If you were to transport yourself back in time 50, 60, or 70 years ago and drop by the local corner store to pick up a glossy women’s magazine, you’d be in for a rude, not-very-feminist-forward awakening. Time travel isn’t exactly feasible, though, so see if your grandmother has some old mags tucked away in the attic somewhere; or, more convenient yet, check out some clips that have been digitally preserved in various corners of the internet. Sure, the retro pictures may be charming, and some wistful part of you may even romanticize those decades gone by as being simpler, pre-digital times when people didn’t have to worry about curating immaculate Insta feeds or changing their relationship status for all to see. The reality, though, is that times were way different back then, and the outrageous expectations and standards placed on women were laughable at best.
On Dating and Sexist Standards
Over the years, and even somewhat recently, magazines have published some truly appalling articles that outline the way women ought to look, behave, and even think. In an effort to point out how far we’ve come (and how much further we have to go), Vice recently compiled a handful of clips from popular women’s magazines published in the 1950s and ՚60s. Some of the more egregious examples include a quiz from the 1957 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that helped mothers determine just how much marriage potential their daughters possessed. It stated that if a woman exhibited more than 10 specific behaviors, she wouldn’t have good luck finding a man willing to propose. Some of those outlined behaviors? Occasional partying, refusing to go to church every Sunday, and “petting”—engaging in any sort of physical contact, including kissing—while going steady. Vice also pulled an article from a 1965 issue of Cosmopolitan titled “38 Ways to Coddle a Man,” and it was not written tongue-in-cheek. The dated story outlined a series of rules women ought to obey if they wanted to keep a man around, including not telling him what’s wrong with his car even if you knew the answer (shout out to all you female mechanics) and giving him the stereotypical, doe-eyed gaze when he goes on and on about business matters—even if you’re bored out of your mind hearing about his office politics or would like to chip in with some good advice. Also, Skip Burzumato of Boundless uncovered dating advice in a 1938 issue of Mademoiselle that, in a move straight from Cher Horowitz’ dating playbook, advised women to have their mothers send flowers to their college dormitories in an effort to look more popular and desired. Because a sure sign of someone’s worth depends on whether others are interested! Though these examples may feel miles away, recent examples aren’t exactly uncommon. When Sable Yong, Allure’s digital beauty editor, started working for the magazine, she came across some rather questionable, not-so-distant archived stories. One of those was a 2012 article titled “Beauty Mistakes That Turn Men Off.” “I scrubbed it and rewrote [the article] in satire,” she explains. “There are more on-site, I’m sure. And I’m sure most of them are in-book repackages. I don’t have the time and energy to redo them all, but we do tend to update stories, if not for market reasons, then stuff like that, for sure.” Some of our favorite satirical advice from Yong’s article includes not wearing glitter because “men don’t like when you shine brighter than them,” not overdoing it with the mascara because “how’s a dude supposed to wife you up when your soul shutters are laced in black tar?” and avoiding showy manicures because “your colorful manicure might distract a man from…whatever it is men think about.” What we’d like to note here is that even though we do have disturbingly recent examples of misguided, outdated advice, we’re now living in a world where we’re mostly aware and progressive enough to quickly call these things out.
On Diversity and Unrealistic Expectations
Beyond dating, the ideal image of women portrayed in magazines has been, well, pretty homogenous. Things have gotten better in (very) recent years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
— Alexis Ohanian Sr. (@alexisohanian) May 30, 2018
“If you Google Image ‘women’s magazines,’ most of the front covers feature white, slender or fit, young—ageless—women with no cellulite or minimal wrinkles, if any,” says Cheri Ellefson, a gender studies professor at Ball State University. “Compared to 40, 30, and 20 years ago, media today does feature more women of color and women who do not fit the ‘white ideal’ model. This is obviously a positive.” “I could have certainly benefited from more positive messaging in the magazines, and I’m thrilled that girls nowadays have more positive messages. Thankfully, we’ve made progress in telling our girls that you’re more than your dress size …” —Jen Kerns
“I could have certainly benefited from more positive messaging in the magazines, and I’m thrilled that girls nowadays have more positive messages. Thankfully, we’ve made progress in telling our girls that you’re more than your dress size …” —Jen Kerns
The Shift to More Meaningful Content
Giving the boot to articles touting archaic rules and mind-numbing “advice” means we now have more space—literally—to provide meaningful content across women’s media. “It’s exciting to see the changes,” says Sonia Ossorio, a feminist who serves as president of the New York chapter of the largest nonprofit for women’s issues, National Organization for Women. “Within the last decade, publications like Marie Claire proactively made a conscious shift toward empowering its women readers and including news coverage on key issues impacting women and girls.” “Gone are the days when a magazine like Cosmopolitan was simply a Bedside Astrologer! Now, it’s about landing that perfect job, winning that promotion, and being the best you can be.” —Jen Kerns
“Gone are the days when a magazine like Cosmopolitan was simply a Bedside Astrologer! Now, it’s about landing that perfect job, winning that promotion, and being the best you can be.” —Jen Kerns
Looking Ahead and Furthering Change
All of this is proof of how far we’ve come since those “Ways to Coddle Your Man” days of yore. However, while the glaring differences between then and now mean that we’ve made some gigantic (heeled or otherwise) strides, we do have some work ahead of us. “We also need to embrace our diversity and elevate the voices of those who have been left out of the mainstream and who still face the biggest challenges … . Our power lies in recognizing our differences and celebrating them.” —Sonia Ossorio, National Organization for Women
“We also need to embrace our diversity and elevate the voices of those who have been left out of the mainstream and who still face the biggest challenges … . Our power lies in recognizing our differences and celebrating them.” —Sonia Ossorio, National Organization for Women