When was the last time you read a woman’s magazine, and by the time you reached the back cover you felt good about yourself?

Now I’m not talking about a food and home magazine, or a wellbeing-focused publication, but the glossy weeklies and monthlies that focus on diet, exercise, weight loss, cosmetics, gossip, and fashion.

Chances are that you felt worse about yourself at the end of the magazine than you did when you started reading it; that you’d decided to try the new diet; and that you were at least keeping an eye out for a new cream or potion to help you fix your problems.

Women’s bodies, and parts of bodies, are used to sell everything from computers to cars to builders. Those bodies have been becoming younger and thinner over the last 30 years, and it’s a rare magazine that doesn’t have a regular makeover feature, encouraging women to gain the image of the models in the glossy ads that actually pay for the magazine.

The models of course are airbrushed, and despite the Australian Federal Government’s decree in 2008 that magazines must disclose when images are digitally enhanced, I haven’t been struck with any great awareness of that disclosure. I rarely read these magazine now though, unless I notice a particularly outrageous headline that I feel compelled to blog about.

As a younger woman I did read the women’s mags, alongside my computing and natural health ones; reading was almost expected on the train commute to work.

In those years, and for many years, I was very focussed on my body’s flaws and the magazines absolutely fed that insecurity. That cult of youth is no accident, and nor is the cult of thinness. Both are entirely economic, driven by the advertising of products that are unlikely to deliver the look they advertise anyway.

Last year I read that a popular cosmetic company were being sued by an advertising regulator because they did not disclose that their photographed model, promoting a mascara, was wearing false eyelashes. The advertisement therefore was misleading because it suggested the product could produce eyelashes like those shown in the photograph. The company’s defense was that “women know the models wear false eyelashes”.

I was highly amused when I read that, because, actually, I didn’t know. I assumed the company chose models for their luscious lashes, the same way they choose stocking models for their lovely legs and hand models for their lovely long fingers and perfect nails.

And only in recent years have we become aware that actors have body doubles for their movies, and often have several: one with a perfect bottom, one with perfect breasts, one with gorgeous ankles. For years it was a secret that even our most gorgeous women – and men – are composites of several people.

Women who feel insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet pills, potions, lotions, and programs. The diet industry is worth around $4 billion a year in Australia alone, and they are selling temporary weight loss!

Meanwhile research tells us that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls. Since the cult of thinness really kicked off in the 1960s, women around the planet have been starving themselves into ill health, both physical and mental, to achieve some of the perfection which will, the magazines says, bring us ultimate happiness.

In Australia in 2008, a dozen children under the age of five were treated for anorexia. Where did children so young learn to restrict their eating? And why?

Sadly, mothers carry a good share of the responsibility. Our children don’t know that we are lumpy, less than perfect, and “need to get into shape”, they simply love their mothers. And when that mother is clearly restricting her eating and critically analyzing her body, the children will naturally copy those behaviors.

If it seems an aberration that a child so young would restrict their eating, consider this:

  • in the 2006 National Survey of Young Australians, body image was the third most pressing issue, behind family conflict and worries over alcohol and drugs. But in 2007 32.3% of respondents put body image in their top three, ahead of family conflict and coping with stress
  • The Australian Medical Association says stick-thin models contribute to the problem because they have a strong influence on body image and self-esteem among teenagers
  • Around two-thirds of new cases of eating disorders arise in women who have dieted moderately
  • A recent report found one in five 12-year-old girls regularly used fasting and vomiting to lose weight
  • One in four Australian girls wants to get plastic surgery.

Eating disorders are currently classified as a mental health disorder, and of all the mental health disorders more people die from anorexia than any other disorder. Anorexia sufferers are more than five times as likely to die as other people in their age group; it is a fatal illness and it’s killing the best and brightest of our young women.

And girls don’t just grow out of anorexia; they grow into women who struggle their entire lives with the nagging voice telling them to severely limit their eating or they will be fat and imperfect. Women with anorexia are more than 12 times as likely to die as other women of the same age.

The other well-known eating disorder is bulimia, suffered by about 5% of all women, some studies say 10%. Mostly worryingly, studies suggest that only a small percentage of sufferers are ever treated; it is the great hidden cost of being thin and “hot”.

My biggest concern with the images of women and their interests that these magazines depict though, is that they present just one way of being female: looking perfect is all that matters. Every woman I know has so many layers to her being and life that it is frankly insulting that women are depicted the way they are in the magazines.

The Australian Federal Government is establishing a body image advisory committee to try to get some control over the massively destructive messages we women take on. The Government’s actions aside, I believe that the cultural change we need to see for the sake of our childrens’ mental and physical health, needs to come from within the family. And the centre of the family is usually mum.

I’d suggest step one would be to stop buying the magazines. Just stop. They’re full of exaggerations and half-truths and plain nasty gossip about people we don’t even know, and which causes those people pain. If your son or daughter was one of those people, would you want strangers reading those lies and half truths, examining every aspect of his or her life, making themselves feel better at her expense? If you read the magazines, you’re funding the people who make up those lies, cause that pain. You can stop; your little contribution does count. The gossipy stories only exist anyway to fill out the space between the advertisements that contribute to our societal anorexic thinking.

If you really want magazines because you enjoy the light read (and we all need that relaxation once in a while), look around, make a different choice. Many women are sick of the distortions, and they are behind new magazines appearing on the newsagents’ shelves, with content that appeals to the many facets of a woman’s life. So if you love your magazine read check out some of the new titles, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Balance is badly, madly needed, and the ones to bring it, are we women.

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