The Art of Critique: How to Read A Teen Magazine Without Completely Losing Your Mind
By Hannah Johnston
ALERT: Seventeen Magazine recently released a statement that it will be abstaining from photoshop entirely in their future issues! This is a wonderful step towards PBG’s goals. I want to encourage all of you readers to use the below formula for critiquing on Teen Vogue, which is the next publication that is being targeted by a petition to halt the use of photoshop. The petition can be found here.
When I was about four years old, my mother took my sister and me to Sears to get our annual “posed photograph” taken. We got ready to pose, and my sister quietly sat down where she was supposed to and got herself ready for the picture. I however, finally realizing what was about to occur, began to throw a fit. I sobbed and sobbed and fell to the floor, and completely refused to take that picture. My mother did everything in her power to calm me down, using both threats and bribery, but nothing worked--I was a wreck. In the end, my sister was the one who convinced me to take the photo. She had me sit down next to her on the set and took my focus off of the camera taking the picture by making me laugh--she knew that my fear of the flash was what was keeping me from cooperating. The moral of the story is this: To truly fix a problem, it is crucial to be able to completely realize what that problem is. Before anything can change for the better, people need to change the way they approach the media. So, tonight I have decided to read the June/July issue of Seventeen Magazine while simultaneously blogging. I am going to explain to myself what is wrong with it, instead of simply saying that it is wrong, and I will rate each component of the magazine (cover, ads, content). So here we go!
1. Concerning the Cover
My first impression is that I love Sarah Hyland on Modern Family, and she is a great choice for a cover girl. My appreciation for her is exactly why I am particularly disgusted by the photoshopping on this cover. When I look closely, I notice that her hair is unnaturally voluminous, the shadows on her face, arms, and legs are far too cleanly cut, and her face seems to have lost all of its character. She looks like she was born yesterday. The headlines on the magazine face include such gems as, “Hot Summer Deals - "Clothes under $20 - Shoes under $10 - Makeup under $5,” and “Fitness Blowout! Workouts, Recipes, and Tons more.” Almost all of the feature stories are about how to improve one’s physical appearance, and none of the features circulate around improving one’s intellect, self-esteem, or health. It is by far not the worst Seventeen cover I have seen, but that’s not saying very much.
Overall rating: D+
2. Looking at the ads
Before I read the magazine, I’m going to focus on my ad experience. Five out of forty ads feature minorities, virtually none show girls or women that appear to be a size larger than a four. The majority of the ads are advertising makeup and fashion, and after a while of looking at them, they all run together. For the makeup ads, it’s a skinny, pretty, Caucasian girl who has a dreamy look on her face and is “modeling” the product. For the fashion ads, it’s one or two skimpily dressed skinny Caucasian girls standing with their butts out--if there are two or more girls in the ad, they have different shades of hair, as if to show diversity. Nearly all of the ads with people in them are noticeably photoshopped, no matter what the ad is selling (an example of how prevalent photoshopping would be, is the Got Milk? ad featuring Vampire Diaries’ Nina Dobrev and her mother--I mean come on, is it really necessary?)
There is one Neutrogena ad that I really like though; it shows a bottle of the product they are selling on a table next to a grapefruit, which is the scent of the cleanser. I like it not only because it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself, but also because the only language it uses to sell the product is to hype the smell, and explain that it will refresh you when you wake up. As a consumer, I am far more likely to buy a product that is advertised in a way that is straightforward, well-designed, and in no way demeaning towards any group of people (I’m probably over-hyping this ad, but I’m not kidding about the positive feeling I get when I look at it, especially after looking at about 30 other advertisements that each make me feel inferior in some manner).
Overall rating: D (Neutrogena saved it from being an F)
Last, but most definitely not least, I will focus on the articles. The first section in the mag is the fashion section, where I count at least fifteen photoshop-happy pictures, including a pair of curiously shadowed calves (seriously, Seventeen? You’re going to spend time and money photoshopping someone’s lower legs?!). I don’t have much to say about the fashion section other than that. I actually really love clothes and accessories--but it’s only one small facet of my personality. What magazines like Seventeen (which by the way, markets itself as a lifestyle magazine for teenage girls, not a fashion magazine) don’t seem to realize is that by only including major sections on fashion, beauty, fitness, and love, they are basically telling young women that these are the most important, if not the only, components in their lives.
But anyway, onto the beauty section, which contains eighteen photoshopped pictures. Congrats, beauty editors, you have beaten the fashion editors in superficiality this month! In this section, those of us with hair that is too curly, eyes that are too small, skin that is too pale, eyelashes that are too short, and lips that are too thin can find cures and tricks to help us hide these things that don’t fall under society’s definition of beautiful. I have never liked the beauty sections in magazines, they always use underlying tones and language in their writing that makes me believe that I won’t look right until I use the product they are crowing about.
Oh wonderful, on the first page of the fitness section readers are greeted with a photo of a bikini-clad Selena Gomez next to a line that reads: “Look Hot at the Beach! Get Flat Abs, Sexy Legs, and a Cute Butt.” It’s interesting actually, because I remember other issues of Seventeen where this section was once called Health. I guess they decided to give up the pretense of being a positive publication. Oh good, some of Hollywood’s hottest workouts--which if I do for three weeks, I will automatically have the abs of Shay Mitchell, the legs of Dakota Fanning, the upper body of Julianne Hough, and the butt of Ashley Greene! How marvelous, I’ve been wanting someone else’s butt for a while now. These exercises are followed by a spread about a girl who managed to lose 25 pounds in five months, and about five other girls who also have lost weight. After all of this though, there is a section of cut-outs that have quotes from celebrities about loving one’s own body. My favorite one is, “Have you thanked your body today? (be grateful, stay positive),” courtesy of Shailene Woodley.
Now for the worst section of all, the love section. My qualm with this part of the magazine is that it only ever focuses on one form of love, the kind of romantic love between a boy and a girl. Not only is there never anything about love between family and friends or loving one’s self, but there is also NOTHING that recognizes love between homosexual couples. I just think that love is one of the broadest and most meaningful terms in any language, and to condense it to a few articles about how to kiss and keep your man every month is the definition of idiotic. But at least it clearly gives me every single reason (of which there are six) a boy is acting strange. Thank goodness for Seventeen, if I didn’t have them to generalize all teenage boys for me, then who would?
The back section of the magazine is where all of the closest things to human interest stories go, and where all of the specially photoshopped fashion and beauty spreads can be found. The interview with Sarah Hyland is a little more substantial than the usual cover star interview, as they discuss her recent illness and kidney transplant. Be that as it may, six out of twelve questions were still about her boyfriend. After that there is an extremely pale and bony pair of models that show off some shapeless clothes, nothing new unfortunately. And after that, there is an extremely helpful article about how to make-out with a boy successfully (so glad they put that in there, very vital stuff).
The next article is okay, it is apparently about embracing one’s natural beauty, so for this one they use a size-four brunette model, and let the girls keep their freckles (I’ll admit, it is nice to see some facial features other than smooth skin and blue eyes). The next article is a bit tricky. It’s about this campaign that Seventeen went on with Tyra Banks to find the most “Fiercely Real girls in America,” and it goes on to profile the top four winners--who are all curvaceous, and three of which are not Caucasian. On the surface, it looks like a refreshing and progressive show of solidarity to girls in America, but in reality this is not the case. First of all, no one person is “more real” than anyone else. They only say “fiercely real” because it would be politically incorrect to say “fiercely plus-sized.” Also, by calling them the most fiercely real girls in America, they are actually sending a message to extremely skinny girls they they are not normal, not to mention the fact that they are inadvertently proving that they don’t depict any supposedly “real” girls in their other photographs! I don’t know how you managed it, Seventeen, but you’ve literally created an article that is offensive to basically every girl who reads it. You don’t demonstrate real diversity if you shove all of it to the back of the magazine in one tiny, little article--you will be considered diverse when the photographs throughout the magazine show a variety of shapes and sizes, ethnicities and features.
Overall rating: F
So, Seventeen did not stack up very well when I read it carefully and critically. I, however, feel very empowered now that I have verbalized what is so wrong with it. When I read it this time around, I didn’t let it take away any of my power or my self-esteem--I approached reading it as the exhaustive task it truly is, and I feel so much better for it. In formally criticizing Seventeen, I have given it a new meaning and place in my mind. I hope this lengthy blog has at least inspired you to read your own magazines critically. I also hope that if you do, it helps you as much as it has helped me. Now that this is off my chest, I will go to bed and dream peacefully.
Remember, criticize the media, don’t let the media criticize you.