I have always been obsessed with magazines. At age 12, I spent my weekly $5 allowance on magazines, mostly YM and Teen in elementary school, Cosmo, Glamour, Elle and Self once I hit middle school. I got kicked out of my friend’s house for bringing over “filth” (YM) in 6th grade and wrote an essay about how my dream job was to be a magazine editor in 7th grade.
Magazines taught me everything that real life didn’t teach me about sex, self-respect, applying makeup, toning my calves, whatever else a 12-year-old in our society is supposed to be concerned with. Magazines helped me lose my baby weight and understand simple ideas like, “Men don’t like girls who have nothing going on.”
I remember, at 12, defending magazines when people brought up the idea that they pressured young girls to look an “ideal way” over anything. I had found them empowering, teaching me simple lessons about maintaining self-esteem, being “fearless” and being open-minded to the way the world was. They also provided me with an escape – I would read them on nights when I had insomnia as a way to view the world as more simple – and glamorous – than it really was.
I didn’t start to question the magazines I grew up with until I started reading men’s magazines. The first one I read was an Esquire that my dad had left by his chair. It struck me how different the whole thing was. The section related to looks was minimized, in place of more challenging literary content and long articles about where to invest in the stock market. I had always been interested in investing but never came across anything related to it in, say,Glamour.
This was my first big realization – women’s magazines were far simpler, and probably more obvious in their coordination with advertising content, than men’s. I had grown up reading articles saying the path to career success was “a confident handshake” when in reality I was missing out on essays about technology and finance because those aren’t women’s magazines’ territory at all.
I tried to find refuge in men’s magazines - Esquire, GQ and Details - assuming they were closer to “reality” than the ones that explained to me the best finger with which to apply foundation (the ring finger because it’s the weakest!). But as the publishing industry changed, so did they. It became clear that Esquire (my favorite) was trying to reaffirm its advertisers that its readers were straight men that fit their ideal demographic. The “Like a Man” endings to every section title persistently assured me I was not a welcome reader. I went back to women’s magazines, hoping to feel more included.
But today I finally had to admit something to myself that I’ve never wanted to admit – magazines are fucking sexist.
This became hard to deny when I read an article in Marie Claire about having “executive presence” in your career. Reading men’s magazines made it clear to me that the standard career advice given to the female sector was very superficial (make sure your suit is fitted to your waist! Use a strong, confident handshake!). But this Marie Claire article really just drove it in. Despite having a couple nice tidbits of concrete advice, the piece centered on the idea that women are judged by all kinds of criteria that they would never even guess would matter to their careers, like whether or not they have a dowdy, unkempt hairstyle, or if their fingernail polish conveyed classlessness. The feature was peppered mostly with pictures analyzing celebrity haircuts and artfully splashed makeup products reassuring me that if I have bright cheekbones and “subdued” eyeshadow I can climb the corporate ladder.
“Why are so few women running Fortune 500 companies?” it asks, “Because to many of us don’t look and act the part.”
Notice that “look” comes first. While I try not to deny reality – I know that looks and tone of voice matter in our perceptions of leadership – I found the article extremely depressing. I’ve only worked in the semi-corporate world for 2 years and I feel like any concrete advice I could offer would have 0% to do with looks and everything to do with attitude and work ethic.
As I looked at the magazine section at the airport today, trying to find something to read on my flight, I wasn’t sure where to turn. Nothing reflected the breakthrough in tone and content happening on sites like The Hairpin and xoJane, where smart women are candid about what life is like, never trying to bow down to articles centering on juice diets and types of eyebrow waxes.
It’s taken me 13 years to admit, but print magazines are sexist as hell. Can’t somebody start something better?