"Why don't y'all do the conga line thing that you did earlier?" Change.org campaigner Shelby Knox urged a group of five teenagers staging a mock runway show in Times Square this afternoon. The girls, from the young feminist activist organization SPARK Summit, are regular teens — not models — who wanted to show Teen Vogue what embracing "real" beauty could look like. And so they rolled out a long, extra-fibrous sheet of red paper to act as their pretend runway, and took turns walking up and down it for the benefit of the Teen Vogue editors in their offices across the street (along with the roughly 20 photographers who gathered to document the demonstration). Reporters and representatives from Fox, CNN, NBC, and even Katie Couric's new talk show had gathered for what was surely the top "young girls and body image" story of the day. SPARK's members were delighted.
The girls have collected nearly 30,000 signatures on their Change.org petition, which asks Teen Vogue to "stop altering natural bodies and faces so that real girls can be the new standard of beauty." Knox was there to direct the girls. "When you get to the end, stop and pose and just stand there for a second," she'd instruct from one end of the runway. "Go down there and pose and say, do you have any questions? Do you want to know why we're here?"
After the mock runway show and interviews with national media, the girls, all clad in SPARK Summit tops and black pants, had an appointment with editors from the magazine, though it was unclear if editor-in-chief Amy Astley would be present, Knox said.
Teen Vogue had already released a statement that said the magazine "makes a conscious and continuous effort to promote a positive body image among our readers." It continued: "We feature healthy models on the pages of our magazine and shoot dozens of non-models and readers every year and do not retouch them to alter their body size. Teen Vogue pledges to continue this practice."
The message seemed to be: We don't Photoshop young women to unrealistic proportions and we already include diverse images of beauty in our pages — so these teens' demands are warrantless.
"They denied that they ever have [Photoshopped women's body shapes] so we want them to publicly say that to their readers — that they haven't and that they won't," SPARK executive director Dana Edell said this afternoon. "Seventeen made a public statement to their readers saying, this is the policy, this is what we will do. And that's what we're looking for — we want to be able to hold [Teen Vogue] accountable in the future."
Just last week, Seventeen unveiled its "Body Peace Treaty" in response to a similar campaign led by SPARK activists. Like Teen Vogue that magazine also said they "never have" changed models' body shapes through Photoshop.
The protest is an effective way of drawing attention to the ideal of beauty as very white and very thin, which persists across teen and adult fashion titles, negatively impacting some readers' self-esteem along the way. But it's hard to imagine much changing if the magazines insist on denying this. No fashion editor wants to plainly say they once photographed a model who was clearly anorexic or Photoshopped another to make her appear thinner. And indeed, a whole host of people — magazine editors, modeling agents, casting directors, designers etc. — are responsible for the image of beauty pushed forth by the fashion industry, so it's not entirely fair to blame just one set of them.
Whether or not Teen Vogue starts photographing a broader range of models, SPARK plans to push ahead with its noise-making, publicity-garnering efforts. While one of the group's members told me last week Victoria's Secret is a potential next target, Edell suggested New York Fashion Week could be, too. "We will see what happens," she said when I asked if they had anything planned for the week of fashion shows slated for September that will surely be a dizzying enough circus independent of any looming thin-model protests. "Stay tuned."
Update: Following the widely publicized demonstration, the teen protesters had a meeting in Teen Vogue's office with editor-in-chief Amy Astley and other staffers. According to a press release, the meeting lasted "less than five minutes" and Astley merely used their time together to give protesters Emma and Carina — who are 17 and 16 years old — copies of the magazine with instructions to study up. She did not discuss the girls' concerns about the skinny white models dominating the publication's pages. From the release:
“It was kind of shocking how rude they were to us, because Julia had a really positive experience talking with Seventeen’s editor-in-chief,” said Cruz, who launched the campaign with Stydahar.
“We assumed Teen Vogue would also want to hear what their readers think and do everything they can to help girls' feel better about themselves and their bodies. Instead, they sat with us for 5 minutes and told us to do our homework.”
“We have done our homework. That’s why we started this campaign, because three out of every 4 girls feel bad about themselves after reading a fashion magazine,” said Stydahar. “That’s not a statistic that the magazine industry should be proud of. It should change, and I know it will change if we continue demanding diverse, real images of beauty from Teen Vogue.”
The girls plan to continue with their campaign.
BuzzFeed Shift has asked Teen Vogue to share images of a model from an issue before and after photoshop to prove that they don't alter body shape as they claim, but has not received a response.