GF Reads: Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines

by | November 22, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Airbrushed Nation Cover

Like many girls, I grew up reading Seventeen Magazine, Cosmo and Vogue. Also like many girls, I had horribly low self-esteem and I hated by body. I spent hours agonizing over the models’ faces and bodies, wondering how I could achieve the perfection found in the glossy pages of my magazines.

No matter how much information I gleaned from the magazines about improving my body, dressing in style and enhancing my looks with make-up, nothing seemed to work. I even spent most of my allowance on cosmetics, clothes and diet products recommended by these magazines. No matter how much money I threw at the “problem” of my appearance I could not achieve what these magazines promised.

Many years later I read a book called The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. This book was a game-changer for me because it completely opened my eyes to the manipulation of the beauty, diet and fitness industries. I had always considered myself intelligent, savvy and a bit of a conspiracy theorist so how did I get duped for so many years? This insight kick-started my interest in the body acceptance movement so when I was given the opportunity to review Jennifer Nelson’s book Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines, I was thrilled.

Nelson starts by charting the evolution of women’s magazines (or chick slicks as they are dubbed) beginning from the 1700s. She goes on to address issues of sexism, sizeism, sexual orientation, classism and ageism in women’s magazines. My one criticism of this book is that I would have loved to read a race and ability analysis of women’s magazines as well.

Throughout the book, Nelson reveals the many ways magazines promote unattainable ideals for women. These ideals are not only appearance-based. They include idealized feminine traits such as heterosexuality, constant youthful perkiness and conquering the world as a supermom. The ideal women is constructed as “fashionable” yet the must-have fashions featured in magazines are considerably more expensive than would be affordable for the average reader (and magazines do know the average income level of their readers!)

Nelson exposes the tricks magazines use to manipulate readers, ranging from digitally-enhancing photos, shaping written content to suit certain values and laying out advertising in a way that will increase product sales. Readers might be very surprised by the degree to which advertising revenue shapes women’s magazines!

In addition, Nelson truly dispels the myth that women’s magazines are harmless by connecting her analysis to research on North America’s rising body dissatisfaction. Nelson writes:

A 2011 Glamour magazine survey revealed that 97 percent of women say thirteen negative body thoughts to themselves daily like “I hate my stomach” or “I’m ugly” (pg. 121).

She reinforces this point using personal statements from writers or magazine readers as well. A writer named Stacy discloses a personal experience:

“A few years back, the nine-year-old girl I was babysitting held up the cover of Seventeen and went, ‘I’m fat. Look at her, she’s pretty.’  And then she pointed to a picture of a model in Seventeen and said ‘But she’s not fat.’  I looked at the picture and the model was maybe a size 2. It was sad.” (pg. 112)

Overall I found that Nelson’s analysis is well-researched and backed up by her own industry knowledge, interviews with other individuals involved in the industry, and scientific research. Despite being packed full of factual information this book is written in accessible language and is a relatively easy read.

In my opinion, Nelson’s book is the Beauty Myth for the younger generation. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has read the Beauty Myth and is interested in how far we’ve come since 1991. But more importantly, this book is essential for anyone who reads women’s magazines and struggles with self-esteem and/or body dissatisfaction.

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