On Ladymags and Liberty

A tale prompted by the Brooke Burmingham/Shape story, in which the magazine requested that Birmingham cover up her loose-skinned abdomen for a photo accompanying a story on her 170-pound weight loss:

Some years ago, I was freelancing at a women's magazine that did cute little "factoids" about staffers on the magazine's masthead, i.e. the "cast list" of all the editors and designers and other staff members—and, as at this magazine, freelance copy editors. That particular month, the "factoid" was to be "celebrity lookalikes," in which selected people on the masthead would share a celebrity comparison they'd heard about themselves.

I'd heard a smattering of celebrity lookalikes for myself over the years, but one immediately came to mind: Jack Palance. In college, one of my teachers said to me, apropos of nothing, "Something about you reminds me of Jack Palance"—as in then-octogenarian one-armed push-up performer Jack Palance of Shane, Halls of Montezuma, and City Slickers—which was hilarious. I submitted Jack Palance as my celebrity lookalike, partly in hopes that it would serve as an antidote to the string of other staffers who would be pointing out their resemblance to, say, Amanda Peet. (As it were, I underestimated at least one staffer, whose celebrity comparison was E.T.)

A few days later, a pert art assistant swung by my cubicle and asked if she could take a snapshot of me for the masthead. I knew that usually staffers supplied their own photos for such purposes, and asked why I needed my photo taken. She said as she took a couple of snapshots of me, "Oh, if we run it you can use whatever photo you want, but for now the editor just wants to make sure you're pretty enough that we can make a joke about you looking like Jack Palance." Cheese!

Left: Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Right: Jack Palance.

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My sympathies in the Birmingham/Shape bit instinctively go to Birmingham, for reasons that are too obvious to bother with here, though I will (perhaps tediously) point out the irony of a woman who is being hailed for her successful weight loss being asked to cover up one of the side effects of that very success. Seeing the loose flesh that often accompanies extreme weight loss doesn't neatly fit into the weight-loss-as-achievement narrative that magazines like Shape love to trumpet—in the photo in question, Birmingham is proudly smiling, showing that she doesn't consider her loose skin a detriment to her successful weight loss, but it does fly in the face of the idea that weight loss is some magic key to looking the way you've always dreamed.

Yet I have sympathy for the Shape editors as well. I've never worked at Shape, but I've worked at magazines like it, and while I'm hesitant to apply any one rule to any group of people, I will say that while the women's magazine industry attracts all sorts, one sort in particular they attract is someone who genuinely wants to make women's lives better. The ways different staff members might try to achieve that varies, but ladymags are pretty competitive, and most people don't just "fall into" them; they seek out these jobs, and it's often driven by a passion for women's issues, whether that be fitness or reproductive health or general health or politics or fashion or whatever.

But whatever role little-f or capital-F feminism plays in women's magazines, there's one way in which they will never be feminist, and that is their reliance on advertising. As long as a women's magazine depends upon advertising dollars to support its editorial content, it cannot be feminist. I say "women's magazine" in particular because most magazines rely upon advertising to stay afloat, but most magazines do not have to bend their editorial content in order to grease relationships with those advertisers. For the definitive breakdown of how this happens, read Gloria Steinem's brilliant "Sex, Lies, and Advertising" (PDF here), an essay about the early days of Ms. magazine and trying to get advertising dollars for it. In short: in women's magazines, there's an expectation that advertisers will get preferential treatment in editorial pages. A "beauty editor's secret find" might well be that individual's secret find; just as likely, it's an offering from a company that buys a lot of ad pages in the magazine. In the Ms. essay, Steinem lays out how these expectations were made explicit. I've never been privy to discussions at that level, so I have no idea how explicit those expectations are at ladymags today. What I do know is that most staff members understand that relationship at a level that they no longer think to question it: Of course, if company X needs a product mention on that page, we'll give it to them. Eyes might be rolled, but it stops there, because they—we—understand that that's just how it works.

So what does this have to do with Brooke Birmingham's loose flesh? Everything. If you accept the implicit (or explicit) condition that any part of your content can be dictated by advertisers, you cannot keep the reader's needs as the sole priority of your work. That's not to say that editors don't do excellent work that benefits the reader; they do, all the time. But once advertiser needs encroach upon editorial liberty, your own liberties as an editor feel encroached upon, even if they're not directly touched by advertisers. You begin to make preemptive decisions to avoid trouble, knowing that you have to choose your battles—whether to your top editor, or the editor-in-chief, or to "ad side," the team of people who essentially make sure you have a job. And sometimes those preemptive decisions might be something like looking at a photo of a woman with some not-so-conventionally-pretty fleshy folds around her waist, and quietly determining that that particular battle just isn't worth it. You tell yourself you're doing more of a service to the reader if you show a picture of the ideal—the magical weight loss that doesn't result in immovable "proof" of what you've "overcome"—so that she doesn't get discouraged from making the choices the entire editorial mission of the magazine supports. You make a note to yourself to pitch a story about how to "fix" that loose flesh, because that's what readers want, right? A fix? What you might not make note of is the fundamental connection here: "fixing" readers is what the ad dollars that pay your rent are built upon. Some of your corporate sponsors do it with tenderness (Dove, for example); some do it with savvy (M.A.C.); some might still resort to the old-fashioned don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful technique. But fixing is the name of the game, and it is really, really hard to break out of that narrative as an editor who really is trying to provide a service to the reader. "Service" is framed as solving a problem. And a concrete problem—loose flesh—with a concrete fix (surgery?) is simpler and more readable than an in-depth investigation of the untold side of weight loss.

I'm not exactly defending Shape. It was a lousy, cowardly choice (and, as The Gloss points out, throwing a freelancer under the bus is a lazy way of handling things; I have little doubt that this came from the editors, not the writer), and I'm glad that Birmingham's story is coming to light, because while I'm doubtful that conventional ladymags will ever change in this way because of the framework they're built upon, it's showing that there are plenty of people who don't want a neat "fix"-type story but rather a more complicated journey of weight loss. Shape should do better, but I think I recognize where this came from, and it's not a place of spite; it's a place of status quo.

The best editors out there are able to keep their mission as an advocate for their readers as their highest priority. There are plenty of examples out there of magazines and editors that consistently try to tell a different story other than the "let's fix you" angle. But that is not the default, and within the current way that women's magazines are funded, I don't know if it ever will be.