by Leanne Elahmad
Sifting through hundreds of cut-outs of seductive eyes, chiselled noses, pouting lips, impeccably white teeth, long smooth legs, tiny waists and the latest fashion styles from around the world, she mixes and matches to produce the most perfect woman. Only to realise that the overall picture is not perfect – they’re just paper people.
Jessica Barlow, 20, founder of The Brainwash Project, makes paper people to illustrate the idea that although digitally modified images of models in magazines make women long for those perfect eyes or that infectious smile, when you put the overall image together it just doesn’t look right.
The Brainwash Project is fighting the proliferation of digitally manipulated images found in magazines. She started a petition five months ago with the aim of getting enough signatures to ask Cleo magazine to include at least one unaltered fashion spread a month. Currently she has over 20,000 signatures and has raised the target to 25,000.
In a letter to Cleo, she says, “I want Cleo to stop selling images that hurt girls and break our self-esteem. Let us see real faces and real shapes in at least one photo spread a month – and always put a warning symbol on any image that has been altered.”
Ms Barlow says women want reality. “We just want the truth and, to be honest, I don’t think that’s a big ask. It takes more effort for magazines to digitally alter, to slim girls down, to take out all those pimples, than for them to take the photo just as they took it and put it on the page,” Ms Barlow says.
While her frustration with magazines throughout her high school and university years contributed to her passion to change mainstream magazines ideal woman approach, it is the realisation that anyone can stimulate positive change that has made her more determined.
Initially it was Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old American girl, who was the catalyst for Jessica’s project. Julia petitioned Seventeen magazine to print one unaltered photo spread a month and got over 80,000 signatures.
Seventeen responded by introducing a Body Peace Treaty and a letter from the editor-in-chief, Ann Shoket encouraging girls to love their bodies. The magazine also vowed to feature an unaltered spread every month.
However, Ms Barlow not only wants to implement change in mainstream magazines, she wants to show them how it’s done in her Brainwash magazine scheduled to be released in April 2013.
“The purpose of the magazine is to make readers feel good about themselves, and provide an alternative to mainstream women’s magazines which are focused on boys, appearance, clothes and makeup. The magazine aims to celebrate achievements and opportunities for young people,” she says.
Brainwash magazine is self-funded and Ms Barlow has started a Pozible crowd funding campaign to raise money for the printing of the magazine. After hitting her initial target of $4,000, she has extended her target to $10,000 which will allow her to print more copies and ensure the magazine’s content is of a higher standard.
However, the condition is if she doesn’t reach her target on Pozible within 90 days, she doesn’t receive any of the pledges.
Ms Barlow says Cleo has agreed to print its Photoshop policy in the front of every issue of the magazine from now on.
A recent study, entitled ‘Reality Check: An experimental investigation of the addition of warning labels to fashion magazine images on women’s mood and body dissatisfaction’, conducted by the School of Psychology at Flinders University, suggests the use of warning labels about digitally altered images may help to ameliorate some of the known negative effects of images that feature the thin ideal.
The study sampled 102 undergraduate women aged 18 to 35 years who were randomly selected to look at magazine fashion spreads with either no warning labels, generic warning labels that stated that the image had been digitally altered, or specific warning labels that stated the way in which the image has been digitally altered.
The study found that “participants who viewed images with a warning label (either generic or specific) reported lower levels of body dissatisfaction, but not negative mood, than participants who viewed the same images with no warning labels, regardless of the degree of internalisation of the thin ideal”.
Dr Amy Slater, a Research Fellow at the School of Psychology and leader of the study, says it came about because a couple of years ago there was a National Advisory Committee set up by the Government on body image. One of the recommendations in its media code of conduct was that if images have been altered or enhanced that magazines and advertisers should declare this, however it was only voluntary.
Dr Slater says she is still considering different options for warning labels to see what might be effective with particularly young girls.
The Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics added a new section to address concerns about the objectification of people in early 2012. The new wording restricts the use of images that employ sexual appeal that is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people.
Margaret Zabel, Chief Executive Officer of the Communications Council, says while advertisers and their agencies should take community concern about the objectification of women seriously, and in nearly all cases they do, rather than warning labels, the public should be presented with balanced and healthy portrayals of people in the first place.
“We believe that self-regulation is an effective mechanism in ensuring that concern in portrayal are met. The nature of self-regulation is that signatories have an interest in maintaining its standards to avoid government regulation, which can be more stringent, being imposed,” Ms Zabel says.
Designer Theresa Nakhoul, founder of TN.Swimwear, says, “It’s the media’s responsibility to portray more realistic body types for readers to feel confident in themselves.”
When casting models to showcase her designs, Ms Nakhoul chooses models with ideal curves and healthy bodies. She is also a frequent guest speaker at her local Guildford Youth Centre, which runs workshops for young girls aged between 12 to 18 years
“In doing this, we hope to achieve many things like boosting their confidence in their own unique appearances and how to do their own hair, makeup and dress for different occasions. It’s a real self esteem booster,” she says.
Jessica Barlow says that in focusing on improving the way the media targets young girls, she has invited young people from the community to share their ideas about what they want to see in magazines.
She acknowledges that change is always slow. “I believe that this change is inevitable – it makes so much sense that surely it will happen. This research will only help in making the change come about faster,” she says.