Professionalism/Julia Bluhm, SPARK, and Seventeen Magazine

Photo manipulation software is not new, but recently it is generating controversy. While the public generally accepts that Photoshop will be used for retouching purposes (lighting, flyaway hair, skin imperfections, and such), viral videos demonstrate the astonishing transformation a model’s pictures undergo between a photo shoot and publication. This transformation is rooted in altering models’ bodies, often so drastically that the original model is unrecognizable in the final picture. Many famous figures, including actress Lena Dunham and supermodel Cindy Crawford, recognize the unrealistic representations of celebrities presented in magazines. When Crawford was asked how she maintains the level of beauty people see pictured, she responded, "Even I don't look like Cindy Crawford”[1]. Body image alterations set unrealistic expectations about how a person should look. Is the use of photo editing software highlighting the best the model could look, or is it simply displaying an altered reality?

In The NewsEdit

Target recently suffered from media and customer backlash for mistakenly publishing junior bathing suit advertisements on their website with blatant Photoshop errors, including jagged edges under the model’s arm, a chunk missing at the apex of the model’s thighs, and impossibly lengthened arms. The error was addressed online and went viral. Much of the outrage stems from the images marketing to juniors who look to the media to set expectations about the way they should look. If the digital artist had used the correct tools or taken time to edit precisely before the image was published, many would have never guessed the images were Photoshopped. The response towards Target was harsh because the almost farcical errors made it obvious they intended to use Photoshop to alter the shape of the model’s body. Altering body images in the media is offensive to many, primarily because of the hypothesized links between media pressure and psychological disorders, such as depression and eating disorders[2].

False AdvertisingEdit

Beyond the psychological implications of photo manipulation in magazines, there are problems with maintaining integrity in advertisements. Despite general awareness that photos in magazines are manipulated, most often a reader of a magazine does not consciously register that the images displayed have been drastically altered. One industry in which honesty is especially difficult to regulate is the beauty industry. The goal of an advertisement is primarily to entice the audience to purchase a product, but to what extent is it ethical to represent a beauty product with a manipulated image?

In some cases, companies have crossed this line. For example, a Lancome advertisement depicting Julia Roberts was banned in the United Kingdom because the makeup was advertised to removed wrinkles and crow’s feet, but the company used photo manipulation to remove these features from the picture. This type of false advertising can mislead consumers. Deception in advertising can drive uninformed purchases. If Kelly Clarkson appears on the cover of a magazine promoting a diet and exercise regimen she claims worked for her, the readers would expect that her picture conveys the results of this regimen. If the readers knew her figure had been altered in the picture, they could adjust their expectations, putting less faith in a regimen which has not demonstrated its results fairly to the readers.

Julia Bluhm, SPARK, & Seventeen MagazineEdit

Julia Bluhm is a high school student from Pittsfield, Maine training to be a professional ballerina [3]. As expected with a highly physical sport obsessed with how the performers look on stage, she listened to many of her peers talk about "feeling bloated", "having a fat day", and other guilty eating phrases associated with eating disorders [4]. But it was not just her ballerina friends talking negatively about their own body images, her peers at school were having similar conversations.

Julia got involved with the SPARK (Sexualization, Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) Movement when she was in 8th grade, and her interest in media treatment of women and feminist activism increased. SPARK Movement's mission is to train girls and young women ages 13 to 22 about effective activism and how to separate healthy sexuality and sexualization of women in the media. This grassroots group has many partners, including Hardy Girls Healthy Women, which Julia sits on the girls advisory board [5].

Julia's connection with SPARK Movement "sparked" her engine to do something about the negative attitude at her school which she felt stemmed from presentation of teens in magazines and on television. In the spring of 2012, Julia Bluhm decided that Photoshop in teen magazines needed to be reduced. Julia Bluhm, with backing from the SPARK Movement, posted a petition, tiled "Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls," on, asking that Seventeen Magazine print at least one spread per issue without Photoshop.

By May 2012, Julia's petition had about 84,000 signatures and she felt it was time to present the results to Seventeen Magazine in person. She hosted a fake photo-shoot outside of Seventeen Magazine's headquarters in New York [6]. Julia and her fellow protesters held signs with slogans such as, "A magazine for me? Make it look like me" yet again reminding the crowd that she is taking a stance against deception through photo manipulation. She received an overwhelming response from the media, and finally met with the editor-in-chief of Seventeen Magazine, Ann Shoket.

Ann Shoket first responded defensively, releasing a press statement that Seventeen Magazine does not "alter girl's body and face shape"[7]. But in August 2012, she solidified her statement by printing a full spread "Body Peace Treaty" with all of the editors signatures. In the issue, Seventeen Magazine promised to "never change girls' body and face shapes", "always feature real girls who are healthy", and "celebrate every kind of beauty" [8]. Although they did not promise to remove photo-manipulation completely from their magazine, they showed an example edit in the spread and promised to post all pre-edited photos on their tumblr, "Behind the Scenes at Seventeen!"

Julia Bluhm and ProfessionalismEdit

w:Richard Feynman is another person who used his voice and position in the Rogers Commission Report to address issues he had seen in the culture around him. Although Julia Bluhm's task may seem trivial in comparison Feynman addressing the Challenger disaster, she took a stance and instead of backing down, made sure that at least 86,000 girls and their parents became more aware of the impact photo editing has on adolescent girls. Her goal was to bring to light media pressures that lead to an unhealthy social culture in America. Julia Bluhm is a professional because she did not sit on her laurels, like Dan Applegate, and allow what she thought was a failure to pass by uncontested. She fought for what was right, even when it seemed like impossible odds that would mark her different among her friends.

For more about Julia's journey, from Julia Bluhm herself, check out her TedxWomen Talk.

Photography, Truth, and EthicsEdit

Historically, photography was the first way to record reality more truthfully than any other art form. People therefore developed a mental model that photography represents truth. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "a picture is a fact" [9]. However, Tushnet contends that when people "treat images as transparent" they "deny that interpretation is necessary, claiming both that the meaning of the image is so obvious that it admits of no serious debate and that the image is a mere representation of reality" [10]. Is it ethically permissible to edit something that people believe to be the truth, or is it the viewers' responsibility to recognize that photographs do not always depict reality?

Photo-manipulation technology has advanced so much that it is undetectable. There is now talk of not allowing digital photos to be evidence in courts of law. People cannot simply look at an image and know with certainty if it has been edited or not. Levy-Sachs and Sullivan acknowledge the advantages of digital photography, but content that in order to rely on photographs as evidence, the legal community needs to become more aware "of the characteristics of digital images that could make them less reliable as evidence than traditional photographs" [11]. Currently, there is protocol law enforcement must follow when handling digital evidence and regulations on the authentication of those digital images [12]. The 2004 Connecticut v. Swinton Supreme Court case provides the guidelines for utilizing enhanced photographic evidence-- there must be a computer expert's testimony about the software used, and the reliability of the procedures must be examined [13].

Some photographers contend magazines are creating art and not news, so the goal of the photography shown there is not to display reality, but rather the photographer's artful interpretation of reality [14]. Photographers claim that if the photographer's goal is to represent reality, photo-manipulation can help them do this. Sometimes the only way to reproduce a scene with a camera the way the human eye would have seen it is through photo-manipulation; for example, when red-eye is removed. Others cite cases where photo-manipulation has been used to create public blindness by being misleading or deceptive. They show cases where Photoshop has been used to remove people from photos after losing political favor, to make leaders appear more powerful, or to just make others look dumb. Researchers question whether this misuse of photo-manipulation will effect the credibility of photojournalism and believe that the trend of altering photos will cause more scandals [15].

Can't the same techniques used to enhance images for court cases or create political blindness be used in magazines to distort viewers' perceptions of reality on a more social and psychological level? The National Press Photographers Association, whose goal is to promote integrity in visual journalism declares no photo should deceive the public no matter the source or audience [16].


As demonstrated with both the Julia Bluhm case and examples from history, photo-manipulation in magazines can deceive the public. It is the public's responsibility to determine if Photoshop in the media is a misuse of technology. Julia Bluhm teaches others that no matter the how high-reaching or trivial their goal may seem, professionals need to voice their judgements to create change and awareness. Consumers should not be forced to change their ethics as technology advances, but they should be ready to assess whether some uses of photo-manipulation are ethical or not. The line where the pursuit of aesthetics violates ethics needs to be defined.


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