Sexy Feminists Read: ‘Airbrushed Nation: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines’

We’re sometimes-proud, sometimes-guilty junkies of women’s magazines, so we couldn’t wait to get our hands on Jennifer Nelson’s new book Airbrushed Nation, in which she gives Glamour, Cosmo, et. al. a critical once-over. We talked to Nelson about the good, the bad, the unrealistic, and the terrifying behind the glossies that rule so many women’s lives.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about women’s magazines in researching this book?

I’d have to say what was most surprising was how I hadn’t even noticed that every topic was approached from a “women aren’t good enough as is” mantra. All the articles from relationship pieces to sex tips to dieting, beauty, aging, even health and money stories are approached as though women need to fix something about themselves, or everything about themselves. This is very different than how men’s magazines approach their stories. There, they think men are just glorious as they are, and they simply offer up articles to inspire, inform, provide humor, or entertain them. Women’s magazines call their books “service,” which is supposed to mean that the stories provide advice and a take away for everything you read, but service has really become another word for makeover.

Why is it so important to look at what women’s magazines are doing? Does anyone take them seriously anyway?

Well, yes actually, that’s the problem—women are taking them seriously apparently. Research has found that after one to three minutes of paging through a chick slick, women feel worse about themselves than they already did. And that three quarters of the cover lines on these magazines provide at least one message about altering your body via beauty products, dieting, exercise or cosmetic surgery. That’s a lot of negative messaging women absorb for simply

browsing through the silky pages. Young women and girls seem to be most affected but that’s where it starts—when we’re young. No matter which magazine you read from Seventeen to Good Housekeeping, typically thought of for older women, the message is the same, the mantra that we’re not good enough and that every photo needs to be airbrushed is drilled into our psyche from the teen years and beyond.

What’s the worst of the messages these magazines are putting out these days?

One of the biggies may be aging—or rather the lack of it. Every magazine from the twenty- something centric Cosmo to the over 40 focused More magazine spotlights the anti-aging movement. Magazines like More who run articles about empowering older woman no matter their age still stick an article on how to look younger, dress younger, act younger or apply makeup younger the very next page. What the hell, right? On the one hand, they tell us, embrace our chronological number and all that comes with it including crow’s feet and wisdom, and right next door they insist on sharing the best ways to act, look, appear and think younger. And almost worse, is that the twenty-something magazines like Cosmo, who’s readers show no visible signs of aging as of yet get an up close and personal look on how they should begin their anti-aging assault as well. These women are being hawked eye serums and wrinkle creams along with their mothers and every other beauty article is about anti-aging. It’s certainly both an advertising-driven paradigm as well as a cultural phenomenon that is wreaking havoc with women’s self esteem and beauty ideals.

You’ve written for tons of these magazines. What inspired you to write this? And were you afraid of never getting work again from them?

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