selling an illusion

jacqueline figueiredo

Three middle-aged women in high-powered business suits quickly flip through one fashion magazine after the other at an Indigo store during their lunch hour. After spending a quarter of her lunch break flipping, one woman tucks Elle Canada under her arm and heads for the cashier. She’s chosen it simply because of the “pretty little things in the magazine” she can buy… and the price. It’s only $1.99 this month.

But doesn’t the magazine’s cover shape one’s desire to buy the magazine as well, with its beautiful model whose green necklace exactly matches her eye colour?

Just the other day, I received an email from the Flare advisory council asking me to participate in a survey about the cover of Chatelaine. Was the cover, featuring a strawberry-covered cake, appealing to me or not? And what about the Chatelaine logo? Was it old fashioned or cool? Did I find it pleasing or not?

These questions are important because a magazine cover will make or break an issue, says Jim Hicks, publisher of Cosmetics Magazine.

“The covers that have these great models . . . sell the best and those that are sort of so-so sell the poorest.”

Whether in the checkout line at the grocery store, pharmacy or at the local Indigo, fashion magazines from across the globe bombard shoppers with pictures of perfection. They would make anyone think, “my legs aren’t that skinny” or “my abs aren’t that toned.”

Maybe near-perfect women do exist, but near perfect is far from Photoshop perfect. And it’s still hard to keep this in mind while staring at a glossy cover of Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen. You can argue over how realistic the images are, but you can’t dispute that these magazines are successful.

So why do women seem to have a love/hate relationship with these perfect women on the cover of magazines?

“I think that in theory we do want to see average women, but we are also sort of enraptured with perfect beauty,” says Aileen Brabazon, associate editor of Glow. “Part of the thing with magazines, if you’re talking about beauty or fashion magazines, is really there is some escapism for the reader and a sort of fictional fantasy land.”

Since the onset of feminism in the early 1900s, and especially in the 1960s, there has been a clash between women’s cosmetic and natural appearances.

Beautiful, skinny girls plaster the covers of magazines, but most fashion models are thinner than 98 per cent of American women, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, a Florida based non-profit organization.

“First of all, a model is a model. She’s not an average person,” says Melinda Mattos, co-publisher and co-editor of Shameless magazine. “When a model graces the cover of a magazine, that’s not even what she looks like. I think some women look at the images on the covers of magazines and see these flawless beauties and think that’s real and think that is something they should aspire to be themselves. And it’s an unrealistic image.”

Mattos suggests the contradiction that exists is, in fact, that the average readership is not reflected in magazine covers.

“The whole idea of the fashion industry is that they’re selling this illusion of perfection and beauty and unobtainable ideals,” Mattos says. “Some fashion magazines have said they’ll start showing more realistic people in their magazines, that everyone won’t be a thin, anorexic model. And I guess some people are trying to an extent, but you’re still not going to see your next door neighbour on the cover of Vogue. It’s just not going to happen.”

What you are going to see on the covers, for now, are celebrities. The past few issues of Vogue featured Melania Trump, Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez, just to name a few.

“We are definitely going through what I would refer to as the celebrity fad right now,” Jim Hicks of Cosmetics Magazine says. “The industry is promoting and launching fragrances and skin care lines around celebrities and it is a celebrity time . . . But I don’t think that’s going to last. I think it is a trend.”

This celebrity craze has extended to the advertising world. Take a look at advertisements for Gap with Sarah Jessica Parker and Revlon with Susan Sarandon and Julianne Moore. Not only are they all major celebrities, but they are all over 40.

“I do think demographics are going to force the magazines to change,” Hicks says. “As the major demographics continue to get older and older they are going to be expecting magazines to do the same.”

In September 2002, Jamie Lee Curtis appeared on the cover of More Magazine to promote her children’s book on self-esteem. Controversy arose when Curtis refused re-touching or photo manipulation of any kind. In the article, Curtis said, “the airbrushing, perfect image that we keep perpetuating is fraud.”

People magazine and its clones have made it on the newsstand in a big way. And a lot of the celebrities in them are not in their 20s. Brad Pitt is 41, and the youngest of the four Sex and the City starlets, Cynthia Nixon, has just turned 39.

“I’ve seen trends come and go,” Hicks says. “When I first took over [Cosmetics Magazine], Cindy Crawford was on our cover and so I’m thinking, how different is that than, even 14 years ago, than it is today. Cindy Crawford could still go on my cover. Maybe that’s the aspiration that everyone’s looking for.”

On the other hand, women are still being used to endorse products and lifestyles. And it isn’t their intelligence that is selling but their beauty.

“I think we’ve become very used to commodifying women’s bodies and using them to sell a product or lifestyle or an ideal,” Mattos says. “A lot of people are just numb to it. And you’re taught from a young age that as woman you should aspire to be beautiful in whatever way society defines beauty at that time, because it’s always changing.”

Maybe that’s why a quarter of some women’s lunch hour is dedicated to flipping through page after page of ideals and aspirations that are so hard to come by.

Images by Shannon Hughes