When I became a mother thirteen years ago I suddenly became more aware of all the “normal” images and headlines that surround my family. As my daughter got older I would often turn over magazine covers in the check out line before she could see (or read) them. The check-out aisle is the place my children are tempted with the worst possible “food” to consume and some of the worst possible messages about beauty, relationships, and ultimately value. It’s almost humorous the hoops one must jump through with our children to get bread and apples. I guess I can say no to the candy bar and give the reason not to eat one is to be able to look like the sexy skinny woman on the cover of a magazine (ironically placed next to each other.) “If you want to look like this, don’t eat that.” But do I want my daughter to look like the women on those covers? Last week Walmart attempted to discreetly remove Cosmopolitan Magazine from the check-out lines of its stores to a different location. Walmart had been in dialogue with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a group that is vocal about the “hyper-sexualized and sexually objectifying” content found in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Many advocates say this is a step forward in light of the #MeToo movement. However, there are many men and women criticizing Walmart’s decision. On twitter many voices expressed sentiments like this one, “Walmart using the #MeToo movement as an excuse to stop selling Cosmopolitan in checkout lines is pretty ridiculous. Censoring frank information about sex feeds into rape culture by denying girls knowledge about their sexuality and choices they can make for themselves” Many folks blamed religion and fundamentalism as part of the motivation to remove the magazine from the check out aisles. Interesting since Cosmopolitan describes itself as a, “bible for fun, fearless females.” Perhaps it does have a message or belief system attached? Vogue magazine raised their concerns in support of its fellow magazine and I have argued about their messages in my blog post here.
Unfortunately this worldview is completely wrong concerning what is best for girls. Statistics and specialists have voiced informed concerns for years about the dangers found in the message of a magazine like Cosmopolitan. Out of curiosity, I googled covers of Cosmopolitan. The images month after month are eerily similar. They all have a flashy thin white women with large breasts in provocative positions with some catchy headline about SEX. There were a couple covers with women of color and I found one that had a plus size model (normal sized person). Somehow talented female actors and musicians also allow themselves to be graced on the cover in provocative positions and sultry expressions. We call this beautiful. We call this empowered. Neither of these descriptions could be farther from the truth according to the research.
So what do the specialists and the statistics actually say about the effects of young women looking at pictures like this over and over again? What do they say about how the explicit material affects young women as they develop sexually? Is Cosmo a source of empowerment or rather, is it enslavement to a narrow, shallow idea of beauty and sexuality?
Consider the following statistics:
- 78% of 17 year old girls do not like their bodies
- 40% of 9-10 year old girls have been on a diet
- 60% of teenage girls compare their bodies to fashion models (and fall short)
- Over 80% of ten year olds fear being fat
- At age 12 a girl’s self esteem plummet compared to boys. There is a direct correlation between this number and societal beauty ideals placed on young women.
- Adolescent girls believe they would be happier if they were thinner and better looking
- Girl Scouts did on online survey in 2010 with over 1000 girls between the ages of 13-17. 9 out of 10 girls felt pressure by fashion and media to be skinny (and beautiful).
- By the time a girl is 16, she has seen more than 50,000 images aimed at her appearance.
The statistics above are linked to insecurity, eating disorders, earlier sexual encounters, depression, and the list goes on.
Statistics reflect that defining beauty in a narrow way repeatedly has a harmful effect on the young women in our lives. Rather than young women flourishing in the bodies and faces they have been given, they are given the false message of a narrow beauty ideal that is virtually impossible to achieve. (However, according to magazines like Cosmo, much of the beauty ideal can be achieved by purchasing the beauty products that pay thousands for ads in their magazines.)
What about the written sexual messages in the magazine? Are the articles found within the pages of Cosmopolitan bringing life and flourishing to young women? Some of the recent titles included, “How to Make Sex Videos less Awkward”, “WTF is Outercourse”, “Have Sexier Sex, Naughty Tips to Get you There”, and my favorite, “Sex Your Way, Kisses, Touches, and Positions to Get You There, Get it Girl!” So, sex is a means of achievement, videoing yourself having sex is normal, and naughtiness is a good thing. (Remember when it was a bad thing?) The key messages found in articles above suggest: sex is a casual activity, it’s a way to get what you want, it’s an activity for anyone, anytime. There is little or no mention of commitment, intimacy, love, or meaning when it comes to our sexual lives. Sex is communicated as a pleasurable, self fulfilling activity. There is also no denying a magazine such as Cosmopolitan communicates a direct correlation between what a woman looks like and how good her sex life can be. We owe our young women more.
Professionals have written numerous books and articles calling for change when it comes to our culture’s narrow and toxic beauty standard. One such writer, Laura H Choate, a professor at Louisiana State University, wrote a book called, Swimming Upstream, Parenting Girls for Resilience in a TOXIC Culture. The title alone speaks volumes. Our culture is toxic for young women. Toxic means poisonous, dangerous, harmful, injurious, virulent. Her writing beckons parents and others in authority to teach young women to go against the false messages found in beauty and fashion magazines. In Packaging Girlhood, Rescuing our Daughters from Marketer’s Schemes, Sharon Lamb and Lyn Brown encourage parents to consider the underlying messages found in the marketing of clothing and toys from little girls all the way through their teens. Toys and clothing are marketed as hot and sexy at a very early age. In their section on teens and musical lyrics they speak of this message, “Perhaps things have changed; the girls who withheld used to have the power. Now the sexy, the bold, and the addicted have a power all their own. The power comes from being looked at, from being acknowledged as out of control, a dirty girl, free, better than other girls.” The covers on magazines like Cosmopolitan convey the same message. It is a harmful one. A girl’s power should not come from being looked at but from who she is. Perhaps these books should be in the check out lines.
Just because a magazine publishes some informative articles on women’s sexual health and gender roles does not change the fact that the implicit message found throughout is narrow and harmful. Put a female psychologist on the cover and list her degrees and achievements. Or a young female CEO making a difference in her community. Or a teacher influencing her students. Adorn those women with the fashion of the day for all body types. If you really want to be a magazine that empowers, don’t limit your cover to sexual positions and tight clothing. I am thankful for Wal-Mart and their choice to move Cosmopolitan Magazine from the eyes of young women in the check-out line buying their groceries. Maybe I’ll go buy a candy bar.