Women and the Fashion Magazine
'The keynote of beauty and fashion magazines is an exaggerated concern with physical appearance so that other aspects of the complete human being are undervalued' - Elle McCracken. If we choose to believe this statement and still buy magazines, does that make us somewhat less intelligent?
From GLAMOUR, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, and Company, to Reveal and Now, women's fashion and beauty magazines make up a high number of magazines on the shelf of a newsagent. Known for their advice on women's issues, the question that arises is 'do these magazines represent women fairly and if women need advice, how inadequate are they?’ The feedback I got from 19-30 year old women questioned my judgment of women’s fashion and beauty magazines. As a notorious magazine junkie, I buy into the whole package of a magazine-from fashion and lifestyle advice to the newest diet, what will make my hair shine and where to summer. But I have never thought of the other 460,276 copies Cosmopolitan sells and the even higher number of women that read it and follow the same advice-so what does it add up to? A bunch of clones?
Despite a high circulation, women’s fashion magazines receive numerous criticisms.
Company was criticised for thinking of women as 'clearly desperate to be told what to think and feel, what tastes they should have, and how they should live'.
Alicia Weekes, 20-year-old student, agrees, explaining 'women's fashion magazines give out the wrong image about women; that we are all in a need to be saved by their advice or our relationships will tumble. I love fashion, but I don't need to be told what to wear...or how to please my boyfriend. There are more important and more interesting things in life'.
These kind of magazines often represent only one of kind of female: young, middle class and in successful jobs. I say middle class because not many working class women could afford a £595 Luella dress, as advertised in December 2008 issue of GLAMOUR magazine. If they do represent different kinds of women, it is not in their temperament but their body size. February 2009 Cosmopolitan does just this. It dedicates eight pages to lingerie according to different body types, from petite to curvy.
Some of the women I spoke to also felt magazines such as Cosmopolitan portray the option of having only one life style: the “having it all” (perfect job, perfect boyfriend, disposable income) lifestyle. This, they say, is simply idealistic and unrealistic.
On the other hand, other women said it gives them something to aspire to. ‘It’s escapism’ says Vanessa Hubbard, 23. ‘The “having it all” women featured in Cosmopolitan are portrayed as happy, so what’s wrong with aspiring to be happy?’ Point taken.
While a few of the women I spoke to felt Cosmopolitan ‘gives brainwashing advice to make everyone the same’ (Miss Pollak), Tessa Marshall says ‘Cosmo [gives you] dreams, glamour, gossip, laughter, recipes, common sense, sex appeal, stories, love, life and style. Who can ask for more?’
The thing is, can we really take into account what the two say? Polak is a women’s rights activist, and Marshall’s quote was for an issue of Cosmopolitan in November 1981. Either way, both points of view sides are valid because, as Marshall points out, Cosmopolitan does provide gossip, it does provide love (advice), and it does provide style (advice). Whether to say it is brainwashing is subjective, but if all women read it and follow the advice, then the statement cannot be totally disregarded.
‘Women’s magazines promote the market importance of…sex and thereby confer status on women as a group, and make womanly things a serious business’. Cosmopolitan sells sex. Out of the eight titles on the front cover of the February 2009 issue, three are about sex, while a few of the others are advice on how to look good. Women are portrayed as subservient to fashion/sex magazines if they constantly buy them for advice. This month’s issue gives advice ‘GUARANTEED 30 DAYS TO A NEW YOU’. To someone who is cynical about these magazines, they see this as an attempt to change the reader, and make them like everyone else. But to a regular consumer of this magazine, it is fun, innocent advice.
Women’s fashion magazines are notoriously famous – correction – infamous for inflicting pages on pages of adverts on its readers. 72 of the 176 pages of February 2009 Cosmopolitan issue are dedicated to advertisements. The other 104 pages are dedicated to covert selling or the newest must-have items such as ‘Everyone’s wearing…RAINBOW BAGS’ page which advertises 12 different bags. There are numerous pages dedicated to advertising, whether the item is either a pair of shoes, newest clothes or best make-up.
The same issue of Cosmopolitan has a ‘MOST WANTED’ page, dedicated to stealing famous women’s style. Advice on how to get ‘gold-flecked lips like Heidi Klum’ automatically suggests copying someone’s style; such articles erase the idea of individualism by suggesting imitating someone’s style.
Consumerism plays a great part in Cosmopolitan. The reader is constantly being told to buy products which are supposed to make them look better. Products are no longer sold for their uses, for example, shampoo is not advertised claiming to make your hair clean, instead it promises to make you beautiful. Cosmopolitan advertises ‘Herbal Essences’ which states to give you ‘Luscious Hair!’ and not ‘Clean Hair’.
These magazines suggest women are easily seduced into buying products advertised in magazines. Vanessa Hubbard admits that ‘seeing a lipstick look good on a model makes you think it will look good on you…of course it’s tempting to buy into it. Cosmo is a credible women’s magazine, you automatically think positive things about the content’.
Cosmopolitan (February 2009 issue) features on article on how to get rid of a cold sore, at the same time, it also advertises a treatment for cold sores. This same issue also features an article on how to get golden highlights. This is followed by three adverts on products that claim to give you golden highlights. So are these magazines writing about what the reader is interested in or what the magazine advertisers want them to write? Are there any relationships between articles and adverts? Such magazines might be a vehicle for companies to get their products ‘out there’
Fashion and beauty magazines suggest women need to be told what to buy. Titles such as ‘What’s Sexy Now’ and ‘We’ve Got To Have It’ paint a picture of a submissive Stepford reader (not wife) who, when she reads the title, will automatically think she needs that product. These titles suggest women are inadequate to think for themselves.
The February 2009 issue of Cosmopolitan advertises 450 items (including holidays and spas) across 105 out of the 176 pages. This excludes the last 5 pages which are dedicated to cosmetic surgery adverts, tarot and fortune telling -22 found one page - and the rest dedicated to sex advice/ sex toys/ sex chat lines. This begs the thought that magazines are just like catalogues (they even provide shop names and contact details).
If fashion magazines are really representing women as inadequate, why do women buy into being told how to dress, how to please their partner, what make up to wear and where to summer?
Rosie Mullender, Acting Commissioning Editor of Cosmopolitan disagrees that women are being represented in a negative way. She says:
Cosmo's identity is summed up by the slogan 'be the best you can be' - we try to encourage readers to strive to do whatever they do as well as they can do it, be that in their relationships, in bed, in their career, or in dealing with money. We know women can achieve a huge amount if they set their minds to it, that they're all gorgeous - but also that we're all human, and all have our flaws and insecurities. This is what everyone's like who works for Cosmo, and this is how we portray women. We aim to reassure, advise, amuse and entertain our readers; hopefully making them feel good about themselves in the process.
Her statement is certainly convinces someone like me but Michelle Deacon, 23, feels upset by what Ms Mullender has to say. She says:
Everyone knows it’s a business, and its priority is to sell magazines, not "reassure" or "advise". Journalists and writers of any commercial kind are under pressure from their institutions, brand names and reputations. Cosmo…are not going to start writing about real issues that affect women or put a fat [woman] in and call her beautiful. People walk away feeling [awful] after reading those [magazines] because they compare themselves to the glossy, beautiful girls in there. That's normal because hotness and sexiness sells. But they shouldn’t pretend to care!'
Roshni Odedra, 25, agrees. She says:
Cosmo and other magazines portray woman as being PERFECT and the reality is most women look nothing like the cover girls and the advice that’s given in the magazine is encouraging but not all women can get as far as looking perfect. However the magazine does help you see the latest trends and fashion icons and this may help some women who are interested in fashion but not everyone…It does portray women as clueless as it offers advice on everything in life like what to wear, what to eat and how to work [a] relationship! Not all women need that advice!
It is a common thought that Cosmopolitan makes women feel unattractive. Miss Odedra carries on to say, ‘When I look at the magazine I just feel ugly because it has beautiful women and gorgeous clothes which not everyone could afford or be like’.
Safa Murad, 19-year-old law student, says: ‘Yes they do amuse, entertain, advise but I don’t think the majority [of the readers] put the magazine down at the end and actually feel good about themselves’. Kaltrina Ademi, 20-year-old journalism student, says that Cosmopolitan ‘Reminds women that being a human means to have flaws, since they constantly remind [readers] of their flaws by portraying an unreachable beauty ideal on their covers and other pages of the magazines’.
Leesa Naidu, 20-year-old student, disagrees. She believes ‘Cosmo [aims] to encourage women to reach the top by portraying women as beautiful and successful’.
Sameena Khan, 21, says Cosmopolitan points out the obvious. ‘They seem to think that women are really stupid and don’t have a mind of their own. We don’t need to be told not to settle for second best’.
But Rosie Mullender defends these statements by saying the type of women they target are those who ‘want to better themselves’- I’m not sure how much of a defense that is as it suggests they target somewhat insecure women. Interestingly, some of the women who enjoyed Cosmopolitan, admitted feeling insecure about themselves.
Leesa Naidu, thinks ‘its good to be told what is in [fashion], what to wear and what not to wear as you can keep up with the latest trends’.
Katri Paasikoski, student from London, says ‘I like being told what’s hot and what’s not. It’s fun. Its jus little things you can do to better yourself. Shopping’s fun, hair is fun so is makeup. I reckon [the] women [that] don’t have an interest in those things just put those that do down by saying that magazines [represent] women [as] inadequate’.
The answer I settle with comes from Jelena Cvejic, 29-year-old finance journalist, who said:
I don't think Cosmo portrays women as inadequate and I do like to see what's hot.
But at the same time, if you are a teenage reader, a young woman not yet sure of her own power, of her place in the world, of what is expected of her, of what she wants out of life, then I suppose you could doubt yourself and find yourself inadequate when you compare yourself to women in Cosmo.There is pressure to be someone, to be skinny, to achieve, to wear what's hot and I guess women who are not particularly beautiful, have no special skill and no special interest may feel inadequate. At the same time it's good to have role models who wake up our drive to achieve something and show us that it's possible to realise our dreams.
Cvejic’s idea of being under pressure to be skinny is an issue that has raised much concern. It’s a cycle that starts with the tiny sample clothes designers provide for models under pressure to be skinny enough to fit into these clothes. Next, magazines publish photos of these anorexic-looking models and make them look great in photos. This is followed by readers comparing their own weight size to the models in the magazines. It all equals to the reader then feeling pressured to look like the girls on the many pages of fashion magazines.
Australian Vogue editor, Kirstie Clements says:
‘The issue of weight is one that a fashion magazine editor has to address time and time again, especially as magazines are often blamed for publishing images of women who are underweight, or anorexic’.
Cosmopolitan’s rise in the seventies was down Helen Gurley Brown (author of Sex and the Single Girl) whose intentions for the magazine were clear and simple. She saw herself as someone ‘who could advise girls on how to get the best from their lives, how to improve themselves and how to live their own lives – and not through a man’. ‘Not through a man’ suggests women are represented as independent and in control. This can also be supporting evidence to say women journalists (especially fashion and beauty journalists) can also be feminists. As already mentioned, titles such as ‘9 Secrets of Women Who Enjoy the Best Sex’ show women to be in control of their sex life. This would, traditionally, be unheard of as control is usually associated with men.
Brown’s intentions were to represent women in control and not subservient to men. ‘The liberated Cosmopolitan girl archetype would be out to…hold down a good job, make the best of herself and…improve her sex life’. Unfortunately, women in other media platforms are not represented so fairly. Media theorist, Gaye Tuchman, acknowledges that ‘Television symbolically annihilates women…and tells society women are not very important…it symbolically denigrates them by portraying them as incompetent, inferior and always subservient to men’.
How much do women’s fashion magazines contribute to the negative stereotype of women? If the ‘9 Secrets of Women Who Enjoy the Best Sex’ title was rephrased to say ‘9 Secrets of Women on How to Please Their Men in Bed’, then one could say women are represented as subservient. But since it clearly focuses on women, they are not represented as being lower than men.
Asking the question ‘How are women represented in fashion and beauty magazines?’ will always bring about subjective answers as everyone has their own individual views. I asked a 25-year-old male what he thought the answer was, he simple said: “pretentious and materialistic”.
What do you think? Are women's magazines a friend or foe?