Book Review: Airbrushed Nation

Nelson, Jennifer. Airbrushed nation : the lure & loathing of women’s magazines. Seal Press, 2012.

Before the Civil War, advice in women’s magazines came from an ethical or health perspective, such as the dangers of wearing corsets and hoops.  In 1867, the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar was launched and thirty years later, Vogue began publication.  Ready to wear clothing, accessories and cosmetics were available in stores.  New industries catering to women were formed.  Being in fashion became a social necessity, which attracted a congregation of faithful readers.  Today, Newsweek and U.S. News are no longer in print, but “chick slicks” like Cosmo, Elle and Self have more readers than ever.

As a journalist for women’s magazines, Jennifer Nelson wrote articles on health, fitness and nutrition, and she admits that some of this content was misleading and undermining to women’s self-esteem. In her new book, Airbrushed Nation, Nelson examines the world of glossies and  provides insight into the impact on women.  She describes the magazines as a space where women are comforted, entertained and advised, a fun place to visit.  But she also warns that the self-improvement messages are damaging to women’s self-worth.  The air-brushed ideals of beauty and lifestyles lead to self-loathing.  And countless articles about crime, disease and danger create anxiety.

Women’s magazines sell brands, designers and the magazine itself. The lines among the three are blurred.  Clothing designers who spend the most in advertising receive the best coverage in fashion layouts.   Articles that encourage readers to improve themselves are surrounded by strategically placed advertisements that “cure” those ailments.  For example, an article on losing weight will be on the same page as weight loss supplements.  The cosmetic products used on models are not the ones noted in the captions. Long after the photo shoot, an editor creates the captions and lists products by advertisers, truth or not.  Much of what seems straightforward is misleading.

Nelson calls for outrage, yet little of this is new.  Advertisers get prime space in any magazine.  Sexualized children have appeared in fashion magazines since 10 year old Brooke Shields was photographed in the 70’s.  Misleading labels sold health and beauty products for snake oil salesmen. Changes will only be made after women stop buying these publications; yet even the author purchases these glossies regularly.

Like the magazines examined in this book, Airbrushed Nation is entertaining.  Written in an engaging style, it contains lively sidebars throughout.  Recommended for anyone interested in women’s issues or the magazine industry.

© Reviewer: Meg Trauner & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
All rights reserved.

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