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STANFORD - Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Glamour do a thriving business at the supermarket checkout counter, and even accomplished college women have a "love-hate affair" with such magazines, according to a recent survey.
Debbie Then, a social psychologist who received her doctorate in psychology and education from Stanford University, sent questionnaires about the magazines to 300 randomly selected Stanford women students during the spring of 1992.
Of the 75 who responded, most said they found the editorial content of the magazines informative and educational, particularly the information on sex and health. Several women reported that they learned valuable facts about safe sex practices and birth control techniques from women's magazines.
When it came to the advertisements and photographs of model-slim women, though, the Stanford students had a far different reaction.
Nearly half of the respondents said their feelings of self-esteem and confidence were undermined by seeing the photographs, and 68 percent reported feeling worse about their looks and bodies. Several respondents said they were so upset that they stopped reading the magazines altogether, as a self- protective mechanism.
"I feel like every woman is at least 20 pounds lighter and 4 inches taller than I am. It really depresses me," said one Stanford student.
Said another: "I usually feel terrible after going through a woman's magazine. On every page you are faced with pictures, articles or advertisements that point out your inadequacies. I feel truly 'lesser' after reading one. I feel like I'm not skinny enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough. By the time I turn the last page, I feel awful. Inadequate." "Keep in mind that the above comments were made by Stanford students," Then said. "For these students to feel 'lesser,' or not good enough, is amazing given the levels of achievement most Stanford students represent."
One of the more interesting findings from the survey was the number of respondents who volunteered information about their own eating disorders. Out of 61 who answered the question, 82 percent said they had been on a diet at some point in the past. The median age at which respondents began dieting is 13.5; they began reading women's magazines at a median age of 13. Ten percent said that they were or had been bulimic or anorexic. Then recommends that unhappy readers focus on the informative articles. The use of "positive self talk" about their own bodies and looks when reading the magazines also can help women combat lowered self-esteem. "Women must realize that magazines are selling hope," Then said. "Instead of trying to aspire to be as thin and attractive as the models in the photographs and feeling bad for not being able to do so, it is far healthier for women to strive to be better versions of themselves. "Any professional psychologist treating women needs to be aware of the double standard of physical attractiveness that is conveyed to women in society and reflected in advertisements and magazines," she added.
Then is presently an affiliated scholar with the University of California-Los Angeles and a consulting psychologist based in the San Francisco area. She presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in August 1992.
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