The Influence of Women's Magazines: A Conversation

Image Source: Refinery29

Image Source: Refinery29

The power of traditional women’s fashion magazines to shape our lives, our understanding of our role in society and our view of ourselves should not be understated. After listening to a recent Guilty Feminist podcast, it sparked a larger conversation between our founders about their relationship with that industry and their hopes for the future.

What is your earliest memory/first experience with magazines?

Kari: I 100% remember when I transitioned from “boy crazy” magazines like Teen Beat and Bop. I was with my father shopping at the grocery store when I came across the September issue of Seventeen. I was instantly attracted to the fall colors and heft of the issue. While waiting in line I asked my dad if it was ok to purchase and he approvingly remarked that it was “a good choice, a grown up magazine,” or something along those lines. This isn’t a criticism of my dad, I was in fact happy that I was growing up and I thoroughly enjoyed the issue and would for many years after. I think I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

Grace: I remember reading a teen magazine in the basement of my house when I was maybe 14 or 15. The two highlights were an article about how to be more photogenic and how to flirt with boys. I practiced both religiously.

How did they shape your formative years?

Grace: That “how to flirt” article started a long obsession with how to position myself to be more attractive to men. I graduated to magazines like Cosmo & Glamour quite quickly which continued the promotion of our bodies being objects to draw the affections of men. I didn’t understand until much, much later how I used those tips to manipulate, gain favor, and quite often attract the attention of people of whom I wasn’t even truly interested.

Kari: I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I paid a lot of attention to articles like “how to get the guy”, etc. but I think it was more subconscious than anything else. What I do remember is how I transitioned from one style of magazine to the next - and that impacted my grooming, clothing, and frankly spending habits. I never once stopped and asked myself if what I was reading had any real positive impact in my life. I think their impact was gradual, the usual nit picking and self loathing that women are unfortunately faced with was pretty dominate in my life. I remember taking Glamour Magazine’s “Dos & Dont’s” back page pretty seriously, which now, looking back, was totally destructive and misogynistic.

What myths or stereotypes did you believe about yourself as a result?

Kari: I certainly believed that a lot could be cured by a little retail therapy, because after all, “I deserved it”. I believed in this so much that I spent way outside my budget for many years and finally started to snap out of it when I found things in my closet with the tags still on. I was consuming without thought and my wallet paid the price.

Grace: I can absolutely relate to the abject consumerism that traditional magazines promote. It took me a loooong time to break the need to buy every anti-aging product they touted.  It is also so easy through traditional magazines to feed into the culture that promotes only one standard of beauty, to believe that aging is some mortal sin, and to engage in the if I get thinner/buy this/look younger, then I can be happy mantras.

When did you find yourself “waking up” to the messages?

Kari: Much later in life, honestly - really, just a few years ago. I can remember during most of my 30’s I’d plunk down $$ each month (too lazy to subscribe) for several issues and loved nothing more than sitting on the couch and flipping through each one. There was a ritual to it, something that created this intense state of “aspiration”, one that I couldn’t afford and one that I believe was unfortunately altering my identity without truly participating in those decisions.

Grace: It definitely happened in waves for me. The first was when I was asked to give a lecture on the sexualization of women and children in media and what we can do to prevent the impact of such images and messages on the brain development of children. Researching that lecture rocked my world and truly changed how I saw what I was being fed. But, honestly, I still consumed them. I somehow thought just being savvy to the messages was enough to stand up to them.  I didn’t realize how erosive they still were. It’s like a repetitive drip of water, it eventually changes the landscape.

But, I would say the biggest shift for me was having a daughter. I remember one day when she was around two freaking out when I saw her playing with a stack of my magazines. I didn’t even want her to see the covers, much less read the material. That was a larger wake up call for me. In fact, the first time she asked me about the word ‘sex’ was while standing in line at Target. Some magazine had a cover that literally said, “SEX! SEX! SEX!” with a subtitle of something like “Find All of Your Man’s Erotic Zones Tonight” or some other such nonsense. This was all at her eye level while I’m trying to buy milk.

Kari: I cannot imagine difficult it is to navigate your daughter through this type of media. I don’t have kids so I can’t contribute to this, but it is an issue that I feel very strongly about and need to figure out how I can become involved in helping to change this conversation. Oversexualization of everything is getting out of control and there is a growing movement of empowering our daughters to think about their worth that does not include “waking up pretty." I want to be a part of that.

What fashion trends/skincare/makeup trends did you learn about from magazines? Which ones do you wish you had never learned?

Grace: Oh my god, can they stop trying to dress me like a “Parisian” woman? I don’t want a trench, striped shirt and ballet flats. Please stop.  Do French women even dress like that? No, seriously. Do they? Because I have never seen it IRL and I would like to stop believing that is the ideal.

That consumerism cycle was also something I wish I hadn’t learned. I need that new makeup to look better, I need that new skincare item to stop the evil aging process. I couldn’t look through a magazine without dog earring 30 pages of things I thought I had to have, that my happiness, satisfaction, security with myself depended on.  Breaking the cycle with traditional magazines has greatly decreased my “need” for stuff.

Kari: I can’t recall a specific trend but I think I, like you, was pulled into this crazy retail/consumer cycle of just buying new stuff each season. It’s such a tough thing - everyone loves to treat themselves but as I said earlier, it becomes a problem when you are not actively participating in the process, buying stuff for the sake of buying it.

What do you find the most harmful about traditional women’s magazines?

Kari: I think the general criticism of women and overt competition/misogyny is extremely harmful. Most fashion magazines focus on fixing things rather than embracing things and I find this message to be confusing and ultimately futile. It creates a feedback loop that never ends. Additionally, since I was most interested in magazine content geared toward the  “career women”, I found it alarming how much career advice was centered around how you looked at the office, how you might be perceived. This softening of women as a whole was really destructive to me and is something I’ve only recently become aware of.

Grace: I think the lack of viewing a woman as a whole person with ideas, interests, and value that extends beyond her appearance is what I find most harmful. I do see some magazines try to incorporate more meaningful articles, but they are a drop in the bucket when it is one article in a sea of destructive messaging. I don’t know if they don’t truly want to change or if being a slave to advertisers makes it an unprofitable model.

Kari: Yeah, the idea of a women being a whole person with value beyond the physical is something I really wish I was aware of earlier. To finally realize this in my early 40’s bums me out a bit.

What do you find the most ridiculous?

Kari: The lack of originality and that each issue just regurgitates from the last. I mean, how many times must we be told what French women wear and that “nautical” or “western” are unique editorial spreads. It’s just the same year over year.

Grace: The sex articles are THE most ridiculous, followed closely by outlandish fashion “trends." There is so much duplication across the magazines and such a lack of originality. Do you remember that ridiculous movie with Kate Hudson, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or whatever it was called? I imagine the pitch meetings at magazines looking exactly like that. A writer trying to throw out something original only to be batted back to writing another “50 greatest sex tips” article for the millionth time. No, I don’t want to suck on an ice cube before I give a blow job. No, I am most certainly am not greeting my husband at the door wrapped in any amount of saran wrap. And, for heaven’s sakes, please stop feeding me this bullshit. My life is worth more than having a lineless face and being a sex object for others.

Kari: Confession: I love that movie, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. I covet that green sweater the gals bring to their heartbroken friend.

Grace: That fact that I know that movie is coming to Netflix in October is a sad glimpse into my life.

This cover is completely made up, but be honest, you had no idea, right?!

This cover is completely made up, but be honest, you had no idea, right?!

What is the most memorable article you’ve read?

Kari: I can honestly say I don’t remember a single one. That’s a huge problem. I would appreciate the occasional interview with someone I admired and the well meaning attempts at celebrating women making a difference in our world, as seen in Marie Claire - but I certainly didn’t walk away with a lasting impression. Maybe that’s my fault, maybe I was just interested in the pretty editorials & curated lists. But I rarely connected with articles.

Grace: After a long period of not purchasing traditional magazines, I recently grabbed one for a plane ride. There was a pretty interesting article about being on the campaign trail with Donald Trump (horrifying!), but sadly it was the only bright spot in a sea of other articles and advertisements designed to make me feel like I am not ok just the way I am. I am so tired of the cheesy “Top 10” articles or “5 ways to” whatever. Literally any article that starts with a number, I am over. I want to experience real connection, learn something truly new, not be made to feel less than, but comparably human. There is nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself, even physically, but I just can’t get onboard when 90% of the magazine is devoted to “fixing” my outer appearance to suit one standard of beauty.

Kari: I think More Magazine (now defunct) was really trying to appeal to those above 35 years olds. I was really into their profiles, specifically with successful entrepreneurial women. But there was still that element of obvious consumerism and age shame.

What makes you the most outraged?

Kari: The cost of fashion is up there. That an entire industry is built to take down a women vs. build her up is a close second - whether that is intentional is not the point as I believe it is a more subtle change.  From a content perspective, everything is a glossy ad, even “original” content, frankly it’s just noise.

Grace: I think the biggest for me is the hyper sexualization. Beyond even the content, particularly the fashion segments,  I don’t want to sift through 95 pages of advertisements of nearly naked or actually naked women. You do not need to be naked with a handbag between your legs to sell me a flipping purse. Stop already. And, please, please stop with the sexual assault/rape undertones in ads. I will never forget an ad where you just see a man standing in a tux with a woman on her knees in a barely there silk evening gown. He is clutching her wrists aggressively and pulling them up towards him. I think it was advertising a watch or something. She was ON HER KNEES in front of him being tossed around for a WATCH. I was so mad I threw the magazine in the trash.

How has your relationship with traditional women’s magazines changed over time?

Kari: There were a couple of magazines that made a positive impact in my life, Sassy comes to mind, Jane was another followed by the brilliant Rookie Magazine (though I was too old to really identify with it). I do remember bouncing along every few years from Seventeen to Glamour to Elle, then finally Harper’s Bazaar & Marie Claire. I finally ended my relationship with these magazines after reading one of the last issues of More. That issue was dedicated to “entrepreneurial women” that at first blush, hit all the right beats but really was just a cleverly disguised anti aging ad.

Grace: I used to be a flat out magazine addict. Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmo, all of them. I had subscriptions to everything. Even when I was desperately poor, I snuck magazines at the grocery store. They contributed deeply to a lifetime of feeling less than, starving myself to fit an ideal, spending exorbitant amounts of money on skin and hair care products, hating my image, sexualizing myself and essentially wishing I was anything but me. Obviously they weren’t the only cause of those things, but they fed and nurtured an unhealthy relationship with my self worth. I haven’t picked up a traditional magazine in a couple of years, minus the one recently on the plane. It was a decision that I regretted as I flipped through nearly 80 pages of advertisements before I even got to actual content. Beyond that, as I mentioned, I left with only one article that had any meaning or interest. I feel like I have evolved beyond traditional magazines now to such a point that I won’t ever feel that compulsion to pick one up.

What do you want to see for the future of magazines?

Kari: I think there is a real opportunity in the industry to create something that really connects with women over the age of 35, something I think we are trying to do with Do It Well, CO.

Grace: I hope that women collectively start to have their eyes opened to the messages that are being fed to them from traditional magazines and demand a change. There is nothing wrong with being interested in fashion, health, or beauty, but I would like to see better representation of the diversity and the huge variety of opinions and philosophies. I also want to see a more well rounded perspective on what makes us interesting human beings, beyond our physical appearance. And, for heaven’s sake, I don’t need any more perfection shoved down my throat. I want to hear from real people, I want to fall in love with their humanity, their struggles, their successes and to feel inspired by reality, not aspiration. We deserve more. My daughter deserves more. When I imagine a future where one day she will be consuming this content, I want a magazine that says you are magnificent, right here, right now exactly as you are.

We want to know what you think! What are some of your favorite magazines? What do you love about them and what do you hate? And, what do you want for the future of women's magazines?