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Martha Stewart Living and Canadian Living:

Manipulating women’s self-esteem

Magazines reflect what is acceptable in our society, and help to socialize the reader into the dominant, or subversive, culture. From magazines we learn what is expected of us, what roles we should play, and even whom we should emulate. What emerges from this information is a process whereby we learn who we should be, and a large part of this is learning the gender roles our society expects from us. Through ‘homemaker’ magazines such as Martha Stewart Living (MSL) and Canadian Living (CL) we see what is expected of women as mothers, wives, employees, and homemakers. We see that there is an extremely high standard for how the house should look, what should be served for meals, and how the family should be cared for; in the holiday editions of these types of magazines this pressure to excel becomes even more pronounced. There is a difference, however, between MSL and CL and different expectations are demonstrated throughout the magazine. Through the articles, recipes, and advertisements we will learn what these differences are and we will see that ‘homemaker’ magazines function in the same way that beauty magazines do. They serve to create feelings of low self-esteem and the inability to meet the magazine’s - and through it society’s- expectations of gender roles.

Looking at the indexes of these two magazines we see a remarkable similarity between the contents of both. Of the two Canadian Living offers more diverse subject matter. The content headings in CL are; fasion, home, food, family, health, and community, whereas the primary focuses of Martha Stewart Living are food and the home. However, both have articles specifically talking about Hanukkah, Christmas dinner, decorations for the home and tree, decoration outside the home, and an educational segment. Both magazines have the usual advice columns, editor’s letter, advertisements, and what we will call the endnote, the last article in the magazine.

In the craft sections of these magazines CL considers children much more in its ideas. Many of the projects and even some recipes are designed so children can help with the holiday preparations. Even the article titled ‘101 Tips for a Stress-Free Christmas’ emphasizes the importance of including children in whatever task needs to be done. This seems to be part of the general attitude in the magazine, or as its subtitle says, "Smart solutions for everyday living". Thus, the accent in CL is on the reality of family life; most people seem to try to prevent adding stress to their already busy schedules. In contrast MSL tends not to focus on doing things with children, rather for them. Not one recipe or project in the magazine is designed as an activity for both mother (presumably) and child. Most are far too complicated or time intensive to even adapt for children. Thus, the emphasis in MSL is on beautiful, perfect decorating at no expense to time or money. For example, in CL we find an activity for decorating outside the house, making a "bird tree". Using fruits, nuts, birdseed, and peanut butter a family can decorate an outside tree while at the same time feeding the birds, and as the article says " . . . give their children the best Christmas present of all: time spent at the kitchen table, talking, laughing and sharing the holiday season. (Canadian Living 212)" In MSL even something as simple as wrapping gifts becomes labour intensive and complicated. Here we find ideas like making incredibly fastidious gift tags, sewing different wrapping papers together to create a quilted appearance, and monogrammed ribbons rather than gift tags. These projects are so intimidating even to adults it is hard to see children helping to wrap the Christmas presents, which leaves even more for a woman to do on her own, and without the possibility to enjoy the people around her during the holidays. It is no surprise then when we find articles on how to relieve stress during the holidays in women’s magazines.

Interestingly enough, in the article in CL entitled ‘Ever Green’ we see a beautifully decorated home, and the family looking well rested and stress-free. Even here we see that maintaining this perfection is impossible for one, or even two people whom must also continue performing the normal daily tasks of life. We read, "To help deck the halls – and save time for family and friends – Carolyn and Derek hand over most of the decorating to designers . . . (Canadian Living 206)". Therefore, even though this magazine attempts to cater to a broader demographic group this sort of flawlessness in the home is impossible for most women (and men) to create. The wonderful photos are what create the desire, on the part of the reader, to try to emulate this beautiful home, but we quickly learn that this is not just a normal household, everything has been carefully planned and decorated by professionals. As one author writes, "(The women’s) scores (of self-esteem) become even lower after exposure to photos of female models (Crawford 55)". Perhaps the exposure to beautiful immaculate homes has the same effect on women who attempt to live up to the expectations of these magazines.

In both magazines there are many recipes specifically aimed at the holiday season whether this means Christmas or Hanukkah. Many are essentially the same recipes in both magazines, but with vastly different directions and relative difficulties. What becomes apparent is the focus that CL has on preparing food that looks and tastes good, but can be prepared ahead of time and/or quickly. On the other hand, MSL emphasizes obscure, gourmet ingredients and extremely time consuming, detailed preparation. For example, both magazines have recipes for the German bread Stollen. To make the MSL version one would need approximately 28.5 hours compared with the CL version, which takes about 3.75 hours. Beyond this the ingredients are basically the same with some quantity differences. However, for a woman who is expected to entertain, buy or make presents, care for the family, and most likely work outside the home, there is an enormous difference between these two recipes if only in terms of time. The MSL Stollen was conveniently made by an employee and is picture perfect, but this has the same effect on the reader that flawless, eighteen-year-olds do in beauty magazines; the reader feels that she cannot possibly live up to the expectations, nor can she provide for her family in the same dedicated, loving way that MSL advocates.

The advertisements in both magazines are very similar, with advertisements for automobiles, liquor, clothing, cosmetics, and food. Through the advertisements we see the demographic to which both magazines seem to be marketing. While CL tries to appeal to a wider demographic that MSL does, there is still an emphasis in both magazines toward families where both the mother and father have professional careers. There are adverts for charities, investment groups and mutual funds, all of which cater to families with a higher disposable income. The adverts also highlight computers and computer accessories such as scanners, printers, Internet providers, and modems. In CL the products advertised are often commonly found in all grocery stores, or pharmacies, most are brand names that any person would know. MSL focuses on designer labels, gourmet foods and liquors, and luxury autos. Finally, in CL we find some adverts promoting men and children’s products, presumably not because these people may also read the magazine, but rather to give women gift ideas; the men’s cologne, for example, is offered as a gift box and pre-wrapped. Nonetheless, the problem still remains that women are being told to look beautiful while at the same time keep the home beautiful, the food delicious, the family happy, and maintain a career. Even if the adverts in these magazines are marketed towards the middle and upper economic classes a wider demographic most definitely will read both CL and MSL. This adds yet another pressure to the reader namely that she cannot afford financially to provide for her family in the same way that these magazines encourage.

The endnote is a way of tying the whole magazine together, while also leaving the reader with something to think about, usually through some element of humour the author relates a story that will offer a little wisdom or give a feeling of association with the magazine. However, this section of the magazine gives the strongest indication that MSL is exclusive and impossible for most readers to relate. The endnote in CL is a funny story about the difficulties of preparing Christmas dinner for a family, and what went wrong when the author attempted something new. She writes, "Things go wrong right from the start . . . My husband calculates the wrong cooking time . . . I start to suspect that the bird is going to be done a lot sooner than planned . . . The juices running from the bird start to take on a slightly greenish hue. (Canadian Living 232)" Right away we perhaps cannot relate to the exact situation, however, the idea is that we have all had disastrous cooking experiences and eventually we will be able to laugh at the experience later. In MSL we find the opposite effect, the reader is isolated from the experiences the author is relating which exist as impossibilities for most people. The author is writing about her New Year’s celebrations in the past,

I always know that I will be somewhere exotic in the world on December 31. In 1995, under a full moon, we drank champagne; ate a small, precious tin of caviar; and sang songs aboard a small sailboat in the beautiful harbour of Baltra in the Galápagos. The year after, along with my nieces and nephews and my best friends, we danced in the New Year in a small town on the Nile. Last year, atop Machu Picchu, we drank champagne and dined on local Peruvian mountain cuisine, imagining the Incas had done the same thing hundreds of years ago. (Martha Stewart Living 288)

She goes on to explain that all these evenings were possible due to the care and time spent in planning every detail, as if any one could do these things regardless of their financial situation. Thus, we see that of the two magazines CL is more inclusive with who will relate to the experiences of the writer. MSL is obviously catering to a specific demographic that does not include many people. However, again we feel a sense of impossibility when we read these lines, too many women will read this story and feel that they cannot possibly create the same loving, entertaining, and especially exotic experiences for their families.

It has been found that in the media images of women affect their self-perception and confidence. As it has been said, "exposure to unrealistic images of women (such as are found in women’s magazines) has negative consequences for women . . . women score lower that men on measures of bodily self-esteem Crawford 55)". Another possibility exists, that exposure to unrealistic images or examples of women as homemakers, wives, and mothers has negative effects on a woman’s perception of the quality of her contributions in the home. Perhaps images of not only perfectly styled women, but also these women in their organized homes, having created wonderful meals for the family, and having successfully dealt with any problems the family may be experiencing, cause women feel frustrated with their lives and their family. This may go far beyond the double shift theory, simply because to maintain any home and family in a state of perfection at all times there must be more than the woman in the family keeping things in order. Most of the ideas in the magazines were put together by chefs and decorators, and then photographed by professionals; in short a women must employ these types of people to maintain the standard of the magazine. In magazines that are oriented around food and the home the readers may begin to feel that they are not meeting the paradigms that the magazine supports.

It is important to realise the potential most magazines and other forms of media have to pressure the reader into conforming to the ideals that the magazine holds. Magazines reflect what is acceptable in our society, and help to socialize the reader into the dominant culture. In magazines that centre on the home, cooking, and decorating we see a remarkable similarity of content. There are articles about Hanukkah, Christmas dinner, decorations for the home and tree, decoration outside the home, and an educational segment. There are also advice columns, editor’s letter, advertisements, and the endnote. Between MSL and CL there is a small difference toward whom each magazine is marketed. MSL is centred on providing elegance in all details of the home there is no consideration to time, stress levels, or resources available. CL, on the other hand, tries to appeal to the family, it encourages lovely looking houses and spectacular meals, but tries to help find time saving solutions to keep the house perfect, or nearly so. CL seems to understand that part of these solutions must be to include children, rather than simply cater to their wishes. The advertisements are very similar; both magazines have adverts marketed toward professional families, with both parents working. However, there is still an element of impossibility in all the photos and articles in both magazines. No matter how much time or resources a woman has it would still be very difficult to preserve these types of beautiful homes and families. In short, these magazines seem to have the same effect on women that beauty magazines do, both types of magazines create feelings of inadequacy and failure in women who strive to keep up with the model of perfection.

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