Women's Magazines and the Construction of Feminine IdentityDpage
"Somewhere Between Average and Perfect": Women's Magazines and the
Construction of Feminine Identity
When women's experience is made intelligible in the communications of
consciousness-raising we can recognize that it is in the structures of men's
stories that we don't make senseDthat our own experience, collectively and
jointly appreciated, can generate a picture of ourselves and the world within
which we are intelligible. The consciousness-raising process reveals us to
ourselves as authoritative perceivers which are neither men nor the
fantastical, impossible feminine beings which populate the men's
world-story...From the point of view of the discrepant data, that story appears
appallingly partial and distortedDit seems a childish and fantastic, albeit
dangerous, fiction (Frye, 1992, p. 60).
Many feminist scholars have documented the ways in which the mass
media, particularly women's consumer magazines, present "partial and distorted"
images of women (Tuchman et al.; 1978; Clark, 1980; Ferguson, 1983; Winship,
1987; McCracken, 1993; Durham, 1995; Durham, 1996). Both advertising and
editorial content in women's magazines encourage women to view themselves in
terms of the products they buy, as well as to conform to Western standards of
ideal beauty embodied by young, white, thin, and heterosexual models. The mass
circulation of these magazines has been cited as an important factor in the
socialization of girls and adult women, because they reach millions of women
regardless of age, race, or class (Ferguson, 1983; Winship, 1987; Peirce, 1990;
Peirce, 1993; McCracken, 1993). The existence of multi-million dollar cosmetic,
fashion, diet, and plastic surgery industries also suggests that many American
women strive for the ever-elusive, ideal body presented in women's consumer
magazines (Wolf, 1991; Bordo, 1993).
In spite of the widespread concern about the effects of these images
on women's health and self-esteem, women's magazines appeal both visually and
emotionally to many women. Advertisements and fashion spreads, for instance,
present colorful and provocative images. The magazines also offer women social
support and information about coping with the everyday stresses of being a
woman, wife, mother, (heterosexual) lover, and worker (Ferguson, 1983; Winship,
1987; Wolf, 1991). And because of their mass distribution and use of simple
prose, they are easily accessible to millions of women.
Although women's magazines may appear as harmless, or even helpful
publications for women, many feminist researchers have noted that women's
magazines present to women a skewed and inadequate view of the world. They
argue that reality as depicted in women's magazines is based largely on the
interests of advertisers as well as masculine desires that sexualize female
submissiveness and objectification (Winship, 1987; Bordo, 1993; McCracken, 1993;
Durham, 1995; Durham, 1996). For instance, the heterosexual presumption of
women's magazines establishes male desire as a primary goal, and editorial and
advertising content prescribe particular products or behaviors to either attract
or preserve a relationship with a man (Ferguson, 1983; Winship, 1987; Peirce,
1990; Evans et al., 1991; Peirce, 1993; McCracken, 1993; Durham, 1996).
Feminine perfection, and the ubiquity, appeal, and consistency with which it is
promoted by women's magazines, often conforms to capitalist and patriarchal
ideologies, which will be explained in this section.
While women's magazines have been the subjects of diverse and
extensive research, the observations of their readers have not. The purpose of
this study is to explore how women interpret the content of women's consumer
magazines, and will focus on the following questions, 1) Why do women read
women's magazines? 2) How do they view their bodies in terms of the ideal images
presented to them? 3) What types of knowledge or experience do they use to
interpret women's magazines?
Ideology and women's magazines
In many ways, women's magazines reflect a dominant social order that
values male authority and sexuality, and a capitalist system that creates a
class structure based on power and wealth. Women's magazines, as well as many
other forms of popular culture, are playing fields for several competing
ideologies, defined one way as a "systematic body of ideas articulated by a
group of people" (Storey, 1993, p. 3). Another definition, and one perhaps most
useful in the context of this study, describes how ideology manifests itself "in
the way in which certain rituals and customs have the effect of binding us to
the social order; a social order which is marked by enormous inequalities of
wealth, status, and power" (p. 5). Yet there are also oppositional ideologies,
such as feminist ideology, which attempt to change the dominant social order
that oppresses certain groups of people.
Some theorists argue that media texts contain political
significations that persuade readers to think and behave in a way that reflects
particular ideologies, suggesting a struggle for social control between opposing
ideologies (Storey, 1993, p. 5). As Kellner (1995) has said,
...current local, national, and global situations are articulated
through the texts of media culture, which is itself a contested terrain, one
which competing social groups use to promote their agendas and ideologies, and
which itself reproduces conflicting political discourses, often in a
contradictory manner (p. 20).
For instance, capitalist ideology, as it relates to popular culture,
constructs at least two paradigms of freedom and identity. For one, it says
that individuals have freedom of choice in the range of goods and services
provided by a laissez-faire economy. This model suggests that only the best or
most popular commodities survive in a market determined by democratic, or
majority interests and needs. In this sense, all individuals have an equal
"vote" or voice in determining what is produced, so the industry owners are
subject to the demands of consumers. This model assumes that capitalist systems
have been freely chosen by individuals, and therefore survive on the base of
natural selection. However, one flaw in this assumption has been summarized by
Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a
powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual
is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what
can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. The criterion for free
choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free
election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice
among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these
goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fearDthat
is, if they sustain alienation (p. 21).
Another aspect of capitalist ideology in the late twentieth century
portrays consumption as a path to self-fulfillment. Identities and emotions are
created through the purchase of products whose dominant meanings appeal to the
consumer. This characteristic of capitalist ideology overlaps with the "freedom
of choice" model above in that they both disregard race, class, and gender as
factors that determine the ways individuals participate in capitalist society.
Patriarchal ideology also denies the imbalance of power among social
groups. For one, it assumes that both men and women are innately heterosexual,
and that masculine and feminine traits are natural, rather than socially
constructed, characteristics of men and women. For instance, the feminine
characteristics of weakness and dependence reflect and maintain many women's
economic and emotional reliance on men. The construction of sexuality in
patriarchal ideology oppresses women by subordinating female sexuality to a
masculine subjectivity. Frye (1983) argues that patriarchal ideology erases
women's sexual experiences from dominant reality by defining sex according to
the male experience of sex, that is, as it is experienced through penile
penetration and ejaculation (p. 157). The dynamics of male sexuality work to
control, alter, or erase altogether women's private sexual experience.
Some have credited women's magazines with creating the social (and
personal) space for female sexual expression. The recognition of female sexual
pleasure has been partly attributed to the "mainstreaming" of the second
feminist movement via women's magazines (Whitney, 1993). The discussion of
women's sexuality, while a necessary first step to sexual freedom for women, has
been limited to a heterosexual definition in women's consumer magazines. For
instance, Cosmopolitan, long-credited as the first magazine to champion
recreational sex for women, usually couches its features in traditional,
heterosexist language. In a qualitative analysis of Cosmopolitan articles,
McCracken (1993) demonstrates that liberation themes offer transgressive
fantasies on the surface, but ultimately reaffirm the status quo (e.g. the
lovers get married, the woman keeps her baby, villains are punished, etc.) (p.
162). So while Cosmopolitan may appear to offer a rebellious alternative to
repressive social norms, "[m]any of Cosmopolitan's sexually daring pieces are
based on male fantasies about women that have habitually structured women's view
of their own sexuality" (p. 162).
Just as patriarchal ideology associates love with male desire, it
also equates beauty with white characteristics. For instance, in women's
magazines, black models with light skin and straight hair are often presented as
examples of the latest makeup technology, images which deny the historical
oppression that has favored and punished women of color according to white
standards of beauty. Such depictions are examples of what Stuart Hall (1995)
calls "inferential racism_those apparently naturalised representations of events
and situations relating to race, whether 'factual' or 'fictional' which have
racists [sic] premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of
unquestioned assumptions" (p. 20). Likewise, in women's magazines, "the content
of fashion, the specific ideals that women are drawn to embody (ideals that vary
historically, racially, and along class and other lines) are seen as arbitrary,
without meaning; interpretation is neither required or even appropriate" (Bordo,
1993, p. 233).
This analysis shows how patriarchal and capitalist ideologies connect
with each other at various points. For instance, capitalist ideology is
apparent in the ways women's magazines suggest a wide array of products, and
therefore freedom for women to choose how they want to look or feel, yet they
also restrict those choices to "recipes" that advocate a young, white, thin, and
heterosexual model of femininity. Patriarchal ideology is also reflected in
women's magazines through a "symbolic order" that prioritizes women's duties
according to male interests and desires (Ferguson, 1983, p. 7). The influential
power of these ideologies, which involve an obsession with the female body, is
well summarized by Bordo (1993), who says "[t]he general tyranny of
fashionDperpetual, elusive, and instructing the female body in a pedagogy of
personal inadequacy and lackDis a powerful discipline for the normalization of
all women in this culture" (p. 254).
Interpellation, resistance, and the construction of meaning
Some of the ways in which ideology appeals to the reader occurs in
the process of interpellation, theorized by the French philosopher Louis
Althusser. This is also known as the act of "hailing," which has an effect
similar to calling to someone across the street (Althusser, 1971, p. 174). For
instance, if a person is called by her name, she may recognize a friend's voice
and turn to see who it is. Or if someone shouts, "Hey youDlook out!" she might
take action to guard against some imminent danger. In both instances, the type
of hail determined her subjectivity. In the first instance, she recognized
herself as a friend by the nature of the greeting. In the second, she
recognized herself as a person in danger. In both cases, her subjectivity was
constructed by the Subject, or the person who exercised the power to control how
she recognized herself (p. 174). In other words, the one who hails is the
Subject, the one who is hailed is the subject, with a lower-case s.
The concept of interpellation, or hailing, has important applications
to women's magazines. Instead of Subject/subject, it might be helpful to
consider the process of interpellation, as it relates to women's magazines, as
one of Woman/woman. For instance, the Subject of transcendent womanhood, Woman,
hails women through cover lines that call out to "a new you" and promise "you" a
revolutionary diet that will dissolve 20 pounds in two weeks. The construction
of the subject, woman, depends on her "recognition of a destination" (e.g. a
thinner body, clearer skin, marriage) based upon Woman's rules and rituals
(Althusser, 1971, p. 178).
For instance, advertisements encourage women to see themselves as
they exist in their current, imperfect state, and how they could look or feel in
a future, improved condition by purchasing the product. They hail the reader as
someone who is incomplete and inadequate:
The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if
she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the
product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her
loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her
love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the
product (Berger, 1972, p. 133).
Stuart Hall's (1980) model of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional
readings offers one way of understanding how women might resist ideological
constructions of feminine identity. The dominant reading is produced by a
reader who is positioned to accept the dominant ideology (p. 136). A negotiated
reading is a compromise between the producers' preferred reading of the text and
the lived experience of the reader. There are some elements of opposition in
the negotiated reading, but it is generally constructed to make sense of one's
position within the dominant structure (p. 137). Oppositional readings are
produced by those who directly contest the dominant ideology (p. 138). In terms
of women's magazines, a textual analysis coupled with in-depth interviews with
their readers provides insight into both the dominant meanings of the magazines,
and the readings produced by their audience.
Meaning, in this sense, is a product of the negotiation between the
reader and a given text, such as women's magazines. For instance, femininity
demands a considerable investment of time, money, and energy. The millions of
dollars women spend each year on cosmetics clearly serves the interests of the
cosmetics industry. The restrictions femininity places on women in terms of
power, identity, and sexuality also benefit patriarchal society. In turn,
femininity offers women both social and personal rewards for adhering to its
codes. But women can "read" femininity in several ways. They can obey its
prescriptions and demands, follow some rituals while rejecting others, or resist
capitalist and patriarchal ideologies altogether, and risk punishment.
The current research on media representations of femininity and women
suggests that women's magazines perpetuate capitalist and patriarchal ideologies
that reinforce the dominant social order. While much of this work cogently
portrays the symbolic power of mass media images, much work still needs to be
done to explore how women interpret mass media texts. This paper offers some
preliminary observations of women's experiences with women's consumer magazines.
My interest in the relationships between women and the media is
grounded in a feminist belief that patriarchal systems of representation reflect
and maintain ideologies that oppress women. I chose to conduct in-depth
interviews with small groups of women because, as Montell (1996) argues, "More
than most other methods, group interviews provide feminists with the opportunity
to conduct research that is consciousness-raising and empowering, research that
does not merely describe what is, but that participates in shaping what could
be" (Abstract). Group interviews provide a valuable source of data because they
offer a more egalitarian form of research than surveys or laboratory
experiments, which prevent participants from sharing information or asking
questions. Although the researcher frames the context of the study, the
participants control the conversation and challenge each other's observations, a
process of negotiation that can reveal ideas generally accepted by the group,
and those which generate disagreement (p. 5). Montell notes that "This
negotiation and discussion is itself an important and interesting process to
observe" because it "illuminate[s] participants' underlying assumptions and the
extent to which they share a culture of common sense understandings" (p. 5).
A total of 13 women were interviewed, and participated in one
discussion each. They were recruited by electronic mail postings and flyers
which encouraged women of color, lesbian and bi-sexual women, and women over 35
to take part in the discussions. The flyers were posted in a variety of places
including campus buildings, churches, and health clinics in low-income
districts. Women were chosen on the basis of age (over 18), race, and sexual
orientation. Potential interviewees were asked a series of demographic
questions concerning age, household income, education, occupation, sexual
orientation, marital status and women's magazine reading habits. Some of the
most common magazines women read were Allure, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Redbook,
New Woman, Self, Shape, and Vogue.
Audiotaped meetings were held in the campus union and each
participant was paid ten dollars. Three of these discussions took the form of a
focus group, with three to five women participating, and two were one-to-one
conversations between myself and the participant. Accommodating last-minute
scheduling conflicts was the primary reason for the varied interview formats,
but I found that each discussion produced equally valuable observations. The
discussions lasted between a minimum of one hour to 2 1/2 hours, and for
purposes of anonymity, all names (except those of celebrities or otherwise
famous people) have been changed. Women were assigned to groups according to
age, race, and sexual orientation because as Montell (1996) has also noted, "In
more homogeneous groups people will feel more comfortable with each other and
they are more likely to feel that the others will understand them" (p. 12). In
fact, one woman in her 30s asked not to be placed in a group with women in their
teens because she felt the age difference would make her uncomfortable.
The women whom I interviewed were in no way randomly chosen or
representative of the larger North American female population. They all had at
least one year of college, two had master's degrees, and several women were
pursuing bachelor's degrees. None had children, and only one was married. So
in this regard we are unlike a large portion of the women's magazines audience.
However, the main goal in this type of research is to elicit women's shared
experiences, so organizing groups according to their representativeness of a
given population "might actually reduce the quality of the data if it produces
groups that cannot generate good discussions" (Montell, 1996, p. 8).
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind who was not
represented: women who are mothers, working-class, on welfare, without college
education, over 40, or who do not speak English. I made attempts to reach these
women through churches, health clinics, and community organizations, but
received no replies. A more comprehensive study should try to organize
discussions with these women by allocating more time and effort to reaching
them. For these reasons it is important to remember the relatively privileged
position, at least in terms of education and independence from husband and
children, of the women who did participate.
I began this study with a series of questions which guided both my
research and interview discussions:
~ What do women find pleasurable or unpleasurable about women's
What do they specifically read or look for in a magazine and why?
~ How do women perceive themselves and their bodies in terms of the
textual narratives in women's magazines?
~ How do women resist or negotiate these messages? What types of
tools do they use to interpret women's magazines?
~ How do women's magazines nurture or fracture a sense of community
My role as facilitator in group discussions with women was
sometimes multifaceted. As a researcher, I felt compelled to maintain "critical
distance"Dnot to inject my own thoughts or preconceptions into the discussions.
But as a feminist, my interest was also personal. Finally, my inquiry was an
attempt to explore the conflicts women feel between their lived experiences and
the ideals presented in the magazinesDthe strain of feeling "somewhere between
average and perfect" as described by Sarah, a 22-year-old college student.
Many patterns emerged from my conversations with women. Perhaps
the clearest way to demonstrate some of them is to follow the procession of
research questions. Of course, my questions were not limited to these four, and
the discussions often diverged from my agenda. Sometimes the most interesting
observations resulted from these departures. In this section, I will try to
account for the context in which women responded to my questions, or the remarks
of other participants. The patterns I have chosen to discuss are useful in
demonstrating how, as Kellner (1995) theorizes, the terrain of ideology is
1. Why do women read women's magazines?
The contradictions involved with readingDand enjoyingDwomen's
magazines was one pattern I found in women's comments. Many women
simultaneously considered the magazines useful and frivolous. While some women
described the magazines as "brain candy" or something to read in the bathtub,
they were not considered completely trivial. Fitness magazines such as Shape
and Fitness were regarded as good sources of information about nutrition and
exercise. Others praised them for disseminating information about breast cancer
and other women's health concerns.
Although the women said that they read women's magazines at the end
of a hard day, or to otherwise "escape" from reality, they looked for specific
information to guide their lives. Career advice (which included tips on how to
dress professionally), health research, and articles on sexual harassment and
rape were generally considered worthwhile reading. Topics that many women
enjoyed, but considered a waste of time included celebrity gossip, makeup or
fashion advice, and exercise techniques. Interestingly, in spite of the
well-documented presence of patriarchal themes in women's magazines, almost all
of the women said they resented the "how to catch and keep a man" articles, and
found their prescriptions condescending and adolescent. One woman said that she
used a tip intended to keep men away (hold a can of Mace in plain view and
pretend to read the directions). One woman described her ambivalence toward the
magazines this way:
What usually gets meDI'm such a suckerDis the little labels that
they usually have on there. There's a certain thing that hits me. As much as
I know that I'm being manipulated, I know I want to buy it because it might
solve whatever ridiculous problem. Usually it's like this oneD"Tighten your
butt in 20 minutes a week"...Every time, that's one of the funny things about
these magazines. No matter how much they disappoint in terms of getting your
expectations up and what you think you're going to get out of them, it never
does change your life like you hope it will.
DTina, 26-year-old Chicana
The concept of change was often noted during the discussions.
Generally, women talked about the pressure or desire to change their bodies
according to the magazines' prescriptions. Often the pressure they felt to
engage in beauty and fitness rituals influenced their desire to achieve these
results. One example of women's frustration with the magazines was their
recognition of what McCracken (1993) called "the textual strategies that
conflate commodities and desire" (p. 300). For example, women's magazines
capitalize on the well-known health benefits of exercise and nutrition by
associating them with commodities, so they find a market among many women who
might otherwise reject traditional beauty products and services. One woman who
said that she read fitness magazines for their exercise and weight-loss advice
was frustrated by the magazines' conflation of health and beauty:
For me there's this bizarre kind of conflict, guilt I guess is the
wrong word, but I'm trying to get more fit and lose weight. And I know that
I'm doing this because I want to be fit and I want to be healthier and stronger
and all of this, but there is still this little thing that goes on in my head
that says, 'Are you sure that you're not doing this just because you want to
look better? And isn't that shallow?' And that kind of stuff. There is a
kind of internal dialogue that goes on. I mean, I've always been big, always.
So I've always had the punishment part for not fitting in to this kind of stuff.
DBarbara, white woman, age 32
Ironically, women noted that they often look to women's magazines to
help them feel better, and said they enjoy them for the visual appeal of the
cover photo or the ads. For instance, one woman said she buys them because the
colorful ads and spreads lift her spirits during the cold, grey days of winter.
However, the ways that they said they read the magazinesDquickly flipping
through the pages to pass the time at a doctor's office, or while using an
exercise machineDsuggest that these magazines are not used for serious or
ponderous reading. The short amounts of time spent with the magazines could be
interpreted as one form of resistance. For instance, two women in their 30s
talked about how, as teenagers, they felt inferior to the magazine models. I
asked what information or strategies they used now to resist images of ideal
femininity. One woman responded:
Well, one thing is I don't read them often because I think they are
an assault no matter what you do. They're an assault on you for being an
imperfect human subject to time and tide...
DApril, white woman, age 35
April was among nine of the 13 women who said she spent five or
fewer hours per month reading women's magazines. Like April, many women said
they knew of "better things" they could be reading, or that their self-image
suffered less when they didn't look at women's magazines. Yet, in spite of this
awareness, women still regard fashion magazines as both pleasurable and harmless
pastimes, as well as vehicles of debilitating ideologies.
For instance, one woman said she read Shape, Fitness, Fit, and Self
solely for their exercise and health information, as well as for inspirational
weight-loss stories. But the new Woman who is healthy and fit, rather than
malnourished, is a source of ambivalence for many women. While many women
easily reject beauty standards that glorify anorexic, child-like models, images
of women who embody ideal standards of fitness are more appealing because they
signify strength and self-actualization through healthy living rather than
starvation. However, the sleek, muscular, carbo-pumped Woman is still
unrealistic because the emphasis remains on standards of beautyDoften embodied
by young, professional athletes or models who market fitness equipment and
techniquesDthat is impossible for many women to achieve. But it demonstrates
how the ideologies in women's consumer magazines have co-opted demands for
healthier-looking models. The fit Woman also requires the ritual consumption of
athletic clothes, energy drinks, and expensive exercise gadgets. The
frustration associated with such an ideal persists for many women:
While I read Shape and Fitness, and while those magazines are
really good at using reader-models for stuff...when they use a reader-model,
it's always an 'after' person. And I wish that they would use a 'during'
person because if you want me to do that exercise, show me doing that exercise.
Show someone who weighs over 200 pounds doing that exercise because there are a
lot of people out there who are my size, and we need to do those exercises too.
Not 'after,' but 'during.' If I'm aiming for that little bit of bicep
definition, then show someone who has a bicep that looks like mine doing that
bicep curl. It's good that they use reader-models, it's a good thing, it gives
you her before picture and here's what she looks like now, but what did she
look like at the beginning, when she was doing those leg raises that you're
showing us how to do? Show someone who doesn't have that definition, that same
DBarbara, white woman, age 32
The polarization of women's bodies occurs precisely through the use
of "before" and "after" pictures. The "before" woman serves as an example of
unchecked gluttony and sloth, and therefore undeserving of love or respect. The
"after" model reflects not only standards of female perfection, but also of
capitalistic idealism. She is a paradigm of the lean and solitary runner for
whom success is all. Barbara is rightDin cultural depictions of women there is
no in between because the reader must always be reminded of the ultimate
goalDthe "after" life of self-depravation, which is ironically achieved through
constant consumption. The construction of Woman remains, as it always has, an
appetizer for the consumer's palate.
While the women often said they felt compelled to buy or read
women's magazines in spite of the manipulative content, they by no means read
them uncritically. What is interesting is the dilemma that women's magazines
present to a critical reader. How do women enjoy women's magazines, yet still
feel demoralized and unrewarded? I believe that this pattern of ambivalence
toward fashion magazines demonstrates the difficulties women face in rejecting
pervasive ideologies that don't make sense in terms of their real-life
2. How do women perceive themselves and their bodies in terms of the
visual and textual narratives in women's magazines?
3. What types of critical methods do they use to interpret women's
I decided to present the responses to these two questions in the
same section because they were interconnected. To arrange them into separate
sections would have required decontextualizing them from the discussions, and I
have tried to relate those nuanced accounts here to illustrate the multi-layered
nature of identity.
The struggle to find media representations of women who are not
white, young, and heterosexual is difficult. As one woman said, it is quite
literally a search for any images at all, and those are usually poor
substitutes. Nearly all the women, regardless of age, race, or sexual
orientation were dissatisfied with the presentation of women's bodies and
experiences in the magazines. The reasons ranged from the frustration of
competing with such an ideal to questioning why young and thin white women
dominate the pages in the first place.
Unlike Althusser's theory of the Subject, women did not regard the
models as superhumans or ethereal beings to whom they must defer. Instead,
women spoke of fashion models as objects subject to their gazeDas things to
behold, like flowers or ornaments. But for some women, objectifying the models
seemed like attempts to claim authenticity and value for their own experiences:
I look at them, and they're posing as if they had my life. And
they don't have my life, and I feel sorry for them, you know, because I have an
interesting life, and they don't, I don't think. I don't want to do what they
do. I don't think I ever really did.
DApril, white woman, age 35
I think that's one of the things that is so interesting. I'm
totally heterosexual, but I can still see how beautiful they are. They are so
beautiful. And I don't think, 'oh, what does this mean about me?' because
that's what's so fascinating. They're like these specimens or something. They
just parade, literally, and that's their job, literally, to walk up and down
and go away behind the screen and on to the next one. To me, the fact that I
look at them that way makes them almost sexless in a way. They're just like
these beautiful things.
DTraci, Hispanic woman, age 24
Distancing may be one type of resistant reading. By denying models
human qualities such as personalities or fulfilling lives, women can accentuate
the meanings and value of their own experiences. Many women also physically
distanced themselves from the rituals and products which are part of a feminine
identity. As April said, she refuses to spend her "whole day working at" being
beautiful, like the models do.
The mass media were generally blamed for contributing to negative
self-perceptions among young women and girls, but the role of media messages in
the lives of older women was more ambiguous. Few women said that the images in
women's magazines affected them now, as opposed to when they were teenagers.
Stories about their teenage experiences related to how much they conformed, or
the extent to which they rejected norms of beauty. Interestingly, most said
that they were no longer influenced by the images, advice, or overwhelming
sexual content, even one woman who was just a few years out of high school:
I end up dismissing them. I used to think that they were kind of
pressuring, but now I just don't care about them. I guess because I've been
educated about it...When I was younger I used to look at [the models] and
idolize them. I think that really hurt my self-esteem as a child...I was in my
senior year of high school and I had gained a tremendous amount of weight. And
since then I've realized that the best way to deal with it and to have a
regular, normal life, is to not constantly worry about it. To just go out.
That's what happened to me. Because I had to find a way to bring down my
weight safely. Without letting it rule my life like I did before.
DSarah, 19-year-old woman of African-American and Middle Eastern
Sarah and other women generally seemed to produce oppositional
readings if the message failed to "hail" or interpellate them as Althusser
theorized. So while Sarah, for instance, buys the magazines for articles and
cosmetic coupons, she rejects articles that attack her choice to be a single
woman. Many women noted that they simply didn't "buy in" to the advertisements
or images. They were aware of the manipulation, they asserted, and therefore
able to make unadulterated choices between products. As Traci said:
Sure, I've never had an original Calvin Klein runway piece, but you
can go find Calvin Klein at Dillard's. I'm never going to have Donna Karan
clothes in my closet, but DKNY I can afford. They do that on purpose. They
create this outlandish thing, that you're never going to be able to afford
anyway, and then they do the smaller version that you will wear and that you
can afford. So you're thinking, wow, look how much cheaper it is, even if it
is still $200 for a blouse. It's still a really well made blouse...I see that
they're trying to make money, and they're making it off of me, but I don't
think I want to be that way.
Traci denied that she felt pressured to buy these clothes, and made
such purchases out of a sense of personal style. Since she rejected the sales
pitch, she could interpret the message on her own terms. She can buy the
magazines and clothes even though she doesn't "buy" the meanings embedded in the
advertising. But, ultimately, the "preferred reading" of a DKNY ad is the
reader's purchase. Although Traci's transformation of the products' dominant
meanings signifies a type of resistant reading, her purchases uphold the
material base of the dominant capitalist system, and ultimately its systemic
However, most of the women made more critical than positive
observations about the magazines, which raises an important question about
interpellation. How are reader-subjects constructed by the dominant culture if
they don't recognize themselves in its representations? The following
observations help to illustrate how some women oppose dominant ideologies:
The only time you see the issue [of homosexuality] brought up is
'My son is gayDwhat should I do?' There's nothing there. I remember going
through high school thinking, 'I'm never going to be 5'9", I'm never going to
weigh 110 pounds.' I don't fit in that way, and then five or six years later
thinking, 'ok, I'm gay, there's another reason I haven't quite gone into these
magazines either.' They don't offer anything for me in terms of relationships.
How to build them, how to keep them. How to relate to other women. It talks
about how to bring you and your spouse together. What happens when both of you
are women? There are all sorts of different issues that are not brought up in
here at all.
DPatricia, white woman, age 24
They exclude a large number of women. You live your whole life
with everyone assuming that you're heterosexual, and when you realize you're
not, or when I realized I wasn't, I got tired of everything in the world which
said, 'You're heterosexual.' Which is why I started avoiding the magazines.
You pick up right away on their sexual presumption. They don't have to do it
that way. They choose to approach sex in the way that they do.
DMary, white woman, age 21
As Larry Gross (1991) has said, the "symbolic annihilation" and
stereotypical portrayals of minorities, especially homosexuals, in the media
shapes the dominant society's perceptions of these groups as well as
self-identities (p. 26). Patricia's and Mary's comments affirm Gross' belief
that "the process of identity formation for lesbian women and gay men requires
the strength and determination to swim against the stream" (p. 26).
Many women described their identity processes as slow and difficult
shifts toward self-acceptance. It requires a constant effort to recognize and
resist ideologies that structure the societies in which we live. Many women
said their awareness of patriarchal ideology was heightened by feminist
publications such as Ms. Two women also cited Reviving Ophelia as a book which
helped them understand how mass media images encourage women and girls to find
pleasure in their objectification. Another woman explained how college
experiences helped her to articulate her suspicions of women's magazines:
I went to a very liberal school. Women were very natural, letting
their body hair grow, wearing big, full dresses so you couldn't see their
figures. I really liked that kind of a setting because I never felt that I had
to keep up with anything. It didn't matter that I couldn't wear a bikini. I
think that setting and early on, I took an intro to feminism class and then
everything just clicked. It was like all along I knew that something was
wrong, and then I had the intellectual information to back it up and argue
about it intelligently. Here were 500 other women in this classroom and we're
all going, 'Umm hmmmm.' For me that was the turning point. I mean, these
images are so pervasive. It still takes a hell of a lot of reminding myself.
DTina, 26-year-old Chicana
Many women felt that their experiences and lives were not portrayed
in the media, and that this lack of representation has a powerful influence over
the ways women, beginning in childhood, develop their identities. The symbolic
annihilation and stereotypical representations of women of color and lesbians
and bi-sexual women further exacerbates the difficulties of self-identification
in a racist and homophobic society. In terms of the magazines, one woman said
that she perceived herself in terms of what was missing. For instance, she
determined how to apply her makeup by doing the opposite of what was shown in
the magazines, since most of the makeup colors are designed for white women.
Similarly, lesbians and bi-sexual women said that ideologies of sexuality were
not hard to resist, since their experiences largely existed outside the dominant
discourse of female sexuality.
Still, deconstructing dominant ideologies does not seem to be
enough for women to completely resist their role in identity formation. All the
women in some way felt constructed by ideology, whether through white standards
of beauty that forced them to negotiate between real and ideal characteristics,
or through heterosexist ideologies that socialize all women to value sexual and
emotional relationships with men. One difference between the ways women resist
these ideologies may lie in the types of communities they identify with. For
instance, many women of color live in families and neighborhoods with people of
similar racial heritage, and find some social support against racist ideologies.
By contrast, most lesbians and gay men grow up in heterosexual communities,
where they sometimes experience rejection and hostility from their own families.
Some of the lesbian and bi-sexual women I talked with said they began to
discover their identities after they left the repressive climate of high school
and started college.
Their experiences, and those of other women who described their
distrust of dominant culture, suggest that our individual interpretations,
however insightful they may be, require the validation and support of other
women to help us construct identities in opposition to dominant ideologies.
4. How do women's magazines nurture or fracture a sense of community
As some writers have noted, women's magazines offer women social
support in a world in which they are simultaneously caretakers, chauffeurs,
workers, mothers, wives, and domestic laborers. By addressing "women's" needs
and interests, magazines provide a sense of solidarity between women. But as
Winship (1987) noted, the "we women" clique is restricted primarily to women who
are white, young, and heterosexual (p. 67). McCracken (1993) also documented
the ways in which women's magazines foster competition based on beauty and the
ability to attract a man, rather than collective action toward women's shared
goals. Given these conflicting testimonies, how do women make sense of the ways
women as an audience are constructed by fashion magazines? Do these
publications foster a sense of solidarity or competition with other women? The
following segment of conversation demonstrates how some women address these
Jane (white woman, age 39): It used to be that the models
intimidated me, but they don't anymore. I can flip through and enjoy the
components of it, but not feel insecure because I don't look like a particular
model. My hair doesn't look like any of these, but I'm happy with my hair.
But the thing that really bothers me is that I read the biographies, or they'll
have pictorials on 'successful women.' It'll give their biographies and I'm
going 'my god! I haven't done any of those things.' And that's what makes me
feel really, really insecure. 'She's younger than I am and look, she's won all
these awards and prizes and she's an author and she's done all these things.'
Barbara (white woman, age 32): And she started her own company at
Jane: And she was a millionaire and she gave it all up to become a
nun. Those are the things that really push buttons with me.
April (white woman, age 35): So maybe that's a new kind of...
Jane: Yeah, maybe I've evolved into new insecurities.
April: No, I'm saying maybe it's a new way to cow us.
Jane: Because they're certainly rare.
April: These people do some pretty serious demographical marketing
research. I think we would all be stunned to find out they're trying to find
out about what we're thinking and how we respond and what our weaknesses are.
Maybe women are getting free of worrying about how they look, so they think,
'ok, what can we do now?'
Barbara: But there have always been those few extraordinary people
who can accomplish so much at such a young age. I think that because she's the
extraordinary one, by definition, you can't live up to her.
Jane: I have the same reaction when I read about men who got their
Ph.D. at 21 and went on. So it's not just women. I also like to think that
it's nice that women's magazines are showing that younger women have
accomplishments too, just like men. Because it used to be, the 30 most
exceptional men, and now they throw women in, too.
April: I think it's back to the same thing. First of all, getting
everyone to compare themselves is a real bugaboo. I think that they really do
rely on people's reflex to compare themselves to sell things. It's the same
thing as looking at the lips. What's motivating all this? I think that we can
outsmart them. They're not going to get over on me.
I: Why is it that these images are so unsettling if we know that
Barbara: For me, it's why should I have to do that in order to be
Jane: Well you don't. You can develop yourself, your own essence,
but so many people don't. They just get caught up and aren't really very
Barbara: But the message is that you have to be able to do all this
stuff, and do it really well. I hate that I am even getting this message,
forget that I have to go to the trouble of rejecting this message.
Jane: But why can't we just celebrate it? Why can't I look at these
people and say, 'great for them? I'm so glad to see that after so many men
have been held up as being admirable and never seeing any women?'
April: I look at women and think, she's done this, this and this, in
this much time, now is she true to this feminine spiritual patterning, or is
she just being a guy? To me, it's not wonderful when a woman is being a man.
It's very damaging when what I do naturally is not understood and put down. I
just look at people and think, I wonder what home is like, I wonder what it's
like at night, alone or whatever. I can't be jealous of anyone because I don't
know what they've given up. They've not made it holy.
Jane: I understand what you're trying to express, but I don't know
that I agree with all of it.
April: You don't have to agree with me.
Jane: I know, but what I'm saying is that if I felt the way you did,
then I wouldn't even read that article. I would just say, 'well, it's not
really important to me. What's really important is what kind of person I am.'
And I have periods like that, too.
Some of these observations relate to Illouz' (1991) work that
demonstrates how women's magazines use the language of capitalism to define
intimate human relationships. Although her article specifically refers to the
portrayals of heterosexual relationships in women's magazines, this discussion
shows that success in women's magazines is defined in capitalistic terms also.
It is presented as a struggle to be the best, to survive and thrive upon one's
own resources with little responsibility or obligation toward the social good.
Tales of successful women reinforce capitalist ideology through propagandistic
portrayals of individuals who have achieved the American dream solely through
hard work, ambition, and personal virtue. Such narratives obscure systemic
social controls (based on class, race, and gender discrimination) that exclude
many people from the privileges enjoyed by a powerful elite.
Jane mentioned that she felt envious of women's success as it was
presented in women's magazines. But she wanted to interpret these stories as
breakthroughs in public recognition of women's accomplishments. Perhaps part of
the problem is that this type of success is defined by masculine standards that
have traditionally excluded women. Winship (1987) calls this portrayal of
success "aspirational feminism" and she says "Whatever its gains for individual
women, an aspirational feminism works within, not against the competitive
organization of work. It is about 'I' rather than 'we'" (p. 120). In other
words, aspirational feminism is not feminism at all, but rather an ideology that
rewards women who adhere to patriarchal and capitalist ideologies. The fact
that Jane has trouble finding the collective benefits for women in women's
consumer magazines is not surprisingDthey are couched in ideologies that deny
The purpose of this study has been to explore how capitalist and
patriarchal ideologies shape the ways in which women view themselves and their
relationships to dominant culture. As mass-distributed publications produced by
powerful organizations and widely consumed by women, women's consumer magazines
serve as connections between dominant ideologies and millions of women
regardless of race, class, and sexual identity. This makes them ideal texts in
which to explore questions of ideology, resistance, and women's identities.
In many ways, the types of readings produced by the women who
participated seemed contingent upon which social group they identified with. If
specific characteristics of Woman were impossible or unrealistic for women to
adopt based on age, race, and sexuality, then women criticized those
characteristics, rather than regard themselves as inadequate for their failure
to conform to them. For instance, older women did not seem to feel threatened
or pressured to have teenage bodies, lesbians and bi-sexual women rejected the
heterosexual mandate in women's magazines, and women of color disregarded or
altered beauty prescriptions for white women to fit their skin color or hair
However, aspects of Woman that seemed attainable were less easy to
dismiss. For instance, women's magazines often promote "sure-fire" exercises
that will make any woman look like the model who demonstrates the technique. In
this way, ideologies in women's magazines construct body type as a matter of
choice. You really can have a perfect, healthy body if you want one. Following
this logic, women who do not have perfect bodies choose to be unhealthy, unfit,
and unfeminine, "decisions" which carry a wide range of punishments. Many of
the participants, while knowing that such exercises or diet products will not
transform their bodies, still felt obligated to perform or purchase them. When
the demands of Woman remain within the realm of familiar possibilities, women
seemed less able to resist them.
Some of these observations suggest that women tend to produce
negotiated readings of women's consumer magazines, which partly reinforces the
predictions of some researchers who argue that women's magazines socialize women
into traditional ideologies of womanhood. However, as Radway (1986) suggested,
women's dissatisfaction with dominant media images may offer an opportunity to
examine how a social order based on patriarchal and capitalist ideologies is
"one that is constructed to serve the needs of others and therefore one that can
be changed" (p. 111). In itself, feminist research that adopts the techniques
of consciousness-raising groups offers a valuable opportunity for women to
jointly examineDand resistDoppressive ideologies that devalue and deny women's
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