In her book Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines, author Jennifer Nelson gives readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the history of these publications, how they’re run — and the damaging ways they affect us.
Several facts in the book especially surprised me. Facts that I think you should absolutely know whether you love these publications or loathe them.
Specifically, below are tidbits from Nelson’s book on how women’s magazines manipulate their content. Some are little lies while others are downright deceptions.
According to Nelson, magazines rely on “composite characters” to fit the angle of their story. “She is a distillation of a bunch of real women who were interviewed on the street or in cities across the country for the article, refined to fit the ‘ideal’ woman the editor wants for that story or feature.”
According to Ann, a writer, in the book: “I busted my butt getting quotes from real women for a dieting story in a magazine well known for changing them up. When I saw the story in print, the quotes were changed, the last names of the women I spoke to were left off, even their ages were altered.”
In the 1930s the editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, Herbert Mayes admitted that he printed a fake name in the magazine’s masthead, so he’d have someone to blame just in case a story caused controversy.
“If readers deluged the magazine with complaint letters, he could satisfy reader indignance by simply removing a name from the masthead, as if he’d fired the underling in charge of the story,” Nelson writes.
Many women’s magazines share the inside scoop about celebrity photo shoots. They’ll include blurbs about where they shot the photos and what the starlet was wearing when she came in.
They also typically feature the products the makeup artist used on the celebrity — this way you can go out and grab the product for yourself.
The only thing is: It’s not the same products.
As Nelson writes, “…when the stylist gets around to doing the cover model’s makeup and hair, she selects whatever products she wants to use, and editors later match up credits to please advertisers.”
Makeup artists usually combine a slew of shades and colors to create their own palettes. “They may blend, mix and combine colors with the creative intention of Picasso so a cheek color or an eye shadow may actually be the combination of four different shades of creams, gels, powders and mineral makeup.”
So editors will search for the closest match that you can get over the counter or just use the product their advertisers want mentioned in the magazine.
Women’s magazines like to feature women they find attractive who fit their narrow beauty ideal. Sometimes this trumps telling an important story. Anne, another writer, tells Nelson:
A few years back, I pitched a story to Cosmopolitan on body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness in which the sufferer harps on an imagined or minor physical flaw and beats herself up both emotionally and physically as a result. Of course, they wanted a picture of the subject, so I had to ask for one from my source. When the editor got a load of the picture, she wanted to know if the woman had another one because she didn’t look attractive enough in the photo to appear in the magazine. I couldn’t bear to ask the woman, who already suffered from a body image issue that is often dubbed ‘imagined ugliness,’ for another photo, so I dropped the story.
In Airbrushed Nation, Nelson also includes a chapter on how women’s magazines stretch the truth (and statistics) to sell scary stories about everything from disease to toxins to crime. While some contain helpful information, these stories are largely exaggerated to boost our worry and fear.
For instance, stories on osteoporosis are very common in women’s magazines. They talk about what we can do to stave off frail bones. But what we don’t hear is that “your bone density and calcium stores are pretty much set by age thirty…” writes Nelson.
One study found that osteoporosis pieces in women’s magazines from 1998 to 2001 were either “ambiguous or incomplete” and “not entirely balanced,” Nelson says.
Stories of fatal food poisonings imply that we’re all vulnerable, listing potentially dangerous foods that all of us typically eat — beef, dairy, fruit — and splashing startling statistics like one in six Americans get sick from something they ate. But we don’t hear about specifics, such as the severity of these individuals’ sickness. Or how rare it is to perish after eating a cheeseburger.
As if women didn’t have enough to worry about, women’s magazines expect us to patrol our health in a constant state of vigilance for what we could be doing wrong, what mistakes we’re making, what unknown dangers could trip us up, what little-known scan we missed, or what food we forgot to include or omit in our diet for better health.
One of the best ways we can empower ourselves — and improve our body image — is to become smart consumers; to educate ourselves on how these publications create their content.
The next time you’re reading a story — especially one that makes you feel like crap — question it. Question the editor’s angle, the people interviewed (are they composites? just to what extent were their quotes changed? why did the editor choose to tell this specific story?) and whether the story is genuinely helpful.
Because when it comes to women’s magazines, what you see — hello, airbrushed photos — and what you read isn’t necessarily what you get.
Thanks so much to everyone who commented on this post. I really appreciate your kind words and congrats! The winner of the book giveaway is: Val, who left this comment. I’ll be emailing you shortly.
I have…and love several of these books. One I do not have, but would absolutely love to read is “Read my Hips”. Thanks for the chance to win a new book…and thanks for all the work you do to share with everyone!
By the way, stay tuned for an interview with Jennifer Nelson! (Either next week or the week after that.)
Do these secrets surprise you? Are you disappointed? Do you still read these magazines or have you stopped? What are your thoughts on women’s magazines?
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Last reviewed: 9 Nov 2012