Monday, February 2, 2009

cupcake parade

Women's magazine office rule: The more body-dysmorphic the reader, the more food there is in the office.

The feminist magazine I worked at [as in, the kind of feminist magazine that interviews bell hooks, not the kind that tells you it's your hard-earned right as a modern woman to buy lipstick (Rosie the Riveter Red, $18,] had no food lying around the office. Somebody baked Mexican wedding cookies and brought them in once, I think. The national women's fitness magazine, however, in one day alone had a 24-count box of chocolates, two plates of cut-up chocolate-coated energy bars, a bowl of tortilla chips, and 12 jumbo cupcakes.

Part of this is simply the swag factor: Magazines get a lot of free crap from companies, both for review/promotional purposes and as gifts from companies. If Mary Kay has an anniversary, it sends out a dozen pink-topped cupcakes to any publication that might feature Mary Kay products -- that sort of thing. It's not like staffers are bringing in batches of homemade cookies; it's built into the whole schema of the industry. Since magazines that have less investment in making women feel bad about themselves -- i.e. magazines that aren't shilling beauty products -- aren't getting that kind of swag, the majority of random food lying around a parallel office simply doesn't exist.

But it goes beyond that. The level of discussion about food goes beyond what I imagine would be present at a food magazine. Not questions of "Ooh, where did this come from?", but terms like good, bad, shouldn't. By sitting near the designated "free table" where cookies and the like are left to be snatched up, you figure out pretty quickly which staff members have food issues. Which staffers walk by and vacuum-suck a cupcake into her long sleeves so as to avoid being caught; which staffers come by repeatedly and stare, walk away, and return; which staffers come by and illustrate infinitesimal sums by halving the same piece of cake over and over again until only an ant's feast remains.

Two hours sitting next to the "free table" would be enough to convince anybody that women's magazine editors are simply not able to do what they do best any better than they already do. Arguably the most positive effect women's magazines have had on their readers is an expanded knowledge of their body functions. Most women I know are reasonably fluent in talking about their hormonal cycles, their reproductive organs, their basic health stats. Women's magazines can claim a good amount of credit for spreading reliable information about contraception, even today -- I didn't find out about Plan B from my gynecologist; I found out about it from Mademoiselle.

When the industry began to be heavily targeted for encouraging unhealthy diet and exercise habits in the name of "dropping 10 pounds -- now!", the glossy pages began to couch food in terms of nutrition, not "diets." No longer was it just calorie counts accompanying recipes; sodium, iron, calcium milligrams popped up too. More than that, however, magazines began to superficially refute the idea of thinness as the ultimate goal by proclaiming that we should all love our bodies. I clipped a Self article from 1990 because it contained a righteous essay about the anger the writer felt about hearing friends talk about their "dream bodies" -- spending energy on pursuing a bodily idea when their own bodies were healthy, adequate, beautiful. But on the reverse side of the page was the "action plan" designed to help me achieve my dream body, supposedly because I "deserved" it.

Even the laziest critical reading of women's magazines shows that this is a refutation in name only -- the images of unrealistically thin models haven't changed, the weight loss emphasis is still a large part of the "nutrition" pages, the fitness pages still frame strength training in terms of sleekness, not strength. But I'd always argued that the health aspect of women's magazines made headway, however small, on redeeming their other sins. The more I think about the way so many of the very women who write these words are treating food -- to my eyes, anyway; they may simply be playing along with the idea that fussing over food is more appropriate than lusting over it -- though, the more I begin to see their honest nutrition info as being empty calories for the mind. The only attention these magazines pay to the emotional aspect of eating is to tell readers not to do it, offering cheap tricks for avoiding it or, more frequently, replacing "bad" foods with "good" foods in emotional eating. (My favorite to this day is a tip I read on Glamour's website about drizzing Diet Cherry Coke over a baked apple -- "Tastes just like apple pie!")

Yet the anxieties that go into producing women's magazines surely drive their staffers to emotionally eat. When you're forced to treat your readers as though they are vehicles for shoes and makeup; when you're airbrushing perfectly lovely women to looker sharper, thinner, because the nefarious "they" will surely demand the image retouched later anyway; when you're forced to paint readers with such a broad stroke that you erase the complexities of the women you know, talk to, live with, love -- a cupcake seems like a good way to make it through the day.

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