The epithet ‘local hero’ doesn’t sit comfortably with 22 year-old Jessica Barlow. But that’s how this graduate of Mater Christi College, Belgrave, has been described by her local community.
A resident of Knoxfield in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Jessica received Knox Council’s 2014 Australia Day Local Hero Award for raising awareness about the impact of magazines and media on young women and their self-esteem.
In 2012, while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, Jessica launched the Brainwash Project, which aims “to encourage teenage girls to be critical rather than passive consumers of popular culture – with the ability to accept healthy, positive messages and reject fake or damaging messages”.
Jessica said she established the project because of the effect women’s magazines had on her peers at school, coupled with what she’d learnt about the magazine industry at university.
“The magazines we read monopolised our conversations and social status was decided by the extent to which we conformed to the ideals on the pages,” Jessica told The Good Oil.
“As year sevens we all came into school fresh-faced, not wearing any makeup, wanting to run around at recess, lots of energy, you know, talking about our lives. And then by the end of year eight, beginning of year nine, Girlfriend and Dolly magazines started filtering through.
“Girls started bringing them to school, conversations began to change, a lot of girls were wearing makeup, and conversation was less about what we were doing on the weekend or what we could be doing… It all suddenly just became more and more about appearance.”
Jessica found that experience personally challenging. Then, when she launched into her writing course at uni and learnt more about the magazine industry, she became increasingly disturbed by the messages women’s magazines were sending to young girls.
“The main thing that triggered me off – what actually started the Brainwash Project – was seeing a girl, Julia Bluhm in the US, who started a petition asking Teen Vogue to not publish photoshopped images in their magazines. And that was when I realised that I, as a relative no one in society, could actually put my hand up and do something about it.”
In August 2012, Jessica launched a petition that asked women’s magazine Cleo to print one unaltered photo spread per month and to include a disclaimer in their publication to inform readers that some images within the magazine are digitally altered.
“I started with Cleo because that was the main magazine that I read and was brought into my school,” she said.
Some 22,000 people signed Jessica’s petition which attracted radio and print media interest, and led to Jessica attending a “quite tense” meeting with the editors of Cleo in Sydney.
“Basically we didn’t see eye to eye. In the end the editor agreed to publish the Photoshop guidelines in every issue which was a good step. But it’s a first step; it’s by no means a solution to the problem,” she said.
But Jessica did not stop there. She decided to create an alternative magazine for young women, aged 15 to 25. Raising $5,000 and collaborating with more than 100 volunteer writers, photographers and artists, she launched Brainwash Magazine in April, 2013. This 188-page, colour magazine promotes body positivity and aims to be inclusive of all body shapes, abilities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and skin colours.
“It promotes what girls can do rather than how we can look,” Jessica explained. “The emphasis is more on the brain rather than on the external, which is sort of where Brainwash came from really.”
Feedback about the magazine has been very positive. “I’ve heard from hundreds of girls saying ‘Thank you for doing this. We haven’t seen a magazine like this. We wish there was more like it’,” said Jessica.
Late last year, the Brainwash Project was also recognised by the Federal Government’s Office for Youth with the first ever National Youth Health and Wellbeing Award.
Julie Feeney, Deputy Principal (Learning and Mission) of Mater Christi College is not surprised by Jessica’s achievements since leaving school.
“She was a diligent and considerate student. As part of her VCE program Jess did AUSLAN. She was very keen to be an advocate for those who were not able to fully participate in the world around them and was very generous to others in her time away from studies. It is apparent in her achievements thus far that this commitment remains a driving force for Jess.”
Interestingly, Jessica recognises the influence Mater Christi College had in developing a strong sense of social justice within her.
“Mater Christi is a really great advocate for social justice and they really do inspire that motivation in students. I found a lot of us who’ve graduated have gone on to do a lot of volunteering and to work towards the better good,” said Jessica.
“Probably the best thing that came out of my time at Mater Christi was that sense of social justice and that fire to do something for the community.”