“Lady-Mags”–Love Them, Flaws and All, or Leave Them?

Sarah Seltzer

The paradox of women's glossies: They largely acknowledge our progress and rights in terms of the workplace, sexual freedom and reproductive rights, but only skim the surface of the sexist dynamics and expectations that inform those issues.

Even in an era in which magazines
are shrinking in size and fading from the popular consciousness, the hoopla
caused by the remaining women’s magazines, or "ladymags" as Jezebel
calls them, will not die.


This month has seen a flurry of action around the
women’s glossies.  "The September Issue" documentary is in
theaters, providing the public a chance to ogle behind the scenes at Anna
Wintour’s high-fashion Vogue empire. SELF magazine, the weight-loss
glossy/self-improvement bible with occasionally meaty features got slammed by a
massive chorus of bloggers last month for its overly-photoshopped cover of Kelly Clarkson
SELF‘s editor later said the slimmed-down image showed Clarkson
at her "best"–even if that was visibly different from reality.
Racialicious has documented an endless stream of problematic images of women of
color in magazine spreads, photo shoots and advertisements. And just last week,
in response to riotous, widespread applause for a single photo of a plus-size
model, belly included, Glamour, the
least elitist of the mainstream mags, is going to feature a boatload of plus-size models in their next issue
(Kate Harding points out that plus-size models are "still tall,
well-proportioned, clear-skinned, shiny-haired, able-bodied and usually white,
on top of only being "fat" relative to size 0s.")

The typical formula for these magazines is this: two or three interesting
features, a ton of beauty and fashion advice, a decent but conventional and
heretonormative sex and relationships section, and some health stories, all
bookended by ads galore: ads for jeans, ads for diets, ads for birth control,
ads for makeup and shoes. The relationship beween these magazines’ content and
their ads is an ill-kept secret–it’s widely discussed that the mags’ more
typically-reproduced content is a result of trying to please their advertisers.

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Still, we remain fascinated by the ladymags. The never-ending brouhaha that
these magazines are capable of eliciting, to borrow Glamour‘s signature section, for their own "Dos" and
"Don’ts" reminds us that they still have a powerful relationship to
the female collective psyche. Naomi Wolf talks about this phenomenon in The Beauty Myth–how women’s magazines
despite being hawking grounds for patriarchal products like cellulite creams
and diet drugs–also afford women a kind of powerful group experience. They’re
the magazines we all read at the gym, at the air airport, under the blowdryers
or on the subway.

This need to keep up with the lady-mags leads to a sort of
devils’ bargains made by many of their avid readers. Women allow "their"
magazines the usual litany of transgressions: tons of skinny models,
"articles" about beauty trends that conveniently tout products by the
magazine’s advertisers, celebrity puff-pieces, and so on. They are happy to
accept these sometimes fun, sometimes pernicious features inherent to the
medium in order to read health news aimed at them, take quizzes, check out new
styles and read in-depth features about remarkable women or political and
social trends that affect their lives. But when the magazines break this bargain
mold by photoshopping too aggressively, not photoshopping a woman’s flaws away,
or publishing something out of the ordinary the emails start flowing in en
masse –and it becomes clear that a lot of these readers have keener
sensibilities than we give them credit for. They want something more genuine
out of their magazines.

At a panel at last year’s Women, Action and the Media conference,
journalists Ada Calhoun, Lynn Harris, Rebecca Traister and Kara Jessella talked
about writing for women’s magazines. All feminists, they felt that the good
stories about reproductive rights, women’s health, violence against women and
women’s stuggles worldwide produced by magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Self and Glamour
(Cosmo and Vogue are both slightly different and less redeemable creatures)
balanced out the diet, makeup and fashion spreads that can range from shallow
to pernicious. The panelists encouraged young feminists to write for and read
the good stories in women’s magazines, saying that in a small field of
publications, these publications were a key vehicle for getting
progressive-minded stories out and getting paid for them. Jesellla, a former
beauty editor and co-author of How Sassy
Changed My Life
, talked about sneaking such articles into her regular
beauty coverage. Glancing at Glamour‘s
guide to the election last fall reminded me that the consistent
pro-reproductive rights coverage these magazines engage in is bold and

If we accept their advice, feminists should view the lesser content in these
magazines as a necessary evil and train our focus on bending the popular
newsstand publications towards a better result, leveraging our voices getting
the women’s glossies to publish more good articles, more realistic and
normalized photos of women of different shapes, sizes, backgrounds and physical
types. But how much success will we have? As Erika Kawalek writes at Double X, "is it wise to seek
redress from a mainstream publication?" Perhaps we should leave them to
their inevitable decline and replacement by lady-websites.

It’s a hard question for me to judge personally, because I quit reading
ladymags years ago, and I never regret that choice. I found that although I
enjoyed reading them, and stacked neat piles of them in my travel bag, they
always made me feel dissatisfied when I was done. Even post
consciousness-raising when the endless dieting and weight loss stories had less
effect on me, those magazines always made me feel as though there was something
I lacked–whether it was the right pair of shoes or proper salon-going routine,
or on a deeper level the resilience and inner light that one of the many heroic
women profiled in the dramatic features always seem to have. I’d argue that the
magazines are designed to make readers feel a sense of need or incompleteness,
a need which will lead them to buy the magazine again the following month as
well as pay heed to advertisers.

As for our ability to influence them, I don’t know how many times I’ve opened a
women’s magazine to the editors letter and read a sentence along the lines of
"we’ve heard you and we’re going to change X." But of course little
actually changes in the formula described above: more features mixed with
beauty and diet is what we’ll get. Furthermore, the internet, and sites like Jezebel and The Frisky
and the expansion of the Bitch website all have allowed writers to take on
some of the magazines’ traditionally more fun topics like sex, TV, celebrities
and fashion without really losing their feminist/critical voice–a really
important development.

The paradox of women’s glossies sums up a lot of where American women have come
in the mainstream. The magazines, like TV shows and movies, largely acknowledge
our progress and rights in terms of our workplace, sexual freedom and
reproductive rights without delving deeply into the sexist dynamics and
expectations that inform those issues, partiularly the critical issues of body
image and mainstream beauty norms and gendered power dynamics in personal
relationships. How to approach the magazines, then, depends on our relationship
to them now–if we are active readers, we should fully engage them and push
their coverage towards a more progressive end, accepting that they’ll never be truly progressive. But if we prefer to
get our mix of fun and features elsewhere, there’s no need to turn back to the
ladymags, until the next time they do something scandalous, that is.

Topics and Tags:

body image, body size, Racism, Sexism

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