The problem is that I still love the glossies, or the chick-slicks, as Jennifer Nelson calls them in her book Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women's Magazines . There's something about the pretty pictures and snappy headlines that make me a glutton for their subtle, and sometimes blatant, assault on women's self-esteem. Of course, women's magazines aren't all bad, especially if you're armed with knowledge and the ability to take them with a grain of salt.
The antidote lies in Jennifer's exploration of the world of women's glossies, in which this industry-insider rips the curtain off everything from the use of Photoshop to the subtle ways the articles imply that everything in a woman's life could be just a little bit better. Airbrushed Nation should be required reading for every woman, whether you're a lifetime subscriber or merely thumb through Cosmopolitan in the doctor's waiting room.
I had the chance to ask Jennifer, who has written for just about every women's mag on newsstands, about the effects the chick-slicks can have on our self-esteem, where the genre is headed, and why we have such complicated relationships with our favorite fashion rags. Her responses act as the cliff-note version, but her book is worth the read. If fashion rags are your dessert, than this book is the balanced meal you should have grown up on. Think of it as finally looking at the nutrition facts on that box of Oreos.
DivineCaroline: What do you think is the most damaging message purported by women’s magazines? In other words, what’s the one thing women should remember while reading a chick-slick?
Jennifer Nelson: Gosh, it’s hard to single one issue out, so I would say it's the way these magazines approach all their topics—as though women readers aren’t good enough and that everything from their beauty ideals to their dieting issues to their sex life to their career is fodder for improvement. These magazines come at women as as if every single issue is up for revamping, revising, and improvement. It’s actually quite different from how men’s magazines approach their guy readers. There, they consider guys great as is without ever offering or inferring they need to improve anything. Men's magazines, while they may be misogynistic and filled with bawdy bathroom humor, at least approach men as though they are divine, wonderful creatures just as they are. Rather, they provide articles to entertain, inspire, provide humor, and showcase the latest and greatest tech gadgets and health news. It’s a very different paradigm from chick slicks.
DC: Why do women read the chick-slicks if they are so damaging?
JN: That’s a really great question with a multi-layered, complex answer. First, many women may not realize the women’s glossies are so damaging. It wasn’t until irreverent Web sites or books like mine dared to speak the truth that women were challenged women contemplate how the negative messaging portrayed in the women’s glossies can affect their self-esteem. Further, it’s only been in the past few years that research has corroborated that viewing the airbrushed ideals and being exposed to the negative messaging about beauty, dieting, aging, sex and other issues were linked to depression, body image issues, and eating disorders. In the past, women thought of paging through their favorite chick-slick as more of a mindless, harmless activity, not to mention, a cultural phenomenon we’ve grown up with, the way today’s kids play video games.
DC: What do you think readers want out of magazines or women’s media in general?
JN: The reason women read chick-slicks or look at any women’s media is still quite varied. Some are looking for a mindless, vapid read; others want to be inspired, entertained, informed, advised, or learn about something they might otherwise not have the opportunity to learn about. Women’s magazines especially were once thought to be a woman’s best gal-pal—a funk-lifting pick-me-up and a space where they could be understood. These magazines could help you fix everything about yourself from your beauty problems to your relationship issues—and everything in between. They provided a look at the latest fashions and eventually, celebrity news became a big seller, too.
DC: Where do you think the glossies are headed? Do you see any improvement?
JN: Yes, I think the only way forward is changing for the better. We’ve seen some grass roots movement get started in regards to anti-airbrushing campaigns. Girls petitioned Seventeen magazine and met with their Editor-in-Chief asking them to stop digitally manipulating young teens on their pages—and they’ve complied! Glamour magazine also vowed this year to stop altering a woman’s body via photo shopping. We’re making some small inroads as far as images and the airbrushing debate. But there’s still a long way to go as far as the negative messaging in the articles. For example, there’s such a youth-centric focus wherein article after article the message is for women to act younger, look younger, get a younger hair-do, dress younger—even among magazines with an older readership, like More or Good Housekeeping, where they supposedly embrace whatever age a woman is, still run an anti-aging piece in every issue.
DC: Speaking of the use of Photoshop or highlighting too-thin or underage models, do you think better restrictions need to be in place?
JN: Yes, there’s a whole chapter in Airbrushed Nation on fashion where I talk about this very sad cultural dilemma about both the too-thin and the underage model being the norm nowadays. There are some very flimsy guidelines being bantered about as far as age restrictions on models under 16 and how much they can work and what hours they can work, not to mention the just totally creepy implication that major fashion designers have in the past chosen totally inappropriate young girls as the face of their beauty or fashion campaigns. I’m not sure why the industry as a whole doesn't understand that women aren't drawn to 13-year-olds dressed up as seductresses inappropriately selling us a shoe or a fragrance.
Fortunately, the backlash over some of these incidents has since shuttered them down a bit. Other top designers like Michael Kors have publicly come forward against using models under 16 years old. And while airbrushing is not going to let up anytime soon, there are some grass roots efforts in the industry to halt some of the worst offenders. Seventeen magazine agreed to stop digitally manipulating young girls in their pages when a couple of young women got thousands of signatures on a petition against the practice. Glamour has also come out this year vowing to stop altering woman’s bodies. We can only hope this trend catches on.
And oddly, while the airbrushing has in the past been to slim women’s bodies, we now have also seen the reverse, where seriously emaciated models have to be airbrushed to add weight and girth to their bony frames in an effort to make them look more presentable for the fashion page. It’s an industry in desperate need of serious reform and restrictions. If designers were obligated to make sample clothes in a size 4, for instance, or use models over a certain weight, perhaps we could move away from the heroin-chic look of the double 0 being the norm. Perhaps then issues like eating disorders and emaciated models would be a thing of the past.
DC: The election’s focus on gender issues provided more fodder for women’s magazines this year. How do you think the magazines fared in the coverage?
JN: I have a chapter in the book on politics and how the women’s magazines typically do on political issues, but this election cycle was particularly interesting in the women’s glossies because reproductive health, birth control, and abortion played a larger role than in previous election cycles. While the magazines traditionally skew left-of-center on these issues, I found that most did at least try to present a somewhat balanced take on the issues and the candidates. Research has found that several magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping have traditionally been more balanced than some of the others in the past. And yet sadly, chick-slicks still tend to lead with a sexist message when it comes to female political candidates, frequently asking them about their make up routines, their clothes, motherhood, and other topics that would never be asked of male candidates.