The Good: General emphasis on health, Good photographs
The Bad: Unrealistic fashion advice for most women, VERY addy, Contradictory, Homogenous concept of beauty.
The Basics: Far too many trees died for this monthly reminder that the mainstream of America thinks you're too fat and poor to truly be happy.
It might seem odd for me to ask right out, "Does anyone still read magazines?!" as I read and review several magazines for my blog, but when I encounter some magazines, I just have to ask. After all, several magazines I have encountered leave me more afraid of leaving the house than actually invigorated. My newfound fear comes not from germs or reported crime statistics, but rather the world some people appear to live in and laud and I find I abhor. Magazines targeting women actually make me most afraid. I was horrified by the vacuous quality to Lucky when I reviewed that a while back (that review is here!) and now I find myself equally bothered by Self, which is only above the shopping magazine because it has some genuinely worthwhile information on health and well-being.
Self, with the by-line "You At Your Best" is a health and beauty magazine where "health" means "thin" and "beauty" is a euphemism for "thin." Yes, Self is part of the dominant mainstream society which glorifies traditional gender roles where the purpose of woman appears to be to look good - in very narrow ways - and shop for things that make them look good. The magazine is geared toward stay-at-home housewives with time for making meals, keeping fit and shopping. Right off the bat, it is very much worth mentioning that this magazine is not for the average woman in the United States. Indeed, it makes the out-of-touch women feel glorified and at home when they have ridiculous contradictions, as the February 2009 issue had on page 148 when the caption for a picture on an article on denim read "Every cut of denim is in today, so go on a spree (for free!) in your closet." The dozen lines that follow detail every item the model is wearing, which include $475 jeans and a $225 shirt. In total, the casual outfit photographed costs $6478 and only in Happy Magical Rich Husband Pays Everything With The Magical Credit Card Land is that considered "free."
For the purpose of this review, I used the February 2009 issue and I was quite happy to recycle it when I was done.
So, what is Self? The average issue is 162 pages long and it is a glossy, full-color magazine. The cover price is currently $3.99 an issue and it can be found on newsstands and grocery store check-out lanes in every major market. The magazine is published monthly and bills itself as a health and beauty magazine. It is, however, little more than a catalog broken up by "articles" (some of which are extended advertisements for current designers' wears); out of the 162 pages, the issue I reviewed had 79 full pages of advertisements, not counting the front and back covers, and an additional 2 pages worth of ads. Some of this is actually funny, like an advertisement featuring the most clad model for Dove's Campaign For Real Beauty on a page opposite an archetypal thin blonde woman laying on her tummy for an article called "Check you out!" The magazine is frontloaded with advertisements and the disturbing trend in Self is to have advertisements that mimic the form of the alleged content of the magazine.
After seven pages of ads, comes the table of contents - broken up by more pages of advertisements - which is awkwardly out of order. The "Cover Stories" are arrange haphazardly with no relation either to their appearance in the magazine (i.e. page order) or their appearance on the front cover. The covergirl for the February 2009 issue was Jenna Fischer, from The Office, looking good, save her eyes which look dead and her smile which looks entirely vacuous. After even more advertisements is the Editor's Letter, which basically has the editor of the magazine glorifying her own lifestyle by offering the reader snippets of it. This is followed by a page of congratulatory letters from readers who are happy with the magazine and all it stands for. There was not a single complaint about anything in a prior issue, which amuses me because over the course of a year, the fad diets the magazine promotes are bound to contradict each other.
Starting on page 26 is a regular column "15 Minutes To Your Best Self" which is another ridiculous section that is bound to leave readers scratching their head. For sure, the eight minutes recommending being active is a good idea - and hey, if eight minutes of being active with a partner is all one needs to stay fit, boo-yah! - but all of the activities in that section, like chartering a yacht (I am NOT kidding!) or visiting Hidden Meadow Ranch take a lot more than eight minutes. Similarly, the six minutes of using "Samy Big Curl Defining Creme" on one's hair to get "beachy" hair might make some women into their best self, but it seems more like an advertisement for a $6 conditioner than a tip to make anyone into a better person. Moreover, the bonus tip about charging cell phones is strangely out of place in this column. But the two-minute suggestion of getting a global workout is probably what made me truly loathe Self Magazine. The advice about participating in interethnic classes is accompanied by a picture of a thin white woman with blonde hair. This got me to thinking and in the February 2009 issue, there are six pictures in the magazine (outside advertisements) of nonwhite people and one of them is a thumbnail of Nelson Mandela. The five pictures of nonwhite women could be cut out and fit in less than the surface area taken up by photographs of fresh fruit and vegetables! This is a VERY snooty magazine for the current dominant upper class and women who are not white and rich are far less likely to find this magazine's beauty and fashion tips work for their skin tones, body types and/or budgets.
The first cover story comes at page 30 and the celebrity covergirl gets two pages. Self challenged actress Jenna Fischer to make some changes to her life and the format is very simple. The actress lists the challenge, her first thought and the result, while getting as few decent plugs in for her new movie and current television show.
Then came the only article I'd ever recommend anyone bother with this magazine for; "Celebrate Your Happy Weight." In this section, a very healthy-looking woman's pictures accompany reasons for loving your body with only minimal changes. This article gives good advice like "Body-proud women are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. . ." (35), but also has some pretty obvious thoughts to share with women like that hurtful words about our bodies hurt us (36). Generally, though, the article is peppered with the idea that beauty is variable (though most of the pictured women in it are fairly thin, wearing frumpier clothes than the models) and that finding a comfortable body shape is ideal to looking stick thin. This article precedes a multi-page article featuring a tear out section and pictures of a pert blonde called "Get slim in the gym" and a six-page pictoral/article on running stairs featuring a similarly fit blonde. So, there are mixed messages here and one can only suppose this magazine is some form of subtle cautionary tale: five pages of bigger (that's a relative term here!) women who are happy before (conservatively) ten pages of thin chicks who fit into anything they want.
There is a two page book excerpt which explores a woman's cultural awakening as a Jordanian-American who visited Jordan and wrestled with identity issues. This was followed by (ad), a Beauty Update section - which keeps modern women current with the status of braids and eye make-up - photo spreads of make-up hitting the market, new Self challenges, and thrifty outfits that Self readers can settle for when they can't swing the sixty-four hundred dollar casual outfit (like a $50 Old Navy coat or $89 skirt). There is a dressing guide for the month for women of different body types. There is a "Style Flash" page featuring three skeletons where actress Charlize Theron is the most physically substantial woman on the page, followed by pictures of chocolates that appear to have been taken by a retired erotica photographer (yes, there are suggestive truffles on this page!). Other columns include a series of questions and answers about eating right, articles on heredity and body type and a Sex Update column (because it helps to know which hotels one can go to where Polaroid cameras are chained to the bed for the guests).
There was an article on vegetarianism which explored different reasons to go vegetarian and had snippets on several celebrities and their status as vegetarians. Other articles include ones on Germaphobia, hair care, denim and sexual adventurism. The articles are ridiculously uncomplicated; like in the sexual adventurism article it notes that having an affair on your married spouse (which was given about equal space as anal sex and exploring outright lesbianism) as a way to spice up one's sexual regime seldom ends well for the couple. Yes, this is hard-hitting journalism that really makes one think.
The back page is an expose of a celebrity's sense of self (in this case an actress from Confessions Of A Shopaholic). I've been advised to stop calling certain magazines outright "dumb" as it seems to insult the people who read them. However, I will say that Self has little in it that the average American will not already know from their fifth grade Health Education class (eat healthy and in moderation and exercise) along with a radically unrealistic sensibility about the world outside that (yes, I keep coming back to the almost-homogenously white models and the $6400 outfits).
If you want a better sense of Self, ditch this monthly reinforcement of the institutional conformity-factory that is obsessed with creating a very narrow view of beauty and develop a personality that does not change based on this month's clothing line. See? I just saved you almost fifty dollars a year and a lot of time!
For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Car And Driver
Syracuse New Times
For other magazine or book reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.