I secretly love women’s magazines. Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue. I always have. As a girl who’d grown up with all brothers, teen versions of these magazines played the part of a knowledgeable older sister, answering questions about makeup and fashion and boys with an air of worldly knowledge and authority. I loved Jane Austen at this time, for much the same reason. Though my mom didn’t exactly approve of the magazines, she let me read them anyway, and would often thumb through them herself, earmarking some of the more meaningful pieces. “Look, here’s an article about college and career options!”
Her interest in the magazines came, I suspect, from her own search for a female role model. From high school construction jobs to a career in civil engineering, her offbeat interests required her to forge paths with very few women to look to for guidance: when she got her first job her boss had to clean out the women’s bathroom, which they had been using as storage—they had never hired a woman before. She had spent so much of her energy creating a place for herself, something her male colleagues took for granted, that she became extra sensitive to the influences and the role models her only daughter adopted. She tried to respect my independence while teaching me to pick and choose the best from the not-so-great.
In the years since those teen magazines, I have become more perceptive to the unrealistic and downright harmful beauty standards they peddle. Yet I still love to read them, and often do when I’m waiting at the grocery store check stand or the doctor’s office. Despite my criticism, I still love that experienced voice and, most of all, that sense of community with other women.
It’s a community we don’t often experience, is it? My first reaction to other women, hard as I try not to, is to size them up. To compare and categorize and compete. It’s what we’re trained to do, and it makes it difficult to find a sense of security and acceptance with any but our closest girlfriends. Even when we do commiserate, the conversation is often focused on our insecurities and flaws, “I need to lose ten pounds andthen I’ll feel great about myself,” or on men, “How can I keep my boyfriend interested?” Our sense of female community is deeply, tragically flawed. But still we crave it, and that’s why we continue to buy magazines that peddle the same stale advice.
Though I think these magazines deserve more credit than we give them—their occasional articles on abortion and careers and sexual assault have done more to bring the feminist question to the general public than any exclusively “feminist” magazine—I think the fact that women flock to them is very telling, and very troubling. Why is there no other forum where women can interact as a community? Why is there no place for this conversation, free of censorship by an advertizing culture that capitalizes on female insecurity? Why are we taught from girlhood to keep other women at a distance, to see them first and foremost as competitors and not allies? I think the reason we keep buying these magazines is because we’ve never had the real thing. It’s like eating stale Saltines because we’ve never been allowed to have steak. The magazines only seem satisfying because of our desperate need for something more. But they ultimately leave us empty.
It’s only when I look at the outlets available to men—numerous uncensored forums for them to express opinions and information on subjects that are important to them, especially political and social issues—that I begin realize the tragically stunted state of women’s discourse. And it makes me wonder how our society would be different if we could change things. If we allowed women to speak freely and openly about public policy, for example—if this massive conversation was available in numerous media and print outlets, free from the pernicious advertisements directed at women, if the conversation was given the same seriousness as is given to conversations driven by men—how would our leaders respond? I can guarantee the priorities of the world’s leaders would be very different if the female voice was given a microphone and taken seriously.
The fact that this conversation is consistently forced out by the loud clamor of consumerism is, I believe, evidence of the truly disruptive potential of a unified women’s voice. Make us feel like we have to buy this and that and we won’t have the energy or the resources to fight for an equal place in a world that is equally ours. If allowed to use our energy and our intelligence to their fullest potential, we’d rock the boat and do more than upset the status quo. We’d destroy it.
When we find our voice and force it to the public square, we’ll change the world.
When do we begin? Well, now, that’s up to you.