Seventeen Magazine Promises Real Photos of Real Girls

Let's put an end to questionable Photoshop work.

Seventeen magazine recently announced that it would stop using Photoshopped images. In its August edition, it stated in its “Body Peace Treaty,” “We vow to … never change girls’ body or face shapes.” The magazine’s decision was sparked by a campaign led by Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old girl from Maine, who started a petition that was signed by more than 84,000 people.

“I know how it affects girls and … my friends,” Bluhm told CNN in May. “We don’t realize it sometimes when we’re just looking at the magazine and having fun. It can lower self-esteem.”

In general, media outlets have a strict policy against Photoshopping photos. The readers should have an expectation that the photos that are published are real and not altered.

Several journalists have been fired or suspended for Photoshopping images. A Charlotte Observer photographer was fired for changing the color of the sky in a picture of firefighters. A Toledo Blade photographer was fired for altering images, with tricks like inserting a basketball into a game photo or deleting a tree limb or utility pole. Some people might not think that such minor changes are a big deal, but they distort reality.

Sometimes the Photoshopped image is more serious. Reuters fired a freelance photographer who manipulated the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike in suburban Beirut, Lebanon to show enhanced and darker smoke rising from the buildings. In 2008, the media arm of the Iranian government altered a photo of missiles that it had fired. In reality, one of the four missiles failed to fire, but the Photoshopped image showed the launch of four missiles. In 2008, a freelance photographer for The Atlantic took photos of Senator John McCain, doctored some of them to make him look sinister, and then put them on her website. In 2004, a doctored photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda seemingly appearing together at an anti-war rally was circulated by someone who falsely used an identifying logo of the Associated Press.

Photoshopping is prohibited in news journalism, but should it be allowed in celebrity magazines? I think it’s a close call, but I would still say no.

Some well-known celebrity Photoshopping incidents include a Redbook cover of Faith Hill that made her arm much skinnier than it actually was, a CBS Watch! Magazine cover that took 20 pounds off of Katie Couric, Time magazine’s O.J. Simpson cover that made him look darker and menacing, a TV Guide cover that imposed Oprah Winfrey’s head onto Ann-Margret’s body, a Redbook cover that combined three photos of Jennifer Aniston into one, a British GQ cover that gave Kate Winslet thinner legs, and a Men’s Fitness cover that super-enhanced the arm muscles of tennis star Andy Roddick.

Some argue that fashion or celebrity magazines should have a different standard, in that the average reader has an expectation that the photos are being altered to make the subject look better, if not perfect. However, many people have said that doctored photos in celebrity magazines have led to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression because they portray unrealistic body images.

Magazines geared towards teenagers should be held to a higher standard and should be accurately portraying people in their photos. They should see that models and their peers have pimples, freckles, moles, blemishes, birthmarks, glasses, braces, and a few extra pounds. Sure, young people should be encouraged to be physically fit, but all body types should be celebrated, not just super-duper skinny ones with carrot-stick arms and legs.

It would be one thing if a doctored photo appeared in a satirical publication like the Onion or in the old tabloid Weekly World News, which had doctored photos of heaven from the Hubble Telescope, Hillary Clinton holding her adopted alien baby, and Bat Boy. Readers (hopefully) know what they’re getting.

Although celebrity, fashion and teen magazines are often a guilty pleasure and an escape from reality for their readers, their content should still be based on reality.

Hopefully, other similar publications will follow Seventeen‘s lead and stop Photoshopping its models. According to CBS News, two other teen girls trying to get Teen Vogue to change its Photoshop policy have gotten more than 15,000 petition signatures. However, those teens told various publications that the Teen Vogue editors were rude to them and unreceptive. In May, Vogue did agree not to use models under age 16 who appear to have an eating disorder.

Knowing that teens try to emulate what they see in their magazines, these magazines should keep it real. Seventeen‘s new Photoshop policy is a good start.

Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.