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Teens confront sexualization of girls in media

Maine residents Izzy Labbe, Julia Bluhm, and Maya Brown are in SPARK.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Maine residents Izzy Labbe, Julia Bluhm, and Maya Brown are in SPARK.

WATERVILLE, Maine — This quaint New England town seems an unlikely garrison from which to wage digital-media warfare. But as Seventeen magazine editors have learned, youth activism can be ignited anywhere, given the right spark.

In April, Waterville eighth-grader Julia Bluhm, 14, journeyed to Manhattan to protest Seventeen’s practice of retouching photos, making girls and young women look sexier and less flawed. After an interview with CNN, she was invited to the magazine to discuss her objections and spent an hour doing just that. Bluhm and her teammates at SPARK — which stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge — eventually collected more than 84,000 signatures on their anti-Photoshopping petition, distributed online through Change.org.

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After meeting with Bluhm and hearing from thousands of like-minded readers, Seventeen’s latest issue announced a Body Peace Treaty. The editors now promise to “never change girls’ body or face shapes,” to feature “real girls and models who are healthy” and to give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how it shoots and edits photo spreads.

LEANNE ITALIE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Julia Bluhm carried petitions to Seventeen magazine when she led a protest in New York.

Bluhm is delighted, if somewhat surprised, by Seventeen’s response to her petition. “I didn’t think they’d do anything,” she admitted. “But I definitely believe [their action] will change things, not only for their magazine but for making girls aware.”

The policy change signals a major victory for SPARK, launched two years ago in response to a report by an American Psychological Association task force on the sexualization of girls. Among the APA’s recommendations: the need for more age-appropriate multimedia education and more public awareness of the sexualization issue in general.

SPARK is at work on both fronts. Overseen by seven adult advisers, it has forged ties with other advocacy groups concerned about the problem. But at its heart, SPARK is a team of 17 girls and young women — another 20 will soon be added — ages 13 to 22, scattered across the United States.

SPARK has also sent anti-Photoshopping petitions to 20 other magazines, among them Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair, while launching a “Keep It Real” Facebook page to help spread the word. Young and media-savvy, SPARK uses blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, and Instagram photo campaigns to make itself heard.

‘I definitely believe [their action] will change things, not only for their magazine but for making girls aware.’

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Who’s listening? Not only editors, advertisers, and merchandisers, but also parents, educators, and researchers concerned about the negative effects that hypersexualized images and messages are having on teenage — and younger — girls.

With American teens consuming nearly 11 hours of media daily, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, what they see and hear often leaves them confused and anxious about their bodies. The numbers, from various studies, are startling: 32 percent of teenage girls admit to starving themselves to lose weight; nearly half say they wish to be model-thin; three out of four feel depressed or guilty after spending time with a fashion magazine; and 78 percent reach age 17 feeling unhappy with their body image. In a survey by InSites Consulting published this month, 88 percent of girls ages 15 to 25 said they would change something about their bodies, were it easy to do.

At SPARK, numbers like those add up to a call to action.

“It’s not enough these days to tell girls these images are Photoshopped. We need to empower them to do something about it,” said Megan Williams, 30, a SPARK adviser and president of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a Maine-based nonprofit. “Girls this age carry around this righteous anger and want to do something about injustices they see.”

Since the dawn of the feminist movement, if not longer, women have been protesting how the media have portrayed them in a sexist and exploitative fashion. Moreover, gender stereotyping and the altering of female images may not be any more blatant or offensive than it was a generation ago, said SPARK cofounder Lyn Mikel Brown, 56. But the confusing and often harmful mix of messages is getting worse, she said.

“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?

“The idea there’s this power in being sexualized, we’ve never seen it in quite this way before,” said Brown, an author and Colby College education professor. “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.”

SPARK convened its first summit in New York City in October 2010, where the audience heard from speakers like Gloria Steinem and actress-activist Geena Davis. Its targets have included Anna Rexia, a Halloween skeleton costume (accessorized with a tape measure) pulled from the shelves of a New York store after SPARK’s protest last fall; and Lego Friends, a pink-hued line of the popular construction toy that was introduced this year and heavily marketed to girls. SPARK members met with Lego representatives in New York, but so far have not seen any action taken on that protest campaign.

SEVENTEEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Seventeen magazine vowed never to alter girls’ bodies or faces in a letter from the editor.

SPARK’s critics — and there have been many — serve a useful function, according to SPARK member Maya Brown, 18, the daughter of Lyn Mikel Brown. “It means you’re getting noticed. With the Lego campaign, there were parents saying, ‘My daughter’s so excited by this. How dare you say it’s bad?’ You want to reply, but there comes a point where it’s not worth it.”

For Bluhm, a talented ballet dancer, joining SPARK last year was a way to help sort out conflicting messages about what’s healthy and what isn’t. Friends in her ballet class were constantly worrying about their weight and eating habits. Meanwhile, magazines like Seventeen were inundating them with mixed messages.

“They criticize the way people look, then on the next page they talk about loving yourself,” said Bluhm, scowling. “It was confusing. SPARK seemed like a place I could get some answers, with a group of people who were figuring it out together.”

Bluhm and SPARK teammate Izzy Labbe, 13, created the anti-Photoshopping petition last spring. They circulated it among their schoolmates while capturing their reactions on video. Edited down to 15 minutes, then posted on YouTube, it soon got thousands of views and caught the attention of Maine Public Radio. Bluhm’s subsequent trip to Manhattan drew coverage from CNN, ABC, and The New York Times.

Labbe, also of Waterville, is just as outspoken as her teammates. “A male-dominated culture where girls are made to be sex objects — I don’t want to stand for that,” she said. “When I found an outlet for my angst and energy, I was like, ‘Yeah! Blog! Feminism!’” Laughing, she raised a fist in the air.

Social media allow SPARK to be “in the center of things as much as anyone,” said Lyn Mikel Brown. Still, she added, expanding the group’s mission must be done with care. Like Bluhm, Labbe, and the others, new SPARK teammates will be required to blog regularly and perform two “actions” per month, which might be as ambitious as organizing a petition drive or as simple as slapping a Post-it note (“You’ve been SPARKed!”) on an offensive toy, photographing it, and sending the shot to the toymaker’s website.

“Having a supportive community is key,” said Lyn Mikel Brown. “You can’t just add another 1,000 SPARK bloggers. They’re accountable to one another, that’s what matters. They’re emotionally connected to the issues. They’re learning from one another. That’s what’s made this work.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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