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Seventeen magazine vows not to alter images, to 'celebrate every kind of beauty'

By Greg Botelho, CNN
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seventeen publishes a "Body Peace Treaty" vowing to show "real girls and models"
  • It's in response to a teen-led petition signed by 84,000 calling photo altering dangerous
  • The teen behind that petition celebrates a "huge victory" after the magazine's announcement
  • But an ex-model questions why the magazine didn't admit to ever seriously altering images

(CNN) -- When teenage girls check out Seventeen magazine, they'll be getting the complete picture -- no ifs, ands or Photoshopped butts about it.

That's the pledge the magazine's staff made in its latest edition, after a push led by a Maine 14-year-old to combat the practice of tweaking pictures and picking models whose appearance give teens an unrealistic perspective on what is beautiful.

"We vow to ... never change girls' body or face shapes. (Never have, never will)," the magazine states as part of its "Body Peace Treaty" from its August edition, a copy of which CNN obtained Thursday.

The treaty and accompanying note by editor-in-chief Ann Shoket promise that Seventeen will "celebrate every kind of beauty" and feature "real girls and models who are healthy," while vouching that the magazine always has done just that.

But the more than 84,000 people who signed a Change.org petition, started by teenager Julia Bluhm, clearly believed Seventeen and other publications didn't always present the full, unvarnished truth.

"Those 'pretty women' that we see in magazines are fake," the petition said, in requesting "one unaltered -- real -- photo spread per month." "They're often Photoshopped, air-brushed, edited to look thinner and to appear like they have perfect skin. A girl you see in a magazine probably looks a lot different in real life."

Retouching photographs is nothing new -- especially in magazines and, increasingly, on the Internet. Adobe Photoshop and other digital image manipulation programs are widely employed by professionals and everyday users.

8th grader fights airbrushed images

The petition claims that disseminating such altered images to impressionable teens can pose a real danger, helping to spawn a culture that touts unrealistic beauty and contributes to eating disorders, extreme dieting, depression and more.

On YouTube, teens ask the world: Am I ugly?

"I know how it affects girls and ... my friends," Julia told CNN in May, shortly after meeting with Shoket and presenting the signatures to her. "We don't realize it sometimes when we're just looking at the magazine and having fun. It can lower self-esteem."

But not all teenage girls think retouching photographs is a problem.

Alexis Jones of Alpharetta, Georgia, said Thursday she'd worry that, if magazines portrayed young women who were overweight or had acne as being beautiful, some girls may think it's OK to live an unhealthy lifestyle. In fact, she feels making models' bodies thinner and their skin clearer can serve as positive motivation for people to take better care of themselves.

"Some people use that ideal image as motivation to get fit, eat healthy and stuff, while some use it as a crutch," said the 18-year-old, a rising freshman at Georgia State University. "You just have to be strong-minded."

In addition to going "more public" in its commitment, Seventeen states in its latest edition it is partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association and the Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls.

The magazine's treaty also vows it will "be totally upfront about what goes into our photo shoots" and it understands that, "regardless of clothing size, being healthy is about honoring your natural shape."

"We vow to ... give you the confidence to walk into any room and own it. Say bye-bye to those nagging insecurities that you're not good enough or pretty enough."

Even as she pushed another petition urging Teen Vogue to make a similar public pledge, Julia celebrated the proposals made by Seventeen.

"'Seventeen' listened!" she said in an update of her online petition. "They're saying they won't use Photoshop to digitally alter their models! This is a huge victory, and I'm so unbelievably happy."

The magazine said that it will continue make small changes to photos, like erasing a stray hair or changing background colors, even as it insists it still won't make big changes to a person's body or face.

Yet by not taking any responsibility for having presented anything but "authentic" beauty in the past, the magazine "doesn't really address (the) criticism" from many that it hasn't always lived by those rules, said former model Jenna Sauers.

"Seventeen essentially says that it's never had any issues with the way it's Photoshopped ... celebrities and models but that, just to be on the safe side, it will continue not altering the bodies of the people photographed," said Sauers, a contributor to the female-focused, commentary-driven online magazine Jezebel.com. "It seems like 84,000 people who signed that petition seem to be of the opinion that there were some issues."

Sauers said photo-editing tools have "made it incredibly easy to alter all kinds of things about image including body shape, size, skin color, skin tone, to erase wrinkles. And sometimes the effects are downright creepy."

The practice is widely used, and accepted, in the fashion and magazine industry -- such that many people now almost assume that most any image of a beautiful person is somehow doctored, Sauers told CNN.

"We've gotten used to the idea over the past 10 years or so that every single image we see in a magazine, particularly in women's magazines, is going to be an altered, hyper-real, impossible idealized version of how that person actually looks," she said.

Empowering young girls online

"For young girls, that's not a healthy visual culture to be growing up in."

New York-based celebrity publicist Marvet Britto said on HLN's "Evening Express" that magazine editors generally are "not selling reality, they're selling where the consumer desires to be."

"As much as we would like to think that (media would show) a more diverse array of the American public to young girls, that's simply not going to happen," Britto said, asserting you'll find "pretty much the same type of individual" on covers of magazines such as Seventeen.

Emma Stydahar -- a teen activist affiliated with Spark, a movement devoted to ending "the sexualization of women and girls in media" for whom Bluhm has blogged -- acknowledged on HLN that altered images are widespread and do negatively affect girls.

Still, she expressed excitement about Seventeen's new public declaration and anticipation that it will spur other publishers to follow suit. And if it doesn't, she promised, young women such as she and Julia Bluhme will keep pushing to affect change.

"I definitely see that in the future," Stydahar said. "I know that, myself personally and my co-workers at Spark will not change until this capitalization off of young woman's body image stops."

What do you think about excessive editing in commercial photography? Has it had an effect on you? Let us know in the comments below.

CNN's Melissa Abbey contributed to this report.

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