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Women's fashion magazines are evil, yet impossible to resist

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

Every once and again, I do something that I know I should not do. I buy glossy women’s fashion magazines. Yes, those very very pretty manifestations of marketing an unobtainable standard of physical beauty are the guiltiest of my guilty pleasures.

It’s really nice to pretend that with a few flicks of the page I can find the secrets to a perfect wardrobe, glowing clear skin and shiny hair. It’s also really nice to pretend that, on a grad student's salary, I can actually afford the $40 bottle of exfoliating face wash or the $2,000 designer skirt that is required for such easy perfection.

I mean, what exactly makes a skirt cost $2,000? And why do I now lust after it like I would normally lust after a gooey chocolate brownie (that could be achieved in an hour for under $10).

Gloria Steinem, a founding editor of the feminist magazine Ms., wrote in 1990 about the “complementary copy” quid pro quo demanded by advertisers in women’s magazines. Meaning: a lipstick ad should be next to an article about lipstick trends, and preferably the lipstick article should feature the advertised lipstick.

“If 'Time' and 'Newsweek' had to lavish praise on cars in general and credit General Motors in particular to get GM ads, there would be a scandal — maybe a criminal investigation,” Steinem wrote in an essay titled “Sex, Lies and Advertising." "When women's magazines from 'Seventeen' to 'Lear's' (now defunct) praise beauty products in general and credit Revlon in particular to get ads, it's just business as usual.”

Just paging through any of these magazines with glamorous women celebrities on the cover should tell you that not much has changed. And there is very little transparency from the magazines or the advertisers about the practice of “complimentary copy.” But then, there are the models.

Mega-design house Ralph Lauren recently fired a model for being too fat. The model, Filippia Hamilton, had been Photoshopped in an advertisement into a human lollipop — her head was bigger than her waist and hips. Hamilton is reportedly 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighs 120 pounds — she’s a size four and has a body mass index of 17.2, which is considered to be underweight.

And the Ralph Lauren advertisement is really just a case of an accepted practice taken to an obvious extreme. Every image in a woman’s glossy fashion magazine has been Photoshopped to high heaven for “aesthetic” purposes.  A few pounds shaved off here and there, maybe a blemish removed, it's all standard practice in the magazine industry. For the record, it is absolutely not standard practice at the Missourian.

The supposition that women want to see only beautiful and perfect representations of the models and products on the page so that they can aspire to that standard is downright condescending. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to look like a human lollipop. In real life, and without the assistance of Photoshop, that lollipop look would probably involve the removal of some ribs, and possibly a limb or two. That would hurt.

But will I stop wasting my money on these rags? Probably not. Because I am hoping that one of them will tell me : first, why all the young women around here are laboring under the delusion that leggings are pants; and second, how I can be pretty and successful and make it look easy too.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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