Mags or Rags?

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Women’s magazines have been around since before the turn of the century in one form or another but the Celebrity Gossip Magazine is a relatively modern and troubling phenomenon. Magazines such as Heat, Closer, US Weekly or People are filled with paparazzi images of celebrities in both their everyday and working lives. Critiqued at every turn for being either too perfect or not perfect enough. Too fat and too thin. Too single or too slutty and so it goes on.

There are hundreds of examples of celebrity driven magazines with the latest young ingénue (because ewww aging!) on the cover who’s posing nude whilst baring their soul about their struggle with weight or skincare or “ugly duckling looks” or whatever prescribed industry ideals they need to maintain to keep their careers afloat. Her nearly naked and most often Photoshopped image will sit in juxtaposition with headlines such as “Learn to Love Yourself As You Are” or “Get Total Body Confidence” alongside “100 Ways to get a Flatter Stomach” and ‘The Top Ten Best Celebrity Diets”.  In a 2006 University of Cardiff research thesis the relationship between the reader and the producer is described as

“in essence an abusive one. The reader has their self-confidence destroyed and is then told what to do, wear, buy and be in order to gain acceptance.”

With celebrity culture lauded the way it is these days teaches us that we should emulate these demi-gods and the beauty standards ascribed to and by them. Why don’t you look half your age à la J.Lo? Get off your ass you lazy lady and get yourself to the gym pronto! Magazine culture has no time for those who don’t subscribe, or fail to conform, to its imposed notions of acceptable beauty. Celebrities, let alone us common folk, are ridiculed for being flawed (i.e.: being real life humans) and with a use of voyeuristic obsession tell readers that even when perfection is achieved it still isn’t good enough. Magazines focus on appearance and not substance of actions or character, they exhibit a great bias towards the underweight (unless you are too thin, then you’re an ill bad role model). They create unrealistic physical standards but are critical of any extreme measures taken to achieve them. Even the relatively newer collection of post-feminist magazines created to suit a modern and diverse women’s interests – promoting fashion, beauty and interiors with news and ‘current affairs’  aren’t immune.

Naomi Wolf’s ground-breaking “The Beauty Myth” (Chatto & Windus, 1990) reminds us advertisers rule all in this world and they need women to continually feel that not only are they failing to achieve acceptance but that we can reach it through the purchasing and consuming of their products. In it Wolf recounts the story of a magazine using a variety of models for a spread who all had grey hair. Considered an artistic success up until one of the magazine’s major advertisers, Clairol – a hair colouring company, pulled their entire advertising campaign, and therefore a lot of money, from the publication in protest. The magazine was forced to never use a grey haired model again. Profit drives an industry that needs women to spend their lives trying to achieve what are unrealistic prescribed ideals of female beauty and sexiness and men to spend theirs searching for it in a mate.

The Next Generation.

All this subtle manipulation is just as prevalent in teen magazines too. They teach young girls and boys the same harmful message that your reflection is the definition of your value and self-worth. We cannot negate the impact of the negative content and Photoshopped bodies on offer to our young adults and teens either. Publishers argue there is no link between their content and a rise in body dissatisfaction in it’s readers but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Studies conducted by sources such as the American Academy of Paediatrics as well as one prompted by the clothing company New Look in the U.K. routinely showed that magazines create a body shaming atmosphere in which they feel the ideal body is unattainable and that their own bodies are inadequate in comparison. As a society we need to acknowledge the impact that image manipulation, unrealistic body images and Photoshop can and will have on the early development of children, teens and their adolescent health. In the annual Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey girls reported that 73% of them knew someone who suffered from depression, 76% a person self-harming and 66% suffering from an eating disorder.

There have been calls for more legislation surrounding the use of Photoshop and underweight models in advertising. The American Medical Association adopted new policy in 2013 for creating guidelines around adverts, aimed at teen publications, to discourage the use of image manipulation but it had been criticised as a token effort with little effect. The French Parliament proposed the use of a written disclaimer on all images used that are retouched to warn the the photos are “aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance.” Imposing a fine on those who don’t comply. Recently also passing a law that working models need a doctor’s note to declare themselves regularly fit and healthy in an effort to combat the use of extremely thin models as standard in the fashion industry.

But it still feels like all this is too little too late. You only have to google the words “Photoshop fail” (and have a good laugh!) to be bombarded with awfully retouched images and those are just the bad ones. What about the high degree of altered imagery on a daily basis that we don’t even really notice anymore? Yes, we know it’s there but to just know it’s fake isn’t enough to negate its impact. How do we teach young girls and women to dissect what they see and recognise the real from the fake? The subtle subversive impact of constantly seeing perfection and feeling pressured to recreate it has massively damaging consequences for a generation already feeling the same kinds of pressures from their social and academic lives as well.

What does it teach young girls and women about where their value lies and where their efforts should be focused in order to be accepted in society? Nothing positive that’s for sure. Empowering kids to see behind the photo spreads and adverts can help to combat the negative effect. Starting a dialogue to explain how images are manipulated, and discuss why and how these might effect the viewer, can be a starting point. How do they distort the idea of what is healthy or beautiful? How do they make people feel when they see them? And why does this become an advantage for advertisers? Try to discuss the difference between the fantasy and the reality of products being marketed and how advertisers can use celebrities to endorse a product to gain both trust and a kind of envy or emulation in it’s consumers.  Of course at different ages kids and teens will have a different level of understanding the subject but teaching them to think critically and fully about the world around them can only give them the tools and agency they will need as they grow to figure these things out for themselves.


Here at The Minefield we are very interested in your approach to the subject with you own kids. How if at all are you talking to them about what they see in this context? Do you notice that reading magazines or seeing adverts has a negative impact on how they view their own body image? Do ‘body positive’ campaigns such as the Dove campaign for ‘Real Beauty’ or the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards provide enough momentum to promote real change?

The Minefield would like to add we realise we haven’t even begun to tackle the issue of men’s magazines or magazines aimed at primary and preschool age kids and all the free make-up that comes with them, so watch this space as they say….thoughts anyone?

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