One Teen’s Stand Against The Media’s Representation of Girls

August 29, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Students

Fourteen-year-old Julia Bluhm was tired of seeing alienating – and largely fabricated –representations of girls in magazines, and she decided to do something about it.

Bluhm chose magazine conglomerate the Hearst Corporation as her subject, specifically focusing on one of Hearst’s biggest offenders in her eyes: Seventeen Magazine. With help from activists and educators, Bluhm protested and petitioned her way to a meeting with Seventeen’s editor-in-chief Ann Shoket, who agreed to feature unaltered and diverse images of girls on the magazine’s pages.

“As part of SPARK Movement, a girl-fueled, national activist movement, I’ve been fighting to stop magazines, toy companies, and other big businesses from creating products, photo spreads and ads that hurt girls and break our self-esteem,” said Bluhm on her petition’s website. “I’ve learned that we have the power to fight back.”

Bluhm’s mission began shortly after she participated in her district’s Learning and Technology Initiative, which uses our digital literacy and citizenship curriculum to help youth navigate the highly connected world around them. Several of the lessons specifically deal with the media’s influence on students, and the effects of advertising.

Bluhm and a fellow student from her Waterville, Maine, middle school filmed a short documentary titled, “If You Don’t Like Something, Change It,” which captured students’ reactions to Seventeen’s depiction of women and matched them with interesting statistics about the magazines’ vast distribution. The footage led Bluhm to create a petition, “Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls,” with that now has over 86,000 signatures from across the globe.

The petition specifically called on Seventeen to print one completely unaltered photo spread each month, and, after her and fellow SPARK activists flew to New York to protest at the foot of the Hearst Corporation steps, Bluhm was able to hand-deliver the petition to Shoket, who agreed to her request.

In a new “Body Peace Treaty,” editors promise to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and to only use images of “real girls and models who are healthy.” Though critics have noted it's not clear how these promises will change the magazine's content.

SPARK, which stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge, was created in response to an American Psychological Association task force on the sexualization of girls which called for more age-appropriate multimedia education and more public awareness of these issues, according to The Boston Globe.

Lyn Mikel Brown, one of Spark’s founders and a Professor of Education and Human Development at Colby College who wrote “Packaging Girlhood” told the Globe she sees the media messages aimed at women and girls to be getting worse in recent years.

“The idea there’s this power in being sexualized, we’ve never seen it in quite this way before,” she said. “This attempt by a younger generation to be more sex-positive — that you can be sexual and powerful and smart all at once — is being picked up by the media and sold as sexualization, basically to sell products.”

The Globe’s Joseph Kahn continues: “'Love yourself just the way you are’ might be the theme of one magazine layout. A few pages later, another suggests: Don’t you want to be this thin and hot-looking, too?”

Touted as “crusader against airbrushed ads” by ABC News, Bluhm said her work is far from over, and that this is just the beginning of her movement. Two of her SPARK peers even started their very own petition in light of Bluhm’s success, urging Teen Vogue to make a similar commitment as Seventeen. "We hope it will be like a baby step to grow into something bigger like maybe it will influence other magazines to do the same thing [on] other pages and maybe even a cover," she told ABC News. "That would be really cool."

What’s Next: Hot off the presses! We're putting the finishing touches on a series of lesson plans, videos, and parent tips about media messages, gender stereotypes, and kids' digital lives. We should probably call Bluhm in as a consultant.  Stay tuned to hear more about our "Gender and Digital Life Toolkit," as well as the work we've been doing with MissRepresentation and the Healthy Media Commission