been dubbed the next Gloria Steinem.”
Knox, who works for Change.org, advised Bluhm on crafting the petition. Then the SPARK team and partner organizations took the petition to the social media realm with tremendous success. The whole operation, says Brown, was the result of a calculated effort to teach and support young people in their activism.
And beyond Seventeen, Bluhm sees an additional benefit to the attention the campaign has received. “It’s about teaching girls all over the United States and all over the world—all the people who signed our petition,” Bluhm told Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR. “It’s about teaching them that Photoshop is used in magazines like Seventeen and teaching them to pick it out when they see it so they don’t have to worry about looking like those girls.”