Even since the magazine, Seventeen, debuted in September of 1944, teenaged girls -- both in the United States and around the world -- have been turning to the glossy pages of the publishing industry for advice on beauty, fashion, and romance.
Traditionally, the images found in these magazines have been of perfection: perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect bodies, perfect clothing. But recently more and more teen magazines have begun to embrace the flaws that editors know all of their readers have -- and sales are going up because of it.
Fourteen-year-old Bryan Barks sits in her bedroom with her best friend, Rachel Amster. Flipping through a copy of CosmoGirl!, a teen magazine that was launched in 1999, Bryan points to a photograph. "It's a girl, and she has kind of short, choppy hair," she says. "She's wearing motorcycle boots. I actually liked that she's pale. As a pale person myself, I appreciate that, 'cause, you know, not all beauty is tan!" She laughs and looks knowingly at her friend, whose skin in a few shades darker.
The picture Bryan Barks is looking at is of what people in the industry refer to as a "real girl." That is to say, the pale young lady with the thin, choppy hair is not a professional model. She is an average teenager -- someone who would not necessarily stand out in a crowd, because there is nothing about her that is perfect. Turn her over to a professional photographer, make-up artist, and stylist, though, and this average girl becomes an inspiration for thousands.
Atoosa Rubenstein helped found CosmoGirl! six years ago, and she now serves as editor-in-chief of Seventeen. She says magazines like hers have begun to highlight a different kind of beauty ideal, one that can be achieved by everyone, not just tall, thin girls with clear complexions and naturally thick hair. "When we do a swimsuit feature, for example, we'll have a size 22 girl," Ms. Rubenstein says. "When was the last time you saw a size 22 girl that was not specifically for plus-size? You don't [see those larger girls]. You know, a lot of times, magazines will say 'plus size', and they're talking about a size 8. Now a size 8 in my book is skinny."
Increasingly, magazines like Seventeen and CosmoGirl! have been featuring young ladies who are overweight, or short, or have big noses or small eyes. The message is that girls like this are beautiful, too -- and teenagers seem to be listening. In the last two years, Seventeen magazine has increased its newsstand sales by seventeen percent.
But common, human flaws are not the only bits of reality that editors are including on their pages. Atoosa Rubenstein, who was born in Iran, says she has also made a concerted effort to get more black, Asian, and Middle-Eastern girls onto Seventeen's pages. "'All-American' looks very different today than it did twenty years ago, and I felt that that wasn't being reflected," she says. "For better or for worse, young girls get their idea of what is beautiful from the pages of magazines. And so when an Indian girl looks in Seventeen and sees a girl from her background smiling back at her, that sends her a message that she is beautiful."
The changes have been praised by educators and psychologists -- although the praise has been given cautiously. Jean Kilbourne is a documentary film-maker whose series, Killing Us Softly, is a critique of the images of women in western advertising. Ms. Kilbourne says the "real girls" that can now be found in teen magazines are a step in the right direction, but she is still highly critical of the industry's practice of retouching photographs, whether those pictures are of "real girls" or professional models. "It's possible now to alter images and make them absolutely perfect," Ms. Kilbourne notes. "So a computer can not only remove any signs of wrinkles or pores or anything like that from a woman's face, but can also whittle inches off her waist or her thighs."
Editors acknowledge that re-touching is common in their industry. In fact, CosmoGirl!'s October issue will feature a multi-page "before" and "after" expose on the practice. Industry leaders say they cannot stop re-touching photographs, because if they do, people will stop buying their magazines. They say consumers simply are not interested in seeing every flaw that a person being photographed has. Fourteen-year Rachel Amster says editors are probably right about that, but she is looking forward to next month's feature in CosmoGirl!, because she says it will help her keep things in perspective. "I think it'll be good to see, to be able to balance out the realistic with the not-so-realistic," she says. "But at the same time, I can understand it not being as interesting if the people weren't necessarily perfectly flawless and if magazines all of a sudden decided we're not going to airbrush (i.e. retouch) anymore, we're going to put them (i.e. the girls and women) out there the way we find them. 'Cause people wouldn't read it."
Teen magazine editors are not the only people in the industry embracing the "real" concept. Advertisers, too, are catching on. Dove, Nike, and Wal-Mart have all started using women who are not professional models in their ads. The layouts have definitely captured the public's attention and generated conversation. Whether they will also generate sales, though, remains to be seen.