Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been hit with the urge to purge. I have all of these piles of books and papers and zines and magazines, and I don’t know exactly what happened but one day I could no longer deal with the fact that nearly every horizontal surface I own is covered in some manner of dead tree-related detritus. I like to pretend like I am a minimalist who doesn’t need stuff, and small mountains of stuff doesn’t fit in very well with that self-image, and so I’ve been cleaning it all out.
Among the interesting things I’ve uncovered, like unsent letters in which I wrote about how cold it was in Boston (which was my home, oh, thirteen years ago) and notebooks in which I scribbled my Very Deep Thoughts about the weirdness of working for six male ob/gyns, was the realization that it has been just about a year since I bought a magazine that was a) aimed at women b) that wasn’t explicitly feminist. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The history of my relationship with women’s magazines dates back to the days when I was a knock-kneed preteen with heinous pink plastic glasses and pretty much continued on, with a couple of interruptions, until last year.
Like a lot of young American girls, I read Bop and Teen Beat and plastered my walls with photos I tore out of their pages (including, hilariously, a young Neil Patrick Harris in full Doogie Howser mode). I soon graduated to Seventeen, YM and my favorite, Sassy, which alternately left me feeling totally dorky and hopeful for the future, but I was also developing this strange attachment to my mother’s more sophisticated set of high-end magazines like Vogue, Elle and such. If Sassy was my oxygen, the thing that helped me survive, then fashion magazines were my crack. I could pass hours lying on my stomach, flipping through the editorials and gazing at the beautiful photos of beautiful women in beautiful clothes that cost more than my family’s house.
It didn’t occur to me to compare myself to models for a few years – that would have made about as much sense as comparing myself to a giraffe or a gazelle – until I turned fourteen, got contact lenses and started hearing that I should try to be a model. Suddenly I found myself scrutinizing the women in the pages of the magazines, and much to my everlasting chagrin, I was always coming up short. My thighs touched, my skin was not smooth and pore-free, my nose had this weird bulbous thing going on, my eyes were uneven, my ears were uneven, my boobs – what there was of them – were uneven, I had bushy eyebrows and hair on my upper lip and so on and so forth. The list of ways in which I just did not measure up was extensive, and in retrospect, more than a little heartbreaking.*
Then came a few short years, when I was an older teenager, when I discovered Feminism with a Capital F. I read The Beauty Myth and let all my subscriptions to fashion magazines lapse (replaced with ones for music magazines, of course) and I wore my brother’s clothes and I gave only the tiniest shit about being a Hot Girl. (Like, I wanted boys to think I was cute but I wasn’t so desperately interested that I put a ton of effort into it.) That lasted until I hit my twenties, and slowly, slowly, women’s magazines found their way back into my stacks of reading materials, and before I knew it, I was worrying about whether I was sleeping too long on one side of my face or the other lest I age unevenly, or whether or not drinking soda through a straw was going to give me lip wrinkles. (To this day, I still worry about both of these things.)
Then as I became more interested in getting fit, I discovered the world of women’s health and fitness magazines and started devouring those, too. The fitness magazines were a double-edged sword for me. On one hand, they validated my interest in lifting weights and helped me feel a little less like a total freak of nature because I didn’t want to spend an hour a day on the Stairmaster like all of the other girls, but along with that came a whole new set of ways in which I didn’t measure up. I’d look at the photos of the women with their washboard abs and their sculpted glutes and I would feel dejected. And the magazines that were heavily aimed at women who competed in figure contests would sometimes even explicitly laid out the ways in which I, and lots of other women, would fail to be physically perfect. I still remember one feature by Oxygen publisher Robert Kennedy in which, under the guise of “tough love,” he talked about the peaks of biceps and shapes of calves and the outer sweep of the quad and how these were genetically determined and no amount of work would allow some women to develop that ideal body type.
It may have been that point – or the issue in which Oxygen readers wrote in to complain about First Lady Michelle Obama’s status as a fitness icon, which they felt was unearned because she had ‘too much body fat,” or maybe the issue in which an eating plan was laid out with a cheat day that consisted of a piece of pizza and a can of light beer – that I said, “fuck this shit, I’m out.”
I let all subscriptions lapse and stopped buying the magazines at the grocery store. I opted for books about weight training and blogs written by Krista of Stumptuous and Nia Shanks, among others. When I wanted a hit of mind-crack, I’d look at one of the billions of fashion/make-up/style blogs out there, and then I’d move on. I tried to pay attention to the way certain things made me feel. If I looked at something and I started feeling like crap about myself, I clicked away. If I looked at something and it got me excited or inspired, then I knew I was on the right track. I stopped watching a lot of junkier TV around this time, and I also stopped wandering through the mall, as I found both of these things left me feeling dissatisfied with myself and my life. I guess you could say I tried to be more mindful with my visual consumption.
Over time, a curious thing happened: I stopped looking in the mirror and seeing everything that was wrong with me. I started seeing things about me that I liked. I no longer was comparing myself against the airbrushed, posed, made-up, blow-dried, oiled-up, dieted-down women in magazines. I could barely even remember what they looked like, let alone hold them up as a psychological standard by which I was to be judged.
Now, I know that there are people out there for whom the imagery in women’s magazines does not affect them. They can look at the photos and recognize how unnatural they are and understand that comparing themselves to a fashion photo is like comparing themselves to a painting. That’s awesome. I wish I had the ability to do that. The truth is, I don’t. I can tell myself over and over again that the photos were airbrushed like crazy, and it doesn’t do a single thing to quiet the voice in the back of my mind that wants to know why I can’t have skin like that, why my abs can’t be cut like that.
But here’s the thing – that’s exactly what these magazines were designed to do. They promote beauty products by telling us how they will “fix” us, and they promote clothes by promising a more romantic, stylish, carefree lifestyle. When magazine editors talk about being “aspirational,” this is exactly what they mean – they want their audience to aspire after these things. They don’t want you satisfied with yourself and your life because how are they going to get you to “aspire” to whatever products they are selling? That’s what I think of every time I hear the word “aspirational” bandied about. I think of dissatisfaction. I think of endless need. I think of consumption for the sake of consuming. I think of a lot of things that don’t improve my quality of life, and in fact, make it worse than it was before I flipped open the magazine.
The only way for me to extricate myself from this cycle of self-loathing has been to cut women’s magazines out of my life. I lost access to a lot of good things in the process, things like the interesting features and essays in Elle or the reporting about women’s issues in Marie Claire, but it was something I needed to do. I’m glad I did it. I’m better off for it. The world is a challenging enough place to be as it is. I am no longer interested in making it harder than it needs to be.
*Edited to add that part of what I find so saddening about this is that if you know me and you know what I look like, I’m about as close to that conventional beauty standard as they come. Tall, thin, white, high cheekbones, blonde hair, able-bodied, etc. etc., and yet despite all this, I still felt like a big bag of ugly. If someone who looks like me feels this way after looking like magazines, I can’t imagine what it must be like for other women who don’t meet that restrictive beauty standard.