Tavi Gevinson thinks Seventeen magazine has a body image problem — and she is not mincing words.
Seventeen was recently the focus of a large and well-orchestrated online campaign, started by a teenager named Julia Bluhm, that critiqued its use of Photoshop and the impact of the magazine's imagery on its young readers' body image. The magazine eventually met with Bluhm, then published a "Body Peace Treaty" that, well, didn't actually answer any of Bluhm's (and her 84,000 and counting petition co-signatories') criticisms. Gevinson, the 16-year-old blogging phenom who started her own online magazine for teenage girls last year, says in a new interview that Seventeen's problems go beyond mere Photoshop.
"I think it's great that these girls are taking action," says Gevinson of the activists behind the petition. "I don't know, however, that Photoshop makes a huge difference with the kind of models they use, or that there aren't other parts of the magazine that contribute to the same issue." Gevinson adds, "It took me a little bit once middle school started to realize that if I didn't read Seventeen, I didn't feel obligated to watch what I eat. Language is powerful, along with photos."
Gevinson also says she doesn't think the magazine's response was adequate, "Because I don't know that they changed anything. They said in their 'treaty' that they vow to never change girls' body or face shapes, but then say, '(Never have, never will.)' To me, that sounds like they just published a self-serving statement that made them look good, but they're not taking into account the intentions and concerns that were really behind the petition. Again, it's not just about Photoshop — all kinds of components of a magazine help contribute to the feelings that might leave a reader with a negative body image."
Gevinson is also unimpressed with one recent addition to Seventeen's online content — the magazine's "Ask An A-Lister" feature, which mimics Rookie's feature "Ask A Grown Man" in look and concept. Both are advice columns in video format, with famous faces as the agony aunts. (Rookie has done "Ask A Grown Man" videos with Judd Apatow, Hannibal Buress, and BJ Novak; Seventeen has "Ask An A-Lister" videos with Diggy Simmons, Cody Simpson, and Teen Wolf's Tyler Posey and Colton Haynes.) The Jon Hamm "Ask A Grown Man" is pretty epic — the actor closes by saying, "I hope I've been helpful. I'm 41 years old. That doesn't mean you have to pay attention to me, but it's, you know, probably in your best interests. You're probably too young to watch Mad Men so, uh, enjoy the Hunger Games?" "Ask A Grown Man" has a lo-fi aesthetic; the celebrities who answer the readers' questions do so on web cams, dressed in whatever they happen to be wearing that day. "Ask An A-Lister" is more polished, has bland questions that seem to come from editors, not readers ("How do I get in with his friends?"), and shows the star with hair and makeup, sitting in Seventeen's offices. "Ask A Grown Man" debuted in September of 2011. Seventeen unveiled "Ask An A-Lister" in May of 2012.
Advice columns are a staple of teen publishing, and certainly not anything Rookie or Gevinson invented — "Ask A Grown Man" seems like a YouTube-era update of Sassy's old "Dear Boy" column, which served up written advice from such luminaries as Thurston Moore. But the similarities between the formats of the two features — not to mention the timing — certainly seem too neat to be coincidental. "This is the first time that I've felt that something I've done, or Rookie has done, has been copied," says Gevinson. "I feel like this is Seventeen's attempt to reach people in a certain way that Rookie succeeds at, but they kind of missed the point."
She also has no love for Seventeen's reader-submitted "embarrassing stories" column and its overall boy-obsessed tone. "I feel like if I followed their articles about boys and truly believed it was as important to do certain things or avoid certain things as they say, I would probably go crazy. Sometimes their 'embarrassing' stories are literally about boys finding out that you have your period. I'm just tired of stigmatizing totally normal body stuff like that."
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