Real Girls in a Photoshopped World

With the annual hype surrounding New York’s Fashion Week winding down, I’m reminded of a news story from the beauty and fashion industry from earlier this year. Back in July, Seventeen magazine editor Ann Shoket announced the implantation of a “Body Peace Treaty” in which she and the her magazine’s team pledged to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” in published images, explaining that they will “leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.” She also promised that they will only feature “real girls and models who are healthy.”

The treaty came in response to the campaign of Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old activist whose online petition against the magazine’s use of airbrushed images garnered more than 84,000 signatures. In the petition, called “Give Girls Images of Real Girls,” Bluhm implored the magazine to keep it real. I consider this to be very impressive and it shows some of the influence of online networking and social media, not to mention the grit and character possessed by many of our young people today. (Julia’s pro-Real Girl movement inspired a separate campaign targeting the publishers of Teen Vogue.)

Frankly, though, I doubt Seventeen will stick to its promise.

My cynicism is based on the magazine’s response in the article and my knowledge of the image-making industries (like the ones we’ve seen out in full force during Fashion Week). Here are a few quotes from a Washington Post article about the issue:

A 14-year-old Maine ballet dancer who led a crusade against altered photos in Seventeen magazine now has a promise from top editor Ann Shoket to leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.

According to the article, a promise was made. Great.

 “Shoket’s promises are included in a “body peace treaty” that also commits the magazine to always feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size.”

Okay. The editor may have submitted some promises to the “Body Peace Treaty” but the above promise mentioned in the first quote is not in there and neither are any that require Seventeen to do anything.

 “Shoket did not identify Julia by name in her full-page declaration, which also denied the magazine ever changed the shapes of bodies and faces.”

Whaaattttt? So the editor promises to leave body shape alone yet denies ever changing the cover models’ body shapes and faces? So, is Seventeen really admitting to anything?

RED CARPET REALITY: In July, teen protesters demonstrated in front of the Times Square headquarters of Teen Vogue, demanding that the magazine’s publishers use real girls, healthy looking models, and unaltered images in its pages. (Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom)

My first job after graduating college was as a graphic designer at an international relief and development organization. Back then, Photoshop was used only by designers because it was expensive and had a huge learning curve. This organization received a photo from the field that included an adult male with shoulder-length hair. The group was concerned about its conservative donors’ reaction to the hair length, so my supervisor asked me to give him a Photoshop haircut. I was happy to oblige, just to show off my skills.

Well, I scanned (who scans anymore?) the photo, altered it, and placed it in one of the org’s publications. The young man eventually saw the photo and became upset. He felt we had no right to alter his appearance. That was my first foray into the ethical issues of altering photos of people for publication. Although magazines have been airbrushing for years, and have professional contracts with its models/celebrities to do so, Photoshop allows for detailed retouching that pushes it over the boundary of reality. Consequently, I stopped trusting the images I see in magazines.

Also, the “Body Peace Treaty” on Seventeen’s page is good but most of it does not mention what the magazine itself is willing to do.

If the quotes from Washington Post article are true and the treaty is more of a therapeutic “love-myself” list for girls (which is not a bad thing), my concern is that Seventeen’s editor is not being completely honest. It sounds like all the heavy lifting will still be done on the reader’s part. The disturbing thing about this is that many of these magazines know they are selling an illusion but won’t admit to it. They portray it as real life with article titles layered over the photo (“Get This Body in 5 Days,” “The New Grass and Twigs Diet,” etc.). Over time, as the young activist said on a morning news show, these words and images are harmful. I can tell my daughter not to buy the magazine, but there is a larger issue at stake here.

A few questions to ponder:

• Why is the sexualization of girls not an issue in our society?

• Beyond getting girls to love themselves, what does it look like for the image industry to feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size?

• When we laugh at the way celebrities are exposed in tabloid magazines, have we bought into the illusion that every body must look the same way?

Blessed Are the Poor, Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

In these tough economic times, blame for the recession is being passed around like a cheap drink. I heard one person blame the subprime mortgage crisis on African Americans living beyond their means and another blamed illegal immigrants. This has made me aware of a massive shift that has happened in how we view those living in poverty.

There was a time when people believed that people living in poverty simply needed an opportunity. This general goodwill followed the civil rights movement’s legislative and cultural victories. The result was numerous social welfare programs that supported health initiatives, job training, and educational-enrichment programs in disadvantaged communities. I know because instead of a doctor’s office, my mother took me to a free clinic.

Corruption and abuses of particular parts of the system encouraged the unfortunate stereotype of the freeloading single black mother. This distorted image (although true for some) gained ground during the Reagan era of the 1980s and peaked in the early ’90s, eventually leading President Clinton to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Even today, black and Latino people are the default faces of government-assistance programs. Yet few know that when social welfare plans such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and HUD housing programs are added together, the majority of its recipients are white.

The goodwill generated from the civil rights movement and the racial advances of the last 40 years apparently has run out. With our nation’s economic future cloudy, it seems there’s a more brazen resentment of the poor and the stranger.

The Changing Nature of Poverty

I grew up in generational poverty in North Philadelphia throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I saw African Americans owning businesses, working and taking care of their homes. Alcohol and illegal drugs were available but were kept in the background out of the reach of children. Having access to a variety of people (some who were not poor) helped me to see possibilities. This was an era when some of us knew we were poor, but we were told we did not have to act like we were poor. This wisdom, which often reached us through the local African American churches, encouraged our spirits and work ethic. It told us that we had something to contribute to society.

But the poverty of today has one thing as its legacy: a spiritual decline coupled with a greater access to cheap legal and illegal substances. When my fragile community was flooded with crack cocaine in the early 1980s, it began destroying the moral fabric that kept certain vices in check. Maybe it was the greed that became emblematic of the 1980s. Local political decisions made alcohol more available by allowing corner stores to sell it. As the pharmaceutical industry grew, so did access to prescription drugs on the street. Although immigrants were investing in the community by starting businesses, African American merchants were displaced. Programs that had started in the late 1970s were cut. Young people, with less exposure to positive examples and resources, were tempted with easy access to drugs, alcohol, and later … guns.

Many local organizations were ill prepared for the sea change that emerged. This spiritual decline accelerated teen pregnancy, crime, and violence. Church members began moving out of the community, turning their houses of worship from places of refuge into bunkers. Many of the people whom the underprivileged members of the community needed to see the most … left. The wisdom that was demonstrated to me as a kid seemed to evaporate overnight and was replaced with angry, narcissistic attitudes. The result was an underclass living in a subculture of dependency, shame, and dysfunction.

Acquiring Godly Wisdom

Today, our heroes reflect this drastic change. They are wealthy and beautiful. We pay attention to these people, not because of their godly wisdom, but because of their wealth. We should remember that godly wisdom can only be perceived by the humble mind. Celebrity culture, by its very nature, does not celebrate humility. This is why I appreciate Pastor John Piper’s definition: Wisdom is practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. Celebrity culture promotes fame and fortune as happiness; the Bible says otherwise.

To find true wisdom, we must start with the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7) by seeking God through prayer and the study of His Word (Psalm 19:7). Seeking builds character and perseverance. I would suggest that godly wisdom is hard for the rich to attain because many of them live in a bubble of idolatry and self-exaltation. And once a person acquires great wealth, he typically wants to do everything he can to hold on to it. Is this why Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?

In Ezekiel 16:49, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” In the New Testament, James sums up this idea by explaining that there are rich people who are wealthy because they are greedy (James 5: 1-6). This excess is always on full display on the nightly news, but many of us treat it like a virtue. (Did anyone bring up the issue of greed during the debate of extending tax cuts for the rich?)

I am not suggesting that all rich people are greedy. What I am saying is that the love of money can blind us to godly wisdom. Economically speaking, when you are at the bottom you have nothing to lose. When you are at the top, you have everything to lose. This fact inevitably drives our behavior, as well as our view of the world.

Here in Western society, even those of us who are not in possession of great fame and wealth are at fault. We may not have millions or live in a palatial estate, but we don’t cherish the honor of being made in God’s image. Instead, we try to “be like Mike” or “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the key things that I’ve learned about wealth is that it does not only come in the form of material prosperity. Wealth also comes in the form of a sound mind, good physical health, and spiritual discernment. Keeping this in mind has helped me recognize that, even though I may not have expensive cars or a big house, I’m still rich.

It’s also important to remember that, those of us who are blessed with more in terms of finances and material things have an obligation to remember those who don’t.  Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (NIV). Wisdom is the key to handling matters related to both poverty and wealth in our society. And wisdom comes from God.


Life Lessons From People in Poverty

Those of us who are parents need to pass along this message to our children. In a world overrun by consumerism and greed, it’s crucial that we ground our kids in humility before God and instill in the younger generation a sense of compassion and justice for those who are less fortunate.

Throughout my life, I have struggled with how to communicate the poverty of my childhood to my own children. They are growing up middle class with the privilege of annual vacations, decent meals, a loving family, access to a vehicle and a home. I did not have most of these things. I was dependent upon not only my mother but the goodwill of others who helped me grow.

There are four things I seek to pass on to my children that have nothing to do with wealth. It has more to do with the insight I gained growing up and the wisdom God gave me as a young, struggling Christian.

1. Humility — God blesses us through our humility. God created a harmonious hierarchical order that brings glory to Himself and gave us an important subordinate place in it. Beginning with Adam and Eve, we forfeited our position and plunged humankind and creation into sin. We need to understand our position in relation to God. Humility encourages creativity, and my mother demonstrated this through thrift.

2. InterdependencyProverbs 4:5 tells us to get wisdom and get understanding. We are dependent on God for biblical wisdom, but we must put it into action. The wisdom of the age says being rich is the end goal. Godly wisdom says that wealth is more than just money and must be used responsibly. My mother recognized opportunities for me that she could not provide and encouraged me to grow from it.

3. Perseverance — The most patient people I have met are usually those who have learned to do without. Being poor for me meant missing out on some opportunities and being teased and judged unfairly. But these experiences built my character.

4. Sacrifice — Jesus and many of the apostles sacrificed their lives, which is one reason why the church is 2.1 billion strong today. Poor people must live with sacrifice every day. I do my best to provide growing experiences for my children instead of just material things. If we can learn to do without at a young age, it will benefit us greatly when we are adults. –RT

Blessed Are the Poor

The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau about poverty are heartbreaking. How is it possible that, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, 1 out of 6 people are living below the poverty line? Many of us will never have to know what it feels like to be poor (thank God). But when so many people in our cities and neighborhoods are in the grips of poverty (especially blacks, Latinos, and children), we need to pay attention and take it personally.

I remember being in a tight financial situation in college. I was a sophomore renting a room from a family in my church. I grew up poor and was the first in my family to go to college. Fortunately, the family I lived with during my freshman year shared my precarious situation with their friends before they moved. They knew that my chances of finishing college were slim without additional help. I was always struggling to work, carry a full class load, and eat. One anonymous person made a deep impression on me through her unexpected generosity. Every few weeks, I would randomly receive a check from this person with a note that said, “God told me to send this to you.” The checks usually came when I was at my lowest point. When they came, I cried out of sheer joy and relief. Years later when I inquired about my anonymous benefactor, I discovered that she was a single, middle-aged woman living on a fixed income.  At first I felt guilty — this woman who had very little sacrificed to support someone she didn’t even know — but then I felt a sense of awe. This woman gave out of her scarcity in a way that challenged my ideas about wealth, prosperity, and poverty. Ever since, I have followed her example in helping others.

As I have matured in my understanding of the Bible, I have noticed that God rarely extols a person simply because of his or her wealth. For wealth to be meaningful, wisdom has to be nearby. If not, we can end up like many celebrities and lottery winners: miserable. Solomon demonstrated this when God gave him a choice between wisdom and riches. He chose wisdom, but God blessed him with both. And his later life is a cautionary tale on the connection between wealth and pride. Godly wisdom is the sure sign of God’s blessings. We have it backward, which is why we forget that God can give His wisdom to anyone — even those we consider poor. 

God’s Concern for the Poor

According to the new census report, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty, the largest on record dating back to 1959 when the census began tracking poverty. This has considerable political implications considering the uptick in the unemployment rate and the debt ceiling legislation that just passed.

Defining poverty is not an exact science. For instance, by current standards, a white family of six would be considered poor even though they may make $50,000 a year combined, own their home, and live frugally. Yet the face of poverty in the U.S. media is usually a black single mother with children. Politics and election cycles often decide how the media will see poverty.

In his book Just Generosity, theologian Ron Sider makes it clear that there is room in God’s economy for the less fortunate. He points us to the Old Testament, where Yahweh charges the Israelites to remember where they came from and care for those who need help within their community. Once they settled in Canaan, the concept of gleaning (leaving leftover crops for the poor) in Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Year of Canceling Debts in Deuteronomy 15: 1-6 applied to everyone. Jesus said he came to preach the good news to the poor. There are many other scriptures that support God’s concern as well. 

The Widow’s Example

The crazy thing about wealth is that as we accumulate more of it, we typically find ourselves becoming ever more desperate to preserve it. We may not even be greedy or materialistic people. But the natural instinct is to get as much as we can, and then hold on to it. This is one reason why people with great wealth are rarely as happy as you’d expect.

One of the best antidotes to spiritual discontent is giving. And, paradoxically, it’s often those with the least who give the most. According to a variety of recent studies, lower-income Americans are the most charitable persons in our country. But our media would have us believe that the most generous people are the wealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to education or a third-world country. But I’m even more encouraged by my high school students who took up a collection to help a classmate’s family with funeral expenses. Most of them come from impoverished communities. This is one reason why the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4 should have relevance for us: the widow sacrifices exorbitantly while the rich hoard their wealth.

Those who don’t have a lot have recognized the simple wisdom that God loves a cheerful giver and that He truly provides. The anonymous woman who helped me get through college believed this. And today’s Christians, along with our current crop of politicians, should work harder to remember this as well.

In part two of this post, I’ll share some ways that we can learn from those who are living in poverty. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts about poverty, wealth, and generosity in the comments section below.