The teens taking on the airbrush

Digitally altered images of impossibly perfect models are a familiar sight in ads and magazines. But a new generation is talking tough on retouching

In the latest edition of Seventeen, the go-to US magazine for teenage girls since 1944, models with flawless skin, glossy locks and tiny waists adorn page after page. While the girls pictured are certainly blessed in the beauty department, it's also evident that airbrushing has played a part in each and every spread. We've come to accept that this is standard practice across these magazines but Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Maine, has had enough of it. This week, Bluhm and other likeminded teens staged a protest outside the New York offices of Seventeen's publisher, Hearst Corporation, and delivered a petition urging them to print at least one unaltered feature a month.

"I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that's supposed to be for me," said Bluhm. "For the sake of all the struggling girls all over America who read Seventeen and think these fake images are what they should be, I'm stepping up. I know how hurtful these [retouched] images can be." Her online petition at Change.org has more than 40,000 signatures and it led to Lynn Grefe, President of the Eating Disorder Association of America, telling a television station, "I think that it is more dangerous for young kids [looking] at some of these magazines today than smoking pot." Her protest also seems to have struck home at Seventeen: Bluhm was invited to meet the magazine's editor-in-chief Ann Shoket, while a spokesperson from Seventeen issued a statement saying: "We're proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue – it's exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers. We feature real girls in our pages and there is no other magazine that highlights such a diversity of size, shape, skin tone and ethnicity."

Concerns about the prevalence of idealised and altered images in advertising and fashion magazines are rife, and not just those aimed at young girls. Such images, research suggests, contribute to eating disorders and anxiety about body types for women of all ages. Grefe is pushing for controversial legislation that would require warning labels to be put on all images that have been digitally altered.

This week in Britain, 20-year-old Rachael Johnston, a recovering anorexic, who at one point was given 48 hours to live after her weight plummeted to four and a half stone, launched a similar campaign online, calling for a ban on the airbrushing of photos to make models and celebrities appear thinner.

It is a debate that has been raging for a long time. Last year, the American Health Organisation updated its policies urging the ad industry to stop the "altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image". In the last year in Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority found ads by Lancôme, L'Oréal and Olay to be misleading and banned them after MP Jo Swinson led a campaign against the unachievable results promised by the beauty brands.

The internet has served as a platform to circulate before-and-after shots of editorials and campaigns. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to pointing out airbrushing errors; the popular site for women, Jezebel, even runs a thread called "Photoshop of Horrors" which shares the worst offenders, such as the now-infamous 2009 advert for Ralph Lauren, which saw a model's waist shaved to make it appear smaller than her head, Beyoncé's skin lightening, or Grazia's severe slimming of Kate Middleton's already tiny waist on its cover. A recent website offering "Victoria's Secret models without airbrushing" was rapidly forwarded from one inbox to the next.

The fashion industry has long argued that use of airbrushing is necessary to create the fantastical images that appear in editorials. But when does retouching photography that is essentially art become misleading? It would be incredibly difficult to police and to categorise what was appropriate digital alteration for the sake of a glamorous picture, and what was unnecessary retouching that promoted unachievable standards of beauty.

Last year a 1-to-5 manipulation "rating system" for photos that would reveal how much an image had been altered was proposed by two students from Dartmouth University, although campaigners such as Johnston argue that being told an image has been retouched makes no difference, just seeing it is damaging enough.

A proper investigation is sorely needed, but in the meantime, it is cheering to see a group made up of members as young as Bluhm and her peers speaking out when a magazine aimed at them fails to represent them.

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