Then And Now: The Changing Landscape Of Women’s Media

How women were expected to act, dress, and think “back then” has changed dramatically, but we still have work to do.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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!

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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.”

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“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.”

Jason Lloyd-Evans (via Allure)

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.


“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

Jen Kerns, a journalist who’s been in the industry for over a decade, vividly remembers sunbathing on the deck of her lake house in the fifth grade with a stack of glossy magazines and feeling that pressure to look like the thin, blonde, gorgeous models on the pages inside.

“Being a slightly overweight kid, it made such an impression on me that I started crash dieting, binge-exercising in my Olivia Newton-John leg warmers, and drinking diet sodas at the age of 10,” she says. “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, or in my case on the deck of that lake house, bathing suit size!”

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In addition to being more size-inclusive, there’s also been a valiant initiative across women’s media to portray a wide range of ethnicities. For example, it’s become somewhat common to see a spectrum of skin tones on the cover of a magazine.

Another example: Michelle Lee, Allure’s editor in chief, has made it a personal mission to feature more Asian women in the magazine’s pages. Their June 2018 Hair Guide issue was revolutionary in that it featured three different covers with Asian women, only the third time putting an Asian woman on the cover in the publication’s history. It’s a long string of efforts like these that get us closer to the finish line.

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

In that sense, the focus has abruptly shifted from “doing things for your man” to doing things for yourself, she notes. Kerns agrees that women’s media is more positive this decade than it ever has been.

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“From advice on how to land the perfect job or to how to create ‘whisper networks’ on salaries to ensure equity in pay for females, the media is much more supportive of women,” she says. “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.”

Ellefson points out that women’s media is also less afraid to cover politics—particularly feminist politics—and that women’s magazines are even leading the way when it comes to in-depth, investigative journalism. 

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On that note, we’ve also seen an increase in magazines that depart from traditional household publications and instead cater to women’s niche interests. The Establishment, a feminist magazine created by and for women, is a prime example. SWAAY media, which serves female entrepreneurs, is another.

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

“There are still far too many unreasonable expectations that society places on women and girls—from unreasonable expectations of how we look and how much we weigh to being able to ‘have it all’ and be a superwoman at work and at home,” Ossorio points out. “Today’s women and girls need to define themselves and set their own standards of beauty and success.”

“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,” she continues. “Women of color, lesbian and gay women, transgender women, and women with disabilities. Our power lies in recognizing our differences and celebrating them.”

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Though they’ll take all the help they can get from men, it’s ultimately women who will continue to drive this important change. Maybe that means sending in letters to the editor when you see something you like or dislike, or perhaps it translates to making phone calls to your elected officials or even running for office yourself. Whatever the case, the most important way to make change is to step off of those comfortable sidelines and enter the game.

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