I used to love reading women’s magazines. It was my break from homework and books for school. I’d catch up on the latest fashion trends, read an interesting article and get a few beauty tips.
But then I remember reading an odd tip from a writer on not eating an entire piece of cake: She’d take a bite — maybe two — and then pour salt on it.
And that’s when I started realizing that maybe these magazines weren’t for me (or really for anyone). Maybe these magazines had become a slippery slope into a world of shoulds and damaging thoughts.
And the more I started dissecting their messages, the more I realized that that’s the whole point: to sell us specific standards, so we buy, buy, buy.
That’s why I’m excited to share my interview with Jennifer Nelson, the author of Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines, a new book about the history of the women’s magazine industry, how articles are made (and manipulated) and their effects on readers.
Below, Nelson shares what inspired her to write Airbrushed Nation, the research that surprised her most and the damaging effects of reading these publications.
Q: What inspired you to write Airbrushed Nation?
A: I had written for the women’s glossies for about 15 years and had a lucrative run for a while, when my daughter hit high school and college age and began reading the magazines I had coming in on a monthly basis.
We started to discuss the messaging that women’s magazines were perpetuating: like how nearly every image was airbrushed and how the magazines seemed to come from a place that women weren’t good enough as is, and that everything from their weight to their relationships needed to be fixed and improved upon.
It was clear that a lot of what the chick slicks were portraying did not align with my values or what I wanted my daughter to buy into.
Q: What surprised you the most in doing your research for the book?
A: I’d have to say what was most surprising was how I hadn’t really noticed that every topic was approached from this ‘women aren’t good enough as is’ mantra. From relationship pieces to sex tips to dieting, beauty, aging, even health stories—their premise across the board is that women need to fix something about themselves, hell everything about themselves.
The women’s magazines call this “service” or advice. But the truth is that men’s magazines don’t take this approach with article content.
There, men are treated as though they are already perfect as they are and they’re offered content to inspire, humor, inform or entertain them, rather than improve every aspect of their lives.
Q: You mention in the book that women’s magazines are destructive. Why do you think they’re so damaging?
A: Well, the research really susses out that viewing these too perfect, airbrushed images on a regular basis has a damaging effect on women’s self esteem. Young girls and younger women may be particularly vulnerable, but many older women are affected as well.
The negative messaging about how women aren’t good enough along with the sexist paradigms that teach women their focus should be on how to get a man and please a man and keep that man, with nary a word about pleasing themselves can really take a toll on women’s body image and self worth.
Being exposed to these ideas has also been linked with depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two! Jennifer Nelson discusses why women’s magazines promote such narrow ideals and how we can become smarter consumers. By the way, she also writes about women’s magazines on her blog Airbrushed Nation.