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The chick slicks.

Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women's Magazines

By Jennifer Nelson

Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2012, 267 pp., $16.00, paperback

In her 1990 essay on the business of women's magazines, "Sex, Lies, and Advertising," Gloria Steinem recalls one of many conversations she's had about freedom of the press in which the subject of women's magazines is summarily dismissed. These glorified catalogs aren't real journalism, she's told by yet another big-thinking man at a conference. It's a charge that leaves her musing on what seems to be a vicious cycle: if no one is willing to take women's magazines seriously, how can their harmful practices be reformed so that they "count" as journalism? Steinem writes,

   Though changes being made by women have
   been called more far-reaching than the
   industrial revolution--and though many
   editors try hard to reflect some of them in the
   few pages left to them after all the ad-related
   subjects have been covered--the magazines
   serving the female half of this country are still
   far below the journalistic and ethical
   standards of news and general interest

Steinem added, "Most depressing of all, this doesn't even rate an expose."

Twenty-three years later, Jennifer Nelson would appear to have written just that expose with Airbrushed Nation, a book that fuses history, anecdote, analysis, and a bit of industry watchdogging to look at how generations of women have been seduced by the glossy pages and bold cover lines of what Nelson calls the "chick slicks."

As someone who has spent the better part of adulthood failing to resist the siren call of the newsstand, I was taken by the book's subtitle: "lure and loathing" perfectly sums up the perfumed cloud of feeling that overtakes me at an airport newsstand when I'm trying to choose between Vogue and Marie Claire, only to curse myself as I buy both. What would this book reveal, I wondered, about the motivations of women's-mag consumers who know, objectively, that they're buying into an often-damaging fantasy? Could it make sense of the desire if not for transformation, then for escape, that glossies count on to make their monthly sell-through numbers?

As a longtime freelance writer who boasts that she's written for "practically every women's magazine on the newsstand," Nelson is in both a good and a bad position to write a book that turns an unflattering light on the culture of women's glossies. On the one hand, she's got plenty of stories from the trenches, as well as corroborating accounts from friends and contacts. On the other, though, biting the well-manicured hand that feeds you is generally a no-no, and for a freelance writer whose bread and butter is the glossies, a sure way to compromise your career. And that may be precisely why it's not clear what Airbrushed Nation wants to be. It's an indictment that never really indicts, a condemnation of fluff and artifice that nevertheless keeps turning back around for a big, showy air kiss.

There's no question that the book is well-researched. The first chapter offers a compelling history of how the modern women's magazine developed from publications like Godey's Lady's Book and The Delineator, with their thick fashion plates, tissue-paper dress patterns, and highbrow fiction; the second looks at the women's-magazine industry, a "pink ghetto" in which competition is a given and less fashion-focused magazines like Women's Health are redesigned and "Cosmo-ized" to attract a broader swath of readers. Echoing women's-magazine design, many of the book's pages are broken up with "glossy fact" boxes and quotes from industry insiders on everything from the teen girls' protest of Seventeen magazine's airbrushing of its models to the percentage "of Allure readers who began purchasing antiaging products in their twenties.

But while Nelson seems to think she's detonating some major truth bombs here, her need to end each chapter with a pat sentence or two of closure undermines its resonance. Take Airbrushed Nation's third chapter, "Truth in Advertising." In some ways, it reasserts much of what Steinem wrote in "Sex, Lies, and Advertising": that advertisers' primacy in women's-magazine content affects readers, creating in them feelings of dissatisfaction and need that all but guarantee the future purchase of products to make them thinner, prettier, sexier, happier. But the chapter also nicely outlines the interplay between feminism and advertising that became key to women's glossies in the 1970s and '80s, with taglines that winsomely co-opted movement rhetoric in the service of shilling Clairol hair dye ("To know you're the best") and Enjoli perfume ("I can bring home the bacon/fry it up in a pan ..."), and ultimately ended up bringing record numbers of female professionals into the ad industry itself. (Oddly, Nelson doesn't mention Virginia Slims, the first cigarette explicitly marketed to young, professional women and perhaps the most notable instance of a brand's evolution dovetailing with the rise of the mainstream women's movement, with its slogan, "You've come a long way, baby.") Yet, the chapter ends with Nelson's question, "Where do you draw the line as the reader? Perhaps you'll draw it where reasonable women are misled. Ultimately, only you can decide how advertising affects you."

This simplistic, buck-passing resolution contradicts much of what Nelson reports elsewhere in the chapter--for instance, the dramatic increase in sales of right-hand diamond rings and American Express cards in response to shrewdly executed ad campaigns. It contradicts her discussion of how subliminal messaging slips by the critical guard that astute readers pride themselves on keeping up. And it certainly doesn't jibe with her own close reading of two 2011 issues of Redbook and Glamour, in order to gauge their compliance with American Society of Magazine Editors guidelines on ad placement. If only the individual herself can decide how advertising affects her, isn't much of the point of this book, well beside the point?

Unfortunately, the idea of personal exceptionalism as a corrective to problematic institutional patterns is a theme that runs through Airbrushed Nation. At the end of a somewhat confusing chapter on the liberal bias of women's glossies, Nelson writes. "As with all editorial content in women's magazines, it's up to us, the readers, to use a discerning eye when evaluating political coverage and to insist that our favorite glossies present well-rounded political coverage." In closing the chapter on how health and safety features often overstate risks and skew statistics, she urges, "Refusing to be a victim is the only way we'll outsmart fear-mongering in the pages of women's glossies." And the chapter on how magazines foment a fear of female aging winds down with this: "To what extent women play into the cosmetic bag of goodies and the antiaging medical bag of bullshit being sold to them is still a choice. It's always been a choice, ladies."

But if that's true, what are we to make of the handwringing introduction, in which Nelson lays out her belief that exposing the wrinkle-fearing, celebrity-worshipping workings of women's glossies is a matter of utmost importance? If all that's needed to combat the reed-thin fashion ideals and emphasis on cosmetically enhanced agelessness is a skeptical eye, then why should a seasoned insider like Nelson worry about the effect of the glossies on her daughter's self-worth?

There's certainly an argument to be made for the women's magazine as a guilty pleasure that, like similarly female-targeted products from ice-cream bars to Hollywood rom-coms, is consumed with the explicit knowledge that it lacks any sustaining value. And perhaps Airbrushed Nation would be a better book if it made that argument. Instead, though, it both attacks and defends its target.

Part of the problem lies with the writing. One of Nelson's gripes against women's glossies--though true of many other magazines as well--is that individual writers rarely retain a unique voice once their copy is filed: their articles are slashed and reworked to fit whatever angle an editor has already decided upon; their real-women examples are folded into composites if they're not attractive, sympathetic, or tragic enough to fit an existing formula. So perhaps it's not surprising that Nelson's voice is difficult to pin down from chapter to chapter. In the introduction, it's chatty and girlfriend-y ("Let's get real ladies, because the magazines certainly aren't!"); in a discussion of fashion magazines' effect on the shrinking ideal-model size, it's sarcastic and confrontational ("What would you have [models] do to fit into the too-thin ideal, Ms. Von Furstenberg? Oh yeah, see the doctor more often and get help with their eating disorder when they hit a mammoth brick wall.... Shit, that's brilliant.") Like the writers of the service articles in the magazines she's discussing, Nelson seems to be going for a breezy, conversational tone, but her random deployment of four-letter words feels strangely forced. And the book's myriad grammatical and syntax errors don't help matters. (Sample sentence: "The first issue with Mia Farrow, the star of the movie The Great Gatsby, graced the cover.")

Ultimately, the reader is left with the sense that Nelson doesn't want out of the business she's trying her darndest to condemn. She leaves the burden of responsibility as much with readers as with the industry, in part to let us know that she can quit those Dior gowns and winking sex tips anytime she wants. You know, when she's ready. In that sense, Airbrushed Nation brings women's glossies no closer to respect and legitimacy than they were when Steinem issued her 1990 call to awareness. In making the systemic wrongs of a seductive industry into another personal choice for individual women, Nelson misses a crucial chance to re-envision the values of a medium she loves. It would be instructive to see such a project taken on by someone who expects more, and cares less.

Andi Zeisler is the cofounder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media, the nonprofit that has published the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture since 1996. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
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Title Annotation:Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women's Magazines
Author:Zeisler, Andi
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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