“How women are portrayed in the media: A man’s view” by Steve Hicks


The purpose of this blog post is to investigate how women are portrayed in the print media, with a particular focus on the content and agenda of women’s magazines.  Where is the power and control situated regarding the content of the magazine?   Does the content meet the needs and desires of the reader or is there an element of reader manipulation.

Men’s magazines are often vilified for encouraging male readers to objectify women. However it will be shown that women’s magazines encourage self objectification by women themselves.

Cosmopolitan Magazine will be used as an example of modern day practices. The impact that these magazines have on women’s self image will be examined, and the negative effects that they can have will also be discussed.

A final section will look at the responsibilities of the media regarding these issues.

Media images of Women

Throughout the decades the print media has had an enormous influence over the shaping of societal attitudes towards gender roles, with women in particular being targeted through the use of advertising.

Many people are familiar with the advertising that was being circulated throughout the 1950s/60s.  During this era women of course were not in the workplace in the numbers that they are today.  In fact the norm was for women to be full time mothers and housewives. During this post war period there was an “explosion” of consumerism with many new products coming into the market place, most of which were for use by the housewife.  Cookers, Washing machines, Vacuum cleaners and cleaning products, etc,

The advertisers of course wasted no time and seized on this opportunity to increase their wealth by creating a demand for these “must have” products, amongst housewives.  Women clamoured for these new products, many of which were seen as status symbols, and the concept of the “ Domestic Goddess “ was born, resulting in women falling over themselves to be the perfect wife and mother.

But why did this advertising campaign impact so heavily on gender roles?  The answer may be found in the theory of Implicit Association, which in turn reinforces gender stereotypes. Social Psychologists believe that if two “items” are paired often enough, then our implicit mind builds a link between them.   “Place a woman behind almost every vacuum cleaner …. and associative memory will pick up the pattern”  ( Fine C. 2011 p.5 )

The adverts of the 50s/60s invariably included a picture of the product and an image/reference to women such that implicit association reinforced the   “ Domestic Goddess “ role of women.

“Women, more than men are implicitly associated with …. family and domesticity “  ( Mast M.S. 2004 pp. 107-111)


The Sex Goddess

 Partly, as a result of second wave feminism, women’s roles have changed, and they have moved out of the private sphere ( the home ), and into the public sphere ( the workplace ) and they are no longer expected to be the  “ Domestic Goddess “, although most domestic duties are still performed by them.

Women in the workplace are often judged according to appearance more so than men, particularly at the corporate level. This has led to what Naomi wolf has identified as. PBQ.  The Professional Beauty Qualification.   (Wolf N. 1991a p.27).  To make it in the corporate world women must satisfy the criteria of PBQ.

Women’s appearance must satisfy certain standards.  In 2009 the Bank of England held a seminar for the female employees entitled “ Dress for Success “ . The women were advised on what to wear in the workplace, ie. “Always wear a heel-maximum two inches.”  “ Always wear some sort of make up…”   It must be said that there were no equivalent seminars for the men. (Banyard K. 2011a p. 29)

The advertisers have not been slow to pick up on this change and have found a new agenda for their campaigns.

As women have become more prosperous, the Corporate world and the print media in particular, have competed for their newly acquired spending power, with a proliferation of glossy magazines such as Elle, Vogue, and Glamour etc.  Cosmopolitan is one such magazine which along with many others. Make up the Hearst Publishing “Empire”.

A brief look through these magazines reveals that the content is not there just for the readers benefit, but to further the aims of the advertising industry. Novembers (2015) issue of Cosmopolitan has a total of 220 pages including front and back covers, of which 133 are devoted to adverts, mainly for hair, skin, perfume and fashion products.  Many, if not most of these adverts, feature an image of the  “ stereotypical beauty“, often with an underlying or sublime sex theme.

For example, on page nine there is an advert for Jimmy Choo “Illicit” fragrance, featuring a slim blonde model wearing a bikini and high stiletto shoes and clutching a giant sized bottle of perfume. Even the name of the product could be said to be seductive. Is the hidden message “ Go on, I dare you”.

Again, on the inside front cover, is a double page advert for Gucci Bamboo fragrance. This ad also features a slim model wearing a backless dress and a sultry expression on her face. Then there is the slogan “Underneath it all she wears GUCCI BAMBOO”, drawing the reader’s attention to the model’s   “compulsory” slim body.

. These examples are typical of modern day advertising. Portraying women as sex objects and encouraging women to make comparisons between their own bodies and those that appear in adverts.

Even the magazine articles such as an interview with Bond Girl Naomi Harris, push the beauty ideal (pp. 52-58 ) by including 5 images of Harris wearing a skin tight dress accentuating her slim body, Other articles have titles such as “ MY BODY’S AMAZING BECAUSE “ (p.123) and  “THE DEAL WITH CALORIES “ (pp. 116-117).


The Agenda

So why is this form of sexism so prevalent in women’s  magazines, after all 20 out of the 21 editors/directors at Cosmopolitan, are women.

( Cosmopolitan 2015 p.11)  Would these modern career women not be adverse to promoting the Sex Goddess image over the achievements of their successful professional “sisters”. It would appear not, and the answer might be found on the magazines website. With a UK cover price of £1, it is obvious that advertising revenue is what keeps the magazine in business. Advertising rates are immense, however with such a wide circulation advertisers are prepared to pay in order to give the products maximum exposure.

 Sales of Cosmopolitan in America for 2016 are projected to be  16,969,000 with a total brand footprint ( Mags+ digital and social media ) at a staggering 53.723.000   (cosmomediakit 2015)  So a one off advert may be expected to be viewed by up to 53 million women, about one third of the American female population.

This vast amount of revenue will of course give manufacturers and advertisers a huge influence over editorial content such that they can steer the direction of the magazine, For example, often an advertiser will request that an ad is placed next to a related feature. The company may insist that an ad for a hair product be placed next to a feature on hair beauty. If the editor wants the advertising account, then she will be obliged to run an article on hair beauty whether she wants to or not, and so magazines can be easily “hijacked” and controlled by third parties.

Given the amount of money at stake, it is not difficult to see why editorial control is sacrificed for the sake of profit and career.


Impact of advertising on Women

As a result of being constantly bombarded with these images women tend to view themselves in a more objectified manner. And may develop feelings of  anxiety,  Guilt,  and  unhappiness concerning their own body image.  It is not only magazines of course that present this ideal body image. Women are constantly exposed to a cocktail of images via TV, Internet, Billboards, and Films, all delivering the same message, “The thin ideal”.

Worldwide, as many as seventy million people, mainly women, suffer from eating disorders  (Alliance for Eating Disorders)  and research has shown a correlation between portrayed body image and women’s dissatisfaction with their own bodies.  As an example, the people of Fiji, an island in Polynesia,  have  traditionally  admired  women with a fuller figure, dieting has been discouraged and eating disorders virtually unknown. However researchers have discovered that after western TV was introduced, the incidence of disordered eating increased considerably. Of the adolescent girls questioned, 11.3% stated that they had made themselves vomit as a method of weight control, whereas this was previously unheard of.  (Banyard  K. 2011b pp 33-34)

Anorexia and Bulimia are not only serious health issues. But are also barriers to equality,   as  Naomi Wolf states in The Beauty Myth.  

“If women can’t eat the same food as men, we cannot experience equal status in the community”  ( Wolf N. 1991b p.189)

If eating disorders are such a threat to women’s health, should magazines aimed at women not deal with this issue?  Could it not be argued that the media has a moral duty towards women regarding their health and wellbeing? Many would answer yes to these questions. Well of course some arms of the print media including SOME women’s magazines will take a more responsible approach, but there is obviously a conflict of interests particularly when so many fashion shoots feature women who are inarguably under weight.



 As has been shown, the way that women are represented in the media is a complex issue and women’s media is no more female friendly than men’s, and why would it be when it can be seen that women’s media is ultimately controlled by patriarchal corporatist giants. Female editors are prepared to compromise themselves for the sake of capitalism.

It has been illustrated how the content of women’s magazines is manipulated in the interests of profit. Women are taught to compare and judge themselves against an unachievable (for most) beauty ideal that has been set by men. Women’s health and wellbeing is sacrificed and seen as unimportant in the ever expanding corporatist world. Yes, women do have the right to use beauty products and fashion to enhance their appearance and women’s magazines do, do a good job of making women aware of these products, but surely women should have a choice and not be pressured into conforming to standards that have been imposed by others.




Alliance for Eating Disorders. Available at.


[ Date accessed  7/12/2015]


Banyard K. 2011a.  The Equality Illusion.  Faber and Faber.  London  p.29.

Banyard K. 2011b.  Ibid.  pp. 33-34.


Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Nov 2015. Hearst Publishing.  London. pp. 2-3.     

Ibid.   p.9

Ibid.  p.11.

Ibid.  pp. 52-58.

Ibid.  pp. 116-117.

Ibid.  p.123..

http://cosmomediakit.com/r5/home.asp  [ Date accessed 13/12/2015]Fine C.  2010.  Delusions of Gender.  Icon Books. London.  P. 5.


Mast M.S.  2004.  Men are hierarchical, Women are egalitarian: An implicit Gender Stereotype.  Swiss Journal of Psychotherapy. 62(2) pp 107-111


Wolf N. 1991a.  The Beauty Myth. Vintage. London p27.

Wolf N. 1991b. Ibid. p. 189.

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