Magazines reinforce society’s view of the ideal woman. This 1930’s advertisement was for a food additive that promised to help women gain weight. The historical perspective that combines the 1930’s beauty ideal of voluptuous women and scarce food realities of the Great Depression really helps put this advertisement into perspective.

I make scenes in public on a regular basis.  My husband is used to this, even though I’m sure he still gets a little embarrassed.  Recently we were in line, ready to check out, at a grocery store and I saw two women’s magazines side by side both featuring on their covers radically different and similarly critical views of women.

One magazine lambasted Kim Kardashian for gaining weight in her pregnancy and featured several pictures of her eating various foods.  Because it is surprising that a pregnant woman would need sustenance and equally crazy that someone incubating another life might gain weight.

The other magazine had pictures of celebrities in bathing suits and criticized them for being too thin while speculating about their supposed eating disorders.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and I even shouted it loudly in line at the grocery store, much to the dis-satisfaction of the elderly couple in front of us): What do women need to look like to not be subjected to public scrutiny?!?!?!

And yes.  They’re just crappy women’s magazines.  They don’t seem important.  But historically, magazines reflect the collective expectations of women and greatly influence the roles women play within our society.

Historically, women’s magazines grew out of the gradual emancipation of women that occurred during the late 1800’s.  In an era where women were first entering college and beginning to enter the workforce, the increased spending capital of women caught the eyes of publishers and advertisers.  The women’s magazine was born.

Fast forward to the 1940’s.  Men are away at war and women must pick up the slack on the homefront to support the war effort.  Women’s magazines start featuring articles on how helping out the war effort through manual labor is the patriotic thing to do, but that women can still look feminine by wearing lipstick or ribbons in their hair while they do what used to be “men’s work”.  Magazines were filled with recipes for “quick meals for the working woman.”

Once the men return from war, magazines began to reinforce the old models of embracing   motherhood, being a wife and housekeeping.  Articles once again begin to link self-worth with cleaning products and applauding the therapeutic value of baking.  Magazines feature recipes for five course dinners that take all day to cook.

Along comes The Feminine Mystique and the second wave of feminism.  Women aren’t satisfied with their lives as mother, wife and housekeeper.  Collectively, women begin to address the “problem that has no name”.  Being free from the societal confines of woman as mother, wife and housekeeper in turn made women’s magazines scramble for another product to sell, a different way to make women collectively feel guilty.  Women’s magazines begin to reinforce that a women’s worth is in her beauty, instead.  Most specifically this transfer of guilt is about a women’s size.

Instead of making women feel guilty about a messy house, women’s magazines begin to reinforce guilt about gaining weight.  Instead of the therapeutic value of baking, we see articles about the miracles of weight loss.  Instead of making your husband happy by making a five-course meal, you can make your husband happy by looking a certain way.  Between 1968 and 1972, Vogue Magazine sees a 70 percent increase in articles about dieting.  That’s huge!  The modern diet industry as we know it begins to grow out of this transfer of guilt and affects women to this day.

ImageI guess what I am trying to say here is that it is important to see how seemingly trivial things like women’s magazines affect our lives.  I still enjoy thumbing through them from time to time.  However, we need to acknowledge that the media is powerful and makes a statement about society’s views and expectations of women.  What can we do?  Buy Ms., Bitch or Bust.  Buy DIY ‘Zines.  Donate young adult books with strong female characters to your local library.  Hell.  Just call out bullshit when you see it (even if it is in the line at the grocery store.  To quote Tina Fey (on her Bust Magazine photo shoot):


Feminists do the best Photoshop, because they leave the meat on your bones. They don’t change your size or your skin color. They leave your disgusting knuckles, but they take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.








Riot Not Diet

“The way many women use scales is grossly destructive.  The scale is a cruel purveyor of personal worth for the day.  If you wanted to come up with a plot to take an entire gender and render them less effective, you’d put them on a diet and have them buy a scale.  The human energy wasted by women thinking about these numbers is enormous.”–David M. Garner, Ph.D.

It is a snowy day here in Wisconsin.  About six inches fell overnight. I help my husband dig his car out of the driveway and trudge through the snow to take my pup for her afternoon walk.  Taking off my wet, snow-soaked jacket, I notice a pin that is fastened to the lapel.  It features the classic “raised fist” image evokative of many social movements and reads “riot not diet!”.  This simple pin makes me contemplate my journey as a feminist and size activist.

I remember driving around with my dad in his old F150 and discussing how we didn’t think it was fair that our large size was never attributed to genetics.  I was in middle school and we were having a relatively profound conversation about how we believed weight was a source of discrimination towards us and that we thought our genetics were to blame.  My red hair?  From my dad.  My poor eyes?  Thanks, Dad!  My asthma?  You guessed it…Dad.  However, questions about why I was bigger than the other kids always resulted in an answer regarding my diet and assumed lack of activity.  Even as a child it didn’t make sense to me that my older brother and I had the exact same diet and spent entire summers playing outside together (an art seemingly lost to today’s children).  Somehow, he was a bean pole and I was chubby.  My mom’s side of the family are all tall and slender.  My dad’s side of the family?  A bunch of fatties.  Even at a young age, it was evident that fat people faced discrimination and weight is not entirely due to environmental factors.

My knowledge of size acceptance was rather limited until college. As a sophomore at the university, I was required to write a paper for a general education sociology class about discrimination I have personally faced.  I wrote about size discrimination.  The feedback my paper received from the (thin) professor was that she didn’t believe discrimination based on size met the criteria for the paper.  In other words, even with properly documented sources, she didn’t think size discrimination was real.

My fourth year of college, I switched my degree from Music Education to a Bachelor of Music with a Women’s Studies Minor (I joke that my goal was to be completely unemployable).  It was then that I began to delve into the more academic aspects of the societal codes of femininity.  I took classes and read books that informed me about how our modern beauty standard stresses a diminutive beauty ideal because the small size reinforces the archetypes of a physically weak woman and the passive female personality.  I began to understand why our culture wanted women to waste time worrying about food intake instead of about larger societal issues, but didn’t really modify my personal attitude towards my size.  I continued to spend money on diet plans.  I would count “points,” talk to my female co-workers for hours about weight loss, I would pay more at the grocery store for highly-processed food items advertised as “low fat” and lose sleep if I went over my weekly allotment of “points”.

Last fall, an old friend named Tasha who I hadn’t talked to in years randomly called me.  Tasha lives in Philadelphia now.  When I received the call, I didn’t even know what part of the world she called home.  Tasha called because she was following a punk rock band on their US tour.  The band had a stop in Madison and she wanted me to check them out.  In return for a place to crash, she’d pay for my ticket to the show.  I was intrigued.  I was a punk rock kid in middle school and high school but it had been years since I had gone to a concert that had a mosh pit.  The band was good, but music that loud is no longer my thing.  To escape the noise, I decided to peruse the merchandise table.  Among the stickers with the Misfits logo and the DIY zines, I saw a lovely little pin that said “RIOT NOT DIET.”  I had to have it.

It was at that moment that it finally hit me.  The energy I spent worrying about my food intake all these years could have been spent positively empowering myself and other women.  The extra money I spent on diet plans and diet foods could have been spent helping those who have nothing to eat.  Instead of eternally chattering with my female friends about the “points value” in a cup of popcorn, we could have been talking about the work-place discrimination we were collectively facing as women.

As I proudly put that pin on my jacket at the punk rock show, I thought to myself “no longer”.  That tiny little pin has made me contemplate my personal actions and the role weight loss has played in keeping my mind off bigger issues.  That little piece of flair has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.  I now refuse to let myself be pre-occupied by something as trivial as my weight when there are truly more important things to worry about.  Riot not diet, indeed.


The pin that got me into all this trouble and the snow that just needs to go away.