Don’t Photoshop My Story! An Interview with Julia Bluhm
Last Spring, SPARK Summit member Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old high school student from Waterville, Maine, joined a group of twenty activist teen girls, including Maya Brown and Izze Labbe, to create a petition addressed to Seventeen magazine asking for one unaltered photo spread per month. The petition circulated through Change.org, going viral to the tune of 86,000 signatures, and with the help of feminist social activist networks, made waves in the blogosphere and on mainstream news, with coverage on ABC, CNN, The New York Times, and Jezebel.com.
On May 2, 2012, Julia, along with five other SPARK members, Crystal Ogar, Kaye Toal, and Emma Stydahar, and Change.org’s Shelby Knox, held a demonstration in front of Seventeen‘s headquarters. They delivered the petition and were invited to meet with the editor. Seventeen stated they did not and would not alter the shape and sizes of its models. On September 20, 2012, in Belfast, Maine, the Maine Mother/Daughter Project film series screened “Cover Girl Culture: Awakening the Media Generation.” Julia spoke afterwards of her experience, including how her story was “photoshopped” by the media. Julia, articulate and insightful, not only on the impact of fashion magazines on teenage girls, but also on how the media manipulates stories of social activism, inspired me to interview her for The Viral Media Lab.
The origin of your petition was a group of girls, but when the press got a hold of the story, they anointed you the leader. Can you comment?
JB: I was the one who wrote the petition, but getting 86,000 signatures on it was the work of all of the SPARK movement members, and our 60+ sister organizations. They shared it with everyone they knew, posted it all over the internet, wrote blogs, and Izzy Labbe (A SPARK member) made a video that received over 13,000 views. Whenever I was interviewed by the press, I always talked a lot about SPARK, but they always ended up cutting that out. That really bothered me.
I love the phrase — the press “photoshopped” your story. How did you come up with it?
JB: Well, photoshop is used in many cases, because companies think that if they show perfect girl in their ads, they will make the buyer feel inadequate, and therefore buy the product. I related that to how the press changed my story, because they also changed the product to make more money. They probably though the headline starting “One Teenage Girl From Maine…” would make more money then the headline starting “A Group of 20 Activist Teens….,” so they changed it.
Do you think collaboration is key to new forms of leadership?
JB: I think collaboration has always been a key to leadership. Maybe there is one person leading an action, but there are always a bunch of people backing that person up, and supporting them. With a bigger team comes more resources, more people who hear about your action, and a bigger change. I think the most successful movements are the result of teamwork.
Do you think the fashion industry can inspire creativity in girls?
JB: I definitely think the fashion industry can inspire creativity. Fashion is a really great way to express yourself, and I think a lot of girls (including me) do just that. What I’ve discovered, is that creating your own personal style brings confidence, helps you to love yourself, and not care what other people think of you. Seeing what designers in the fashion world are creating, is definitely inspiring. From what I’ve heard, there are a lot of bad things that go on within the fashion industry, too. Models have very bad conditions, and are expected to look a certain way, and there is racism and harassment. But for a teenage girl like me, who just likes to look at the magazines and the clothes, it’s a really interesting thing.
Have you used photoshop in a creative way? Are you a photographer?
JB: I have a friend who’s really interested in photography, and I like it too. We take pictures for fun, and try to edit them on the 30-day free trial of an editing program that we downloaded. I don’t really think we’re doing it right, but it’s a cool hobby. Photoshop can be used for a lot of really amazing things. It’s not that photoshop itself is bad, it’s that people have started to use it for bad things, like digitally altering a person’s appearance.
Do you think millenial girls will be able to transcend “fat” consciousness and beauty industry norms to be more comfortable with themselves, no matter their shape, size or color?
JB: I really hope that teen girls will be able to transcend all the media’s beauty norms. I don’t know if the media will ever change completely to what we want it to be, to represent girls in a healthy, realistic, and diverse way. I think one of the most important things is to educate girls that the media’s standards are unrealistic, to help them rise above it. That is one of the things that SPARK Summit, and hundreds of other organizations and actions are trying to do.
What do you think helps move girls from developing self-esteem and feeling good about themselves to becoming leaders and engaging in social activism? To maybe one day be world leaders?
JB: I think that being in a group or club really helps inspire leadership and wanting to make a change. When I joined SPARK Summit, there were so many girls who were so enthusiastic about activism and feminism, it helped me to become really passionate about it also. Often, when you surround yourself with really positive people who think like you do, they inspire you to do what you wouldn’t normally think you could! Being involved in a club or organization is a really great support system.
How have you been viewed by your classmates at school?
JB: I’ve always been a pretty quiet person around people I don’t know well. A lot of people at school used to assume that since I’m kind and do pretty well in school, that I’m obsessed with grades and never break rules. That is not true, I am not like that at all. I guess since there were some people I didn’t talk to much, they didn’t know me, so they judged me. But when everyone started hearing about my activism, it sort of changed what they thought of me a bit.
Are there boys who are supportive of your work?
JB: There are boys and men who are supportive of my work, definitely! In April, when Izzy Labbe and I made the video for the Seventeen petition, we interviewed some boys about it. They were saying some of the same things we were saying (“nobody looks like that,” “nobody’s face is that symmetrical,” etc.) Several boys from my old school signed the petition. There are also several men who have been very interested in my work, and the work of SPARK Summit. There is a professional photo retoucher named Roi Cui, who saw the video that Izzy and I made, and it helped him understand why what he does can sometimes be hurtful to girls. Now he speaks about his job, and shows girls just how pictures are photoshopped, so we can try to identify if a picture is heavily photoshopped.
Who inspires you? Who are your role models?
JB: There are a lot of people who inspire me. I am inspired by all of the girls at SPARK Summit, and everything they do. I am very inspired by Shelby Knox, a feminist-activist who also got her start as a teenager. I was able to spend a lot of time with her when I went to NYC in April, and again this summer. She is a real inspiration, and I want to be like her when I grow up. Another huge inspirations is Tavi Gevinson. She’s a teenager who has done some truly amazing things, and I absolutely love her.
Have your parents been supportive of your activism?
JB: My parents are very supportive of my activism. They are very proud. My mom went with me to NYC when the petition first took off, and several other trips to conferences and interviews.
How about your father?
My Dad is just as supportive! His job conflicts with a lot of my activities, but he does whatever he can to see me in action. Both my parents agree completely with what I’m doing, and are super supportive. I am very thankful.
What advice would you give girls who want to create change?
JB: I think a very important thing to tell girls who are wanting to make a change, is that having a team really helps. That’s how actions grow into huge movements. I would encourage girls to get involved with online groups like SPARK Summit, or local groups of girls, or clubs at their school. You can learn so much from what other people have to say, and get the support you need to start your own action.
What is your next campaign?
JB: We are currently preparing a small action for Halloween, questioning super-sexualized halloween costumes, and how there is a lack of variety in costumes for girls. It’s still in the works, but I think it will be good.
To find out more about SPARK Summit’s “Sexy Costume” Halloween protest and to spread the word, click HERE!