A year without women’s magazines

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.

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29 responses to “A year without women’s magazines

  1. Try it with women’s programming too. I had started watching WEtv or Style or something a few weeks back and every commercial that came on was for a weight loss drug, or food, or program. In addition to the weight loss garbage, they pushed a ton of make up. I had to give up on my shows or just DVR them so I could skip the commercials. I’m normally a pretty confident lady, but watching all those commercials interspersed in the programs I was watching was seriously making me question how attractive I was.

  2. The last paragraph made me want to cry. And wow, First Lady Obama has too much body fat = let’s disqualify any of the fitness accomplishments she does! Those readers need to read the blog Dances With Fat.

    I’m 15 and I’m one of those people whom you described that aren’t affected by pictures in magazines. I’m really grateful that I started reading feminist blogs more than a year ago, so that before I started comparing and hating my body , I learned how unattainable that thin, airbrushed, skin-perfect look is. It’s almost like a dissociation when I’m viewing magazines (which I don’t anymore); the bodies pass by my brain. I only see the text and the clothes. Not that I haven’t had horrible thoughts; I had felt that for an athlete, I HAD to have a smooth stomach, my thighs had to smaller, ect. It took reading the fact thighs usually DO NOT touch for women that I let it go. And then I saw images of fashion bloggers, friends, body positive bloggers… almost none of them had the smooth, prescribed stomach! It blew my mind. I *don’t* need our culture’s idealized body, no matter what media and people say.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. Commercials, catalogs, magazines, they are all designed and created to manufacture dissatisfaction so that they can sell you things. The more unhappy with ourselves companies can made us, the more money we will give them in an effort to fix ourselves. I’ve begun recycling catalogs and magazines before they even make it in the house, and skip most commercials by using a DVR. I am much happier since making those changes.

    • I don’t look at catalogs any more either. In fact, I’ve really limited the kind of media I consume. I thought that I would find it harder than I have. Instead, it’s been really freeing.

  4. I liked looking at fashion magazines. And looking at the “Jet Beauty of the Week.” I think I was well aware I wasn’t going to meet the white standard of beauty anytime soon, so reading Vogue etc, made me aspire to be a lady who lunches. Or more accurately, I wanted her stuff.

    Eventually I became a little more aware of the black standard of beauty, which was equally full of BS. And started becoming a lot more aware of colorism and the skin tone hierarchy in the black community. In a lot of ways, growing up in white middle class areas, where I was one of the rare black faces, helped me not to be self conscious about being darker toned. White people always have compliments for us of “chocolate” complexion.

    But the older I got, and the more involved in the black community I got, the more I found out it was a problem, and that “light is right.” Looking at the black women in any magazine or commercial or whatever else. The odds of them coming close to my skin tone is about 5%. And the odds of seeing someone with my skin tone and “black” features is about .00005%.

    The media has done a great job of telling all women, that we are inadequate the way we are. And to make it worse, people seem to get up in arms if people who don’t fit the “official” standard of beauty are confident in their own skin, well that is downright impossible and “unhealthy” especially if that means embracing your current size (see the “Fatkini controversy). It makes you want to ignore everything!

    • It makes you want to ignore everything!

      FOR REAL. I am quickly approaching that point where I just can’t care about all of the Messages from Society, because all caring does is make me neurotic. Not worth it.

      You know, I think a lot of white ladies think of black women as having better body images and there being more acceptance of different kinds of beauty in the black community, but when I started paying attention to the things black ladies were saying, I realized that nope, you all just get different messages than we do. The light-skin preference is a HUGE one, and once I became aware of it, I realized it was everywhere. I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve heard songs in which the singer or rapper was talking about “light skinned girls.”

      And to make it worse, people seem to get up in arms if people who don’t fit the “official” standard of beauty are confident in their own skin, well that is downright impossible and “unhealthy” especially if that means embracing your current size (see the “Fatkini controversy).

      Yes, we as a society want people to have good body image and self-respect, but only if they’ve been deemed deserving of it. Everyone else should just get used to hating themselves. Ugh.

  5. excuse me. EXCUSE ME. This is dave cave and I bought your zine through amber. well your two newest issues and now i’m at your blog and i have SO MANY THINGS TO SAAAAAYYYYYY.

    1. Anxious masculinity: oh god, have you seen the Canadian Club ads that directly compare men to their dads and how they are inadequate to them?

    2. I just did a one day beet juice fast. It was only one day and the subsequent shit was glorious.

    3. this post: staring at others bodies….yeah, it will always make you feel worse. And i never even thought of good “fitspo” because usually it just makes me hate everything. But what if you’re actually looking at real people in real life? and you still feel worse, but they’re not photoshopped because they’re in front of you squatting and you’re trying really hard to not stare at their butt? you know?

    4. Also: why do i always feel worse after the gym….like, just angry?

    5. bodybuilding.com forums are a scary scary place.

    6. ever heard of Mark Rippetoe of “Starting Strength”. He’s this old-school weight training coach and in his books and dvd he uses men and women of all ages to demonstrate, and not in a “HEY LOOK, EVEN WOMEN CAN DO THIS!” just they’re their doing the exercises get over it you morons.

    7. we should do a round table/panel discussion on fitness. maybe like a tv show. yes we’re getting our own tv show.

    8. I DON’T GET READY FOR BIKINI SEASON. BIKINI SEASON GETS READY FOR ME.

    • DAVE CAVE OMGGGGG

      Dude, I have a long-ass letter on my nightstand waiting to make its way to you. I was waiting until I had another copy of #2 but I see that you have it so I’m not waiting anymore!

      Also, I love all of these comments, especially “I DON’T GET READY FOR BIKINI SEASON. BIKINI SEASON GETS READY FOR ME.” I fuckin’ need that on a t-shirt or something. Also I actually was going to buy Rippetoe’s Starting Strength after getting your letter but my single indie bookstore in town didn’t carry it so I got the New Rules of Lifting instead. A bunch of people seem to love Rippetoe so I may suck it up and buy it online.

      I am so happy you found my blog. Your zine (and your letter!) made my life!

  6. I love this! Ive also quit women’s magazines. I was hoping women’s health or women’s fitness would be different but they’re not. Currently reading triathlon mags but even those make me want to buy bikes and gadgets! Honestly dont feel like clothes shopping since I gave up fashion mags and it’s good for my mental health and bank balance!!

    • I’ve been deeply disappointed by women’s health and fitness magazines. I get that they’ve got to make money by giving advertisers a platform, but I’d like to think there’s a way to do this without catering to the most vapid, substance-free stereotypes of womanity. It was particularly painful for me when Women’s Health changed hands, and it went from being a fairly decent publication to Cosmo with tiny weights. I just about died when that happened.

      • I had a couple of US issues of women’s health and thought I quite liked it, but just got the UK version and it’s all “lose weight, tone up” and “ridiculously low calorie Diet plan (featuring special-fricking-k)”. Why doesn’t someone make a real fitness mag?
        We have a health food shop – Holland & Barratt” over here that sells “Healthy” and “healthy for men” magazines. It’s a pretty good shop – if you walk very quickly past the homeopathy – but I was buying some glucosamine which apparently was on offer via a voucher in “healthy”, which is about weight loss and protecting your child from hayfever etc.and therefore not very relevant to me! So I thought I’d buy “healthy for men”, but no, the voucher wasn’t in that one – I was told it was in “the women’s one”. Odd considering the mens one is about sport supplements.
        When I had a moan at the staff I was told it’s NOT a women’s one, it’s a family magazine. So I didn’t buy either the magazine or the glucosamine. Annoying.

      • “women” = “family.” Lovely. Nothing against families, I want one myself, but sheesh. I would have also rather had the “men’s” one. Why does everything gotta be gendered all the time?

      • I always wonder how it is possible that every single woman in the fitness mags is an inverted triangle shape. Are you telling me that women who are pears, or hourglasses or bananas or whatever don’t workout? Same with the fitspo models. There seems to be a single body shape (and skin tone). I started trying to seek out more diverse fitspo, but sadly most of the black women in the fitspo were posing like video vixens in even skimpier outfits than the other fitspo. More body types, which is good. I have yet to see an Asian woman in a fitspo pic. I have seen some possible Latinas, but all in all it is another place where the white standard of beauty rules! Sheesh! We can’t even get diversity in fitness!

        I think the worst thing about the fitness magazines aimed at women, is that they are possibly even less diverse than regular women’s magazines. There is now body size diversity, and if you ever read the articles, the fitness clothing rarely goes past a size 12. As if people larger than a 12 don’t care about fitness. Or the clothing doesn’t offer support for someone with a DD or larger chest. It is pretty ridiculous. I feel really left out! Then to make you feel worse about your self, there are zillions of diet pill ads and weird supplements.

        I now read Whole Living. At least the recipes are better!

  7. This is so weird because just recently I realized how little interest I have in reading ANY magazine now. I realized that I had let my Elle subscription lapse (6 months ago but just realized I let it lapse last month!), I didn’t renew my Psychology Today because I’m so tired of all the ridiculous covers they have with images of female sexuality (WTF REALLY? Isn’t this magazine supposed to be a little deeper than all that??) and Allure keeps coming faithfully to my house but when I sit down to try and read it, I find my mind and eyes wandering outside my living room window to see what the birds are doing on our new bird feeder (as you would expect, they are always eating birdseed but nonetheless, that has become more interesting to me than seeing the latest Maybelline ad). I, too see my attractive qualities more readily now, but didn’t make the connection really until now. Ironic how most women read those mags to learn how to be more beautiful, but what really happens when you stop reading them is you feel so much more pretty than you could imagine.

    • It’s funny that this happened for you at the same time that it happened for me, and I don’t think we’ve ever really even talked about it (although I did say I was having some issues with Oxygen, etc.) I just started getting annoyed with the fact that I was giving money to these publications that made me feel really miserable about myself, and as you know, life is way too fucking short to spend it in a state of self-inflicted misery. We have such a small amount of time on this planet and I am tired of wasting it, you know?

  8. “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. ”

    This is the scariest part of showing off the “fitness lifestyle” in magazines. The magazines program you to do what it says for you to enjoy the “lifestyle” which include buying probably bunk or overpriced stuff. On the guy side, we do all the tough routines the huge guys do but for the majority of us, we don’t get the results (likely because we don’t diet until near death or stick ourselves with needles like the big guys do).

  9. Thanks for this. When I started running I started buying running magazines, like Runners’ World, (Australian/New Zealand edition, cus that’s where I live!) and occasionally Women’s Health and women’s running magazines, and the women-specific magazines pissed me off because there was so much more focus on losing weight – because why else would women be exercising right? Even though there is stuff in Runners’ World that annoys me (they’re still influenced by their advertisers) I realised that part of why I love this magazine is that the assumption that their audience is made up of BOTH men and women, means they don’t have heaps of the sexist bullshit you get in men-specific or women-specific magazines. It is so totally refreshing! My husband used to buy Men’s Health and we had a running joke it was “Cosmo-for-men” and every issue we’d check that each cover had something about how to get awesome abs and something about how to be awesome at some aspect of sex (with women, of course) and they were on the cover of EVERY issue. So, I think my point is: media for women, often sexist and depressing; media for men AND women, often ignores potential sex differences and treats us like humans. Now, if only there was more media with the assumption of a cross-gendered audience!

  10. You pretty much just summed up everything I’ve been thinking the past few years about women’s magazines. I used to be a complete magazine-junkie, until I finally realized how they just made me feel less beautiful, less fit, less interesting, etc.
    As I moved away from fashion and the more popular fitness magazines (Shape, Self), I thought magazines like Oxygen would be a better choice. But as you pointed out, they’re just as bad (not to mention that I can’t stand the endless parade of implants in magazines/websites that feature female fitness models).

    There’s a fine line between fitness/beauty/fashion information that serves to inspire and motivate us, and that which takes a serious toll on body image and confidence. Sadly, you’re right when you say these magazines are intended to make us feel badly so we buy, buy, buy in an effort to “improve” ourselves.

    Thanks for yet another great read!

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  12. I agree with you…. My mother-in-law used to get the weekly at the grocery store and I could tell that it depressed me every time I read it. It is the worst I’ve ever read for that… but I find the others are a problem too if I read them regularly. I do like What not to Wear, but I tivo it and don’t watch too much in a row. My first week at a new job I was exhausted every day and flopped in front of What not to Wear everyday. At the end of the week I could tell I was too focused on dressing properly.

  13. I used to be very interested in fashion, to the extent that I considered fashion design college, and so I read a lot of women’s magazines. After a while, I slowly began to realize how fat, ugly, and poor these magazines made me feel, and I ditched them. I am still occasionally tempted, but I remind myself how much happier I am for it. I really relate to this post.

    Also, how sad is it that it ACTUALLY took me a minute to realize the magazine cover headlines weren’t real. I think that is very telling.

    http://thismummasstyle.wordpress.com/

  14. I stopped reading women’s magazines years ago when I found out they were linked to body dysmorphia. Luckily for me I still have billboards and television to make me feel inferior. Even when I just sit back and watch my favorite sci-fi shows on netflix, commercial free and full of multi-dimensional women whose characters don’t worry about their waistlines and rarely talk about clothing, I still compare myself with an efficiency born of years of self-hatred.

    There were a few years there when it was pointed out to me that my race rarely achieves the look seen on runways, commercial modeling and on TV and, for those years, I was free. At which point, right when I thought I was over it, my race became more prevalent in media and now I can sit back and wonder, “I’m only a size bigger than Beyonce, why do my thighs have more cellulite?”

    I live for pictures of models, actresses and singers without photoshop because, all things considered, the only reason I’m not anorexic at this point is because I caught a glimpse of some supermarket tabloid that showed Beyonce’s in a bathing suit without photoshop and I damn near cried because my thighs aren’t horrible. That or the fact that many female celebrities have started to come out of the food closet and let us know what they really eat to look like that and I’m rather certain several dietitians and nutritionists began sacrificing heads of ivestock and entire fields of crops to the Gods of Image in hopes that an entire generation of Hollywood women don’t die of malnutrition.

    No, I’m rather certain that my body image issues, forced on me from the first commercial I saw when I was too young to comprehend plot and shouldn’t have been watching TV in the first place, are so profoundly deep and all consuming that I’ve gone past the point of no return.

    On another note, did you know you can have floating ribs for 11,000$? I’m saving up.

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  16. Elle has some great essays — and as far as I know, most of them are available online, allowing you to bypass all the bullshit. So you don’t even have to give up on the redeemable aspects of certain magazines 🙂

  17. This post really resonated with me. I often read magazines at the gym when I’m using a spinning bike or a treadmill, but I’d love to know about alternatives to the standard Cosmo/Vogue/Allure lineup. I was hopeful about Self and Shape, but as you mentioned, those generally aren’t any better.

    Can you recommend alternatives? You mentioned feminist magazines — what are some of those? Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Ashley, I wish I knew of more feminist-minded fitness magazines but unfortunately I don’t. I tend to read Bitch and Bust, which I enjoy, but sports- and fitness-related content in those magazines is pretty much non-existent. So sad. 😦

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