Are we too hard on women's magazines?

Jennifer Lawrence on the cover of Flare magazine.

Jennifer Lawrence on the cover of Flare magazine.

As someone who works in magazines and, outside of work, devours them, I’m no stranger to the criticisms levelled at the mag industry. For instance: the images used are unrealistic, of impossibly beautiful women who appear to be flawless thanks to the magic of Photoshop. Also: they perpetuate a Western beauty ideal that at best, sees women solely as consumers and at worst, commodifies and demeans them.

I understand these criticisms. I get that some people might look at the needlessly photoshopped picture of Jennifer Lawrence on a recent cover of Canadian magazine Flare and roll their eyes. But my question is: where do most of these beauty ideals come from? Hollywood.

I’m all for diversifying the range of images we see in mags – it’s crazy to think that Australian magazines are overwhelmingly filled with images of white women, when our population is so much more diverse than that. But the root of the problem, I believe, really lies with the American film industry, which supplies magazines with their cover stars every month.

Magazines have a very small pool from which to choose their cover stars each month. The celeb (and these days, it’s almost always a celebrity, except for some high fashion mags which still use models occasionally) has to have something to publicise (film, fragrance, album etc), they have to fit the brand (Jennifer Aniston is an ideal Marie Claire cover girl but would be too old for Cosmo, for instance) and they need to be identifiable to the readers (Julia Stone can cover Yen, for example, but CLEO readers wouldn’t necessarily know who she is).


When editors have selected their small pool, based on this criteria, they then search for recent images of the celebs they’ve chosen. And yep, usually the best looking images win the coveted cover spot. And before you say, “Well, just put someone who’s not a celebrity on the cover,” sorry, but that’s not an option for mainstream mags. They simply will not sell without a bankable cover star.

But while people have no problem petitioning magazines for more images of “real women” (like the petition that asked CLEO and Cosmopolitan to end their use of Photoshop last year), I’d like to see more of us sitting out of Hollywood films that promote unrealistic standards of beauty, too. After all, this is where our cover models come from. Why aren’t we banging on to movie producers and TV execs about the need for more normal-looking men and women in their casts? Why is it necessary that our actors be really, really ridiculously good-looking?

Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie.

This is even more salient when you think of characters in film and TV who are actually meant to be average-looking. Carrie, recently given a reboot by director Kimberley Pierce, stars the gorgeous, cherub-faced Chloe Grace Moretz. Not exactly the plain, mousy girl with greasy hair and spotted skin described in Stephen King’s book. Did the casting director feel that we’d have greater empathy for Carrie if she were pretty? Or would it mean that more people bought tickets to see the film in the first place?

Detractors of mags demand that they better reflect real life, but why not TV and film? For every normal-looking Lena Dunham, replete with average boobs and tummy rolls and blotchy skin, there’s a thousand rom-coms where the lead actress has to look like Katherine Heigl in order to land Seth Rogen.

This, to me, is a much bigger problem than a retouched image on a mag cover. When even plain-looking characters who come from books originally are given Hollywood makeovers, the people we see become so homogenised (slim, blonde, pretty) that it’s hard to tell them apart. Indeed, Tina Fey wrote, “I have never seen a picture of Sienna Miller where I didn’t say, ‘That girl is pretty. Who is that?’” It leads to flatter, less nuanced storytelling, because we all know that we’re meant to feel empathy for the pretty girl (not to be confused with the beautiful-but-bitchy girl; we hate her).

I hope we do see a bigger range of women in the media – women of different ethnic backgrounds, like Mindy Kaling. Women who are better known for their comic prowess than their good looks, like Amy Poehler. Women who have bad hair days and pimples and cellulite, like all of us do. And I hope to see them on the covers of mainstream magazines.

But the only way that’s going to happen is if these women are given the same amount of airtime and attention as the Jessicas (Alba, Aniston, Chastain), and therefore become as bankable as them. If you want mags to change, stop seeing the Judd Apatow movies that pair insanely hot women with hairy, overweight dudes. Stop watching TV shows starring seven guys and one incredibly beautiful woman. Start demanding the stars you want to see on mag covers by watching them do their thing on screen.