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This should come as a surprise to no one, but: The first magazine I ever subscribed to was Sassy.
I received a fat envelope of sales materials on the subject; I must have been on some kind of tweener mailing list (although it was the late 80s and “tweener” was not a word we used); I have long suspected the Especially For Girls book club. Regardless, I got this junk mail lettting me know a new magazine for girls was in the offing. There was a picture of a cover, which bore the visage of a cheery brunette and a paintbrush-applied “Sassy,” and I kept it, for some reason -- there was something about the pitch that appealed to me.
Some time after I was startled to discover the magazine itself on the newsstand at my local drugstore. Back then, after school my two neighborhood friends (really frenemies, but again, it was the late 80s and this was not a word we used) and I would get off the bus and walk to the nearby strip mall, to test drugstore perfumes (Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth! Charlie! Exclamation!) and peruse the current offerings from Wet n’ Wild, and then go to the frozen-yogurt joint to take up a booth for an hour eating fat-free chocolate-vanilla swirl out of a waffle cone with a long-handled plastic spoon.
I remember being startled because I had thought a lot about that magazine, but had never really accepted that it was a legitimate publication. OK, the real, semi-embarrassing reason was that in one of the endless stories I was writing -- I was optimistic enough to think of it as a “novel” -- I had created the magazine to my own specifications -- even never having read it -- and it played a fairly significant role in the lives of my cast of ten distinct tweener-girl characters comprising two warring cliques.
Ugh, I can’t believe I just told you that.
At any rate, I had invented this magazine to the extent that seeing a real version was curiously exciting. I bought it. The original Sassy was heavy and glossy and a little oversized; already it felt more substantial than the Seventeen magazines I sometimes flipped through, but which always felt a little out of my league (sharing a middle school with Niki Taylor may have influenced this assessment). I rapidly became an obsessive reader, and carefully kept five years of back issues, until they were thrown away without my knowledge several years after I'd moved out of my father's house. (Note to Dad: I KNOW YOU DIDN'T DO IT. I do not hold you responsible. At least not anymore.)
Even as I was reading Sassy, I continued to read my mother’s more adult women’s mags: Cosmo, Glamour, Mademoiselle. I still bought Seventeen when it looked interesting. Although these magazines often annoyed or frustrated me, I loved them -- I loved having access to a particular realm of media that was girl-stuff only. They were manuals in how to be feminine -- depending on what kind of feminine you wanted to be -- and given that I grew up living with a single dad, I needed all the help I could get. My mom was around, but not on a daily basis, and without these magazines I likely would have evolved into the butchiest butch you ever did see (which would have been fine, but I do dig the femme side of things far better).
The overall effect of such social conditioning can be both good and bad. Women’s magazines do often contribute to gender socialization, and sometimes in negative ways -- but they are also spaces where the things considered frivolous and disposable (like, say, makeup, or fashion, or trashy novels, or how to give a blowjob without gagging) can be discussed without shame.
By the time I completed my first Master’s degree, I was still a closet women’s-mag reader. I wrote my thesis on women’s magazines, comparing the portrayal of models in “traditional” women’s media with those in the suddenly burgeoning plus-size-ladymag market, specifically MODE. See, standard models engage in “ritualistic” touch and posing, whereas the plus-sized models in MODE touched each other and carried themselves more like average everyday people do.
Yeah, it went on like that, for a lot of words. I also had slides.
I did this thesis partly as an excuse to read a lot of women’s magazines, and -- truth be told -- partly to validate my continuing interest in something that was supposed to be beneath me, intellectually-speaking. I resented the suggestion that I should be proud to have Susan Bordo’s "Unbearable Weight" on my bookshelf, but embarrassed to leave Vogue out on the coffee table.
One of the first things they tell you in baby feminist school is to stop reading women’s magazines, because they make you feel badly about yourself. Whether this is universally true is still a matter of scientific study: While research exists that makes the case that reading them measurably contributes to the development of eating disorders in young women, other analyses find little evidence of such effects.
My own highly unscientific assessment is that women’s media has different effects on different people, depending on where they are with their self-esteem. Can these magazines make women unhappy? Absolutely. Could they do better at improving the diversity of people they represent (on all possible fronts)? No doubt. Do they occasionally screw up? For sure. Does that mean they are a scourge to be scrubbed from the Earth? I have trouble saying so. Mass media has the power to do bad, but it also has the power to do enormous good -- it connects us, it tells our stories, and it helps us to understand ourselves. It helps us to feel less alone.
More than that, women's magazines have also often been the first mainstream media outlets to address serious gender-based social problems -- on topics as far-ranging as the glass ceiling to female genital mutilation -- with any gravitas.
So even while I often criticize it, I have always loved women’s media, be it maligned, misguided, or misunderstood, mainstream or underground, feminist or consumption-driven. I loved it when it was all print; I loved it when self-publishing technologies gave everyday ladies (and non-ladies) the opportunity to share their own feelings about girl stuff; I loved it when Jezebel and her irreverent ilk came around to simultaneously attack, remake and participate in the ladymedia model.
People continue to be surprised when they find out I like women’s media of all kinds, from Bitch to BUST to Marie Claire to Rookie. They boggle when I tell them how great Teen Vogue is, or why I think Lucky is one of the best magazines ever. But so much of it is soooo superficial, people say, how do you stand it?
I just savor it one page at a time.