By now, no one could doubt the potential power of a social media campaign. We saw how one toppled a longstanding dictatorship in Egypt. And now young women are trying to revolutionize the way beauty is perceived in their own country.
An interesting movement is afoot among teenage girls. As the end of the school year approaches, there is a growing number who are thinking out of the box about how to spend their free time this summer. Sure, there are the typical preoccupations — finding a summer job, being where the action is, who is dating who — and of course, what to wear at the beach. But instead of focusing on squeezing into tight shorts and swimsuits (or worrying that they won't), there is a large group that has worked on a social media campaign and its impact has been felt.
Called the "Keep It Real Challenge," it was created to start a media revolution and help teenagers realize the power they have to create positive change. Its mission is to challenge our culture's overuse of unrealistic imagery and to raise awareness of the negative impact these images have on body image and self esteem.
The movement was originally inspired by 14-year-old Julia Bluhm, whose Change.org petition brought a great deal of attention to the issue over the past several months. The petition (signed by over 80,000) and the demonstration she held in front of Hearst Corp. headquarters were aimed at having Seventeen commit to printing one unaltered — real — photo spread per month. ABC's Nightline covered Bluhm's day in New York City, including the meeting she had with Seventeen's editor-in-chief, Ann Shoket, who invited her to talk about the magazine's picture doctoring practices. While clearly an issue that applies to all glossy magazines, the event at Hearst was considered highly successful in highlighting the fact that perfect-looking photos make everyday girls feel inadequate.
Now, several organizations — Spark, MissRepresentation.org, Lovesocial.org and I Am That Girl — have joined forces to work on a similar venture and take it one step further: A three-day social media campaign urging a large number of print magazines to do what Bluhm asked of Seventeen editors; a pledge to use at least one non-photoshopped image of its young female models per issue. The campaign was first launched as a Facebook event where supporters could RSVP, comment and collaborate. Running from June 27th to June 29th, the challenge was centered on a different online action each day. On day one, Twitter was used to directly ask magazines to pledge to change their practices concerning photoshopping bodies. On day two, participants were asked to blog about how unrealistic images of beauty have impacted them. And on the final day, using Instagram, girls were asked to post photos of 'real beauty' to be entered in a Keep It Real Challenge — with selected photos to be featured on a billboard in New York City later this year.
Taken collectively, the campaign was an attempt to serve as a massive wake-up call for the entire media industry as everyday young people made noise about the effects of photoshopping images on self-esteem. Its message is not that different than what I wrote about in "Bridging the Authenticity Gap: A Common Cause Joins Generations," where I describe the growing positive reaction to 'real' women who were finding their way up front and center in the media. Meryl Streep, for example, gracing the cover of Vogue at 63, was an event many women celebrated. Was there air-brushing involved in her photoshoot? Perhaps, but the idea came through loud and clear — that women can be beautiful and real at any age.
And, whatever one thinks of the new controversial HBO series Girls and its very real-looking star/writer/producer Lena Dunham, no one doubts the great pains she takes to display authenticity on the show. With seemingly no makeup or digital alteration, the series presents 20-somethings as far less than perfect in every way. Dunham courageously — and often nakedly — plays the role of the most awkward one among her close friends, almost exaggerating her physical flaws on camera to make her point. She is who she is and she represents how most 'girls' truly are in the real world — a message in sync with the Keep It Real Challenge.
While it is difficult to argue with young, passionate teens choosing to speak out about an important cause — for authenticity, against distortion in the media — some may question this particular approach. Is it unrealistic? Too radical? Do we really think models and magazines will move away from perfecting the images used to promote products and sales? The answer came in Seventeen Magazine’s August issue, with a response called a “Body Peace Treaty.” A victory for Bluhm and her supporters in some way, the eight point plan written by the editor, actually sounded defensive of Seventeen’s practices and maintains much of the retouching status quo. Photoshop will continue, wrote Ann Shoket, but with some restrictions.
In truth, do we really want to live in a world void of glossy pictures of extreme god-given beauty — think Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor in her best days? Can’t photos of these beauties be enjoyed and admired alongside the kind of real imagery the "Keep It Real Campaign" is trying to promote?
I applaud a much wider and more diverse acceptance of what real beauty can mean, and think there is room for many types. And granted, this issue may not compare in importance to bringing down a dictatorship, but how can we not applaud an upcoming generation of women who are tired of having the definition of beauty dictated to them? We and our daughters — 'real girls' — deserve nothing less.
What do you think about the movement against photoshop — or better said — toward authenticity in the media?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.