Women’s Magazines: Part of the Problem, or Heart of the Problem?

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was certified by the Secretary of State.  This amendment ensured that women had the right to vote, and gave Congress the power to enforce this via law.  There was some grumbling from those who argued that the federal government had no right to amend the Constitution in this way when the constitutions of a few states specifically forbade women from voting, but they were quickly silenced by a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

It was a great victory for equality and one of many successes, large and small, in the larger battle for true equality of the sexes – a battle which is far from over, as evidenced by an advertisement in the latest Women’s Day magazine.

The ad presents itself as a list of tips for a working woman trying to get a raise, and gives eight ‘simple steps’ – the first of which advises women wanting to be recognized for their professionalism and hard work to wash their genitals with special cleansers and tucking a few perfumed crotch wipes in their bags just to make sure.  Further down the list are less important concepts such as demonstrating your worth to the company, listing personal successes and achievements, and referencing quotes from other people in the company praising your efforts.

Whether the advertisement itself, or the fact that our culture marginalizes and invalidates women to the point where such an advertisement would be offered without a second thought is more distressing is left as an exercise to the reader.  It’s just one more way in which the media reflects and perpetuates the inequalities we as a culture deal with every day.

Let me disclaim here that I am a white male, and although I do my best to seek out and shine the harsh light of day on inequalities as I find them, I am myself the beneficiary of white privilege and male privilege in ways that I may not fully understand.  I certainly know that I have had opportunities and assistance I might not have received were I female or a different race, but I also know that there are many of those same opportunities and benefits that I never realized I got simply because of my status as a white male.  It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water.

However, I do not have advertisers telling me I will never be pretty or thin or successful enough unless I buy the latest clothing or makeup or jewelry (at least, not to the same degree).  I am not a victim of the subtle sexism of lowered expectations.  I do not have to deal with patronization from those who think I need extra consideration because I’m just a girl in a big bad world.  Although I am thankful that I am spared these frustrations, I am bothered that many are not.

Granted, advertising has come a long way since the infamous ads from the 1920’s telling women they will never be attractive or romantically satisfied unless they douche with Lysol, but as Women’s Day and Summer’s Eve demonstrate above, it’s less a change of heart and more an appreciation for subtlety.

Many of these advertisements appear in women’s magazines – long the domain of such progressive ideas such as ‘how to please your man in bed’, ‘what makeup to buy this season’, and my personal favorite, ‘how to lose weight so you will be pretty’.  Their stock-in-trade is convincing women that they are disgusting shambling horrors, and only the newest makeup, the fanciest clothes, the skinniest waistlines can give them even the tiniest chance of personal fulfillment – which they define as a monogamous heterosexual relationship, children, and maybe a cute little job if the hubby doesn’t mind.

These concepts are heavily marketed to women because these are things many women worry about.  Many women worry about these ideas because they are heavily marketed to women.  We have become a culture that depends on advertisers to tell us who we are and what we want, and this is only one of the uglier symptoms of the larger disease.  We as a culture have lost the ability to define for ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we think.  We cried out for easy answers to those questions, and for our sins, those answers were given to us.

Until we as a culture shift from defining ourselves in terms of others, to defining ourselves – period, this problem will continue.  Women will continue to be told they are ugly until we push back and say no, they are beautiful.  Minorities will continue to be told they are weak and alien until we push back and say no, they are strong, and they are the same as us.

Culture shift is difficult and messy but it starts with one person changing their  mind and encouraging others to do the same.  Stop letting other people tell you what to think, and encourage your friends and family to think for themselves.  Get to know who you are, and then be that person.  If you have children, educate them in media literacy – equip them with the tools to recognize when someone is selling them a thing or an idea, and encourage them to cast a critical eye on the media in general, and advertising in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, a world-renowned cultural anthropologist said that.  Truer words have rarely been spoken.