Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I Have Seen the Enemy, and She is FABULOUS: How to Read Women’s Magazines Without Feeling Awful About Yourself

(This one’s for the ladies today. Sorry, guys. We’ll have much more manly things tomorrow. Here’s something to tide you over until then.)

Okay, I’m laying it out here. The next time I see a magazine photo with a “WORST BODY” caption slapped on a celebrity butt that looks exactly like mine, I’m going postal. Seriously, folks. I’m not running a marathon anytime soon, but an inadvertent glimpse of my glutes has never landed anyone in therapy, either.

It makes me crazy that I think like this. And it makes me even crazier that a female-targeted magazine – ostensibly for women, by women – MADE me think like this. (I didn’t even read the damned thing. I saw the cover at a supermarket.)

I’m not alone, though. It’s been empirically proven that perusing Cosmo, Glamour, Marie Claire, and celebrity-themed tabloids has a direct, negative impact on our self-regard. We think we’re catching up with Anne Hathaway, but really, we’re evaluating ourselves, consciously and otherwise, against the models. We look, we compare, and we envy. What's more, as a demographic, we pay billions of dollars in clothing, food, fitness, cosmetics, and surgery to emulate the famous, perfectly proportioned people we see on page 344 of Elle.

But here's the thing: women-oriented magazines can't hurt you if you have a realistic understanding of the insanity they promote.

So, in honor of the New Year, here’s a reality check; a few things to keep in mind next time US Weekly demands you go on a shopping spree. Or makes you doubt your appearance. Or causes you to curse Janet Jackson’s rack. (Which, by the way, was paid for.)

1. Cover models and actresses are paid to be thin and stylish. It’s in the job description, and in many cases, it IS the job description. Subsequently, these women spend a sizeable percentage of each day exercising, eating bird food, and reshaping their bodies for maximum profitability. While health and fitness are certainly important, the average American woman doesn’t have the time or money to dedicate five hours to them, daily.

2. Cover models and actresses can afford to be thin and fashionable. Jennifer Lopez has her own personal trainer. Designers trip over themselves to clothe Sarah Jessica Parker. Fully-prepared Zone meals are delivered to Jennifer Aniston everyday. Unlike the rest of us, these ladies have the thousands of dollars necessary to pay for door-to-door health services. And what they can’t buy? They can expect for free, since the publicity created by catering to a celebrity is invaluable.

3. Half of what you see is Photoshop. And it creates an unrealistic expectation of women’s bodies that’s dang near unethical. Check this picture of Faith Hill. And this one of Scarlett Johansson. And Beyonce. And Heidi Klum. And Jessica Alba. Then, check every single photo in the “Portfolio” section of this website (Eva Longoria, people!), or every single Vogue cover from 2008. These are gorgeous women, yet they’re tweaked so much, Barbie would blush. You know our beauty standards are out of whack when she has three inches electronically trimmed from her thighs.

(Oh, and one more thing: magazine staffs? Are just as unshaven, sleepy, and haggard as the rest of us come 5 o’clock on a Thursday. Case in point: this post from Photoshop Disasters.)

4. The other half is plastic surgery. That’s not Halle Berry’s original nose, Posh Spice paid dearly for those boobs, and (my beloved) Dolly Parton is nearly a cyborg (and dang proud of it). Even Marilyn Monroe was well-known to have had extensive facial work done. Though it’s promoted as a fix-all, the time, pain, and finances involved in cosmetic surgery aren’t realistic for us Jane Sixpacks. And half the time, who wants it anyway? Knives are scary.

5. Those models are six feet tall, 17-years-old, and wear a size 2. There are some things we can control about our bodies: what we eat, the frequency with which we move, and maybe the color of our hair. (My grays are persistent little buggers.) But our height, age, and bone structure aren’t among them. That Vogue pushes an 11th grade giantess as the accepted standard of beauty totally dismisses the 99.5% of the population existing outside those narrow parameters. In other words, look around, ladies. You’re not alone.

6. Magazine fad diets will make you miserable. Hear this: eating right and exercising is the only proven non-surgical way of dropping pounds for the long term. Detoxes, colonics, and Bill Romanowski’s Nutrition 53 shakes won’t do it, no matter what Life & Style says. All too often, there’s a massive disconnect between actual healthy eating and the “healthy eating” pushed in the glossies, which offer short term fixes when they should be looking at the big picture. This Marie Claire article does it right, and others should follow suit.

7. Body image articles are fall-backs to bump sales. Out of fresh ideas? No good gossip this week? Angelina and Brad have gone into hiding? Let’s slap up a collage of celebrity asses and grade ‘em! That’ll move copies, since we don’t have any actual advertisers this month!

Women's magazines aren't going away, and that's okay. On occasion, they're a welcome release from the grind. Still, it's important to regard them with a little bit of amused detachment. Essentially: don’t worry if you’re not the mirror image of Cameron Diaz. Odds are that image has been distorted anyway.

P.S. The easiest way to avoid this stuff? Don’t buy ladymags. It’s a glib suggestion, but it works.

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swaaaan said...

Rock on! You are so absolutely right. I have too many girlfriends who have tried fad diet after fad diet. And you are dead on about the photoshopping shenanigans that take place for pictorials! Thanks for promoting healthy body image ideals! :)

Chief Family Officer said...

Bless you, Kris! And amen to everything you said! I stopped buying and reading those magazines years ago when I realized how miserable they were making me :)

Kitschen Bitsch said...

Kudos! I used to live with someone who worked with models and kept these magazines all over the house. I was 20-some-odd pounds heavier then, and would read them and I felt horrible about my appearance all the time. After I moved out, I stopped buying them after considering the ridiculous lives they promoted (Cosmo was forever discussing someone getting it on in their office, etc., etc.) and the impossible appearances they presented -- none of those women were like me. I stopped reading them. Five years and 20 lbs. later, I don't miss their rehashed beauty and bedroom "tips," photos, horrid alliteration, or the $2,000 cleavage-shoving outfits they suggested for "the office." Great post.

Ali said...

You really hit the mark with this post. Many of us gals are trying to live up to the absolutely impossible and we need to take note that it isn't doing us any favors. I really can't stand women's mags because of the sheer vanity factor, but when you look at it from the perspective that the models are paid to look the way they do and many of the pictures are doctored anyway, then it's easier to get over it. We are all beautiful!

Leigh said...

Amen sister.

If you want to read a fun glossy with lots of great pop-culture interviews and fashion, try Bust. And for pop culture criticism with a feminist bent, take a look at B*tch. These two replaced mainstream women's mags for me long ago, and I've never looked back. Except to shake my fist at them. ;)

Anonymous said...

I love this!

Marcia said...

You are absolutely right. I can't even stand to read Shape anymore. Either I'm too old or the target audience is getting much younger. Probably both.

Not to date myself, but I really miss Women's Sports and Fitness. I read that in the 90's, religiously, and all the "models" were just real, fit women. Then freaking Conde Nast bought the magazine in 1998, tried to "mainstream" it with more ads and makeup tips. Then they closed it down two years later because of "lack of circulation". Yeah, dummies, 'cuz you ruined it!

But I'm not bitter. 10 years later. Not me. :)

Amber said...

Great insight. One thing that helped me better understand women's magazines is their history-I studied it years ago in college. Did you know Cosmopolitan actually started as a reader's digest type magazine? I find the evolution of these magazines fascinating. Plus I like Bust Magazine-a sort of anti-traditional women's magazines. Its just harder to find since its not backed by a big publisher and is selective about its advertising. Love the blog, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this article. It made me realize that with the help of Photoshop, I too can be a model. hah!

Anonymous said...

WOW WOW WOW!!! I normally dont leave comments on blogs, but I just had to, after reading your post. The links shook me completely. I knew there was some amount of image tweaking involved but I had absolutely no idea of what they can do to just sell a magazine. I used to hate seeing photos of myself, you just changed that. Thank you

Jennifer said...

I too quit reading fashion magazines about ten years ago, and have never looked back. My body image improved exponentially from day one. That Photoshop portfolio says it all!