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To airbrush or not: Should beauty mags go bare?

  • An online petition is urging Seventeen magazine to rethink its retouching practices
  • 'No makeup' shoots and minimal retouches have been big beauty mag trends
To airbrush or not: Should beauty mags go bare?

The bare-faced look is having a bit of a moment in women's magazines. Everywhere you turn, there's a softly lit photo spread highlighting gorgeous female celebs going au naturale, which in the magazine world, means more than no makeup. It means beauty without the heavy hand of digital retouching tools.

Sure, lipstick or no lipstick, real people still don't have a team of stylists and lighting professionals to follow them around all the time, but the trend may speak to a larger shift in the way beauty is portrayed on the glossy pages of your favorite checkout-line reading material. 

Take Julia Bluhm. Bluhm is a 14-year-old student from Maine who recently started an online petition to convince Seventeen Magazine to ease up on their retouching practices by including un-retouched images that girls can, you know, actually relate to. 

"Girls want to be accepted, appreciated, and liked," Bluhm's petition reads. "To girls today, the word 'pretty' means skinny and blemish-free. Why is that, when so few girls actually fit into such a narrow category? It's because the media tells us that 'pretty' girls are impossibly thin with perfect skin."

"Here's what a lot of girls don't know," it continues. "Those 'pretty women' that we see in magazines are fake... A girl you see in a magazine probably looks a lot different in real life."

Yesterday morning, Bluhm, her mother, and a group of teen girls protested over-ambitious airbrushing in front of the Seventeen headquarters in New York, holding signs that read "Teen girls against Photoshop," and "This magazine's for me. Make it look like me!"

In a statement, Seventeen Magazine says they stand by the high level of diversity their magazine showcases. "We are proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue -- it's exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers." 

So if teenage girls can get wise to the ways of Photoshop, where does the trend stand with publications that cater to older women, women who may have years or decades of airbrush-induced cynicism ingrained in them, who have chuckled at candid "celebs with no make-up" pics or egregious Photoshop disasters that pull back the curtain on the practice of perfectionism?

Judging from the slough of natural-themed spreads, mags have caught on to the message: Maybe sometimes barer is better. 

People regularly gets beautiful ladies to peel all the paint off for their shoots, most recently snapping Zooey Deschanel, "Mad Men's" Jessica Pare and others for their annual "Most Beautiful People" issue. Jessica Simpson graced the cover of "Marie Clare" in nothing but her bare face, and French "Elle" popularized the sans fards movement (it means no makeup in French) when they snapped Eva Herzigova, Monica Belluci and Sophie Marceau sans their fards in 2009. In fact, Jamie Lee Curtis was one of the first celebs to take it all off -- literally! -- when she posed bare-faced in a bra and shorts in "More" magazine. That was all the way back in 2002. 

In February, Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive published a pledge to keep photo retouching to a minimum:

"Yes, we DO do it -- and so do most fashion publications in the age of digital retouching" the pledge reads. "But as your [reader] responses make clear, retouching has its limits -- or should -- and Glamour plans to take a stronger role in setting ours."

Leive said her comments were inspired by the French government's proposed crackdown on retouching in major magazines -- a trend that shows the conversation goes much farther than a pretty girl under a masthead. In 2009, legislators in France and the UK rallied to require retouched photos to carry a label on them. Valerie Boyer, a member of French Parliament who pushed for the law, said the label should read "Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person's physical appearance." 

"These photos can lead people to believe in a reality that does not actually exist, and have a detrimental effect on adolescents," she said. "It's not just a question of public health, but also a way of protecting the consumer."

In 2011, computer image specialists at Dartmouth College created software that could reveal exactly how much an image has been retouched, an ability, one of the creators says, can help people realized just how much a picture's "reality" can be augmented. 

"Retouching is becoming more extreme," says Hany Farid, who helped develop the software. "They are no longer making perfect skin, they are making impossible human beings. They are moving us, slowly and surely, in the direction of over-idealised notion of beauty."

Of course, Photoshop magic isn't just confined to magazine spreads; it touches advertisements, billboards, and essentially any image of a human being we could lay our eyes on in a given day. So while you're flipping through a great sans fards feature in a magazine, the "natural" images can be juxtaposed with highly manipulated images in ads.

This persistence of false perfection is why petition's like Julia Bluhm's resonate so soundly with other girls and women. It is a sign that younger and younger women are arming themselves against the impact of manipulated images. 

"For the sake of all struggling girls all over America" reads her petition, "I'm stepping up. I know how hurtful these Photoshopped images can be. I'm a teenage girl, and I don't like what I see. None of us do."

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