Connie Schultz | You Never Will Be That Cover Girl

Any American who cares about women should know about Jessica Coen and wish her a long and fruitful life. She is fighting for our girls, one magazine cover at a time.

Coen is the 30-year-old editor-in-chief of Jezebel, a popular blog geared to women 18 to 34. More than 200,000 readers visit the site each day. Count me as one of them. I outgrew its target audience some time ago, but the prose is crisp and the writers smart. I learn things.

Which brings me to Coen’s recent post titled “Why You Must See Unretouched Images, And Why You Must See Them Repeatedly.”

First, the back story: Jezebel launched three years ago, and within days, it offered $10,000 to the first person who could produce the “before” shot of an altered image of a woman featured on a magazine cover. It didn’t take long before Jezebel posted the unretouched photo of singer Faith Hill, who appeared in a dramatically altered form on the July 2007 cover of Redbook.

The differences between the two images were not only striking but also stomach-turning. Editors had digitally poofed up her hair, deflated her cheeks, shaved inches off her left arm and removed her right arm altogether. They erased fine lines from her face, the protruding clavicle from her chest and the tiny bit of back flesh blooming over the top of her sundress. Her previously small waist was whittled to the size of a 10-year-old’s.

Jezebel posted both photos with a damning critique, and its regular feature “Photoshop Of Horrors” was born. Since then, the website has harpooned a variety of magazines and clothing companies for altering already-beautiful women to look like space creatures’ failed attempts to fool us into thinking they’re human.

Coen’s latest target is Madison magazine, which ran a digitally altered photo of actress Jennifer Aniston, who, like most women whose images were manipulated, was already plenty pretty. Just not perfect, as defined by a multibillion-dollar industry that wants every woman in America to believe her only hope for salvation lies in buying the endless line of clothes, makeup and ridiculous gadgets it exists to sell.

As long as fashion magazines alter women’s images, Jezebel’s Coen vows she will call them out — one digitally distorted photo at a time.

“Remember that every day, a young woman somewhere sees one of these overly polished pictures for the first time … and has no idea that they’re not real,” she wrote earlier this week. “She may very well have no idea that most waists don’t really bend without a roll of flesh, that a 40-year-old woman actually does have some wrinkles, that no mascara will make one’s lashes magically long enough to tickle her eyebrows. What the girl does know is that the pictures show What Is Beautiful. She thinks they are reality. And maybe she doesn’t have someone in her life to point out that this is complete and utter bull——. So we’ll do that, and we’ll do it over and over again just to makes sure that everyone knows what’s up.”

Coen has since posted the back-and-forth correspondence between Jezebel and Joan Cargill, who works for Management Artists and accused Jezebel of copyright infringement for posting the original photo of Aniston without permission.

Take it down, said Cargill.

Nope, said Jezebel.

I called Cargill’s office but was transferred to an unnamed male. “I can’t comment on that, as Ms. Cargill is out of the office,” he said. “Good day.” And then he hung up.

Coen says that her ultimate hope is that we start calling out this hypocrisy every time we see it. She is particularly adamant about the responsibility of my generation.

“I would say to older women, ‘You have an obligation to point this out to girls,'” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Every time your daughter sees a woman’s photo that you know isn’t real, you can ask her, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?'”

As a mother, I learned the propaganda kicks in early. I still remember the first time my daughter looked at herself in the mirror and said, “Mommy, this coat makes me look fat.”

She was 5.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.

Copyright 2010