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?

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

Sometimes identically-qualified people studying the same topics and come up with wildly divergent conclusions.

Take astronomy, for example.

The Scriptures teach us that the heavens declare the glory of God. But the atheist astronomer would have you believe that the cosmos declares nothing more than the existence of certain matter — light waves, metals, minerals, gases, etc.

In this light, it is a dreadful understatement to say that our faith informs our worldview. Really, it should inform our entire universe.

My universe includes a lot of pop culture, including a fair number of video games. And of all the games I’ve played in the last year, none of them have captured my attention or garnered as much critical acclaim as Valve Software’s Portal 2.

A different kind of video game

The Portal series is unlike any other title on the market. It stands out for several reasons — because it’s almost completely nonviolent, it’s got a witty, snarky tone to it, and rather than bludgeoning the senses with nonstop violence, it engages the mind with clever problem solving. The primary game mechanic involves a gun, yes, but rather than shooting bullets, it shoots portals that help the user travel from one space into another.

And unlike the original Portal, which was a sideshow bonus added to a larger game, Portal 2 is a full-featured title with an impressive single-player campaign that takes you through a story of hope, betrayal, and redemption — pretty impressive, considering almost all of the key characters are computers.

And, by the way, it’s also really, really funny.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not a video game enthusiast, you might be wondering — why should I care?

Well, on a basic level, it’s a basic tenet of healthy mental stewardship that we use our God-given intellect to evaluate the pop culture landscape around us. Even if you’re not interested in buying video games for a loved one, it’s not a stretch to say that TV and film have become the literature our day, and by extension, video games are occupying much of the same cultural space as films were decades ago.

Simply put, it’s good to know what’s out there, what people are talking about.

But more importantly, we must learn to appreciate good art in all of its forms, because any piece of art that is truly creative and innovative is in some way reflecting a portion of the character of God. Not just because he created the people who created the art, but more essentially because all good art flows from God as a source. Everything good and perfect comes from Him. Therefore, it opens up our appreciation toward and understanding of God’s character when we see His signature on man-made creations, even ones by those who do not profess to know God.

So enough of the philosophy lesson.

Here are three important lessons that every Christian can learn by playing through Portal 2.

[SPOILER ALERT – If you don’t want to know any plot details of the game’s story, STOP HERE and skip to the end.]

1. We Bear the Image of a Creative God When We Create Things in Our Own Image. In Portal 2, we learn that GLaDOS, the controlling, manipulative computer life form, was created in the image of an Aperture Science employee named Caroline, assistant to founder Cave Johnson. This truth comes out in a delightful set of scenes where GLaDOS the computer hears recordings of Caroline’s voice and recognizes it as her own. For the viewer/player, it’s a moment of bemused poignancy.

These scenes illustrate the ultimate truth that all of us are made in the image of God, and that just as GLaDOS finds a greater sense of purpose and perspective with this, so can we as Christians find a greater sense of purpose and perspective in the midst of our day-to-day trials.

These trials don’t usually involve killer robots and volatile chemical reactions, but still … it’s true nonetheless.

And many times, these creative expressions have incredible meaning, even when they appear not to.

(Even when the creative expression is self-referential and derivative, like a TV show about two guys having dinner while not talking about one guy’s favorite movie while reenacting another of his favorite movies about two guys having dinner. Even something as crazy and recursive as that.)

2. Immortality Through Technology Is a Futile Mission. As the game progresses, we learn from a series of audio recordings scattered through the old Aperture Science facilities, that Cave Johnson, Aperture’s lovable, reckless dolt of a leader (voiced by J.K. Simmons), died prematurely from prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the end was near, and not wanting his company to lose the collective knowledge and wisdom amassed during his tenure, Johnson instructed his computer engineers to create a form of artificial intelligence drawn from the brain of his most trusted assistant, Caroline.

Yet, at the close of the game, after GLaDOS comes to realize that a part of her file architecture contains something approximating a conscience (the part she inherited from Caroline), she promptly deletes it. Which means that, in one sense, all of Johnson’s work was for naught.

The Bible is full of stories about people trying to either gain immortality or stave off the inevitable, and it never works. (See: Jonah, or The Tower of Babel.) And you see strains of this idea all of pop culture in general (especially films like Inception), and the message is often the same. Technology might be able to enhance life in certain ways, but it can never replace it wholesale. All attempts to prove otherwise amount to chasing after the wind.

3. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. One of the most interesting plot reversals happens when the sentient personality sphere known as Wheatley (voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant) conspires to supplant GLaDOS as the prime directive over the Aperture Labs testing facility. After taking over, we see the effects of so much power going to his head, so to speak. Wheatley becomes just as much of an insufferable tyrant as GLaDOS had been prior.

This is a principle we also see from the Scripture, that is echoed across the film and pop culture spectrum. King Saul hunts down young David, yet when David takes the throne, he eventually has another man killed to take his wife. The younger protégé became the ruthless opportunist, just like Michael Corleone upended his older brother Fredo in The Godfather, or little Cindy turned the tables on Riley in “The Fundraiser” episode of The Boondocks.

The principle is simple. All of us have evil in our hearts. None of us are truly righteous. So if given the power and opportunity to do wrong, all of us have the capacity to go there, and the only thing that is stopping us is the grace and power of God in our lives.

Which, really, is the whole point.


Learn to make the leap

If I were raising an adolescent or a teenager, I would definitely want them to be able to understand the pop culture that they consume, but also to see the connections to biblical truths, and make the final connection back to their need for Christ.

It would be my hope that in their private moments, they would recognize God at work in their lives, and that they would be able to see and appreciate how God can use their favorite movies or video games or songs to woo them toward Himself, as He does for all of us. And I would hope they would respond to His call, and take the courageous leap of faith toward the thing He is calling them to do.

Mostly, I would want them to trust the Holy Spirit more than any ratings system, because only He can help us to move from where we are to where He wants us to be.

And He doesn’t need a portal gun to make it happen.

(Which is good, because those things are kinda dangerous.)