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?
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?