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In an airbrushed world, how do you define what's truly hot?

The slogan on the Levi's magazine ad declares that "Hotness comes in all Shapes and Sizes." The problem is the three models, standing sideways in tight jeans, are barely distinguishable from each other.

"What – are they, like, all the same?" asks Alyssa Spagnolo, 18, leaning in for a closer look.

"Except maybe their butts," says 17-year-old Karmen Brar. (It's true, one of the models does look a little more J-Lo. Slightly.)

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"There's maybe a difference between a size 0 and a size 4. Where are the size 8s, the size 12s?" points out Shannen Maili-McAleer, 16.

Paul De Sadeleer, 17, shrugs at his friend, Ryan Cao, also 17. "I never realized how we think about things so differently. I just saw that and was like, 'Okay, hotness comes in all shapes and sizes. Yeah, that's true. So good.' I didn't see that they were all thin."

"That makes me so mad," says Shannen.

Mad, but conflicted. These are the same young women who admit that the girls in school are devotees of the Victoria's Secret fashion show, and obsess about it for months afterward, posting pictures of their favourite model online, as an inspiration to lose the 15 pounds they probably don't need to lose. (The reaction from Ryan and Paul? Another bewildered shrug.)

In all the debate about the perils of Photoshop and the impossibility of perfection, teenagers stand at ground zero, saturated in social media and bombarded with messaging. The side effects are showing: This month, a fresh group of young women jumped on a YouTube trend, posting pleading videos asking: "Am I Ugly?" A newly released study on mental health and young Canadians found that 39 per cent of female Grade 10 students believe they are fat, a number that's substantially higher than those who are actually overweight.

In the cafeteria at Ottawa's John McCrae school, these six teenagers have been brought together to discuss body image and the media and offer their opinion on some of the more egregious photo-shopping examples. (Remember the bizarre Ralph Lauren ad in which the model's waist was barely as wide as her leg, and her over-large head looked ready to snap her stick neck? The unanimous reaction: Yuck.)

As surveys go, it's not scientific. They are outgoing, middle-class kids, good students chosen by the principal. A familiar theme emerges: On one level, they know most of what they see in magazines and on the Internet is fantasy. (Says Alyssa of the Victoria's Secret models: "We know it's their full-time job to look beautiful.") But when they look in the mirror, they find it difficult to reconcile the fantasy with reality.

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In a way, it's the story of Adele, the white-hot English singer. The girls admire her for being a talented, outspoken woman who says things like, "I don't have time to worry about something as petty as what I look like." But as Allison Lemenchick, 17, points out, they also hear the guys in school call her "that fattie."

The pressure to be perfect is coming at them from every direction, they explain: magazines, social media, the Tumblr pictures their peers collect of emaciated, Photoshopped celebrities, the "getskinny" websites. "It's everywhere you look," Alyssa says. "It's everywhere you go."

Studies shows that depression, anxiety and eating disorders are on the rise – especially among young women, and when Alyssa says everyone knows someone who purges after binge eating, or takes laxatives to lose weight, the rest of the girls nod.

"Girls analyze their bodies a lot more," she says. "Guys might say, 'I wish I was little more muscular.' But with girls, it's like, 'My thighs are too big. I have too many zits.'"

"A girl is her own biggest critic," agrees Karmen.

Alyssa: "Girls go right down to the pores."

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Guys, Ryan says, have it easier. The magazines they read tell them to work out more, to exercise. Even if you'd like six pack abs, both he and Paul agree, there is more room in the male body spectrum to be different.

Paul: "The girls are talking about negative pressure, and maybe it is for them. But when I am looking at athletes, it motivates me to go to the gym."

Allison: "But for girls, it motivates them to go the extreme."

Alyssa: "Yeah, to starve themselves."

So, what about all those celebrity photos that are airbrushed and thinned to a shiny, bulge-free perfection?

"It catches our eye," Ryan admits. "But it's not like we would go after that. It's just kind of there."

Paul jumps in: "But I think you would try to find something close to that. I would be dishonest if I'm saying when you see a girl on a magazine and she's very good-looking, you don't wish there was someone like tha t... [But]I hope I would never put that kind of pressure on a girl."

Alyssa: "Girls get ranked all the time."

Ryan: "Absolutely."

They are quick to recognize the contradiction, that the standard they are setting for themselves and for each other is fabricated by a computer. (As Ryan points out, Photoshopping an already beautiful person just "shows that perfection is unattainable.") Comparing before-and-after photos, they still seem surprised at how much is altered – how it's not just the wrinkles under the eye, but the tiny puff of skin on Faith Hill's back, or the completely digital bodies used in a controversial H&M bikini ad campaign. (Says Paul: "Why do they even need to use real models any more?")

In fact, Photoshopping has become so extreme in advertising that there have been recent calls to ban it altogether in Britain and the United States – an approach that the teenagers support. "The media doesn't realize that we're starting to understand that everything is fake," says Karmen. "So when they make it more real, it drives us to that product."

This month, after a survey found that the majority of readers agreed that airbrushing zits from photos was okay, but making someone look five pounds lighter was not, the fashion magazine Glamour vowed to tell its photographers that they cannot manipulate body size, even if a celebrity asks for it. And for Alyssa and her peers, it seems important to know whether Kourtney Kardashian, posing with her newborn baby, asked for her post-pregnancy stomach to be flattened for a magazine cover, or if Adele sought that thinner face in her March photo spread in Vogue.

"I want to know if she okayed that," says Alyssa, as they compared pictures of Adele at the Grammy Awards to her Vogue shoot, stopping on the inside picture that shows her hands pressed against her face, strategically narrowing it.

Paul: "If I just saw these pictures, I wouldn't know it's her. The message is that this is more attractive than the way she actually looks."

Shannen: "She's a role model, being so proud of her body. It would just be a big letdown."

The good news, they say, is they have the impression a tipping point is being reached. Even the guys are critical of Angelina Jolie, posing, now infamously, at the Oscars with her bony arms and her thin right leg jutting from a thigh-high slit in her skirt. And when they see Zooey Deschanel, stretched and airbrushed into anonymity in a recent lipstick ad, they jump into a game of catch-the-difference – longer nose, flatter face, bigger lips – and their judgment is quick: She looks "plastic," says Allison, "like she has no life in her."

It's easy to see what's wrong with this picture when you are being asked to look for it.

"I don't think you should base your self-esteem on what other people say is beautiful," says Shannen.

"Once you accept yourself, you can start figuring out what your perception of beauty is," says Karmen.

Words to remember, especially when the next Victoria's Secret runway show tells them otherwise.

Conflicted teens

A national study of 25,000 Canadian youth between the ages of 11 and 15, released this month, found that:

- In Grade 10, half of boys and girls believed their weight was just right.

- Nearly 40 per cent of Grade 10 girls felt they were too fat (significantly higher than the actual percentage that is overweight) compared to 26 per cent in Grade 6.

- For Grade 10 boys, 23 per cent thought they were too fat, but 24 per cent thought they were too thin.

- Twenty per cent of girls ranked their life satisfaction at or lower than five out of 10. (Among boys, 14 per cent said the same.) Ratings for life satisfaction fell with each grade, and were consistently poorer among girls.

(Source: The Health of Canada's Young People: A mental health focus)

Results of a 2011 online British survey of 1,000 young women age 10 to 21

84 per cent understand what airbrushing means.

48 per cent said they are less trusting of companies that use obvious air-brushing in their ads.

84 per cent said Photoshopping of body shapes in ads was unacceptable.

61 per cent felt that even blemishes should not be airbrushed.

47 per cent said thin models make them want to diet or lose weight or feel more self-conscious (a percentage that peaked in mid-teens).

(Source: Credos, an advertising think tank in Great Britain)

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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