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The Toxicity of Women's Magazines

By October 8, 2008 No Comments

We all know it. Women’s magazines are essentially advertising catalogs, where sometimes it is hard to distinguish copy from ad.

In addition, women’s magazines are designed to make you feel – sometimes directly, sometimes subtly – bad/inadequate about the way you look, so that you would buy a whole host of products, from makeup to clothes and accessories.

During my months of research, I poured over old editions of Vogue, Mademoiselle, Elle, Cosmopolitan – you name it – dating back to the early 1960s.

It was terribly fascinating.

A few things that immediately stood out:

Ads for anti-wrinkle creams did not exist or were barely visible before the mid-1980s (now they take up an incredible amount of prominent ad space)

– The most publicized products from the late 60s to the late 70s were traditional cosmetics: concealer, eye shadow, nail polish – in lots of bold, vibrant colors

– There were many, many African American models featured in photo spreads and ads, compared to today

– Photos were far less airbrushed. You could actually see women’s skin pores and dynamic wrinkle (as opposed to today’s Barbie-like, plastic, photoshopped faces).

Models were larger in size. Whereas models today are all very, very thin, back in the 1960s and 1970s they were healthier and rounder-looking. What we consider a “normal” body today (not too thin, not too fat) was basically the standard size for a model back then. I’d say size 4-8 U.S.

– Women in ads / photo spreads were consistently smiling. There was a decisive “happy aesthetic” to the photos, as opposed to today’s empty, “heroin chic” look

– The ads brimmed with energy: women running down the beach, walking in the street, doing sports. There were virtually no photos of women lying on beds/chairs/sofas in passive/languid positions. Women looked full of energy, especially in magazines from the late 70s

But then again, there were also scary, scary articles of the “Let’s put women back in the kitchen” kind. As Susan Faludi brilliantly explains in Backlash, in the 1980s, when women started breaking the glass ceiling and entering the workforce in large numbers, the backlash began. It is so clear, by looking at magazines from that time.

Indeed, the award for Most Retrograde Article Ever goes to the January 1987 issue of Vogue magazine (U.S. edition).

In it, there is a long feature entitled “Skin in the Workplace” designed to make women scared of going to work (too many pollutants in the air!)

Caption: “It’s a given: where you work, how long you spend there, can affect your looks now, create future problems. Here, what to guard against, solutions from experts.

See the screenshots below. It’s really hard to keep a straight face while reading the article. It sounds so obscene.

“Evidence shows that exposure to work-related environmental factors – indoor air pollution, artificial lighting – can affect health, mood, energy, even your skin’s appearance.”

I’ll keep posting on this blog old articles from women’s magazines. My other favorite is the Vogue article that introduced the word and concept of “cellulite” and demonized it (before 1967 it was considered normal fat) and created a whole market for it.

// click photos to enlarge //