Ashley Crouch is the PR manager and contributing editor of a new women's fashion magazine with a much talked about policy: no digital alterations to models' real appearances allowed.
“Whereas other magazines Photoshop to achieve the 'ideal' body type or leave a maximum of three wrinkles, we never alter the body or face structure of our models with Photoshop,” reads the description on Verily magazine's website.
“We firmly believe that the unique features of women – be it crows feet, freckles, or a less-than-rock-hard body – contribute to their beauty and therefore don’t need to be removed or changed.”
In the physical perfection-crazed world of fashion, Crouch and her colleagues at Verily are committed to bringing women a newer, more uplifting notion of beauty.
Interested to find out more about their innovative endeavor and its guiding vision, I spoke with Crouch about her work.
Q: How did Verily begin, and why did you adopt a no Photoshop policy?
A: Largely it grew out of a conversation between women over brunch. There were a bunch of women, all from various backgrounds and business sectors...all of the women there felt that the current landscape of women’s magazines just really didn’t resonate with them and the trajectory of their lives.
There is a huge cult of cosmetic perfection, especially within the fashion industry. Largely what we were trying to do was to counteract that by really showing and not telling what it is to be authentically beautiful.
You read a fashion magazine when you want to give yourself a gift: when you’re flying in the airplane and you have downtime and you want to just pamper yourself. Then, all of a sudden you’re reading content that calls into question whether you’re actually living a life that is worthwhile. All the standards that are proposed about how to be successful or how to look actually can perpetuate a sense of shame or guilt and not being enough.
The media shapes that whole perspective about what is acceptable, and especially amongst young girls who are informed in many ways about what that looks like. In 1971, the average individual saw 500 ads per day, but now the average individual is exposed to 5000 ads per day, and those images are largely hyper sexualized or super skinny. So what we wanted to do was push back against that standard and offer a more holistic vision for women to – this is what we say Verily does – “celebrate the best of who we already are.”
Instead of perpetuating this culture of fear, which is the natural result of such a narrow standard – 75 percent of young women feel worse about themselves after just 3 minutes of reading a typical fashion magazine – we want to broaden that standard, and really give women permission to celebrate their authentic beauty. We wanted to challenge this sort of frame that we’re put in by the media, to help untwist what it is that actually is beautiful, to show a more radiant, integrated, holistic view of women.
And, just from a personal perspective, I believe that women have an enormous and profound power and really a duty to bring beauty into the world, and to showcase beauty for the world, in a very personal way.
Q: Could you explain a little more about what you mean by women having power in beauty?
Working within the fashion industry, and even living in Manhattan, everything about the script that I’m given about how I’m supposed to look becomes so narrow – but it also is effective. We’re told that if we look a certain way…beauty becomes a ticket to getting into the posh bar or club; getting in the front of the line; getting a free latte at the local coffee shop – the ways that we look open doors, and especially within the fashion industry. This is the ticket to power, right? We’re in some ways told to not only celebrate our beauty but to use it as a power for something else, use it as a tool for something else – usually to achieve success.
Q: What do you think the effect of this attitude is?
If we are getting into this mindset of drawing upon our own beauty – I mean physical beauty, external appearance – for the sake of something else, then that sets all of us up as competitors. Rather than just accepting our own beauty, we become competitors with each other, and everyone else who looks better, who has thinner thighs or flatter abs, is seen as a threat to our own achievement of power, and so there’s a huge landscape of competition there.
Q: What do you think is a better way to understand the power of beauty?
One thing that I’ve learned so much since working in the fashion industry is that beauty resonates deeply within the human heart. It is beauty which inspires us, which inspires all within us, which draws us to want to be better, or to look a certain way, or to act a certain way – beauty really shapes the way that we understand ourselves and our identity and the way we’re supposed to not only look but also act.
Q: Verily is not a faith-based magazine, but you yourself are Catholic. How does this affect your work in the fashion industry?
It can be very easy to want to just ignore or push aside people who are working within the industry. There’s a great skepticism, I think, from very well meaning people who are seeking after modesty, and seeking after holiness, to say that the desire to be beautiful is vain and shallow and the desire to be fashionable is one of these sorts of shallow desires that we should ignore unless they get out of control, and to focus on deeper, more respectable topics. (The attitude is,) “we don’t have time – the world is going through too many things right now to focus on this.”
But I believe it was Pope Benedict who said, “artists are the custodians of beauty.” If we think of fashion, the fashion industry, media – if we think of all of these as art forms, and as giving us the opportunity to tell stories, and to cast a vision about what life could look like, then all of a sudden we’re given the green light to dive in.
I’m thinking of people I work with, even within the industry: models that I’ve worked with on photoshoots, spent the whole afternoon with them, feeding them, laughing, joking – but then at the end for one of them to say to me, “that was such a fun shoot. We don’t usually get to smile on our shoots.” This affects them as well! We are showing them a great service as well, in honoring their own physical beauty, but also letting them be joyful, letting them be radiant.
At fashion week I was watching one of the shows (in which) one of the models was so skinny that she was trembling. I remember going up and standing right in front of her and just smiling at her, and as soon as she made eye contact with me, her whole face lit up. It was as if at once she was being seen as a whole person, and not just as a clothes rack.
That was such a small instance, but it was so powerful for me that so many models and so many young girls go into this industry because they want to be seen. But if we really can see them, and showcase them, and celebrate the beauty and really the art, and communicate the powerful message about what life could look like, then we’re on the path to really humanizing society in this industry.
It’s very easy for people within the Catholic realm to want to herald goodness, truth, and beauty, but beauty is seen like the unfortunate sister. Goodness and truth are the primary goals: we need to be talking about goodness and truth all the time. But beauty is a third way, it’s a very powerful way, and I think it’s going to be one of the most powerful ways of approaching the culture and of making the faith attractive to people.
Rather than approaching (the fashion industry) with skepticism or desiring to bracket it all, to march forward boldly and to be a storyteller using this medium that people can understand, that’s what the new evangelization all about. If we can think of innovative ways to show beauty in all these different areas – digital, print, traditional media – (if we can) be storytellers using beauty, then I think we have a bright future.
Q: Are there other initiatives going on that are showcasing this message and positive vision of women and beauty? Is this becoming a trend?
We see quotes from supermodels like Kylie Bisutti, for example, who was featured last year on ABC News. She was working as an angel for Victoria’s Secret but decided to quit the industry, and she said that so many people think beauty is about physical appearance, but really it’s a heart issue. Another supermodel, Cameron Russell, said that models have the flattest abs and the skinniest thighs, but really they are some of the most insecure women, probably in the world.
There are small voices coming out as a kind of clarion call that we need to be reintegrating the heart in with beauty itself. But really, it’s easy to buy into it, and what we need to do is step back a little bit and think about what is authentic beauty and how can we be bringing that to the world.
I’m excited about the role that Verily has played in the cultural conversation by means of the no Photoshop policy, because that speaks to these principles in a language that popular culture can understand. All women everywhere can be grateful that they’re not going to have their imperfections Photoshopped away. That gives them permission to be who they naturally are.
After we had a lot of media coverage from the no Photoshop policy, there were a lot of other brands that began implementing these sorts of things. Recently, American Eagle, the popular brand that largely targets high school teen girls, launched an entire spring campaign called “Aerie Real” in which they don’t Photoshop any of their models and they don’t reduce their weight or their size, so everything you see is natural and unaltered. I think that’s an enormous step in the right direction for these teenage girls who are taking their cues from media. Philosopher Edith Stein says we’re searching for guideposts to understand ourselves and our place in the world, and media plays a huge role in that, especially for high school and teen girls, so I think that’s one initiative that is a huge positive step in the right direction.
There are also certain fashion brands, too, that are slowly stepping in this direction. There’s a huge trend toward vintage clothing, which is largely more modest than hyper-trendy clothes. Companies like Modcloth and Shabby Apple have a bent toward the vintage, but they also, in all of their imagery and photography, really uphold the dignity of women and step away from the hyper-sexualized standard that’s commonly proposed as beautiful. Even last year, the New York Times did a piece on why modesty is becoming “in vogue.”
A lot of these principles are relevant to consumerism. You put your money where your mouth is. If the buyer wants a certain standard, then the manufacturers and distributors have to follow suit. It’s actually very empowering for us as women to feel like we actually have a voice, whether that’s through our blogs, or the companies that we shop at, or the types of clothing that we buy, the media that we consume. So hopefully by continuing in that path we’ll continue to see progress as a trend. I think it will happen.
Kerri Lenartowick currently lives in Rome where she is pursuing her doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and working as a journalist for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News. She obtained her S.T.L. and S.T.B. degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit MI, and her M.A. and B.A. in Theology from Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas, respectively. Over the years, she has worked for various aspects of the pro-life movement and spoken to women’s groups across the country.