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.
I 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.