It started in the high school library, with Sassy and Mademoiselle. My parents never outright forbid my sister and I to buy fashion magazines, or any magazine; I’d had a subscription to Rolling Stone from age thirteen and my sister began reading Premiere in elementary school. We fought over my mom’s copy of TV Guide and pretended to understand the articles in The New Yorker.
But I also knew my parents didn’t exactly approve of fashion magazines. They thought them silly and irrelevant to their daughters’ lives, but from the first moment I flipped through a glossy magazine -- I don’t remember where, probably at the local library or maybe the hair salon -- I was enthralled.
Some kids spent their free periods in high school smoking or sneaking off-campus, shoplifting or having sex. Me? I spent mine in the high school library, reading back issues of every fashion magazine I could find. (Which was racy in its own way; I learned about both fellatio and cunnilingus from Cosmopolitan.)
“It’s kind of ironic that you read so many of these,” my sister said recently, gesturing at the tidy stack of Vogue, Elle, InStyle, and Glamour on my coffee table. “I mean, you don’t care about fashion.”
She’s right, but she’s also wrong. It’s true that, as a freelance writer and editor, my day-to-day wardrobe consists of sweaters, t-shirts, and Levi’s. In the summer I’ll go wild and wear solid-color sundresses, tank tops, and cut-off shorts. I have almost nothing left from my days of working in an office, none of the button-down shirts, dark pants, and neat skirts that always felt like a costume once I put them on, no matter how much I liked them on the rack. I am equally unadventurous with skin care and makeup, having sworn loyalty to Burt’s Bees lip balm and the Body Shop’s tea tree oil face wash years ago and never looked back.
Yet each month I read articles about beauty treatments, linger over reviews of eyeliners, and gaze at dresses and handbags that cost more than my mortgage. I am acutely aware that I am an outsider looking in, my face pressed to the glass of The Life I Don’t Have.
But that’s part of why I love reading fashion magazines. Because rather than making me feel somehow inadequate or incomplete, these pages of aspirations remind me just how much I appreciate the life that I have chosen for myself -- and that other women just as resolutely choose other paths. From the very beginning, these glimpses into other lives have been a large part of the allure (pardon the pun) that these glossy pages hold for me: they provided different perspectives, different ways to exist in the world.
And those perspectives go beyond clothes and makeup. Some of the most powerful and insightful reporting I’ve ever read has come from the pages of Elle and Marie Claire, which address international, health, and environmental issues with a regularity that puts many general-interest (and male-focused) titles to shame. Vogue regularly profiles female artists that deserve wider recognition, and features innovative photography; and Glamour is one of the few mainstream outlets that regularly discuss reproductive rights and abortion.
I was raised to believe that girls and women could accomplish anything, and I identified as a feminist long before I opened my first copy of Mademoiselle. But having tangible examples of what women can accomplish in publishing and journalism -- as the ones overseeing, and writing for, the magazines -- to say nothing of the extraordinary women that are the subjects of those profiles and interviews, helped move my feminist beliefs out of the realm of the intellectual and abstract, and into one that was more quotidian and varied. I saw how women that had nothing in common with me combined their intellect and passion and activism -- and, yes, feminism -- to excel in fields that were light-years away from my own, and their confidence inspired me.
All that said, I must also admit that these magazines, and the industries they are most closely aligned with, are not without their flaws. And even I, who can clearly wax philosophical about how glossy publications have enriched my life, find at least one article or layout a month that raises concerns.
Consumerism is often glorified to a ridiculous extent, and it’s no secret that very specific images of beauty and desirability crowd these pages. I cringe at just how heteronormative some of these titles are and how clumsily they telegraph their embrace of “larger” women (a designation that seems to vary from magazine to magazine, not to mention year to year). These magazines are far from perfect, and they represent an entire system that is far from perfect—a system that encompasses advertising, entertainment, big business, and what our society seems to desire and venerate at any particular moment. (Whether those desires are organic and amplified by the aforementioned industries, or whether those industries create and promote a certain ideal calculated to appeal to the widest swath of society as possible, is a topic for another essay.)
So yes, I recognize the flaws; and there are magazines I’ve abandoned over the years because they became too consumerist, too reluctant to publish articles that have even a hint of depth or intelligence, and too enamored of short “advertorials” and multi-page beauty spreads that read more like an endless parade of ads. I understand the need to be profitable, but pandering is a different beast altogether.
Speaking of ads, I’ve found a way to subvert the consumerism, and also lighten the constant strain on my coffee table. Years ago I began removing the perfume ads, because I didn’t like the smell. Somewhere along the way that morphed into removing consecutive pages of advertisements, a task that some months results in a stack of discarded pages almost as tall as those that remain in the magazine’s binding. I do this to make it easier to find the articles I actually want to read, but also because I feel like in my own tiny way, I’m creating my ideal magazine: all of the content, none of the filler. As an added bonus, my toddler daughter and elderly dog both love playing with the slick pages that scatter my floor, moving ads for shoes and clothes and body spray around like so many oversize playing cards.
I don’t know if my daughter will read magazines -- fashion or otherwise -- when she’s older. But if she does, I hope she’ll talk to me about what she finds in their pages, what representations of girls and women she relates to and which ones she finds entirely false; which glimpses into other people’s lives she rejects wholeheartedly, and which cause her to dream beyond her own world, to find ideas and inspirations that will shape her own path.