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Feminism through the beauty-mag looking glass

When Mary Schmich wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune offering commencement advice to graduates, she included a special caution for young women.

"Don't read beauty magazines," she warned. "They will only make you feel ugly."

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In the two years since the column appeared, her advice has become even more timely. Month after month, the headlines sizzling across the covers of women's magazines - among them Glamour, Mademoiselle, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan - only intensify readers' preoccupation with perfect bodies, flawless beauty, and above all high-performance sex.

This month, Brill's Content magazine reports that in the 12 issues of Glamour in 1998, "sex" or some derivation of the word appeared on the cover 14 times. During the same year it appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan 26 times.

Sex has always been Cosmopolitan's stock in trade. But increasingly, as other women's magazines try to out-Cosmo the Cosmo girl, substance appears to be giving way to shallowness.

Consider the lead headline on Glamour's April cover: "Sin-sational Sex Advice. How to Get Extreme Desire Back into Your Love Life." In the current Mademoiselle, the top story is "Look Great Naked! 5 Moves to a Sexier Body." And Marie Claire's cover poses the question: "Are You Sleeping With the Right Man?"

Bonnie Fuller, Glamour's editor in chief, has publicly defended all this sexual advice on the grounds that it is a "product" of the women's movement. If women could not read about sex "as much as they wanted to," she explained, it would be "unempowering."

Is this what three decades of the women's movement have wrought? Part of the problem comes down to sins of omission - what magazines don't cover.

Glamour recently dropped a column called "Women in Washington," which informed readers about political activity on women's issues. It added a horoscope, supposedly on the grounds that readers wanted one.

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It isn't as though the political column went unnoticed. As Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington, explains, Glamour has regularly received the group's coveted EMMA media awards. Some winning entries were Women in Washington columns. Others have been feature articles on issues related to health or employment.

"When women read a feature article, they often don't relate it to having political significance," says Ms. Perez Ferguson. "That's why the Women in Washington column was particularly important. Women need to be reminded about taking care of their interests through the political process." Although such coverage is "not particularly glitzy," she adds, "it makes all the difference in the world in how our lives are lived and in the regulations our government has formed."

The need for better balance in women's magazines starts young. Every major magazine for teenagers - whose readers tend to be young teens and even preteens - offers a horoscope. One publication, Teen, even lists specific dates as "Best Days," "Bad Days," and "Love Days" for each zodiac month. Talk about "unempowering." Impressionable girls need to be encouraged to act on their own behalf rather than passively accepting the dictates of a magazine astrologer.

Teenagers are not too young to start forming a political awareness - only 20 percent of 20-year-olds vote. Nor are they too young to learn that what passes for freedom can sometimes produce insidious new forms of bondage.

One encouraging trend in women's magazines involves sports. Women's Sports & Fitness bills itself as "For women into a different kind of beauty..."

Ms. Schmich's graduation column has been set to music in a piece called "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)." As it climbs the charts this spring, perhaps magazine editors will hear her warning about beauty magazines and take note.

What refreshing changes could follow as editors find engaging ways to take women beyond astrology, beyond breast implants, and beyond sexual acrobatics by delivering a broader message: You are more than your zodiac sign, more than your bra size, more than your lipstick shade, and certainly more than your performance in bed.

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