People, I have found it. The answer to that elusive problem that eats away at us all: how to banish bingo wings. “What are bingo wings?”, I hear some ask. Some sort of deformed cousin of the buffalo wings? The wings of the previously undiscovered “bingo bird”? More importantly, where could I have discovered the secret to banishing said wings? Gather round children, for all will be revealed.
My enlightenment came in the form of sacred scripture herself, Cosmopolitan magazine. Not only did Cosmo inform me how to banish the bingo wings I didn’t even know existed, it also offered advice on toning nana flabs, faking a bigger bust, and how to have a new waist in 24 hours…. Is your job making you fat? Is your weight ruining your social life? 10 genius gym excuses, followed by 10 times chocolate is the only answer…
There are two things worth noting about how magazines like Cosmopolitan and Cleo treat physical appearance. One: a lot of what they present as being normal is very silly. Two: a lot of what they present is very harmful.
First, for the very silly. Cosmo informed me of the “Food Mistakes All Women Make!” Apparently, I should lay off those veges as they bloat, remember that every calorie counts, and stop assuming that water is a safe diet option. Quite what a Cosmo-friendly diet would consist of I don’t know, if a carrot stick and glass of water is a calorie no-no. It gets sillier. There were tips on how to hide your diet from your man, because it’s “the sexiest solution is to keep your diet a secret.” Ah yes, the classic closet eating disorder. A real turn on. My personal favourite is “10 Reasons to Flirt with Ugly Men,” one being because “paying attention to fugly men makes you look deep.” I’m not even going to make a crack about that. It’s just too easy. But these magazines are pushing a darker message than “Skinny Legs: the Do’s and Don’ts.”
Magazines like Cosmo take an unrealistic body ideal and present it as the norm. Models are genetic freaks: attractive freaks, but freaks none the less. They are the 5% who have a “noodle” body shape, while most of us are apples or pears. (Naming body types after food, albeit healthy food, does seem slightly twisted.) The “noodle” body shape is straight up and down, with very little in the way of curves. I am a pear, which basically means that proportionally, I’ll always have a big butt. I can’t change the way my body is proportioned any more than I can change my height or shoe size, yet that’s not what the magazines are spinning.
Usually we compare ourselves with those like us (the old comparing apples to pears thing – again with the fruit), but women’s magazines take a minority body type, choose only to display this one type, and encourage women to judge themselves and other women against this type. Studies have shown that women’s self-evaluation was not negatively affected by exposure to photos of attractive men (as presumably they’re not comparing themselves to those pics…), but exposure to pictures of unrealistically attractive females instigated social comparisons that caused a negative self-evaluation. Women are blatantly being taught to compare themselves with other women, and to compete with them for male attention.
Most of us happily acknowledge that the images presented in magazines are doctored a little, without understanding the full extent. It’s becoming increasingly common for magazines to run pictures of women who don’t even exist: Photoshop Frankensteins with a cute nose, the best eyebrows, the most aesthetically pleasing lips….
Screw feeling bad compared with models, now we’re expected to emulate computer generated art?
As much as society has changed and is changing, the “mind/body” split between the genders still exists. Men are judged primarily on achievements of the mind: ambition, success, and aggression, while women are judged by more physical measures. Women’s magazines play into this gender stereotype. They are magazines for women, but about men. You’ve gotta snare the ideal man, and to do that, thin is in.
The reasons society equates beauty with thinness are manifold. Being thin represents restraint and self-discipline: ideals society values. The thin girl is also the “good girl.”
In the magazines and in advertisements they run, food is linked to shame and guilt. The ads for things like low fat ice-cream use lines such as “all the pleasure, none of the guilt.” Food is the new sex. The social stigma attached to being a bit slutty has shifted to eating. Nobody cares if you’re the town bicycle, just so long as you don’t overdose on the Oreos.
Magazines like Cosmo are essentially glorified ad catalogues. In Cleo, an average of 22% of the pages are ads; in Cosmo, it’s a shameful 49%. They’re charging $8 for glossy ads that your postie delivers for free. The ads themselves relentlessly sell the idea that female beauty equates only to perfection, and that the normal female body is something that requires improvement. The message is: buy the products, or you’re not up to scratch. You need to have smoother legs, whiter teeth, clearer skin etc. Hell, there’s even such a thing as sparkly deodorant.
It’s the industries behind the ads that largely control the image of women portrayed in the magazines. The magazines need the advertising, so they present the images advertisers desire.
The American diet industry alone is worth $150 billion annually; add the cosmetics and fashion industries and you’re looking at serious dosh. Unsurprisingly, women who are insecure about their looks are more likely to buy the new weight-loss pill, the new self-tanner or concealer. It’s in the interest of the advertisers, and consequently the magazines, to make women feel essentially like crap on a stick.
Jean Kilbourne, an internationally recognized lecturer on the issue of women in the media, points out: “Women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programmes we watch.” Recently the magazine New Women put a fuller figured woman as their cover girl, prompting a landslide of positive response from readers. But the advertising companies weren’t having it. Major advertisers complained, keen to perpetuate the beauty equals thin axiom. New Women promptly returned to using underweight models on its cover. The attractive glossy puppet continues to dance for its ugly conglomerate master.
Real women can’t stack up to the media’s fembots, and in trying to do so, they are making themselves miserable. In 2006, the cosmetics company Dove, carried out “Campaign For Real Beauty,” in which they surveyed women about body image and the media. The survey found that 81% of women felt inadequate compared to media images of women. Frequent readers of womens’ magazines are more likely to have dieted or exercised to lose weight because of magazine articles. The danger of diets is that they are often the gateway to the development of an eating disorder.
Granted, not all women have complete break-downs at the sight of a pretty model. Research suggests that women with a preexisting level of body dissatisfaction are more likely to buy the media’s presentation of the “ideal woman” and attempt to replicate the look. While this means that not every woman’s affected, the media’s doing its damn best to increase the number of women who have this high level of body dissatisfaction.
All is not yet lost. Some magazines are now making a conscious effort to feature models, and real women, who have healthy and dive sified body shapes. Girlfriend last year ran a “Self Respect” campaign that highlighted the prevalence of retouched photos; New Zealand Women’s Weekly ran a similar story recently. Even Cosmo and Cleo talk about self love and the importance of self-acceptance. Unfortunately, a lot of those articles seem to add further to the contradictory messages the magazines present. An article about body shape diversity seems a hollow gesture when the following page is a diet plan consisting of mainly raw vegetables. Also, even if the magazines’ content promotes size acceptance, the advertisers’ messages are at odds with this. Bethany Brownholtz, from Demandit.org, an organisation that campaigns against the representation of beauty in the media, puts it well by saying: “Some magazines have made a slight effort to include realistic women, but their ads blatantly conflict with the ‘we accept you as you are’ idea.”
So what’s a girl to do? Give up, grow a beard, and move to a small cave near the sea? Do a Britney and embrace the inner bald?
Well firstly, realise that if you take to heart many of the messages put forward in women’s magazines, you will end up an emaciated vacant shell of your former self. There’s no way to win with the ideals that are portrayed, as after all, the women being shown aren’t even real. But there’s comfort in these stats. According to the Dove “Campaign For Real Beauty,” 87% of women believe happiness is what makes a woman beautiful, as well as being loved, having a good group of friends, and doing the things you love. So call up the girls, go see the boy, bake cookies, run around Kelburn Park in yellow spandex. Do what ever makes you happy.
Do it, do it now. And remember kiddies, reading those magazines is probably detrimental to your will to live.