Summer has arrived, schools here in New England we are seeing clusters of teenage girls worshiping the sun. It is with some releif that the school year has ended, in particular that the drama of my daughter's 8th grade dance is over. The "Social", in many ways, marked the end of their middle school social careers. That they survived emotionally is, of course, something to celebrate.
Yet, the pressure to conform or to stand out in some admirable way is still paramount when it comes to social events. Scouring teen fashion magazines, hitting the malls, begging for more allowance or more babysitting gigs to drum up the cash for manicures, up-dos, eyebrow waxes and tanning lotions, these teen girls were on a mission. And it’s expensive.
The 8th grade guys, on the other hand, had it relatively easy: khaki shorts or neat jeans, and maybe a new shirt—untucked, of course—that cost all of $20. In truth the girls dress up for, well, each other—not the guys. That is clear.
One wonders why the pressure to look stunning at 14 is so extreme. It’s not like it's the prom. Yet, one has only to look at the fashion rags or Tumblr sites. A recent tweet on my daughters’ feed (which she knows I “spot check” from time to time) reads “the girls on tumblr >>> want to be them" or “Jealous of all the girls who can wear no make-up & still look gorgeous.” Really, honey?
But I was once a teen and so I get it. I really really loved my Seventeen magazines. I so clearly remember my favorite cover girl in violet hues that I spent an hour online trying to locate it (I found it on eBay as a vintage item!). It shows model Lissane Falk in braids with an innocence that would not grace a cover today.
So unrealistic are the cultural standards for beauty now and so insidious are the consequences for some girls (e.g., unhealthy dieting, body image issues, depression, eating disorders) that bottom up and top down efforts are starting to converge. In June 17 international editors of Vogue committed to doing something about the unrealistic requirements for fashion models, including a ban of hiring models under age 16. Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, in her letter from the editor states (June 2012 issue):
“Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) with the support of Vogue announced its Health Initiative, which was created to encourage everyone in this country who works in fashion—editors, designers, photographers, and casting directors alike—to share the responsibility of fostering a climate where a vital and healthy physique is lauded and encouraged….”
And in a curious defense of the industry, the editor goes on to write:
“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. 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. Making a stand with the Health Initiative signals renewed efforts to make our ideal of beauty a healthy one.”
It’s certainly a start for the fashion industry to commit to the health of their models, but if you look at the June issue of Vogue glorifying the physiques of Olympian athletes, one still has to wonder about what exactly is being promoted. It is but a rare few who reach elite levels in sports, just as it is the rare few who land in the pages of fashion magazines because they are “naturally blessed with slim bodies.” Oh, to have models like Lisanne Falk again.
Teens are Demanding the Truth
More compelling and heartening are the efforts by teenage girls sprouting petitions demanding the fashion industry to make clear to readers that their spreads have been photo-shopped and to show “real” girls. Earlier this spring an 8th grader from Maine, Julia Bluhm, started a petition on Change.org entitled Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls, which reached 83,000 signatures in part due to some excellent media coverage. This inspired the "Keep It Real" challenge on Facebook which invited teen girls to post unphotoshopped images during the last week of June. The winner will be on a billboard in NYC. So succesful was this campaign the editor of Seventeen Magazine, Ann Shoket and her staff, committed to showing unaltered images of teen models. Two other teens, Carina and Emma, inspired by Julia's success are now petitioning Teen Vogue to do the same. (Vote here.)
Do Girls Need Warning Labels?
At BodiMojo, our teen interns have jumped on the voting bandwagon. And, we recenlty wrote about a 16 year old, Natalia Dinsmore, who started a similar petition (see BodiMojo interview) calling Fashion Industries: A notice which advocates truth in advertising, suggesting a warning label for consumers on the risks of exposure to unrealistic images of beauty. It’s a very compelling idea from a teenager and it’s with some good science to support it. According to numerous studies, exposure to fashion magazines and other forms of media can makes some girls feel terrible about their physical appearance and self-esteem.
How Can We Make our Messages Stick?
In our household we don’t have fashion magazine subscriptions. My daughter is already reading them at friend’s houses or viewing them on blogs. While this may be a band-aid solution, there is no reason to amplify the exposure of unrealistic beauty images at home (They haven't asked for the magazines, either).
It is not bad to covet the fashion media. After all, it is a source for trends that can help girls and women find their own sense of style or learn self-care tips that might not otherwise be taught at home. (Seventeen helped me discover my own style and teach me how to find makeup for my skin tone, after all.) But at the same time, girls need to understand that their beauty is about who they are and not what they look like. Seventeen just made a bold move.
I think I'll reconsider a Seventeen subscription for my daughters.
(A version of this artilce was psoted at BodiMojo.com.)