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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fourth Web Papers
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Exploring the social implications of beauty through the women's fashion magazine


Amy Martin

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. John Berger

The media network has its idols, but its principal idol is its own style which generates an aura of winning and leaves the rest in darkness. It recognizes neither pity nor pitilessness.
- John Berger



Ever since my early adolescence I've loved women's fashion magazines. Most of the time I am an indiscriminating reader, I flip through the glossy pages without a thought, the bright pictures and funky typography eye candy that is the fluff of my literary interests. To me, the magazines are like watching T.V. - a way to escape the world, some intellectual downtime. Yet, I am not so nave as to be oblivious to the common perception of the social implications of the women's fashion magazine. It, like all other media, feeds the machine of the Western ideal of feminine beauty. In this essay, I want to examine John Berger's quotes about men, women and the media and their relation to the societal implications of fashion magazines and the concept of female beauty. Are fashion magazines anything more than pedestals that promote the impossible standard of beauty? Is the existence of such a standard evil? Is it ever acceptable to want to fit the standard of beauty? Do women try to live up to these beauty ideals for themselves or for someone else? Is it to acceptable to want to be beautiful for you but not to want to be beautiful to attract someone else?


One of the central ideas of John Berger's book Ways of Seeing is that in our Western visual tradition men are active and women are passive. Our pictorial tradition is dominated by a presupposed male viewer who watches the female subject. She is thus merely an inactive object, existing solely for the male gaze. Berger postulates that women's place in this tradition leaves them to merely watch themselves being looked at. One can argue that such a visual tradition is perpetuated by the women's fashion magazine. For the purposes of this essay I've chosen five women's magazines from the past year. All of the covers feature a smiling, thin, young woman in revealing clothing, despite the month of publication. Each clearly represents the beauty "standard" of our age, a standard which celebrates women who are skinny and who display their fit, but not too muscular, bodies in tight, minimal clothing. The cover models smile coyly out at the viewer. If we interpret such covers through our heteronormative standards, why would women need to be smiling coyly out at other women, scantily clad to sell magazines? Using this heteronormative standard, if women's magazines were created for other women, why couldn't they or wouldn't they have scantily clad men on their covers? Or women dressed in sweaters, fittingly for the December issue? Through pictography alone, women's magazines perpetuate the iconographical tradition of woman as a sexual object on display for a male viewer.


Once one moves from the pictorial objectification of women on the covers of these magazines, one focus is drawn to the text of such covers. The captions continue to impose the idea that there exists a single standard of beauty that exists in the cover model as well as reinforce the heteronormative message of the picture. These headlines often focus on heterosexual sex and relationships and female physical appearance or "beauty". "His secret pleasure points", "Help is here! Great hair on a daily basis", "6 mystery moods guys get into and how to decode "them", "Celeb hair DOS & DON'TS", "Brand- New Makeup The 8 Best Looks for Fall", "The Body Trap What's Keeping You from Losing Lbs?", "How to Get Rid of Bad Breath, Itchy Butt Crack and Other Mortifying Body Bummers" scream some of the headlines of Cosmo, Allure, and Glamour. There is a connection between all three topics of these headlines their advertisement that women need to buy the magazine in order to better understand the opposite sex, to be more beautiful to the opposite sex, and to be more sexually appealing to the opposite sex. All of which seem to be connected- if you make yourself beautiful by the means we tell you, men will want you. A sum total that is consistently telling the consumer she is not good enough as she is now, that she needs to look at herself and her outward appearance, and take the magazine's tips to modify her existing physical self. Such headlines are inextricably linked with the magazine's cover model because she serves as the poster child who embodies the headlines, who has a hot hairstyle and the brand new makeup for fall, who knows his secret pleasure points.


The message to the target consumer is that she obviously has to undergo self change in order to meet an imaginary beauty ideal that the magazine promotes. Berger's second quote emphasizes the idea of the idol in the media. The fashion magazine's cover girls are such idols, who as symbols of the beauty ideal that the magazines promote, are efficiently the cream of the beauty crop. They are the winners that Berger refers to. In the world of the fashion magazine and its upholding of the beauty standard, physical fulfillment of the standard is winning, and if you too- take the tips the cover model embodies, you can be like her- you can be a winner. In "winning", we see an association between beauty and power, that by being physically attractive, you have a better chance of holding a high place in our social hierarchy.


The paradox inherent in the beauty standard, as parlayed by the magazine, is that it is ever changing. How would Cosmo survive if the "Hot New Hairstyles" were the same month to month, year to year? The instability of the standard, its constant transitions and transformations, make it an unobtainable goal while reinforcing its strength. Since so few ever reach it, the goal is thought to be worthwhile. After all why would anyone want to achieve such standards, if everyone easily could? Thus, we see that the energy inherent in keeping up with this arbitrary standard is exhausting. Yet, perhaps because of the impossibility of achieving such a goal, many women try to keep up with such a standard. We use fashion magazines as our guides to these standards, as the front that informs us about the changes in the standard and how we can convert our natural selves into the new standard.


This year, Glamour had a circulation of 2,509,566 in the United States alone, that's just women who get the magazine delivered, and excludes all the impulse store sales. And those numbers only represent one of the many women's fashion magazines. In buying these magazines, we support the current format of the women's fashion magazine. If one accepts John Berger's ideas and their application to the women's fashion magazine, in buying such magazines we are supporting both the objectification of women and the idea of a singular beauty standard. We support the notion that we have to alter the physicality we were born into and fulfill such a standard. Ironically, we are the society who is setting such standards before ourselves by embracing the idea of the standards through our consumerism of these magazines.


Why? Perhaps the huge sales of such magazines show that there is something inherently pleasurable to us within these magazines, something perhaps even beautiful that brings us to buy them. Societal standards of beauty may not be inherently oppressive. Perhaps women even enjoy such standards. If this is not the reason why women are buying fashion magazines, the other extreme is that they are buying them because they feel pressure to engage in society's idealized standard of beauty. If this is the case, the fashion magazine becomes merely an outlet for the objectification of the female subject to fulfill the male viewer's gaze.


I can't accept the notion that women have become so socialized to a beauty standard that they disagree with that, if they feel the fashion magazine is oppressive, they still continue to buy it to live up to such a standard. Nor do I want to believe that women would only buy women's magazines because they feel such standards will lead them to be attractive to the implied male viewer. I have to question why the desire for some sort of physical beauty is always assumed to be oppressive to women. If one feels that one looks good, one has better self esteem. Yet, ideas of one's own personal physical beauty and sexual attractiveness won't always fit the norms that society has created. The tension between the two ideas of beauty is the painful part. Women can be aware of such a standard, yet chose to adhere to only the parts of it that she chooses, for whatever personal motivation. Stepping beyond Berger, women can be their own viewers and their own objects. We can reclaim beauty as our own, choosing the grooming changes to partake in, in order to please whatever individual standard we have created for ourselves. Since it is impossible to escape society's norms, I acknowledge that such "choices" will always be informed by the standards of culture. Even if we own our own beauty, our notions of beauty are inevitably informed by the societal standards of beauty. It is obviously a challenge to deviate from that which is perceived as "normal" in society. Even if one is aware that few people fit into such standards of beauty.


Within the mandates of the fashion magazine exists the ambiguity of the social implications of beauty. Not only do such magazines serve as dictates of beauty standards that we may choose to accept or reject, that we may call oppressive or creative, we have to consider their roles as a unique space only for women. Glamour's November 2004 issue, the one of "Help is here! Great hair on a daily basis!", also has the headline"50 health secrets, for women only". This issue also includes an editorial on the lack of women running for Congress and an article on women soldiers in Iraq. Although the women's fashion magazine can serve as the embodiment of the oppressive standard of female beauty in our culture, it has enormous potential as a space that tackles the political, cultural and social issues women confront daily in our society. I wonder if covers could feature pictures of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her stodgy business suits with headlines that read "Why Aren't More Women Running for Congress?" Even if the women's magazines of the future included all the junk, whether you find it fun or oppressive, that they currently feature on their covers inside their binding what would the effect be if they changed the image of the cover model? Even this singular step could begin a tradition that breaks the cycle Berger writes of. This new tradition would promote active women, rather than embracing the portrayal of woman as passive. Perhaps slowly the women's fashion magazine could become a space where the societal implications of beauty had something to do with character rather than simply coy gazes. Would women buy such a magazine? Or do we accept and embrace the current image and issues that the women's fashion magazine projects on their covers?



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