I started reading Seventeen when I was in middle school. I devoured the stories about finding a boyfriend, and how to accessorize an outfit. The image after image of smiling, perfect young women dazzled me. At that time the magazine offered a sense of hope that if you took their advice (and there was a ton to be offered on everything from best friends to boyfriends), bought the hair products, and followed the exercise and diet suggestions that you too could be that happy, smiling girl wearing J. Crew and Gap clothes. (It was the Nineties.)
So earlier this week, when Seventeen magazine announced it would no longer Photoshop pictures of its cover models in order to change their body or face shapes, I took more than a passing interest. Those retouched images — and the extremely thin models in them — played a role in what turned out to be one of the worst periods of my life.
Back in middle school, I was your classic awkward, chubby, nerdy girl desperate to make friends. I was nothing like the kids in my town where athletics was prized, and the population was about 99 percent white. Being a dark-skinned Indian kid was a death sentence when it came to trying to date (dating outside your race was inconceivable to my classmates), be popular, or look like my peers.
I was about 15 when I came to a body epiphany. I couldn’t make people think I was pretty. I couldn’t change the color of my skin. But I could change how much I weighed. Being thin was prized at my high school, and it was an accessible goal. The equation went something like this in my head: losing weight = looking better = fitting in and being more popular.
Once I made the decision, where did I turn for advice? Seventeen offered anything a teenage girl would want to lose weight. I found running workouts and diets on its pages. “Thinspiration” came in the form of models and success stories about other young women that had transformed their bodies and thereby their lives, literally emerging like a swan from an ugly duckling fat suit. My favorite one was about a girl who had gone to a fat camp, lost weight, joined a school team and eventually got a boyfriend. In the article it said that she had thrown away all the former pictures of herself where she looked fat. I was ready to light a match to my own family albums.
Seventeen also offered full-page advertisements on programs to lose weight. They were in black and white, and topped with a picture of a girl lounging in a bikini. The girl’s story went something like, “I was overweight and no one thought I was pretty. But then I used this program, and I lost a lot of weight and now everyone looks at me when I walk into a room. And of course I have a boyfriend.” The ad promised weight loss within thirty days if you bought their program. You could request to receive the package in a plain unmarked package so you wouldn’t be embarrassed when it came in the mail. Critical for a teenager, you could also send them cash.
After reading these ads month after month, the summer after my sophomore year I gathered twenty dollars worth of dollar bills and quarters (not joking!) and mailed it to the company.
My “program” arrived about two weeks later. It was a simple magenta booklet called “The Body Changer Program for Weightloss.” Written in a conversational tone just right for a teenage girl, it went into the psychology and the habits of “thin people.” I don’t remember all that it said but a few things stuck out: use chopsticks to eat your food, thin people eat slowly; don’t work out too hard it’ll make you hungry; and diuretics can be an occasional friend. It also offered more sane advice on eating small meals regularly throughout the day. It also advocated taking pictures of my head and sticking them on the bodies of models from a magazine. Guess where I found my models?
I’m sure there are plenty of young women who bought this program just like I did and maybe lost some weight. Maybe they didn’t. For me, it was a turning point, pushing me down a slippery slope that equated weight loss with self-acceptance, popularity and self-esteem. Within three months of receiving that program in the mail, I had lost about twenty-five pounds, and I continued to lose weight in a downward spiral that lead to serious bouts with bulimia over a ten-year period. How serious? I finished my senior year of high school at about ninety pounds. I got kicked out of Brown my first semester for being too sick to be on campus, and I ravaged my body in ways that I am still unable to recover from today.
Needless to say I no longer read fashion magazines. I’m not saying that Seventeen or its advertisements caused my eating disorder, but the exposure to that magazine and the images it celebrated didn’t help either. Numerous studies have found that the more exposure adolescents and young children have to media, the higher their dissatisfaction with their body image. A 2002 study found that ten-year-old girls and boys expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies after watching clips from Friends and a Britney Spears video. In another study, teenage girls who saw commercials with unrealistically thin women felt “less confident, more angry and more dissatisfied with their weight and appearance.”
Unlike school, where I felt isolated, Seventeen created a space where looking a certain way was both attainable and came with happiness. This was before the Internet and websites like Photoshop Disasters where we now poke fun at the extremes to which women are sliced and smoothed over by computer technology. When I was 16, though retouching wasn’t nearly as extreme in magazines, I still thought that what I was seeing was real. And I thought that being as thin as those models would allow me to have a small part of that imagined reality.
I hope Seventeen really does uphold its promise not to Photoshop its models so much. I also hope they consider how the weight loss-oriented stories they run impact readers. I only wish this conversation started sixteen years ago.