Beauty Myths and Magazines
I’ve recently reverted back to an old teenage habit…sort of. Last year I got a letter saying that my frequent flier miles would soon expire and that I could easily convert them to magazine subscriptions. I hadn’t subscribed to a magazine in years, so I went nuts. I ordered magazines about politics, technology, business, travel, and fashion.
In my teen years I devoured fashion magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and the now defunct Mademoiselle, and swapped them with friends to make sure no beauty advice would pass without my knowledge. I saved old issues in my closet for years just in case I would ever want to look at them again, like the reference books that are on my shelves today. When my old house went up for sale years later, my mother told me to take them or toss them. I tossed them.
After I graduated from high school I stopped reading the magazines cold turkey. I don’t remember exactly why, but it probably had something to do with a lack of time to read them and (more to the point) the lack of disposable income to buy them. When the first fashion mag showed up in my mailbox last year it was like reuniting with an old friend that I hadn’t talked to in years. Yes, I had perused a magazine or two while waiting to have my hair cut, but it’s not the same if you can’t tear out the samples and dog-ear the particularly relevant advice about hair products to revisit later. Unlike the other magazines I ordered, the beauty ones required very little concentration or commitment to read since they are mostly filled with ads. They could be my secret escape.
As a sociologist, I am also deeply aware of the very narrow version of beauty these magazines typically promote. Yes, most of the women are impossibly thin, white or near-white in complexion, tall and blonde. Many of the articles are about getting/keeping/pleasing/marrying a man, and more than anything, they promote the idea that women’s worth is forever linked to how we look. If that’s not enough, in the world of most fashion magazines, beauty is something that comes from consumption, not necessarily from character.
That said, I think we often sell readers of these magazines short when we presume that they are merely victims of the beauty industry. I have known a fashion victim or two in my years (and spot them regularly on the streets of Los Angeles), but let’s not presume that all women and girls simply read these magazines passively. In a now classic 1984 cultural studies text, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature author Janice Radway interviewed women who read romance novels and found that rather than just internalizing the messages of idealized romance they contain, readers used them to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Likewise, we cannot presume that fashion magazine readers just mindlessly adopt the perspectives of the magazines. How readers make meaning of texts—a central goal of cultural studies research—often depends on the social context that each person lives within.
Looking back on my own relationship with fashion magazines, I read them more as a fantasy about what my impending adult life might be like, and for instruction about how to best be ready for that life. The magazines I read in the 80s, like many today, provided advice about careers and living independently in cities. They told stories about having grown-up relationships with men, which my friends and I had no real frame of reference for (and let’s be honest, most seventeen-year-olds would rather not talk to mom and dad much about this topic!).
So why my excitement today? I have had enough experience with being a grown-up to know that the magazines’ advice is just a guess, as much advice often is. Fashion magazines offer the promise of self-improvement, or as historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg describes, a body project. Brumberg’s study of adolescent girls throughout the twentieth century reveals that these projects continually shift. Unlike the nineteenth century, when girls wrote in their diaries about being better morally, most of the projects today focus on the external.
Why did this happen? We can’t blame fashion magazines for the changes, since the ones that existed then bore little resemblance to those of today. Brumberg argues that as women have gradually gained more political power and experienced less external regulation that they have been encouraged to regulate themselves internally. For instance, nineteenth-century women were often discouraged from exercise, but wore binding corsets. Starting in the 1920s women shed these physically restricting undergarments, but took up “slimming” in order to restrict their body size.
So the magazines both reflect and reproduce images of beauty—if we took them away, girls and women wouldn’t necessarily feel better about how they look. From my personal experience, I read the magazines from the perspective that I was one of “them.” Although not tall, tan, or blonde, as many models in the magazines I bought were, I saw myself as like them in some strange way. And the advice in the magazines about make-up tips and products to try helped me feel part of this thing called beauty. Yes, Marx might say I was experiencing false consciousness—you might say I was deluded. And certainly there might be people who read the magazines and feel inadequate, but we can’t make generalizations either way.
That said, I can’t say that I disagree with many of the critiques of the beauty industry author Naomi Wolf offers in her book The Beauty Myth or with Jean Kilbourne's analysis of advertising in her book Killing Us Softly. But we can’t analyze magazines and presume to know how people make sense of them. Sometimes we think that criticizing things we like makes us hypocrites or killjoys. We don’t have to be either; we can both enjoy and deconstruct forms of media culture we consume creating the best of both worlds: critical consumers who can have fun reading a magazine once in a while. And learn new make-up tips.