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April 24, 2004

Women’s Magazines Are Bad for Your Mental Health


I couldn’t help but pick up this copy of Glamour magazine at my local 7-11 the other day. As I was waiting to pay for my purchases, I kept seeing more reasons to nominate the editor for the 2004 Nobel “General Rottenness To Humanity” Prize. Here are five from the cover alone:

1.“Dress and Feel Sexy At Any Size.” If sexiness is possible at any size, why do we mention size at all? Heh, heh.

2. “THE SCARY PAP TEST RESULT EVERYONE’S GETTING.” If everyone is getting scary results on their pap tests, they can’t be accurate…which means the reassuring result you got on your last pap test probably wasn’t accurate, either.

3. “Attention curvy girls, skinny girls, big chests, flat chests: instant confidence clothes inside.” Since you curvy, skinny, busty and flat-chested girls weren’t hip to our clothing-recommendations before reading this magazine, any confidence you had in your sexual attractiveness was obviously misplaced.

4.“The 31 SEX & LOVE thrills no woman should miss.” Since you can’t instantly rattle off 31 sex and love thrills you’ve ever had, your sex life is clearly inadequate. But we knew that.

5. “FREE! FREE! WE’RE GIVING AWAY THE WORLD’S MOST FLATTERING JEANS.” And the way you look, honey, you better pray that you get a pair.

I still can’t understand why women go looking for anything except masochistic abuse in women’s magazines. When you see one of their editors coming to pat you on your back, you better check to see how big a knife she's holding.



posted by Friedrich at April 24, 2004


You might enjoy this piece about Myrna Blyth, the gals' magazine editor who recently spilled the beans on the women's-media biz.

Question for you? And others too, of course. Actually a couple of questions.

* How seriously do women take these mags? On the one hand, you hear from angry gals saying that they've been traumatized by the images in these mags. On the other hand, many women say, what's the big deal, I just enjoy 'em and don't take 'em seriously.

* How about the "but you bought it, didn't you?" question? Seems to me that free-marketers have to wrestle with the fact that these magazines work -- they're some of the most successful magazines ever published. To me, this raises all kinds of interesting things to muse about. For one thing: is commercial success a sign of moral worth, or are these two different scales? For another: well, what do we do about it (if anything) if it in fact turns out to be the case, as with women's mags, that a rather loathesome formula (create and play on anxieties; then promise and sell solutions) works like a charm commercially?

* How to interact with popular culture generally? I mean, popcult is all about easy pleasures, and about going after the most basic kinds of reflexes, right? That's part of what many people love about it, and part of why so many people find it addictive. And America has made a lot of popcult that we ought to be really proud of -- Elvis, funk, Bob Fosse, Bug Bunny, "Die Hard"... That's an impressive lineup, and no other culture does the popcult thing half as well as we do. On the other hand, popcult can really rattle you. It can become like a sugar and salt addiction -- it can buzz you so much that you lose touch with other qualities, you just WANT MORE SUGAR AND SALT. So maybe interactions with popcult have to be managed if you're to live a sane life. How might one do that?

* And what about beauty and our relationship to it. Glamour isn't a very beuatiful magazine, but the models in it often are. Don't we automatically have kinda split feelings when we look at beauty? Adoration crossed with spite, lust crossed with self-torture, dreaminess crossed with bitterness? I mean, I do pretty well myself: mostly I just adore beauty, when and wehre I run across it. Ain't it nice the world has been gifted with this, I think. But I can certainly understand that many people might feel torn by it. And when it's being used for no reason but to sell products (many of them shitty), isn't the whole experience cheapened? Doesn't it build up some extra resentment, or might it not tend to?

I guess what you've got me mulling over is something along the lines of: whatever our virtues as a culture, don't we forever seem to be playing with emotional nitro? We rattle people -- turn 'em on, fill 'em full of desire, make 'em feel insecure -- in order that they'll ... consume. Work harder. Get rattled some more. Reach for yet another solution. Have to work their way out of debt. Etc. At least, isn't that the experience of a fair number of people? Where, in the midst of all this, can be found a little serenity and satisfaction? Seems to me that the women's mags (like many of the other commercial mags) promise satisfaction, serenity, fulfillment ... if only you'll slim down, buy this product, and change your hair. We seem to want a few moments of calm and pleasure, but often we wind up using "calm and pleasure" as a thing to be desired and striven for, which just steers back into the same old rut.

And then, next month, we buy the new issue of the magazine...

Your thoughts? I guess my most challenging question (for you, for me, for anyone who cares to pitch in) is: if we respect the free market, on what terms do we justify dumping on a successful product like women's magazines?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2004 4:45 PM

I don't know that there is any economic free-market reason to justify dumping on them.

But I think FvB's post and your comments above---emotional nitro--justify dumping from an ethical ground. And, you know, what room is there, really, for ethics in a truly free market? Isn't the market, um, supposed to "take care" of that?

The really insidious part of it is that I don't think they admit their selling "beauty" or even "sugar." The INTRINSIC message is that they are selling happiness. You tried our eye shadow, our shampoo, our dating tips? Still aren't happy---well, of course, you aren't---your jeans are still too big! Or your chest is too small. And, like Dolly Levi or Mary Poppins, we just happen to have a product for THAT, too. STILL not happy? You just aren't trying. You didn't layer your hair like Jennifer Anniston like we told you, now did you?

The real amusement to me, since I stopped reading these mags ages ago (except occasionally when I am getting my hair cut, and I can't stand it long then), is the cover girl that they show. Hey, if we can sell more mags by telling plus size girls that they are beautiful, too, guess who just became beautiful, too? If, of course, we thought this would hurt our circulation, we wouldn't let her within 100 yards of the cover! Plus, I think they give terrible "interacting with men" advice---they seem intent upon making up for their basic frivolousness by also training women to be the most aggressive, strident type of feminists, when it comes to interpersonal relations or career advice. "How to Be A Battleax." They often have downright man-hating articles in those sections. Oy! What a nightmare, if a girl actually managed to become everything they say she should be!

The risk I see, even in a free market sense, is that it assumes the consumers understand the damage and can willfully choose this option anyway. ("Yes, I think it's mostly stupid, but I do like their make-up tips," or something). I don't think most young women, and teenagers in particular, really understand that---they literally buy a certain amount of the message. I'd say the free market could govern, if they only sold the mag to people over 35.

Posted by: annette on April 24, 2004 10:46 PM

That's such a good distinction -- the bit about how the American beauty mags aren't selling beauty, they're selling happiness. I've always wondered why many of the Euro beauty rags don't have the same rattling, insecurity-making effects that the American mags do, and I think you've explained it. We're always striving for that elusive state called happiness (and are being encouraged to do so, and are made to feel miserable if we don't get there). While beauty, even if in a commercial context (ie., Euro mags), is simply there to be enjoyed and relished. We have a kind of gospel of happiness, so even if you don't take the gals' mags seriously, they're part and parcel of a larger gestalt that's hard for many people to escape. I've been told by Euro gals that they like their magazines -- they truly don't seem to take them seriously, but they also do look at them, enjoy them, and use them simply for small sugestions about how to pull themselves together. Which seems a sensible way to interact with glamor mags -- enjoy the glamor, the beauty, and the design (they sometimes are incredibly beautiful cultural artifacts), and maybe steal (maybe not) a trick or two. Where, as Americans, we're looking to be happy, and buying the mag (as we buy so many other things, including food) hoping it'll give us the secret. Although maybe hoping it won't too, because if we actually did become happy ... Well, where would we look for motivation. Anyway, what a good distinction, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 25, 2004 7:54 AM

Isn't it possible that the endless rehashing of anxieties (which throws a male, looking into these women's mags) is not all that anxiety creating in the women who read them?
In the same way in which a woman's constant insistance on talking about the problems in a marriage or relationship, which makes most men want to run away, calms her without necessarily solving anything.

Posted by: ricpic on April 25, 2004 9:06 AM

MBLowhard---thanks for being more articulate about what I was trying to say than I was. Insightful, too. If you only take the bits away from the magazine that you think might add a little happiness factor FOR YOU, and toss the rest, the "damage" factor really does go way down. You can interact with the magazine as a sort of fantasy which you can borrow bits of rather than thinking this presents any sort of "reality" that you personally should actually be striving for. I didn't understand that in my own youth at all---sigh--and therefore really believed all this stuff. I believed so much, glamour mags and feminist lit and self-improvement in my youth, and really believed it was achievable and desirable and was left---big surprise---with a mountain of inadequacy. Oh dear. On top of everything, I don't know how to make my own lobster bisque soup! Where will I find the time, after exfoliating, and swimming 20 laps, and getting those new boots, and getting seventeen promotions at work in the next two years? And, of course, being irrestible to every man I meet, coz I'm supposed to be that, too, if I follow their advice. Yikes. If I'm not, it's coz I'm failing.

I wish we Americans knew how to grow up faster---like some aspects of the European mentality. Save as a lot of angst in general.

And, to ricpic's comment---I think the anxiety is already there, although incrementally increased by the way these mags present it--so thinking you are getting some sort of road map about how to deal with it---misguided as that is---may seem calming in the short run.

Posted by: annette on April 25, 2004 10:18 AM

"I wish we Americans knew how to grow up faster" mentions Annette.

At the risk of making this a "heavy" topic, let me pursue this thought in as superficial way as I can.

Insecurity is a disease of adolescence that has chronic aftereffects. Many of us, years later, are still not entirely sure of ourselves. We might feign self-confidence, but if we are realists we know in our bones that no matter what status we attain or have thrust upon us, we are never secure.

Why do you think kings of old had food-tasters?

Modern, Western civilization also seems to be lacking in rites of passage--the testing of manly qualities through endurance and suffering. Bar Mizvahs don't seem to score high on that scale, for example. The closest I came to tests of fire were Hell Week in my college fraternity and Army basic training. Nowadays, most men never experience these even. As nearly as I can tell, the opportunities for social initiation rites are even less for females.

And so we have prolonged adolescence, delayed adulthood. The kids coming home to roost after five or even six years of college. (By the way, this last remark cuts all too close to home: Take my son--please!!)

Eventually most people mature and, as mentioned in other comments, the anxiety-reduction function of women's mags is ignored or taken in stride.

Still, still. Adolescence aside, life itself is wrapped up in uncertainty and (though I am not an anthropologist) I have the impression that most societies and cultures have created or accepted religions or religion-substitutes (socialism) that offer comfort when adversity strikes or provide pre-packaged ways of dealing with life and uncertainty.

My point: life means problems and it is human nature to seek solutions to such problems or formulas to cope with them if they cannot be put aside. I won't claim that we are "hardwired" to be answer-seeking, but we might as well be. Women's mags are simply one instance among many that understand this psychological need and try to profit by it. If such magazines disappeared tomorrow, the "need" would remain.

I think I have driven far enough down this road for now. Women's magazines are symptomatic of larger existential and societal issues, but nevertheless are small beer in the broader context. I suspect that as the reaction to the Sixties builds steam and (I hope) more realistic mores take hold, women's mags will become more interesting and fun rather than vehicles for pushing political agendas (see Michael's reference at the top of the first comment).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 25, 2004 12:52 PM

Best regards from Portugal:-)

Posted by: comgelo on April 26, 2004 4:43 AM

Just for comparison's sake:

Men's Health, May 2004 cover lines:

Sex So Good . . . She'll Beg You for More!
Strip Away Belly Fat! And Build Abs That Show
189 Fast Fixes for Your Health
Do Low-Carb Diets Make You Fat?
Beat Stress Silly!
Keep Your Hair Forever!
5 Perfect Muscle Foods
34 Ways to Look Great Instantly!

Posted by: MG on April 26, 2004 8:51 PM

MG -- Good comparison. In the media biz, it's considered one of the triumphs of the last few decades that they've managed 1) to make men (at least some men) vain and anxious about their looks, and 2) to turn them into the same soothe-my-attractiveness-anxieties buyers that many women have traditionally been. And I guess it is a genuine business triumph, of a modest sort.

But it also leaves me wondering: if we all agree that getting buzzed, rattled, and jangled by these media products and getting our pockets picked by manufacturers peddling relief and solutions isn't a desirable thing, how do we combat or at least manage their effects?

I guess my own vague hunches go along these lines:

* I wouldn't pass a law against free enterprise, god knows.

* But I would cheer on various domains of life that help to give us centers, groundedness, calm. Families, friends, churches, schools, neighborhoods, clubs, the arts ...

* Oops, I mentioned the arts. All the above is one big reason why I cheer along the arts I do. I've got nothing against art that delivers a good rattling. But generally speaking I turn to the arts less and less for brilliance and flash, and more and more for connectedness and substance, even if it's of a light-entertainment sort. Seems to me that the traditional arts and the traditional forms, being rooted as they are in history (and emerging as they do from a long conversation between artists, audiences, scholars, performers, etc) have their virtues in this discussion, and much to offer. Hence, for one possibility, the New Urbanism.

It's tough to move back and forth between a world of hyperspeed free enterprise and a world of at least some roots and some calm. It takes some real effort. But (IMHO) it sure beats doing nothing but getting buffeted about by money interests, and being nothing but a stimulus/response machine for the big media business.

Am I sounding prissy? Maybe, I guess. Always curious to hear how other people manage the trick of having a real life on the one hand, yet adequately interacting with the hyperspeed moneyworld too.

I've got one artist friend, for instance, who maintains that it's suicidal for the traditional fine arts to flirt too much with the commercial and pop arts -- that in every such encounter, the traditional high arts will get overwhelmed by the pop and commercial arts. And I do notice that kids who have been raised to think that pop isn't lousy, it's great and fine, do (by and large) stop there. Pop becomes their whole cultural world; they live in an electronic-media bubble, and they're never curious to move on.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2004 10:38 PM

Sorry to be A.W.O.L. for so long on my own piece.


Your ambivalence towards the market success of products like "Glamour" is perfectly reasonable. I think--pretty much in deadly earnest--that the best argument in favor of the market is that it is often the 'least bad' alternative. One could make a case for suppressing the "Glamours" of this world, but I suspect any good you would accomplish would be swamped by the bad. Even aspects of government coercion that most everyone agrees with, such as national defense and the use of police to suppress private violence have their all-too-evident downsides. Once you get beyond such a highly restricted core it would appear that the game ceases being worth the candle. (The criminalization of drugs strikes me as evidence of same...more downside than upside, as I see it.)


Do you really think Europeans grow up faster than Americans? During my couple years living in Europe I never noticed that people, and especially young people, were particularly more 'adult' or 'mature.' Of course, no society I'm familiar with has figured out how to manage the transition from adolescence to adult very gracefully or efficiently; odd that this problem isn't more high profile, isn't it?

Mr. Pittinger:

Amen to your notions.


Okay, okay, you got me...I had not business dismissing women's magazines as purveyors of evil without putting men's magazines in the same circle of Hell.

Michael, Part II:

I think the problem with the fine arts in our day-and-age is that the relationship of same to religion seems to be occluded by current cultural perspectives. I keep coming around (boringly, perhaps) to the notion that art is a sort of department of religion. If this is true, and I think it is, then it certainly explains the running on empty feel one gets from too long an immersion in commercially-driven pop culture.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 26, 2004 10:55 PM

FvB --

I guess I'd venture the thought (I find it useful, anyway) that American commercial art does serve a religion -- the religion being the (apologies and thanks to Annette here) the American religion of self-help and happiness. If Italian Renaissance art was at the service of the Medicis and the Catholic church (and held out the hope of Christian redemption), contempo American commercial art is at the service of Viacom and Barry Diller, and holds out the hope of happiness and celebrity. I see American commercial as decorating, romanticizing, inflating and "selling" (if you will) its religion-package in much the same way Italian Renaissance art decorated and sold its religion-package.

But there's a difference, isn't there?

Which leads me to the rumination that perhaps what can drive us nuts about American commercial art is that the religion it serves (celebrity, self-improvement, success) doesn't pay off in sufficiently satisfying ways. We're left unsatisfied and feeling the need for more. And we wind up as hamsters running in circles.

(I'm semi-assuming here, for no good reason, that traditional religions actually do the job of providing a little satisfaction and serenity decently well...)

It's a system/religion that's very effective at creating wealth, but it also seems to leave a fair number of people feeling pretty crazed, and either caught forever trying-trying-trying, or looking elsewhere for something more satisfying.

I'm tempted to return here to my usual comparison between popcult and junk food. Sparkly, attractive, convenient, appealing, effective (all that salt! all that sugar! all that crunch!). Yet as food it's missing something, and it has these awful consequences for many people -- obesity, rattled nerves, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2004 11:48 PM

Which is why, one assumes, that religion of another sort, a calming, communally-focused, asectic form of worship is (eventually) hungered-for. After pigging out on too much spiritual junk food, people go looking for some protein.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 27, 2004 12:36 AM

While feelings of inadequacy are fed to those who feel them via commercials and magazines, at the same time, help is offered via tips, products, etc. Sometimes that offers a hope to those who, regardless of what some magazine tells them, have never, and will never, feel good about themselves. These deeper insecurities weren't created by magazines, but much earlier somewhere in their childhood. The media serves the needs, their true interest lies only in making a profit (as it should be for any business). If it helps thems that needs it, fine. If others think it assinine, there are better magazines to cater to those needs as well. Ah, the best thing about free enterprise is the individual natures of mankind that is the audience.

Posted by: susan on April 27, 2004 3:32 AM

Well at least there's Yoga Journal and suchnot in the same rack! Now if glamor mags were all that was there, we would indeed be in a heap of trouble. :-)

We have indeed in this country created a Cult of Happiness. The fact that our Constitution purports to guarantee our Pursuit of it, and wisely dodges the bullet of it's actual attainment, allows that entity known as the United States Government to survive as a going concern.

And now we've found that it does not come just form material things (up to around $50k/year buys you more happiness, but after that the law of diminishing returns kicks in, cause it's all gravy after that; at least those are the latest numbers :-)

But hey, with this here newfangled interweb thing, we can experience more non-material things (media, ideas, etc) than every before, and hence have some greater chance of finding things that give us peace; at least that's the theory!

Posted by: David Mercer on April 27, 2004 4:13 AM

'Scuse the threadjack—and it was getting so cerebral, too!—but my favorite thing about these magazines is how, month in, month out, year in, year out, decade after decade, they always and incessantly hawk sex tips on the cover. By now, Vogue alone must have printed a volume of sex tips that in column inches (if you'll pardon the expression) must rival the Kama sutra in length ... if not the Rig veda.

Posted by: Luis on April 27, 2004 10:42 AM

It seems like these women's magazines would exploit people who don't know the facts of life. The only way I started to learn the facts of life was to live life, make mistakes. I would like to believe there are families where the young receive and accept practical advice on sex and money but of course there are many of us who don't.

Rather than a religion of happiness, I see this type of magazine as introducing business marketing tactics into relationships. Sell! Sell! Sell! It's all very short-term thinking based on image and tricks and I doubt it actually works in many businesses.

Not that applying business strategies to relationships is inherently wrong. You could just as easily talk about business ideas like focusing on the relationship, long-term commitment, understanding your customer's needs (their real needs, not the 31 karate-sex tricks someone dreamed up for Cosmo!)

Posted by: Mr Chips on April 27, 2004 6:14 PM

I've bought magazines of all stripes for years. I can't even (and won't) even begin to count the money spent.

They are part of a process in defining one's personality. Possibly not a particularly good one, and maybe a spectacularly LAZY one, but defining nonetheless.

The images are stored somewhere in the subconscious for later retrieval. It's just part of our viscerally visually driven culture.

I firmly believe there is a big "women's" magazine somewhere these people excerpt every month. Everything is endlessly recycled, with no real new content.

To me, there's no real distinction between magazines, tv, movies, internet. It's all visual content; some good, some bad. You get to make the value judgement.

I've stopped buying magazines now. I surf the web instead. Maybe they were just killing time and there was no real meaning. Maybe even thinking about magazines is naval gazing.

Posted by: Rebecca on April 28, 2004 10:44 AM

Is there actually anything good that can be said for women's magazines?
They sound worse than cigarettes.

Posted by: Georgia on May 9, 2004 8:06 AM

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