Beauty Redefined Blog

Cosmo Magazine: The Best-Seller That Sells Women Short

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Cosmopolitan magazine - the notoriously risque and best-selling women’s magazine for decades – says it is “by women for women.” In a media landscape jam-packed with sources by men for women, this magazine has serious potential to break free from the stifling, predictable, cookie-cutter portrayals of sexuality, bodies and women themselves that we’re surrounded by today. But does it?

17-year-old Dakota Fanning on the Jan. 2012 Cover (Image from NYmag.com)

With its notoriously racy covers and highly sexualized content, Cosmo has been the highest-selling women’s magazine since 1972. It boasts more than 3 million in paid circulation each month, which is estimated to reach 20 million when considering how many readers actually peruse each copy. As the best-selling magazine in college bookstores and the No. 1 magazine for women with children, Cosmo shows and tells its increasingly younger readership (and likely their families) what it means to be attractive, desirable and successful through its glossy pages each month.

Since plenty of work in this realm has focused on advertising, I’m offering a descriptive analysis of the editorial content and images of a selection of Cosmo issues spring 2005 to spring 2011. Plenty of research has demonstrated links between women’s magazines and body image disturbance, disordered eating, drive for thinness, appearance obsession and other scary factors (1). These factors are related to images and content that rely on photoshopping images, consistently emphasize thinness, weight loss and the attainment of what the magazines define as ideal beauty in order to achieve health, happiness and relationship success. Interestingly, Thomsen (2002) found that women’s magazines specifically influenced body image concerns by contributing to the belief that men expect and prefer women to be thin.

What Men Want

This emphasis on how others – particularly men – perceive women’s bodies is extremely prevalent throughout women’s magazines, and strongly contributes to “body surveillance,” or the tendency to constantly monitor one’s appearance. As Fredrickson & Roberts (1997) described it, this self-objectification is manifested as “the tendency to perceive one’s body according to externally perceivable traits ‑ (i.e., how it appears) instead of internal traits (i.e., what it can do).” They argued that objectified media portrayals play an important role in socializing girls and women to perceive their own bodies from the perspective of another’s gaze. This aligns with Laura Mulvey’s (1975) concept of the “male gaze,” which serves to marginalize and oppress women while “reflecting and satisfying the male unconscious.”

The male gaze is demonstrated in media when women are positioned as objects for male enjoyment, through:
  1. The look of the camera – panning up and down female bodies and zooming in on specific parts
  2. The look of the spectators – where others are depicted as constantly looking at the women or commenting on the appearance of the women
  3. The appearance of the women themselves – clearly dressed or posed to attract stares

Unfortunately, this “male gaze” is so prevalent that we hardly even notice it anymore if we’re not careful, as discussed in our recent analyses of Victoria’s Secret’s faux-empowerment messages and normalized pornography packaged as “safe” in mainstream media, including the cultural event of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But this same powerful, degrading influence rules the popular market of women’s magazines, including the health and fitness genre, and it is particularly prevalent here in Cosmo. Though it thrives as a self-proclaimed women’s lifestyle and relationship magazine, it is hard to pick any issue of Cosmo out of a lineup of men’s magazines, which are notorious for featuring objectified portrayals of women on their covers. In fact, Cosmo covers regularly feature the same women as the SI Swimsuit Issue, Esquire and GQ, with the same racy poses, come-hither stares and very scantily clad models.

In the popular market of women’s magazines, those idealized and objectified bodies are presented as necessary for sexuality and desirability, which qualifies this medium to be deemed “sexually objectifying media.” Sexual objectification is accomplished in media by the visual presentation of bodies and content that emphasizes the importance of appearance in sexuality – where a healthy sex life is dependent upon what a woman looks like. As a magazine by women for women, Cosmopolitan has the potential to serve as a source that breaks free of stifling, degrading representations of sexuality that are found everywhere today. But perhaps not surprisingly … it doesn’t. In the world of Cosmo, “beauty” is necessary to be worthy of and enjoy an intimate relationship with a man. In fact, beauty in the form of thinness and bodily “perfection” is the key component of desirability, health AND sexuality.

“The Natural, Healthy Girl”: Normalizing Unnatural Beauty and Health Ideals

It’s no surprise that every cover I analyzed featured full-body depictions of very thin, big-breasted, seemingly flawless, young white women in low-cut, tight, short, revealing clothing and long, flowing hair. In a clear example of making unnatural beauty and health ideals appear normal, the April 2008 cover featured Marisa Miller, who came to fame through her notorious topless debut as the cover model for the 2008 SI Swimsuit Issue. The buxom blond is positioned with her back arched and chest protruding, along with the headline “Flatten Your Belly! Marisa’s tips make it easy.”

Strikingly similar to Shape and Self’s representations of healthy bodies and practices, the April 2008 Cosmo included a “fitness special” featuring cover model Marisa Miller in a full-page photo posed on a bed, back arched, chest pushed out, wearing only a top and a come-hither look. Readers are reminded twice that Miller has a body “women dream of and mean dream about,” along with the prominently featured quote: “I always wanted to represent the natural, healthy girl, and I didn’t care if it was cool or trendy to look like you hadn’t eaten in two weeks.” With eight tear-out cards displaying the scantily clad supermodel in various workout positions and repetitive reminders about how easy her “stay-slim” plan is, readers are presented with another highly sexualized and normalized view of thinness as “fitness.”

Interestingly, the first cover I analyzed from April 2006 featured then 19-year-old Lindsay Lohan, who, at that time, was in the midst of a media firestorm regarding her sudden and extreme weight loss. Vanity Fair reported the year before that Lohan admitted to “making herself sick in order to lose weight,” which she denied in her interview with Cosmo. In the inside feature story about her, Lohan was quoted as saying she lost all the weight by “not eating right,” but that she wanted to maintain her weight loss, since she liked the way she looked and felt. “I’m healthy. I don’t diet. I eat what I want to eat … and I’m stressed a lot when I’m working, so that keeps me thin,” she explained. In conjunction with images of thin (often extremely thin) women in sexualized poses, messages like “Marisa’s Supereasy Fitness Plan” and Lindsay Lohan’s claims of sudden, extreme weight loss with no effort serve to normalize an unrealistic standard of idealized beauty that is constantly represented as natural, attainable and “Supereasy.”

Appearance is Everything.

In Cosmo‘s regular workout and health sections, readers are once again sent the message that weight loss = fitness = sex appeal. The emphasis on appearance rather than health or abilities is reinforced in every issue by the “You, Even Better” section and regular fitness and health features. For example:

  • “The Ultimate Sexy A** Workout” (“to kick your booty into shape in time for skinny jean season!”)
  • “45 ways to instantly feel sexy and healthy” (with a young woman in a short, flipped-up dress, exposing her legs and breasts)
  • “Diet Dangers,” featuring “The Dumbest Thing You Can Do to Your Boobs,” on how yo-yo dieting “will make your twins less perky” instead of “gorgeous and firm” (with an extremely thin and almost completely nude young woman covering her breasts with her hands and posing in the mirror)
  • “Can Getting Fit Get You a Date?”

Each of these (and sooo many more) are examples of how Cosmo combines health-oriented terms with oppressive, objectified terms that forfeit real fitness in favor of a sexualized male gaze. When the most popular magazine for women 18-49 marginalizes actual health and fitness by focusing exclusively on what they claim will increase sex appeal, there’s a problem. Counteract this messed-up fitness perspective in your own life by joining us for a NEW kind of New Year’s resolutions (no matter when in 2012 you start) in our Body Hate Apocalypse!

But it’s not just Cosmo‘s “health and fitness” content. From making “attitude adjustments” to wearing “trendy orange accessories,” it seems nearly every aspect of a woman’s life can and should be tweaked to increase her sex appeal and better please the men in her life. “The new attitude that drives men wild” (May 2008) details how women can learn to gain a “powerful” type of female allure that “guys really respond to.” This new kind of confidence was supposedly demonstrated by singing sensation Madonna, who used it to draw pro baseball player Alex Rodriguez away from his wife, Cynthia, and toward the iconic performer. This enviable power to attract unwitting men was described as self-contentment and self-assuredness, but the article concluded by warning readers of the negative effects of too much of these qualities: “Be aware that while guys like a chase, they ultimately want a reward. By maintaining a you-can’t-touch-this vibe for even a bit too long, you might just drive him away.” Though this article appears to promote female independence and confidence, it slyly privileges male pleasure above all else.

Similarly, in the April 2006 “blow his mind tip,” readers are told, “Your body confidence is a huge turn-on, and …will amp up his anticipation.” Again, confidence is portrayed not as something empowering for women, but as something men desire – a “turn-on” for someone else, rather than a source of personal power and self-esteem. The September 2009 issue advertised a very interesting hairstyling tip titled “Fun Little Tricks Guys Love,” which encouraged women to use thong underwear to tie their hair back. (What??)

The October 2010 “You, Even Better” section titled “7 Cool Tricks You Need Now” starts our by making a great, non-objectifying point: “Scientists have found that the more stuff you can do, the more you’ll love life.” Excellent! Sounds like they’re encouraging women to do things for themselves, not to be things for someone else. But it takes a turn for the worse pretty quickly. Like in the next sentence: “So we’ve supplied you with a mix of crafty moves so fabulous, you’ll have a blast showing them off.” There’s that persistent male gaze again, with its focus on teaching women to be on display at all times. “Adding abilities to your already awesome repertoire makes you happier and healthier.” Yay! “With that in mind, we consulted experts to come up with the following sexy, smart, and stylish tips to make you even more impressive.” Ugh. Happier and healthier went out the window once again in favor of sexy, stylish and impressive to others.

The Look of the Spectators: The Male Gaze Demonstrated in Images

Even if the actual editorial content of the articles didn’t promote self- and sexual objectification, the images often did the trick. A 2006 story called “Get a grip on PMS” would be useful and free of any degrading influence if the accompanying photo wasn’t entirely unrelated and seemingly ripped straight from a Playboy. It featured a very thin and heavily made-up young woman in skimpy lingerie, posed seductively, lying across a couch. Similarly, a relationship piece on how to make staying in and watching a game with your spouse or boyfriend enjoyable featured a drawing of another young, blonde, very thin, busty woman in skimpy lingerie sitting alongside a fully clothed man while watching a sporting event on TV.

Another drawing depicts a thin yet curvaceous woman with her back to a man, but turning her head toward him so they are making eye contact and talking. The accompanying description instructs readers that wearing something low-cut or backless, or “playing up your hottest asset,” signifies “body confidence.” The overlaying image caption says, “He can’t hear a word she’s saying.” Again, the take-away message is that what a woman looks like always trumps what she says or does.

The literal “male gaze” of spectators within the images is another tool for objectification that was used in almost every image that included men. A four-page feature on catapulting your career, called “How to get ahead fast” (April 2006), included a full-page drawing of a thin woman in a cleavage-bearing strappy top working in a copy shop on one side of the page and then as an interior designer on the other side. Though the story’s long list of tips for success were free of objectifying ideas, both sides of the artwork included one lone man in the background, smiling and admiring the working woman from behind. This clear depiction of the male gaze implicitly tells readers that achieving success at work includes obtaining approval from men – or at the very least, that gaining male attention is an outcome of career success! Hmmm.

Another particularly noticeable example of a woman posed solely for the male gaze, despite its accompanying article that has nothing to do with appearance or sexuality, is from a 2006 story titled “Why you MUST trust your gut,” about listening to your intuition to avoid dangerous situations. Great idea, but it came with a terrible image. The photo depicts a young, thin woman in a low-cut, midriff-bearing top and low jeans, with her legs spread far apart and her thumbs in her front belt loops, pulling her jeans low in the front. The top of her head and her eyes are cut out of the shot, and a small icon of an alarm bell is imposed over her bare stomach. (Huh?) Again, a sexualized image is made to represent an otherwise non-objectifying message.

Is This Really What Men Want?

Through an emphasis on appearance, male pleasure, sexualized images, and exclusively thin models, Cosmopolitan is reinforcing objectification through the male gaze in every issue. It may as well be lumped with degrading men’s magazines, stuck on the newsstand next to any other title that unapologetically displays and describes women as objects to be looked at and nothing more. These coherent, degrading messages about women serve to normalize unnatural expectations of extreme thinness, idealized beauty and objectified sexuality. It is oppressive to show readers that female worth and happiness is dependent upon physical appearance – or most prominently, what men supposedly think about their physical appearance.

Very often, females cite a desire to be attractive to men as their reason for wanting to achieve unrealistic beauty ideals. We can’t ignore that factor. Lots of women want male attention – whether they’re looking for companionship or a committed relationship – and we can’t pretend like that isn’t also a major factor in the huge sales of Cosmo, since that’s what the magazine claims to offer. But by convincing women that men prefer very thin, idealized bodies – as Cosmo does over and over and over again – they’re selling dangerous beauty ideals while also perpetuating myths about what men “prefer.”

Studies show that women consistently overestimate mens’ preference for extremely thin bodies. That means, compared to what women thought men wanted, men actually preferred a larger female ideal (3). In The Evolution of Desire: Strategies for Human Mating, psychologoy professor David M. Buss (1994) points out how in massive studies of all ages, women chose slimmer than average physiques as the ideal for both sexes. But again, when men selected a female physique that they perceived as most ideal, they chose a body type that was more average and larger than what was chosen by women.

These examples help to refute the common belief among women that they need to achieve unrealistic thinness ideals in order to be considered attractive to men. In all reality, those unnatural ideals benefit companies and not relationships. Too many industries thrive off women believing that they must continuously fix their “flaws” (by losing weight, gaining weight, changing their hair color, getting a tan, lightenting their skin, whatever)in order to be happy, healthy, successful and in this case, desirable or worthy of love. This is a lie. A profit-driven lie.

Recognizing these dangerous messages found inside Cosmo and so many other sources that claim to give women the tools to become “You, Even Better” is a major step toward rejecting them. Reject harmful ideals that tell girls and women their sexuality, health and happiness is dependent upon whether or not they fit unrealistic beauty standards. Be aware of the male gaze and its objectifying influence in media that is supposedly “by women for women.” It’s really more like “by people for money.”

For more repeat offenders from popular media, check out our other case studies HERE. To help counteract Cosmo’s appearance-focused messages and the many others we are surrounded by every day whether we like it or not, we have printed colorful sticky notes and postcards featuring phrases like “You are capable of much more than being looked at” and “There’s more to be than eye candy” and we’re selling them here as a fundraising tool!

Lindsay Kite (2011). “Cosmo Magazine: Best-Seller and Best Objectifier?” Published on Beauty Redefined. beautyredefined.net/cosmo-magazine-a-case-study-in-objectification.htm. Originally published March 5, 2011.
Most Important References:
1) a. Cusumano, D. L., & Thompson, J. K. (1997). Body image and body shape ideals in magazines: Exposure, awareness, and internalization. Sex Roles, 37(9/10), 701-721.
b. Harrison, K. (2000). The body electric: Thin-ideal media and eating disorders in adolescents. Journal of Communication, 50(3), 119-143.
c. Harrison, K., & Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of Communication, 47(1), 40-67
d. Stice, E., Schupak-Neuberg, E., Shaw, H. E., & Stein, R. I. (1994). Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: An examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(4), 836-840.
2) Prabu, D., Liu, K. & Cortese, J. (2003). “Effect of Thin vs. Plus-Size Models: A Comparison of Body Image Ideals by Gender.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Diego, CA, May 27, 2003.

  1. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth01-05-2012

    Just shared your website address in the comments section of this article: http://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/gyms-skinny-model-ad-campaign-sparks-outrage-members-203300610.html. Hopefully some people will take notice.

  2. kim
    kim01-16-2012

    Bravo! I suspected that the quality of subjects in Cosmo deteriorated after Helen Gurley Brown was pushed out of her editorship. She insisted that there be articles on handling money, work issues, and getting ahead in your profession (besides having sex with your boss, although that was never ruled out). While she did us all a disservice by inventing and marketing the Cosmo Gir in the first place, for the past 15 years the focus of the propaganda has narrowed to how to be emaciated and how to f*** like a nympho.

  3. Natalia
    Natalia03-17-2012

    Your thorough research and clear, approachable arguments validate and clarify the uneasy feelings and suspicions I’ve had about Cosmo and other poisonous magazines for many years. I always thought it was remarkable that giving up “women’s magazines” in my mid-teens led to higher self-esteem! No wonder.

    Either way, of course (sadly!), my self-esteem remains fragile, but everything you two write restores my faith in myself and everyone else suffering from these relentless attacks, and boosts my hope that this destructive machine — the media, currently used largely for evil — will switch gears and stop pushing self-loathing on us all. Maybe it will even eventually help us feel better about ourselves — what a concept!!

    Much love and admiration,
    Natalia

  4. azeem
    azeem04-25-2012

    its a shame, and i know your hearts are in the right place, but you cant deny that this is what sells, and this is what people want.

    dont hate the mags for giving people what they want

    understand the people buying them in the first place. this is the real world.

    • Really?
      Really?05-01-2012

      Your view is disgusting. Women are being treated like pieces of meat and are even dying because of media like this.

      This isn’t “what the people want”. Men want women with realistic-looking, attractive, healthy bodies, and women want to be healthy and to look and feel good. These magazines don’t help with that at all.

      And this isn’t “the real world”. The real world is that women and girls the world over are suffering and even dying in a myriad of ways because of the expectations put on us to make our bodies into a certain fake “ideal”. It’s all made up, and it’s all bullshit. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t always have to be this way. That’s why we’re fighting back–for a better “real world” for our children, no matter their gender.

      • upthebut
        upthebut05-11-2012

        settle down permalink, this is a bunch of women dieting, not genocide in the congo. I’m sure there are some severe negative consequences, but nobody is forcing these women to be so easily influenced by the media. All he said was that they are publishing what people want to read. Save your indignity for someone who deserves it

        • 570
          57005-12-2012

          Advertising and the media are a lot more subversive, and influential, than you think, and it affects both men and women. To say that this is what we want, and so we shouldn’t bother is a sad view point. We grow up with this stuff, and a lot of people are indoctrinated into these ways of thinking because of it. They make people feel bad so they can keep buying. They buy these magazines in hopes to become what they think they should be, when really they will never be able to be that way, it is a dream, and a bad dream at that.

          We are living in a world where people are consistently unhappy and more angry, and we need to look at why. Saying this is what they want is a blanket statement that is simplifying something that affects everyone, no one is free from this, and the only people who benefit are the ones selling it.

          Bad things are happening everywhere but that doesn’t mean that she should ‘save her indiginity for someone who deserves it’. There are bad things that are happening everywhere, and, yes, we should talk about that, we do talk about that, but that doesn’t mean that these topics shouldn’t be bothered to be talked about at all.

          We all deserve to live better, happier lives, and there are a lot people out there that hate themselves, and others.

  5. upthebut
    upthebut05-14-2012

    so to say don’t hate the magazines for giving the people what they want is a disgusting point of view is appropriate. Ii assume that means that the movie industry, billboards, a significant number of books, art, etc should also be condemned. Should we impose limitations on these disgusting industries (presumably the industries themselves are disgusting if not condemning them is disgusting). Now how thin is to thin, can i only show people who weigh more than a certain amount, or do i need to show a mix? If I show a mix of people of various sizes, is my commentary regarding these people monitored? I think I should also have a prohibition against showing only overweight people as well, as obesity is a much larger health issue and places a greater strain on society’s collective resources. Who decides?

    I could obviously go on all day with this line, and maybe I’m missing the point, but to say that we should open a dialogue is something I would support; however, to say that a viewpoint is disgusting that says lets address the root problem and not condemn magazines for showing lots of skinny people is in my view intolerant and overdramatic.

    In a free society we are always going to run into these issues, and although it is an issue that I would correct with a magic wand if I could, I believe it to be low down on the list of the worlds problems.

  6. Vanessa
    Vanessa06-27-2012

    This magazine is aimed towards readers who “want’” to read its contents. If it bothers anyone this bad then they don’t need to look at it. I don’t like the topic of religion but I wouldn’t pick up a magazine or book that is aimed on preaching that religion. Do these celebrity’s on the covers of Cosmo encourage the idea that women “should” be beautiful, thin, and have sex-appeal? Or are they an image of healthy, fit, successful, and talented women? These women are not anorexic. They are simply what the human body probably would look like if it wasn’t for fast-food and couch potatoes. These women work hard to stay fit and eat healthy. If the covers were full of obese women then wouldn’t that be sending a message to women that it’s normal and okay to be that overweight. It’s simply unhealthy and the cause of heart disease, diabetes, and other such ailments that overweight people will suffer from. What type of women is this magazine exactly offending? I have heard of sex as being called “a sex manual.” It simply is not – it merely shares stories of women’s sexual experiences as if you were chatting with your best gal pal next door. These are things the average woman does think and talk about. Now if you’re looking for a sex manual you really could find this on the internet or in your local Barnes and Noble bookstore. If your going to rag on a magazine for sharing stories and giving advice on such topics then rag on movies, tv shows, books, music and pretty much everything in the media because it’s never going to go away … it sells because its connecting to its readers. I have read Cosmo and never have I felt that it was “making” me feel bad about myself or putting ideas in my head that I “need” to be this way or that for men. I am a grown woman and can decide for myself what I should feed into or not. I simply enjoy looking at the pretty pictures, getting beauty advice, and hearing the “real” stories of women and their sexual experiences. I am open in my sexuality, have been with my partner for several years now, have two children, served in the military, and have been in college for two years now going for nursing with a 3.91GPA … “I” am a Cosmo reader and proud of it … and I take pride in looking beautiful, being fit and healthy, and having brains … people who complain about Cosmo feel bad about themselves to begin with if they can’t handle seeing all the “pretty” people on the covers …

    • Angel
      Angel01-06-2014

      ” I am open in my sexuality, have been with my partner for several years now, have two children, served in the military, and have been in college for two years now going for nursing with a 3.91GPA ”
      Good for you but what does that have to do with reading cosmo? Cosmo is not empowering it is a very shallow magazine anyway. If you lie shallow magazine be my guess.

  7. Sara
    Sara04-20-2013

    I respectfully disagree. I think Cosmo is all about women showing that they are beautiful and successful. Women are smart and opinionated and we can have sexual knowledge as much as any guy. I haven’t read a single Cosmo yet that made me want to crash diet even after seeing all the beautiful women grace the covers. Instead Cosmo reinforces that women are amazing. This is saying that women are shown as objects in Cosmo. And what Cosmo is doing is the complete opposite. Sometimes we need to stop being cynics and looking for everything wrong. We need to use the good to our advantage. Not keep trying to find the bad and do nothing about it.

    • Isobelle
      Isobelle05-28-2013

      I’m sorry, but I just can’t see anything in cosmo being empowering. It’s so focused on appearances and consumerism. If it’s not telling you that you need to change, then it’s telling you to buy something.

      The thing that concerns me most about these types of magazines is the focus on pleasing men. From what I’ve seen, there is very little that women do just to enjoy themselves or feel good, it’s to ‘show off’ or catch someone’s eye. The ‘how to drive him wild’ and ’50 ways to please your man in bed’ features are particularly guilty. Why can’t we have something that encourages us to enjoy sex as mutual pleasure, rather than focus on pleasing someone else?

      As well as the fact that a lot of the images are objectifying and quite often irrelevant to the article they accompany. If ‘women’s magazines’ were more focused on happy, healthy women, then why do we only ever seem to find slim, busty and clear skinned women in them? And then there’s the white washing. How often do you see a POC on the cover?

      In my honest opinion, cosmo is empowering for slender upper-middle class white women. At a push. And it stops there.

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