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FFB: Representations of women in fashion magazines – an evidence based analysis

Collier's Magazine Cover -  Nov. 1945

This month the theme for the Feminist Fashion Blogger group is ‘Women in the media and popular culture’. I thought I’d reacquaint myself with the world of women’s/fashion mags. I haven’t bought any such magazines in years, and I only ever read them in doctors waiting rooms, or sometimes on trips when other people have them. I don’t like them because they usually make me want to buy things and make me feel inadequate for not caring that I’m slightly overweight. Or not caring enough to go on a diet and push myself properly in my exercise anyway. I also begrudge paying £4 for something I can read cover to cover in less than an hour, when my £2 Observer keeps me going all week.

So anyway, I thought I’d see what’s up and how women’s/fashion magazines actually do represent women. I am a government social researcher after all, and believe that you should always check what the evidence actually says! So I bought a couple of mags, Glamour (because it was cheap) and Marie Claire (because it came with a Body Shop body butter). I’d intended to get more later, to get a bit more of a representative view of what the magazine market offers, but as usual I ran out of time. So my comments are obviously limited to these two, it might be that if I’d got Grazia or Cosmo things would have looked different.

Because basically, it wasn’t too bad! I was expecting to find lots of shocking to stuff to rant and rave against, and there was some, but I was expecting much, much worse.

Film Fun Magazine, Enoch Bolles cover - 1931 01

There were some questionable articles:
* an article about how funny irresponsible spending is. In this column (In MC), the author was talking about how she’s really very sensible financially, but she has this alter ego who goes round splashing out on designer clothes, make up and nights out. But said alter ego is just so fun, she’ll be penniless but believes life if for living, so hurrah! Not sure that or the idea that bad spending habits are funny and not really the person’s responsibility is helping much with addressing avoidable female shopping debt. And actually goes against advice offered elsewhere in the magazine.
* lots of stuff on diets/getting your dream body. In both magazines, the body is talked about as a project, exercise is for losing weight and Jennifer Aniston is God for having dieted and exercised her ageing limbs into submission. One of the worst articles was ‘your 21-day beach body countdown’, basically an assortment of random diet and exercise tips without any sort of coherence. And completely unsustainable. Don’t eat bread. Don’t eat dairy. Don’t eat pasta. Don’t drink. Eat protein but not too much of it. Do cardio but not too mich of it cos you’ll put on weight round the middle (?). I hate this kind of thing. It’s so irresponsible to encourage short term crash changes in diet/lifestyle/exercise. Some of the diet based articles do mention in passing how long terms changes are better etc, but that’s completely undermined by all this ‘look great now!’ stuff which basically associates looking great with being skinny at all costs. There’s this totally taken for granted assumption that everyone wants to, and should, lose weight and even if they don’t the ideas of wearing a bikini will make them want to.

The Saturday Evening Post Magazine - Oct 1945

But there’s some good stuff there too: A feature on domestic violence; something on how to deal with being unemployed when all your friends are carrying on spending as if the recession never happened; 12 pages on a scheme for career mentoring (in MC), where people can win a chance to get matched up with high achieving women to mentor them and improve their careers; a feature on increasing saving and/or reducing debt; a feature on the middle east crisis; a thing on improving your sex life that is genuinely focused on what you do as a couple rather than any ‘how to make him happy in bed’ nonsense.

So I really just wanted to give the magazines credit for picking up some serious issues and trying to move beyond the old stereotypes and purely fluffy content, without turning themselves into the economist. I’m sure the staff on those magazines want to produce something that is relevant and forward thinking and I suppose, feminist.

Modern Priscilla Magazine Cover - April 1923

Though of course the stereotypes lie as much in what isn’t said as what is, and those two women’s fashion magazines are by no means progressive. I am pleased to see that there was nothing on ‘how to please your man’ anywhere, but there’s still an assumption that women are in long term relationships or want to be and that such relationships are with men. And the message on saving and debt is of course somewhat undermined by half the proper pages (the ones that aren’t adverts) being dedicated to shopping, featuring £85 headscarves and £300 bikinis.

And while both magazines assume that readers have goodish jobs and are at least a little bit interested in developing their career, it does seem to be certain kinds of jobs. Out of the 25 mentors in the Marie Claire feature, only one person has a job that isn’t in the lifestyle or media industries (a doctor). Well, possibly two. One person is a business strategist and motivational speaker, but the motivational speaker bit makes me seriously question the business strategist bit. The mentoring does seem to be mainly aimed at people becoming self employed, so I suppose it’s ok for professions such as law that have their own mentoring structures not to be respresented. But why is there no IT related person, scientist or engineer? Lots of people start businesses in those fields all the time, but it seems self employment is only an option for the ladies mag target audience when it involves cupcakes, fashion, make up or low calorie sweets. The mentoring scheme is a lost opportunity really. It just made me think that maybe things haven’t moved on that much after all.

I don’t think I’ll be rushing out for more fashion mags any time soon anyway! Unless somebody can recommend any smaller publications? I am still mouring the demise of the Face in 2004! There seem to be a few US-based ones that are more feminist/progressive, but not as far as I know anything available in the UK.

For the rest of this week’s FFB posts, see the roundup here.

All images via kokojim on flickr.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Layla 15 June 2011, 7:11 am

    I read Marie Claire quite often and it's one of the better ones, it usually has one or two serious articles. I used to read Grazia and it made me so angry I had to stop. Cosmo is also pretty bad, I stopped reading that too because of all the dieting/over exercising stuff and too much about how women should and shouldn't look.
    I really like Bust, which is American feminist mag, but glossy and has a few pages on fashion but done in a positive way. I had to subscribe though, because I can only ever find it in big cities.

  • E B Snare 15 June 2011, 7:33 am

    Excellent post Franca! I used to like Vogue, which I never counted a 'women's magazine' but a fashion magazine, but the cost vs content became an issue eventually. RE assumption of magazines that women are in relationships etc: recent BBC show saw the editor of Glamour describe the ideal/perceived Glamour reader as (I paraphrase) 'successful at work [I assume this means high paying job], late 20s early 30s, long term relationship, no kids, and her money is hers to spend on what she wants and on herself' – Glamour is also the UK's most widely read women's magazine, despite not everyone conforming to this type.

    A new magazine called Beautiful has been launched (think a little snippet might have been in the Observer actually!) and their website (http://www.beautifulmagazine.co.uk/) sets forth part of their manifesto:

    "Beautiful magazine…

    Only publishes images of models who are size 12 and over. Does not insult our readers with diet and weight loss advice. Celebrates beauty and diversity and does not use image manipulation to make models look thinner. Bans adverts that are harmful to self esteem. Dedicated to building self worth from cover to cover. Reports on the latest research into the effects of the media on
    women, including our relationship with ourselves, our relationships and
    our bodies. Presents exciting ideas, news with substance for smart and sassy women Showcases fashion that is both sexy and accessible for all. Your body. Your Style."

    So this could be interesting…I'd like to get a hold of it to do an analysis like yours, esp. maybe about the weight given to visual projections of women (in the manifesto) rather than intellectual or career projections (another aspect you pointed out was lacking from MC). Intriguing!

  • poet 15 June 2011, 8:09 am

    Great article! First off, I love the vintage illustrations you chose… second, I do think there are efforts to modernize and get away from clichés, but like you I still wouldn't regularly spend money on magazines in their current state. I read them at the doctor's too 🙂 German Cosmo is supposedly more progressive than the US version, but it still has lots of the "how to please HIM" nonsense. The seemingly most progressive and content-full magazine in Germany, Brigitte, is to be lauded for its portrayal of everyday women in fashion editorials ("Initiative: Ohne Models"), but contradicts itself by still publishing lots of super-photoshopped ads in-between, still focussing on staying young-looking rather than looking good at every age, and telling women how to lose their cellulite rather than how to love their bodies… This kind of undercurrent age-ism/beauty-ism (?) I find even worse than the blatant in-your-face kind; one suspects the modernization is really just there for marketing purposes (kind of like what Dove did)… they recently brought out a new magazine called "Fräulein" which styles itself as kind of indie, for the modern, emancipated woman, but I wasn't too convinced when I bought it – too many skinny/conventionally pretty girls in there; some of the content clearly geared towards appealing to the potential reader's boyfriend… what the eff?

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 8:34 am

    That was it, Bust! I couldn't remember. I wouldn't ever subscribe to a
    magazine now, but I'd love to get my hands on a copy! I wonder if they have
    it in the big borders?

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 8:39 am

    I saw that there was something about Beautiful that in the Guardian last
    Thursday or Friday, but the article seemed to mainly be dedicated to talking
    about this woman that had founded Sassy and Jane, which was a bit weird.
    I'll try to get a copy! Agree with you that the manifesto is very forcused
    on how people look though.

    And that doesn't surprise me re Glamour target audience, it's so obvious in
    what they write. Do you remember what the show was? If its still on iplayer
    id like to watch it!

  • Perdita 15 June 2011, 8:41 am

    I only ever buy Vogue and sometimes Marie Claire. I find the outlook of these (and Cosmo back in the day) more open minded and mature than Company (very petty-wannabe-WASP, prudish) and much, much classier than the weeklies with their lurid tales of celeb excess. (Don't get me wrong, I READ the weeklies, because friends cast them off etc'. Heh heh, it's 'research' in my job).

    My main bugbear with Women's mags is, as you mention, articles which "actually goes against advice offered elsewhere in the magazine." Even in niche magazines like Vintage Life (which tells us we can never look good in jeans on one page, then has 'reader outfit of the week' – pure denim Rockabilly/Hawaii) do this. It drives me potty. At least, shallow and harsh though it is, Vogue credits me with the intelligence to remember the editorial stance from one page to the next and keeps in consistent! I can agree or rail against it: but it is a whole. Appealing to all women by saying one thing here and another there plays to that stereotype of the two-faced-fashionista, and to some extent advocates this woolly way of thinking as acceptable to women.

    Whoo. Rant over.

  • Perdita 15 June 2011, 8:43 am

    Grazia is my pet hate. I had forgotten it till your comment! Its like the Daily Mail with added lipstick!

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 8:44 am

    I've written about Brigitte a couple of times before, I'm not hugely
    convinced by their no models thingy. I think it's great that they are at
    least doing it properly rather than as a one off gimmick, but I actually
    don't think the issue is with the model-ness of models, rather with the lack
    of diversity in the types of people that are accepted into the model
    industry. So I would have preferred them to put pressure on te model
    industry to sign more ethnic minorities/different sizes etc. Which as
    Germany's biggest magazine they could have done.

    Fraeulein – interesting. What kind of women's magazine writes stuff aimed at
    men? Like what kind of stuff? if they're still going in the new year when
    i'll next be in Germany, I'll get a copy and see for myself!

  • Perdita 15 June 2011, 8:46 am

    So a woman's value is STILL inherently attached to her size – it's just size 12+ rather than 6-8? Lovely. I suppose a short, size 8, healthy model would be viewed as 'wrong'. Gosh, I am ranty today aren't I?

  • Penny Dreadful 15 June 2011, 8:53 am

    I don't really have a problem with the clothes being expensive, to me fashion magazines are for inspiration, not a shopping catalogue. In a way it would be worse if they were advertising loads of affordable clothing, because then you really would be tempted to go out and spend lots of money. If the clothes are expensive designer labels, you can look and admire without feeling that you have to buy buy buy. I have a gifted subscription to Elle, which I enjoy because it is a bit less silly than some of the others. I haven't read Cosmo since I was in high school, and although I like the fact Marie Claire try to offer more in depth articles, I find it a bit boring that they always seem to be about 'worthy women's issues'. Don't they think we can understand or relate to anything else?

  • teeny 15 June 2011, 10:20 am

    Thanks Franca, I enjoyed this and nodded along with you. I no longer buy women's magazines…basically for the reasons you listed above.  Now I stick to Rolling Stone and Empire (movie mag)- I cannot think right now as to the advertising material in them …hopefully the advertising isn't too grotesque if i don't remember it ; and  the articles aren't an all out assault on trying to persuade me to be thinner, more beautiful, rich or to buy more ESSENTIAL clothes and beauty products. I tend to browse blogs now for my fashion inspiration. 

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 4:05 pm

    Totally! I know things are written by different people but it is the editors
    job to ensure consistency, or label any contradictions as just one of a
    range of possible options.

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 4:07 pm

    Hehe, I probably wouldn't put it in the same category as the DM (basically
    the devil as far as I'm concerned) but i like that description!

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 4:16 pm

    I used to read (german) rolling stone, I wonder what its like now. Also, I
    basically think the word essential should be banned.

  • Layla 15 June 2011, 5:23 pm

    They used to, but the Borders near me closed down. Boo.

  • Layla 15 June 2011, 5:27 pm

    I get Empire, which I view as a film mag that both sexes are interested in… yet it's full of adverts with naked women in for sex chat lines, it really makes me angry.

  • oranges_and_apples 15 June 2011, 5:28 pm

    Oh yeah, I think they went bust actually! There never was one in Edinburgh
    but a big one in Glasgow. Ah well.

  • For Those About To Shop 15 June 2011, 6:45 pm

    I love the hands on approach you took with this post. You might like Worn Journal. It's a small fashion mag with a very cerebral edge. The shopping debt epidemic brings me down, too. Women are sabotaging their futures for the sake of fashion and it's not good!

  • Power Femme 15 June 2011, 7:03 pm

    Great post. I too took a vow a long time ago to stop reading mainstream women's mags. I did pick up a friend's recently, and we pleased and surprised to find recommendations in Cosmo that encourage women to masturbate to better understand what they want in bed. Granted, this doesn't cancel out their numerous other "articles" that focus on satisfying your man, but it was nice to see that there was a nod to female sexual pleasure as well.

  • frumpfactor 15 June 2011, 7:23 pm

    I definitely agree that progress has been made…. but if we choose to read these magazines, we have to understand that there will be mixed messages.  Most of the ones I read pay lip service to real women, real bodies, etc., but the women in the photos are what they are.  

    Plus, as magazines adapt to broader roles for women, there's a weird aspect of multiplied pressure.  It's like, ok….. now we are urged not only to acquire these great clothes, and maintain ridiculously fit bodies, and have relationships and families…. but ALSO to have fabulous careers…… AND to rise to the top of these careers, AND to be self-actualizing all the time, and, and, and…    I think we just have to accept that these are idealized visions, and the bottom line is always to sell us something.

  • Ceri 15 June 2011, 8:52 pm

    I got the Marie Claire too for the body butter. I don't tend to buy magazines much anymore unless I have a long train journey as they have so much advertising in them. I never really read the articles anyway just go straight to the fashion pages, which of course convince me that I need to buy more clothes (i really don't)

  • Taimur Shehzad 16 June 2011, 11:06 am

    classics magazines. love'em. Digital Magazines

  • MrsBossa 16 June 2011, 1:58 pm

    I think Marie Claire is one of the better ones – there is at least some mention of the world outside – but they're still so restrictive about women's roles in life. I think the two things that annoy me most about magazines like this are:
    a) the assumption, as you say, that we are always thinking about weight loss;b) the exclusion of anyone who isn't in a heterosexual relationship. It's far too normalised.In fact, I'm going to add a third:c) the (usually) rubbish giveaways! How many flimsy tiny t-shirts and cloth bags does a fashion-loving female need?!Have you read Laura's post yet? In it she says 70% of women feel worse about themselves after reading fashion magazines…

  • Jean 16 June 2011, 9:47 pm

    Great post! Kudos for researching with an open mind and showing the good and bad. I don't read mags like Cosmo and Vogue promotes fur way too much (another pet peeve of mine). I've been pleasantly surprised with US Glamour. The magazine is branching out. For the "how we met" column, they've featured lesbian couples and also show diversity (gay, straight, interracial, etc.) in features about families. Their models are inching toward normal human proportions too, thankfully.

    I do like how US Marie Claire showcases issues around the world and raises awareness (and funds) for women's issues. But it does bug me when the clothing is "price upon request" or just ridiculously overpriced. Like someone commented though, it's a good place to get ideas; I don't have to spend that much for the look.

  • Pullyoursocksup 18 June 2011, 12:17 pm

    There's always room for improvement when I comes to women's mags.  I'm actually more attracted to mags with impossibly expensive fashion editorials because I get to have a lovely covet over the fabrics and tailoring, but I can't be tempted to buy anything.  Coming from a media background, reading interviews with communication types always makes me cringe because the work in reality is not at all glamourous – endless graft over research, tight deadlines and frustration at dead end leads can turn your hair grey … quite funny to see how the pics and interviews don't always meet the reality.  I really enjoyed reading this Franca, thank you:)) xo

  • The Waves 21 June 2011, 1:30 am

    I read American women's/fashion magazines monthly, and some are definitely way worse than others. Glamour and Marie Claire are from the better end, since they both tend to portray more "normal" women on their pages; you know, women with jobs etc. Vogue and Harper's Bazaar cover some botox-related (i.e. fight your wrinkles!!) articles every single month. Seriously, every issue has some new anti-aging things covered.

  • Veshoevius 21 June 2011, 7:27 pm

    Great post Franca – I have that MC with the issue on irresponsible spending being such a lark and I had the same gut reaction.
    And this:
    "Out of the 25 mentors in the Marie Claire feature, only one person has a
    job that isn't in the lifestyle or media industries (a doctor)"
    – always drives me nuts about these magazines – the careers they focus on for "work" related articles are soooo narrow – as you say where are the scientists, engineers or even bankers and lawyers.  Most of their dress fashionably for work articles are totally unsuitable if you don't work in fashion or media!

  • Simone 22 June 2011, 6:30 pm

    I admire you being able to give up fashion magazines!  I've stopped buying Elle because it always has the most misogynistic/scare articles, but I can't seem to shake my Vogue or Harper's Bazaar habits.  The biggest problem with fashion magazines for me is the lack of diversity among the models.  That and due to the struggle for advertising dollars, all the editorials are basically becoming ads too.  If I wanted to see a Marc Jacobs look straight off the runway, I'd look at pictures from the show!  That's one of my biggest reasons for liking blogs… there's so much more diversity and I love seeing how regular women dress.  

  • Olivia 19 July 2011, 9:44 pm

    I've only recently stopped reading fashion magazines (I used to subscribe to three or four). I finally realized, once I took a class on feminism, how appalling they are. They're typically filled with fluffy and condescending articles and I certainly don't miss having them around. I don't read Cosmo regularly, nor have I ever subscribed to it, but for all the slack that it gets for its ridiculous sex suggestions, I do think it's great that it encourages women to talk about sex with each other and with men.

  • Penny Dreadful 10 October 2011, 7:26 am

    Yes hype and gushing is always annoying. I guess also I am coming to terms with expensive clothing recently, because if mags were featuring lots of clothes from places like H&M and Primark you have to ask serious questions about how the pieces are actually made. Have been reading 'To Die For' and after finding out about the real cost of fast fashion I am much less likely to question the cost of something expensive that is more likely to have been made my someone on an adequate wage.