(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, April 18th, 2004.)
Anyone who reads, or has ever read, "women's magazines" such as Glamour, Marie Claire, Vogue,
etc. simply must
come to grips with the revelations contained in Spin Sisters,
an eye-opening new title published by St. Martin's Press.
There have been other exposes of the magazine industry, but none with the in-the-know credibility of this book. That's because the author, Myrna Blyth, was the editor of Ladies' Home Journal for twenty years, and founded More magazine. If there was ever a media "insider," Blyth is it. And in Spin Sisters, the author comes clean about the "dirty secrets" of the magazine trade.
And those secrets are dirty indeed.
The book is funny. It's gossipy. It's scary. But most of all, it confirms the worst suspicions you've ever had about the media--and then reveals that the truth is even more appalling than you imagined.
We promise you--after you read this book, you will never look at those infernal magazines the same way. In fact, you may never look at them again at all.
And that would be a good thing.* * *
"I want you to realize how often you are being manipulated," Blyth announces in her book. Her stated intention is "to deconstruct some messages you get all the time, and to explain why these messages come from fairly biased sources."
And just how insidious are those messages? Blyth knows all too well--and this awareness is what led her to pen Spin Sisters in the first place, as a kind of mea culpa.
As she relates:
52 percent of women declared in a recent survey that they would give up a year of their lives in order to stay at an ["]ideal["] weight. A whole year of life!
That declaration really stunned me, even though I know that, most months, the largest-circulation magazines for women never publish an issue without a diet story. Yet, at about the same time women were telling researchers they'd be willing to trade longer life for fewer pounds, another study found that the gaunt, hollow-eyed models on the pages of most magazines are often so thin that their bodies could be medically classified as "emaciated." The result? Not very surprising. Even women who are not overweight feel fat and depressed enough to volunteer to give up some of their precious time on earth.
. . . .The way media for women tries to attract and keep your attention is by selling the notion that you are perpetually frazzled, frumpy, fearful, or failing. Even if you are not--and most of you aren't.
That's why I ought to do a little penance. I can do this, I think, by helping you understand how an army of editors, journalists, TV executives, producers, and publicists, who I know so well, create, pass along, and profit from those constant undermining messages.
This is the underlying point of Blyth's book. The mixed--and ultimately harmful--messages that women's magazines deliver are not accidental, but deliberate, and designed first to amplify women's insecurities, and then to exploit those insecurities for commercial and ideological reasons.
So why are these revelations so important? Because women's magazines have an influence far beyond what most of us would ever have believed:
Of the ten largest and most profitable magazines in the country, five are edited specifically for women and the other five have large female audiences. And sure, these magazines may occasionally talk about diapers and the difference between rigatoni and fusilli, but they also mold the way women think and feel about their lives and their world.
Pertaining to the specific topic of this forum, the book deals extensively with the negative effects wrought by magazines on female body image. Blyth acknowledges research which has established just how damaging they really are:
A researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that the more frequently girls read magazines, the more likely they were to diet. Even though over 70 percent of them were not overweight.
She then proceeds to determine why the effect is so negative:
In my study of women's magazines, my researcher and I found that during the three-year period we tracked, there were 425 articles about weight loss and body problems--most of them in diet stories, fitness advice, and fashion tricks for camouflaging your flaws. Not surprisingly, 97 percent of the issues we looked at featured a diet or body-improvement article on their covers. The idea that a woman could actually be happy with her body and its supposed imperfections was only mentioned 12 times in the three-year period.
But Blyth does not simplistically attack ideals of beauty in general. Rather, she contrasts today's inhuman standard with the more natural ideals of the past:
When a young Cybill Shepherd was a blond and beautiful model in the 1970s, she could be twenty pounds heavier than she claimed [and] have the seams cut open so she could stuff herself into the sample sizes she had to model . . .
(Based on Shepherd's romantic escapades, men never seemed to mind those twenty extra pounds. Quite the contrary.)
Blyth also juxtaposes a modern magazine "icon" with a screen siren from the not-so-distant past:
Marilyn Monroe, still considered by most men the hottest woman ever, usually had trouble zipping up a size 12. Let's face it. Marilyn was a woman. Giselle Bundchen is a giraffe.
Spin Sisters alternates between sharing revelations that are desperately important, and others that are simply shocking. Although Blyth believes that there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good and look great, she encourages women to be savvy about the "tips" that they read in magazines, which are often anything but truthful. Here is an eye-opener:
How many of us have raced out to buy J.Lo's mascara or Gisele's blusher after seeing the makeup brand credited under the glowing photo of a celeb or model in a magazine? Well, you can stop reading and racing. Makeup artists use what they want during a photo shoot, and the editors, long after the picture has been taken, write the credits to please the advertisers. The small type under each picture, which tells you the name of the foundation and lipstick that the model is supposedly wearing is rarely accurate. Truth in beauty and fashion journalism? Not exactly.
But in "The Female Fear Factor," which is undoubtedly the most significant chapter in the book, Blyth exposes how frequently--indeed, incessantly--women's magazines, and the media in general, manufacture health-related hysteria when no grounds for any such fears actually exist. "When it comes to selling fear, television and women's magazines live by one rule--there's no such thing as overkill," Blyth reveals.
[W]e're really okay, but we are being told not to feel okay. That's because the media, in order to attract readers and viewers, "often overplays risks of dubious legitimacy. Scientific studies show that many of the alleged hazards the media trumpet are either misstated, overstated, nonexistent, or there just is not enough scientific evidence yet to yield reliable guidance on the true risk for the average American." Which, I admit, is kind of a shabby way to get readers or ratings.
Let's hope that full-figured women keep this statement--and the many examples that Blyth provides to support her argument--firmly in mind every time they are hit with the media's daily dose of propaganda about hallucinated weight "epidemics." "We mainly hear the scary words, and we're meant to, because the story doesn't sell unless the risk is overblown," Blyth reports.
Some have criticized the book for being politically partisan. And in truth, Blyth does not sidestep the issue of political bias in the women's magazine industry. Readers can decide for themselves, based on Blyth's information, just how accurate and significant her analysis is:
All these beauty and fashion magazines that use so many of their pages to tell readers to get gorgeous for him or to shop until you drop because you deserve nothing less, remain stridently feminist when it comes to politics. Since their version of feminism has now neatly morphed into narcissism and consumerism, they probably see no contradiction in such views.
Ultimately, Spin Sisters is more than just a collection of shocking and appalling revelations from a magazine-industry "whistle blower." It is an important study of the modern media as a whole--particularly the American media. And as befits someone of her background, the author communicates these crucial ideas in a way that is fun and accessible, yet serious when it needs to be.
Whether you love women's magazines, or hate them, (or both,) you should take heed of Myrna Blyth's disclosures. And if you are one of the lucky ones who have never given these magazines a moment's notice, you can take comfort in the fact that you are missing nothing--nothing at all--except, as Blyth notes, a monthly dose of "diseases and diets, sob stories and social issues, and stress, stress, stress."
Perhaps we can all find better things to read--and better sources of beautiful images.
- ''Spin Sisters''