Overshadowing that insight is a curious irony: On Self Respect first appeared in the pages of Vogue. While Didion’s essay explained that a sense of self-worth had nothing to do with the perceptions of others, the magazine insinuated that external image was everything. For the young women who picked up that 1961 edition of the glossy, it was a particularly potent message. Back then, women were shut out of all but a handful of professional careers, and their economic security hinged on the fortunes of the men they married. Attracting Mr. Right and keeping him happy was of paramount importance, and Vogue and sister publications like Glamour and Mademoiselle implicitly promised the battle plan to landing the gold ring. Cosmetics and clothes comprised the bulk of the weaponry, and it’s hard to think of more fertile ground for ads hawking “indispensable” products like eyeliner and pantyhose than in their pages. But women’s magazines didn’t just sell ad space to cosmetics companies and clothing retailersthey actively plugged their advertisers’ products in their articles, too. The proverbial wall between ads and editorial was never very high in these magazines, if it was ever erected to begin with.
Now, a logical legacy of the women’s rights movement should have been the demise of these publications. Once women were free to navigate the shoals of corporate America or trailblaze in genetic research, their futures no longer depended on being attractive to the opposite sex. And as women’s magazines had essentially made “how to land a man” their organizing principle, you would think emancipated females would have junked those glossies along with their Hoovers and Betty Crocker aprons. But the market didn’t exactly dry up: An estimated 40 million women read these magazines each month. And while the women’s movement preached autonomy and independence, that message didn’t prompt women’s magazine editors to rethink their promiscuous relationship with their advertisers; these publications still enthusiastically flog their advertisers’ products.
Of course, those plugs are just an added bonus to an already lucrative forum for advertisers. While these slicks profess to help women “be all they can be,” their photographs of anorexic models, innumerable diets, and fashion tips all raise the bar of what a woman “should” be to ridiculous (and unhealthy) heights. What better place than in their pages to peddle products that promise to close the gap between what women are and this unattainable ideal?
“You ask: what am I really like?” reads a Glamour spread from October 1960. “We answer: we know you. You’re spirited and witty, trying pretty valiantly to practice what we preach: that regardless of age or circumstance, it’s your obligation as a woman to look attractive.” The message wasn’t always laid out that explicitly, but it’s certainly the subtext on every page of these magazines. How women’s publications honed that pitch depended on their target audience. Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal were must-reads for older suburban housewives, while Mademoiselle and Glamour aimed for college girls and middle class “young marrieds.” Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue’s niche was the moneyed couture set. So while photo layouts of leggy lookers was the norm in all these magazines, Glamour would paste a heading proclaiming “He says he’ll eat soup for a year, if I’ll just buy something great” across the top of one layout; you’d never find that phrasing in the snootier Vogue.
Still, the bottom line in all of these publications was the same: Women’s raison d’tre revolved around sporting wedding bands. To a ’90s reader, poring over these magazines gives a whole new appreciation for Adrienne Rich’s line from the 1963 poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.” Thinking, apparently, wasn’t part of the plan. “Man is a romantic and needs illusion,” cautions a 1949 Glamour article. “Part of this illusion (which should be reality) is that a woman needs him If a woman is too self-sufficient, either in intelligence or in her competencethis illusion withers.” Aside from coyly dumbing themselves down, women would also do well to meticulously monitor their appearance, Glamour advised in its 1960’s feature “Fifty Ways to Charm a Man.” Men “come out four square against stocking seams crooked, slips showing, heels run down, nail polish chipped, and lipstick where it doesn’t belong,” reported the editors. And forget about asking hubby to help out around the house or take care of junior. “Babies prefer their mothers to take care of them rather than their fathers,” a 1961 Redbook article dubiously reported. Women, furthermore, had better continue the after-work cocktail hour with their husbands, lest the new dad begin to feel neglected. And under no circumstances should the man of the family come home to a “half-baked dinner”!
The ads in these magazines provide a further sociological record of the ’50s middle-class housewife existence. Next to articles about childbirth are pitches for Gerber baby food; squeezed between Redbook’s “How to bake the perfect pie” and “How to bake perfect cookies” are pages commending Minute Tapioca. It’s obvious the vast majority of readers didn’t lay claim to their own income. An omnipresent headline on advertisements is “Do you need money?” followed by a pitch for correspondence-stenography classes or the opportunity to hawk Christmas cards.
The ads not only provide a window on real-life Mrs. Cleavers, they also show the breathtaking lengths to which magazine editors sold out to their advertisers. Glamour, for example, featured a regular column authored by the apocryphal “Marjorie,” whose description of her shopping exploits were framed by ads peddling the products the 20-something heroine picked up. “I stumbled across the dearest pair of black leather pumps, with a one-inch Louis heel (the heel is one inch, I don’t know about Louis),” reads the September 1960 column. Juxtaposed is a half-page ad for the shoes.
Glamour eventually pulled the Marjorie column. And women’s magazines changed in other ways, too. Today’s females no longer spend all their days shopping or popping Valium in the suburbs, and mags have correspondingly altered their tone. Most slicks run stories on office life (generally of the “How to Ask For a Raise” or “How to Scale the Corporate Ladder” variety). Publications like Glamour and Marie Claire also boast the occasional piece on HMOs or sexual harassment.
For the most part, however, women’s magazines are pushing the same message they were half a century ago: Women’s existence revolves around landing the right guy. Except these days, the seduction isn’t accomplished through baking the perfect cake, sculpting your nails, or making sure your hemline isn’t crooked.
“Kama Sutra 2: 12 Naughty New Sex Positions, Including Our Personal Favorite’The Dragon'” screams one of Cosmopolitan’s September 1999 headlines. “His 126 Secret Sex Thoughts: The Dastardly Details Racing Through His MindRight Now!” promises Glamour’s August issue. The youth-oriented Jane, meanwhile, essentially spoke for the whole genre when it dubbed its August edition the “Sex-obsessed issue.”
If there is a dividing line between the women’s magazines of a few decades back and the covers we eye on the check-out line today, it’s the sex obsession. In 1961 Redbook ran an article cautioning young women that premarital hanky-panky could mean giving up any chance of walking down the aisle; today the magazine advises readers on how to drive men wild. In a sense, it’s a healthy corrective for publications to acknowledge women have hormones, too. But if readers took this stuff seriously, they would spend their nights and the better part of their days staring at ceiling tiles. And while these articles are packaged under the “liberated woman” motif, they’re really just another variation on the “snagging and keeping a guy” theme. Consider the headlines: Cosmo promises to reveal “The Bedroom Trick That Will Blow Him Away”; Redbook offers “Steamy moves that will make him beg for youall over again.” Women, apparently, are eager for the geisha training. “Those headlines generate a response,” says Steven Cohen, editor in chief of the Media Industry newsletter. “That’s why Cosmo sells two million copies every month off of the newsstand.”
The other surefire marketing ploy is the celebrity cover. Glance at a magazine rack and you’ll quickly realize that sycophantic celebrity profiles are all the rage in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Newsweek. But women’s magazines take the trend a step further. They not only print gushing articles about models and actors; they also literally posit these people as moral exemplars. TV actress Jane Leeves, for example, authored Marie Claire’s July advice column. “She won Niles’ heart on ‘Fraiser’ without even trying,” reads the introductory note. Of course, it was Leeves’ fictional television persona who entranced her equally fictional co-star. No matterher character’s bonafides qualify her to give advice about breast reduction, married men, and sibling rivalry. Not to be outdone, Cosmo ran a September feature on “Control Your Crises (Like the Stars Do): How to save face with Hollywood grace after mortifying mishaps.” Readers were advised to take a page from Latina star Jennifer Lopez, who wrote letters of apology to fellow celebrities she had disparaged in an interview. Actress Minnie Driver, meanwhile, was commended on weathering her breakup from actor Matt Damon with aplomb. “The easiest way to get a broken heart off yourand everyone else’smind is to slide right back into circulation, just as Driver did,” says Cosmo. “[She] appear[ed] a few weeks later on Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins’ arm (well, actually, she was on his lap).”
It’s difficult to see just what readers can gain by emulating the stars’ bed-hopping existence. But as publicity can make or break a movie career, it’s pretty obvious what stars reap from the breathless coverage. Magazines, meanwhile, can expect a jump in sales when they feature a celebrity on their covers. An excerpt from Jane’s letters column explicitly lays out the back scratching that goes on between magazines and actors. “It’s nice to see Minnie on your cover and even nicer to read a story about her when she’s not pimping some movie,” wrote one reader. The sheepish reply: “Thanks, but um, Minnie was promoting An Ideal Husband. So rush out right now and see it.”
Women’s magazines don’t just cozy up to celebritiesthey are still unapologetic promoters of their advertisers’ products. Examples of this unsavory relationship are as numerous as Brooks Brothers shirts in a Wall Street law firm. Glamour’s “You, you, you beauty” section vouched for Lancome moisturizer; Calvin Klein purse spray; and Neutrogena hand cream, mascara, and face powder in its August issue, where all three companies placed multipage ads. Jane showers paeans on Doc Martens boots in its fashion section, just after an ad for the shoeware. Ralph Lauren bought eight pages of publicity in Cosmo, and the magazine trumpeted the fashion line’s cashmere scarves, sleeveless turtlenecks, quilted bubble jackets, and Bath Fizzies. If you don’t read through these magazines carefully (believe me, not the best use of your time) it’s easy to miss the muddy division between articles and advertising. What also becomes apparent is how mags tailor themselves to a certain age bracket. That’s savvy marketing; advertisers prefer to hawk their products to defined audiences. If you want to figure out the median age of a women magazine’s readership, check out the ubiquitous Mentor breast augmentation ad. In New Woman (whose average reader is 37, according to Mediamark Research Inc.) a 38-year-old mother of two explains in a Mentor spread that her implants made her feel like she’d finally “done something just for me.” In the younger-oriented Marie Claire, a 31-year-old sales representative swears she feels “better than ever” since going under the knife. For women who long to be voluptuous but can’t scrape together the cash for surgery, Cosmo offers another option: Readers can “get more cleavage in just five seconds” by pasting their breasts together with duct tape.
Why do women lap this stuff up? Well, ladies’ economic fortunes may no longer turn on landing the right guy, but both men and women want to be perceived as attractive. The slicks speak to that desire (men aren’t immune to this pitch, either; for a description of the rise of men’s magazines, see “Turning Boys Into Girls” in our May 1998 issue.) With headlines like “Flat Abs Fast: The Five Minute Workout” and “Instant Tone-Up Tricks,” these magazines promise quick physical results with minimum effort. And once readers are toned and primped, these publications roll out strategies to bring suitors down on their knees. “How to make a man yours forever” guarantees Cosmopolitan’s September issue. “(Or for as long as you want him).” The tag line is revealing. Cosmo and the rest may promise moves to entice members of the opposite sex the way a beam of light attracts moths. But there isn’t anything in these glossies to prepare people for the day when the early frisson wears off. Being proficient in Cosmo’s dragon position won’t help when you’re trying to negotiate the bumps that eventually spring up in any relationship. Nor will “bigger cleavage” via Mentor breast implants or the cheaper duct tape solution. In the glib world of these slicks, there isn’t a place for the hard work of compromise. More importantly, there isn’t an acknowledgment that a solid sense of self-worth is a prerequisite to being in a successful relationshipor, for that matter, leading a healthy life.
Now, to hear the editors of these magazines tell it, their mission is precisely to help readers feel feminine and good about themselves. But these publications aren’t really geared to nudging up readers’ self-esteem. Rather, they are peddling an unattainable package and needling their readership on how far short of the goal they fall. It’s not just page after page of waifish models that gnaw at women’s confidence. The articles in these publications aren’t well-written, but they skillfully mimic that insistent, self-critical voice that plague so many young adults. “Are you fit?” asks New Woman in its July issue. “Are you sure?” Or check out Glamour. “The first impression you made on someone critical was as bland as oatmeal,” reads a heading in its August issue. “Can you bounce back?’ Perhaps the best example is an article that appears a few pages later, “Is Envy Eating You Up?” It reads like a camp version of an Iago soliloquy. “You may as well stop reading right here if you have never felt your stomach knot, your heart sink and your brain scream ‘I’m such a loser’ Still with us? Thought so.” And what can a reader do to boost her sense of self-worth? Well, if she is plagued by “relationship envy,” Glamour recommends the following exercise: “[D]raw a line and write ‘Total Failure’ on one end, and on the other end, a goal that is important to you (‘I found a soulmate,’ or maybe, ‘I had one night of hot sex’). Decide where you are on that line, and be very specific about how you would have to conduct yourself tomorrow to get one step closer to your goal.”
Obviously, trolling for “one night of hot sex” isn’t going to increase women’s self-confidence. Nor will the Louis heel pumps “Marjorie” swore by. No, as Joan Didion told Vogue readers, those sort of quick fixes have nothing to do with self-respect. Rather, a sense of confidence springs from self-awareness and discipline. It’s about understanding your limitations and making the effort to rise above them. People with self-respect aren’t complacent, but neither are they hyper-critical. They coax the best out of themselves.
Didion made no extravagant promises for the protective power of self-respect. It will not keep you “out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general,” she warned. But assuming responsibility for your decisions and learning from your mistakes is really the only way to live. Didion’s message isn’t necessarily soothing, but she’s laying out hard truths all of us encounter sooner or later. In our unaccomodating world, all of us eventually encounter Didion’s vampires. And, despite the assurances of Vogue and like-minded publications, during those painful confrontations frosted pink lipstick, a winning smile, and all of the clothes in the world aren’t the kind of amulets you’ll need to have at hand.