By Giselle Fierro
For my ethnographic study, I interviewed Martha, a college sophomore of Chicago, on her thoughts and interests about Cosmopolitan (Cosmo) magazine/website in order to find out whether Cosmo is actually a feminist/non-racist space. She is an active reader of Cosmo. This ethnography was done by providing her with a set of questions that were answered through a skype interview. These questions were only used to guide conversation but were not the defining factor of discussion.
Martha sees Cosmo as a place where “teen women go for beauty and sexual advice,” as “a bible” that focuses on the best tips for fashion, male-attraction, and health. As Martha gave me a virtual tour of the Cosmo website, I had her verbalize the feelings and thoughts that went through her head naturally as she observed the content of the website. When she got to the “Fashion” section of the site, I began to notice a trend: many of her sentences changed from first person to third person point of view. It was no longer about the “I,” but rather about the “she” and “her.” The sentences went from, “Cosmo helps me pick out the good clothes on my next shopping trip [….] It helps me get ideas of what to wear and what looks good,” to “She really looks good in that top [….] but it wouldn’t look good on me because she has a great figure and I don’t have the body shape for it.” When we were looking at a particular shirt, she began to talk about how the shirt would not fit her well because “she didn’t have the right boob size to own that look.” Martha was no longer taking the site as an advice-giver, but rather as a place to compare herself relative to the women shown in Cosmo.
The “Diet and Health” section of Cosmo fused more insecurities to come out of Martha. As she toured me through this section, it was clear to me that Cosmo was not a place for her to “get advice from,” as she had said. Rather, it has become a place where she fantasizes on her desire to have the “perfect body and skin” that is shown in Cosmo. Her comments varied from, “Look at her perfect stomach,” to, “yeah, there’s no way I’ll ever be in shape like she is,” to, “my stomach looks so fat, I’m embarrassed.” When we entered the “Love and Sex” section, Martha’s comments revolved around her feelings of how “men aren’t attracted to her.” Although there were a few positive comments, such as, “I’m going to work hard to be in better shape,” most comments made were self-esteem crushers. Cosmo has unconsciously become a comparison game to her.
From interviewing Martha, one can see that Cosmo is catering the perfect bodily image to its readers. Martha is unconscious of how reading the content in Cosmo is affecting her personally and psychologically as she “learns” what bodily image perfection is in our society: white, heterosexual, slim women. At the end of the interview, I told Martha if she was aware of how reading Cosmo was affecting her emotionally and she responded, “I know. It’s hard not to get lost in the “what could be” and “what is” comparison. I don’t really notice it while I’m reading though [….] A lot on here (Cosmo) you read and you think it’s helping you but it’s really destroying you on the inside.” Clearly, Cosmo, a magazine that is supposed to cater to women of every type, is really advertising, as a commodity, the “right and desired” type of woman. The exclusion of “the others” creates an uncomfortable and degrading place for women who do not fit the image type that Cosmo caters to. Martha’s feeling of lack of agency over her body that Cosmo perpetuates on her clearly makes a statement that this site is not a feminist/non-racist space. It does not include the “safe space” that women look for in a feminist space.