Last month, a 14-year-old girl delivered a 7,000-signature strong petition asking Seventeen Magazine to publish one non-Photoshopped spread a month. If you were once 14 and have not yet completely destroyed your brain cells with alcohol and other substances, you might remember how this kind of righteous crusade felt. It felt powerful. It felt progressive. It felt right.
Which is not to say that Julia Bluhm’s petition is not any of those things, because I think it is all of those things. However, I also think that no matter how powerful, progressive, right, or reasonable her request is, it will likely be ignored. The thing is that magazines exist because of advertising. Those ads that make up over half the bulk of a magazine are what pay to have it published, and that’s not even including the brands featured in articles, photo shoots, and columns. Seventeen isn’t a teenage girl manifesto, it’s another advertisement trying to get you to buy stuff. And pretty people are better at convincing you to buy stuff than ugly people are. Sorry. That’s real life. You know this even if you don’t want to admit it, even though your knowledge of it becomes the reason you decry it.
When I worked in marketing, people wrote in to tell us that we didn’t have to use sex in advertising, by which they meant people who were sexy but not actually having sex (because that was against the law in almost every industry, at least the ones that get to advertise on television). The obvious answer was “uh, yes we do,” but the more complicated answer was “the only reason your brain is interpreting this as sex is because you find the person in the ad to be sexy, because they are empirically attractive in matters of facial symmetry, physical fitness and oh, fuck it, joie de vivre.” Empirically attractive means that you and everyone else find this person attractive no matter what, and this makes you like them. This makes you trust them. This makes you say “Hm, they are making very good points about this particular product/service/lifestyle, and I am interested in being a part of it!” It’s natural. It’s how our brain chemistry works. That’s how marketing works. It gets you to buy something by convincing you that your life will be better once that something is a part of it. And that’s why we use what you call sex to sell products. It works, and we are in the business of making money. Commerce!
Does this mean that teenage girls should continue to grow up with unrealistic expectations regarding body image, social status, and material possessions? Hell no. But a magazine’s job isn’t to put girls on a righteous path or protect their self esteem. Its job is to sell them things now and influence them to become the kind of people who continue to buy things in the future.
Again, this doesn’t make anything right, but these days, everyone knows about Photoshop. Those same teenage girls use it themselves before posting photos on Facebook. If we already know that everything in magazines is Photoshopped, then isn’t it easy to just ignore it? The same with advertising? And movies? And rich people’s bodies? Everything is bullshit, nothing is real!
Like I said, this doesn’t mean that Julia Bluhm’s efforts aren’t worth something, because I suppose they’ll make her less likely to become a 17-year-old alcorexic who has a kid just after her high school graduation with some dumbass who goes to refrigerator school in an effort to really clean up his life. So you can stop writing your hate mail now. I trash it, anyway.