Photo-altering apps a 'rabbit-hole' for young girls, Teen Vogue editor says

Elaine Welteroth tells Sydney writers’ festival she once tried photoshopping herself, but the desire for adjustments was never-ending

Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth has called photo editing apps and Photoshop a “rabbit hole” for young people, which can be damaging to their self-esteem – “especially now when plastic surgery is somehow an option for a lot of young people”.

Speaking with Slate’s editor-in-chief Julia Turner at the Sydney writers’ festival on Friday, she admitted to trying do-it-yourself photoshopping one time herself, downloading the Facetune app, which allows users to easily digitally alter their selfies and photographs: “I had to take it off my phone because I fixed something on my face ... and then I wanted to fix something on my nose, and then – you just get down this rabbit hole and you start hating yourself. And you’re like, ‘How did I get here? I felt really good like 10 minutes ago’,” she said.

“I do think that the desire to permanently alter your body is triggered by this easy access to Photoshop on your phone.”

Welteroth became the first African American beauty editor in Conde Nast’s history when she started at Teen Vogue four and a half years ago. Last year, the 29-year-old became the youngest editor in the publication’s history; and in April, she was promoted to editor-in-chief.

The magazine changed strategy about 18 months ago, broadening its coverage to politics and social issues. This shift got widespread media attention in December, after a political commentary from freelance writer Lauren Duca, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America”, went viral.

Did not expect this exegesis of gaslighting and its relationship to current day politics from Teen Vogue

— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) December 10, 2016

She said the widespread surprise that the article generated showed how “grossly underestimated” teenage girls were. “It’s only shocking to the uninitiated that Teen Vogue would have the audacity to be political and style focused ... This is a tradition that existed well before Teen Vogue,” Welteroth said. Teen Vogue sold more magazines in December than it did in the entire year.

While the teen magazine is “very careful about retouching” young girls, particularly on their covers, Welteroth said it could be a double-edged sword.

“Recently – and I won’t name who – but we did put a celebrity on our cover who we lightly retouched, as we would with any other cover. And then we got the phone calls from her – their – agent, who was like, ‘Why wasn’t this retouched more? We need this to be retouched!’ You can’t win for losing. If we had retouched her more, then we would have, you know, been dragged on the internet.”

In 2012, a 14-year-old girl accrued 25,000 signatures on a petition to ban photo alterations from Seventeen magazine, leading to a promise from the editors not to alter girls’ faces or bodies. A few months later, a 16-year-old and 17-year-old started their own petition to Teen Vogue, and staged a mock runway show outside the publication’s offices in protest of “the digitally enhanced, unrealistic ‘beauty’ we see in the pages of magazines.”

“We are demanding that teen magazines stop altering natural bodies and faces so that real girls can be the new standard of beauty,” they wrote on

Welteroth, who was not working at the publication at the time of the protest, said on Friday: “[Teen Vogue has] always been very careful about retouching; our creative director has a very firm stance on it, even makeup. She doesn’t really like to use a lot of makeup on young girls on our covers, and retouching is very, very light ... we’re talking to young girls and our job is to show them, to represent them.”

That responsibility extended to body shape, she said, citing the magazine’s first “plus-sized” fashion shoot. “We didn’t call it that; it was just a beautiful back-to-school fashion shoot. It was amazing actually showing that to Anna [Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue], getting her blessing – again, not knowing how it would be perceived, and Anna loved it. And she said, ‘We should be doing more of this’. So that was great.”

The panel was attended by a mostly younger audience, who asked some of the day’s best questions. One question related to the #askhermore hashtag, which celebrities and others have been using to protest against the vacuous questions about clothes and beauty levelled at successful women on red carpets – but which has been criticised for diminishing the value of fashion as a force of self-expression.

“I really don’t like Ask Her More,” Turner said, laughing. “It’s like, it’s Oscars night, I wanna hear about her dress. Ask her more some other time!”

“To each her own,” Welteroth said. “If you feel that it diminishes your intelligence to be asked about your fashion choices for an evening on the red carpet, so be it. It’s your prerogative to say, ‘I’d like if you could move on to the next question’ – and then certainly the reporter [will hopefully] have another question to ask.

“But you know, I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of about being a woman who loves fashion. Fashion is a vehicle for self-expression, it tells the world who you are and how you want to be seen. If you use it as a canvas for creativity, then you might want to talk about it, you know? And I fully embrace that.”

Sydney writers’ festival continues until Sunday 28 May


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

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