Nars and the Real Girls

Seventeen magazine recently patted itself on the back for responding to a petition drive led by an enterprising teenage girl, Julia Bluhm. The magazine now will present only non-Photoshopped girls in its editorial spreads and covers. This was hailed as a victory for girls and women. Finally, fewer unrealistic (sometimes even impossible) images of women! Girls might be able to reduce the body anxiety and self-hatred they feel when confronted with such images!

Seventeen‘s righteous step forward is really just dabbing a bit of concealer on the problem. Even if every women’s and girls’ fashion magazine followed the exact same rule, fashion magazines would still be a tangle of intimidation and manipulation. Here’s why.

Seventeen is not actually doing anything different, and will still Photoshop images. Seventeen claimed that they never did Photoshop anyway. Or not really. They claimed that they cleaned up a pimple or stray hair, but never fundamentally changed the way girls look. So they will just do what they’ve always done. As Seventeen editor-in-chief put it in her peace offering to the petitioners, she pledges to “Never change girls’ body shapes or faces. (Never have, never will.)” So Seventeen will still Photoshop. And I would hazard a guess that what, exactly, constitutes changing a body shape might be different for Seventeen editors and the rest of the world.

Who needs Photoshop anyway? Lighting, exposure, focus, professional make-up artists, and hairstylists can together cover a multitude of sins. A model can still wear false eyelashes in a mascara ad, chicken cutlets in a bra ad, double Spanx in a fashion ad.

This doesn’t even apply to most of the photographs of women and girls in SeventeenThis pledge does not apply to advertisements. And if you open a fashion magazine, you’ll see that the majority of photographs in there are actually ads.

This takes us to what is arguably the bigger problem in women’s and girls’ magazines. A very strong causal link between specifically fashion images and poor body image in women cannot easily be teased out. Some of women’s and girls’ increasingly poor body image may stem from other images, such as in porn or movies. Also, the causal arrow may well point the other way. It may be the case that girls and women inclined to anorexia or low self-esteem gravitate toward fashion magazines. (Attempts to deny that possibility are here and here – second link behind a paywall, only abstract available). So there’s no knock-down proof. Despite the lack of proof, my experience as an on-and-off reader of fashion mags leads me to suspect strongly that fashion magazines really have a significant impact on women’s perceptions of their bodies. I don’t, however, think that fashion magazines are clearly the primary cause of such anxiety. Images of gorgeous women are everywhere.

While the extent of harm caused by fashion magazines on women’s self-esteem is not clear, there remains a way in which fashion magazines are unquestionably manipulative of their readers. Editors, advertisers, and cosmetic companies outright deceive readers in an attempt to push products.

Editors do not disclose conflicts of interest. Editors get freebies from cosmetic companies and clothing companies. Cosmetic companies and clothing companies are their advertisers. Yet editors have no problem apparently ingenuously recommending one or another product as, say, “the best under-eye circle remover!” Even if the company that makes that under-eye circle cream is a major advertiser, or has loaded the editor with goodies. This is a problem in many special interest magazines, but I think it’s worse in fashion magazines. First of all, there are simply more product recommendations per issue in fashion magazines than in many others. I also suspect that cosmetic recommendations are taken with more weight than other recommendations. Once people settle on one brand of, say, toilet paper, they tend not to switch around, except for reasons of price. Cosmetics, however, go in and out of fashion, and there is always the newest, latest wrinkle-fighting technology. There’s not as much brand loyalty, and recommendations are accorded more weight. Editors should be forced to disclose conflicts of interest. It seems almost insane, doesn’t it? But why shouldn’t they?

The ads are Photoshopped. If there are laws against misleading advertising, how on earth is Photoshopping allowed in cosmetic ads? These ads implicitly promise that the model is using their product, yet the flaws on the model’s face are actually painted out. See the above photo of Eva Longoria, who, in a mascara ad, has very obviously impossible lashes, unachievable by nature and mascara alone. She also has that Photoshopped look to her face. (Speaking of Eva Longoria, bless Jezebel for calling out Photoshop tragedies such as this). Or these photos of Andie MacDowell, which (bravely!) show her crow’s feet, but her chin and neck look like a painting of a 25-year-old’s. Open any fashion magazine. Such photos are endemic in fashion ads. This is not a case of one or two bad apples, there is an actual industry standard of deceptive advertising. There has apparently been a move to ban such ads, with a couple of recent ad campaigns being called out by those in charge of the advertising industry’s self-regulation, the National Advertising Division.  This ad was banned in Britain.

Simply put, the Seventeen pledge, even if widely adopted by others, does absolutely nothing to change the two major problems posed by fashion magazines. Women will still be intimidated by unrealistic images, and they will still be swindled  by editors and cosmetic companies into buying products. Seventeen gets to have a halo of integrity for free. There is a clear reason for a ban on Photoshopped cosmetic ads, and it’s good that there’s a move toward a self-regulated ban. And it would be awesome if women demanded disclosure from editors and really real real pictures throughout magazines. If we buy a magazine with real integrity, others might follow suit!

Full disclosure: my mom worked at Seventeen before I was born.

[Cross-posted on the main page.]


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. One of my favorite things about Mode magazine, back in the two years or so it was published, was that not only did they pledge that all the women appearing in their editorial content would be at least a size twelve (and not significantly ‘shopped), but SO WOULD THE ADS. They turned down money from a LOT of big companies that usually advertise in fashion mags until the companies shot ads involving larger women — who are still smaller than most US women, but ‘large’ by fashion industry standards.

    I miss Mode so hard.

    • Oh, and full disclosure: my mother was a fashion model in New York in her childhood and early teen years. She had four separate Good Housekeeping covers, and did both magazine photo-spreads and live-mannikin schtick (in really, really high-end stores).

  2. If Seventeen limited itself to non-digital enhancements, the contrast between editorial and advertising spreads might be the most illuminating part of the whole controversy.

    Though, I’m not sure how much difference it would make. If photoshopped “perfect” girls undermine healthy body image, presumably unretouched, but naturally gorgeous, girls in perfect hair and makeup are almost equally intimidating.

    • Lindsay, for a short time I used to live across the street from Elite modeling agency. That sadly ruined my fond hope that models really weren’t as thin and beautiful as all that.

  3. Excellent ’17’ and Julia Bluhm. PS is so last century.

    – Alexxx

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