May 3, 2012 -- Long lean legs, a teeny tiny waist, perfect skin and glossy hair -- these are the flawless features commonly found in fashion magazines. But who looks like this? Nobody, because while models have always been made to look beautiful, never before have they been made to look so skinny, so airbrushed and so impossibly perfect -- and some say that can be dangerous.
Julia Bluhm, an 8th grader from Waterville, Maine, has recently become a crusader against airbrushed ads. The 14-year-old traveled to New York City Wednesday to lead a protest, which was set up like a mock photo shoot, on the doorstep of the offices of the Hearst Corporation, which owns Seventeen magazine, one of the biggest teen magazines in the fashion industry.
"We want to show Seventeen that we love our body just for who we are and we don't need Photoshop to fix us ... and we can be pretty without -- we can take pictures of ourselves and be pretty," Bluhm said.
Her campaign started two weeks ago when she taped herself asking her friends about airbrushed photos during lunch in her middle school cafeteria. That led Bluhm to start a petition on Change.org entitled "Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls," asking the magazine to feature one un-airbrushed photo spread a month. It has over 25,000 signatures from all over the world.
"These pictures [in the magazine] look too perfect to be like anyone I know. You look around and most people you see on the streets or at school don't really look like this," Bluhm said.
Lynn Grefe, the president of the Eating Disorder Association of America, said she has seen firsthand the negative effects that airbrushed ads can have on young children. Grefe said kids are a "vulnerable population" who look at these ads and think "why don't I look like that." Some develop eating disorders even before they are teenagers.
"I've seen a 9-year-old girl on a feeding tube at treatment centers -- and that's just not one, believe me," Teefe said. "It's just getting worse and worse, and why are we doing this to kids? Why are we making children feel self-conscious?"
There are no hard statistics to support a correlation between children suffering from eating disorders as a result of seeing airbrushed ads. But Grefe estimated that about 95 percent of children who see these ads would say the ads made them feel bad about themselves.
"[The ads] didn't cause their eating disorder. Did it nurture the eating disorder? Did it help it grow and become the chronic illness it can be? For sure," Grefe said. "I think it is more dangerous for kids to look at some of these magazines today than smoking pot."
Youth and beauty have graced magazine covers for decades, but what has made today's images more dangerous is the cutting-edge Photoshopping technology. According to Sara Ziff, a former model and founder of the Model Alliance, in her business, a photo isn't finished until it's fixed.
"Pretty much every image in advertising is going to have some Photoshop and that's not necessarily a terrible thing," Ziff said. "But there are degrees of Photoshopping. You see people whose bodies have been really reshaped to look significantly younger or significantly thinner and I think that's really the source of concern."
"A lot of these images are not real," she continued. "I think any model would tell you that they do not live up to the image of themselves in the magazines."
Supermodel Crystal Renn, 25, was so fed up with the digital enhancements of her photos used in a recent ad campaign, that she spoke out against extreme airbrushing out of concern it would lead to eating disorders, like she once faced herself.
But the quest for perfection begins way before the first click of the camera. This summer, "Nightline" profiled a model boot camp run out of the home of model scouts Mary and Jeff Clarke. There, young girls would be trained to walk and pose, as well as coached on keeping slim and fit. One aspiring model, 15-year-old Malia Greiner, who went through the boot camp knows every inch on her waist counts.
"I have seen friends of mine who were models really go to extremes and in some cases get very sick," she said. "One model who I've worked with -- who's been very, very successful -- her agency told her to get full body liposuction when she was still in her teens, and she did."
Lynn Grefe said she is pushing for some controversial legislation that would require warning labels to be put on all images that have been airbrushed, similar, she said, to the tobacco warnings on cigarette packages.
"We're not saying this image is going to kill you, even though eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness," she said. "We want to educate quickly, which means that if a child can read, then the child can see that this is not a real photograph."
In the meantime, Julia Bluhm's protest earned her a meeting with Seventeen magazine's editor-in-chief on Wednesday.
In a statement to "Nightline," a spokesperson for Seventeen said, "We're proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue -- it's exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers -- so we invited her to our office to meet with editor-in-chief Ann Shoket this morning. They had a great discussion, and we believe that Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that's how we present them. We feature real girls in our pages and there is no other magazine that highlights such a diversity of size, shape, skin tone and ethnicity."
And Bluhm plans on continuing her mission.
"We hope it will be like a baby step to grow into something bigger like maybe it will influence other magazines to do the same thing [on] other pages and maybe even a cover," she said. "That would be really cool."