Grappling With The Devil of Women's Magazines: Do They Rot Your Brain?

Ready to discover "Haircolor Secrets That Will Change Your Life"? Or "Mortifying Booty Busts...and Hilarious Sexcapades"? These women's mag cover lines may signal a worldview just empty-headed enough that readers might ask, "Does the latest issue make me look fat... er, feel stupid?"

That "Devil" movie currently does its part in portraying fashion pubs, at least, as silly and shallow. Miranda, the hellish magazine editor in the film, calls her size-6 assistant the "smart, fat girl" and carps that there are no pretty female soldiers for a fashion spread.

Yet, unlike the book, the movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada" admits that the articles in Runway (a thinly disguised Vogue) do have some intellectual heft. In one scene, Miranda mentions a piece by "Toobin" on women of the Supreme Court--presumably Jeffrey Toobin, the legal writer for The New Yorker. That august pub, ironically, is the dream-job destination of the book's first-person narrator, who considers Runway a breeding ground for moronic fashionistas.

The truth is more complicated. I spent my formative years on a too-restrictive diet of glossy pages (First Seventeen, then the now-defunct Mademoiselle as well as Glamour). Even today, I retain a frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge of blushers, honed by reading the likes of Lucky--information in my brain that crowds out, say, the facts on global warming. Yet I've definitely gained more from women's books than lessons in consumerism 101. Here's a sampling of deeper topics that the best of these pubs cover regularly and well.

Socially conscious bulletins from the real world: My favorite women's magazine, O, does a good job of reminding me that there's more to life than buying clothes and makeup. Most recently, O's July issue featured an inspiring report on West Virginian women who are fighting Big Coal.

My staple as a younger woman, Glamour, which just won the National Magazine Award for general excellence in its circulation category, also regularly features ambitious journalism among its coverage of girlie topics. I'll never forget a 2004 article that marked the 40th anniversary of the high-profile murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Glamour brought together the daughter of the black victim, James Chaney, with the daughter of one of the perpetrators--a move that brought chills up my spine.

The fashionably dressed doctor will see you now: When these pubs do it right, they can provide cutting-edge info on health and psychology--as well as varying boilerplate information with an interesting angle. For example, the new magazine Blueprint has a peek inside the medicine cabinet of an alternative doctor.

Self's annual breast cancer issue sets a high standard for medical reporting, while a group of pubs recently participated in a campaign to educate readers on heart disease, which actually takes more women's lives than breast cancer.

Still, I've learned to beware of such genre standards as the roundup of psychology briefs. These sometimes spotlight the junk science of Ridiculous Studies--like the item in the July Ladies' Home Journal reporting the dubious news that "your choice of salty snack may reveal your personality." Apparently potato chip lovers are "ambitious and competitive." Crunch.

A gimpse of women's lives: Not to be too grandiose, but women's mags have reflected some fascinating historical changes. Glamour, for example, went from glorifying "Best-Dressed College Girls" to extolling the "Top Ten College Women"--who, unlike their predecessors, expect to have real careers in the world.

One of my favorites among many chronicles of women's lives I've read through the years was an offbeat feature in a 2003 issue of O, in which well-known women wrote letters to their younger selves. The wonderful New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast began by assuring her childhood self "You are not going to get leprosy, I promise. Or lockjaw"--and illustrated her point with a cartoon of herself reading "The Big Book Of Horrible Rare Diseases."

Literary lights: Women's mags led me to two of my all-time-favorite books. In the late, lamented Mademoiselle, I first read about the writer Dorothy Sayers and her feminist classic, Gaudy Night, one of the few great detective novels in which no murder is committed. Years later, I wouldn't have picked up Expecting Adam if I hadn't recognized its author, Martha Beck, as a regular O columnist. This memoir is a fable-like depiction of how Beck's retarded son changed her world-view--with snarky wit cutting any of the sugar that such a topic would normally bring.

In its early days, Mademoiselle had its literary side, publishing writers like Truman Capote; O continued the tradition of intelligent coverage of the book world. The mag's "first ever summer reading issue," in July, provided a feast for the English major in me--from a sampling of first paragraphs of deserving books to a pep talk on reading Proust to a major coup: the first published piece by Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in more than 20 years (in this case, it's a letter about how much she loves reading).

Tips on looking as good as the Lord intended. Don't discount this part--who doesn't want to look more attractive? From studying the gospels of grooming inside many women's books, I've learned how to put a glow on my cheeks, what colors flatter my skin tone and which fabrics wear well. I've devised a basic esthetic that, with its dependence on New Balance and Lands' End, those scary fashionistas in "Devil" might find hilarious--but I find comfortable. And I'm happy to be able to advise my husband on wardrobe matters when he packs for a business trip ("Honey, Hawaiian shirts may be a cliché in California, but at least you'll be part of the crowd...")

So is my brain rotted? Well, no. Along with Katie Hatch, Blueprint's fashion editor (quoted in its first issue), I believe "that a woman can have a rich inner life and still love clothes."

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