The Reality of Mainstream Magazines: Being Thin, White, and Beautiful Matters

The Reality of Mainstream Magazines: Being Thin, White, and Beautiful Matters | Positively Smitten

One of the main reasons I wanted to be part of my own magazine was to improve visibility for girls like me. In current media, I don’t feel I’m represented, and I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who feel the same. The truth is, it’s hard to find people who look like you on TV, in movies, and in magazines, especially when those mediums are populated by celebrities and models who are not only paid to look stunning, but often have their appearances altered by great lighting, Spanx, or Photoshop.

I started to do some research into Cosmopolitan Magazine, one of the biggest names in the industry. I wanted to know just how bad the lack of representation was, especially in a form of media that’s so influential. As much as we may not want to believe it, Cosmo isn’t just read by adults, but young girls. And this is what’s teaching those girls about their bodies, sex, how they should act, and how they should look.

The unfortunate truth is that most magazines depict women who are overwhelmingly thin, perfect, and white, even though their audiences are an eclectic mix of individuals. Cosmo is no exception. While Cosmo’s representation is likely better than some, like, say, Vogue, which frequently does blackface on its covers, it could still use a major overhaul. The magazine industry isn’t truly diverse if it still must differentiate its diversity with a “plus-size” fashion spread once a year, or an “all-black” issue, or a special “Latina” magazine.

So just how many women of color have even been on the cover of Cosmo recently?

In 2012, the models were as follows: Scarlett Johansson; Dakota Fanning; Selena Gomez; Megan Fox; Khloe Kardashian; Pink; Demi Lovato; Ashley Greene; Lucy Hale; Zooey Deschanel; Kate Upton; Taylor Swift. Only three of them were women of color – Selena, Khloe (who may not identify as a WOC), and Demi. In 2011, Cosmo’s record was the same. Three of the 12 covers featured women of color — Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian (who also may not identify as a WOC). The rest? White.

Where are the Latina women? East Asian women? South Asian women? Plus-size women? I decided to take a look at Cosmo’s covers over the span of 10 years (2001-2011) to see whether anything had changed. Here’s what I found.

The Results


Total covers analyzed: 132

Note: I didn’t bother analyzing whether the women would be considered plus-size. It goes without saying that none — except Adele on the Dec. 2011 issue — were.

Hair color

Initial thoughts: I expected most cover models would be blonde, if for no other reason than that whole “blondes have more fun” mentality in Hollywood and society. I based my results solely on what each celebrity/model’s hair color was on the cover  not what they were born with, or the hair color they “normally” may wear.

What I found:

  • Blonde: 85 (64.39%)
  • Brunette: 39 (29.55%)
  • Red: 4 (3.03%)
  • Black: 4 (3.03%)

In Hollywood, blonde has overwhelmingly been defined as “better” — sexier and prettier than any other hair color. There’s no real surprise that a lot of the women on the covers had blonde hair, but I don’t think Cosmo specifically chooses women who are blonde for their covers. I think it likely has to do with there being more blonde, white celebrities in U.S. media. Interestingly, some scientists say only around 2% of adults are natural blondes.

Perceived Hair Texture

Initial thoughts: What defines the type of hair “texture” we have? Well, that’s sort of hard to say. I couldn’t physically go up to each cover model and touch their hair (also: that would be weird), but I could look at the style of their hair. I went into this thinking most hair would be straight because it’s often known as “white hair” — that silky, “smooth” texture exemplified by women like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone and Reese Witherspoon.

What I found: 

  • Straight: 53 (40.15%)
  • Curly: 11 (8.33%)
  • Wavy/professionally curled: 68 (51.52%)

I was surprised to see how many women had wavy/curly hair — or rather, hair that was professionally curled and given waves. It was very, very rare that naturally curly hair was used on a model. Off the top of my head, I can really only recall Debra Messing and that was in 2001. I sincerely thought most women would have been shown with straight hair, since there is this underlying message in American society that “natural” or “curly” hair is gross or ugly. This article even talks about how curly hair is seen as “less professional” than straight hair.

But I think the point still stands. Despite the majority of the women on the covers having wavy hair, most of them had their hair styled that way — that is, their hair was straightened FIRST and THEN given big, luscious curls, the kind that can only be achieved with hair product and curling irons and, often, “white” hair.

The message? Unless your hair is straight, don’t bother with your “natural” texture. Your hair should not be frizzy, at all. It should glisten and bounce like an Herbal Essences commercial.


Initial thoughts: I put “race” in quotation marks because race is a social construct and I didn’t have a very scientific way of going about categorizing these women. This is based solely off of the embarrassing amount of pop culture knowledge I’ve amassed about these celebrities, combined with something simple — what a person’s skin color looks like. My method is about as scientific as how race is determined in real life, where people’s race is determined entirely by what they “look” like.

What I found: There were zero East Asian women on Cosmo’s covers. I included Armenian Kim Kardashian in “brown,” although it’s possible she does not identify as such, which would skew the numbers even further in favor of white women. (As one commenter pointed out below, “Armenians are Caucasian. Armenia is even located in the Caucasus….where that word originates from and also there plenty of Armenians who look like White women and identify as White. Just like there are Armenians who have darker features and might identify as POC, however most Armenians I have met (myself included) identify as White.”)

  • White: 114 (86.36%)
  • Brown/Latina: 12 (9.09%)
  • Black: 6 (4.55%)

This is the category I cared most about. However, having hard numbers in front of me just made me feel even more disappointed. Nearly 87% of the women who’ve been on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS were white.

To be fair, Cosmo IS getting better about this. In 2001, 100% of their covers were white women. In 2011, 75% were white. Less than the average, but not by much. I do recognize that part of the problem is simply that women of color in Hollywood do not exist on the same vast scale as white women.

But how much can we blame on that? Cosmo only has 12 covers per year to fill, usually with celebrities — surely there are SOME women of color suitable for their magazine? Mindy Kaling, Zoe Saldana, Lucy Liu, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sara Ramirez, Maggie Q, Katie Leung, Kim Yoon Jin, America Ferrera, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson.

Some years, Cosmo even chose to reuse women who’d already been on their cover instead of choosing a woman of color. Julia Stiles and Molly Sims, for example, graced Cosmo’s cover four times over 10 years. Of course, it wasn’t just white women who were on the cover multiple times. Beyonce, Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Eva Longoria were (and I’m very glad!) — but these are all women of color openly accepted in mainstream media. I feel like you’d never see a woman like Tracee Ellis Ross, who starred on BET’s “Girlfriends” for EIGHT years, on the cover of Cosmo, which is really sad.


I knew what I was getting into when I started looking at these magazine covers; I knew that the majority of the women would be light-skinned, heterosexual, smooth-haired, perfect-bodied women. (For a look at all 132 covers, click here and scroll to the bottom of the post.) I could spend days, weeks, months examining these covers, but even just a preliminary look paints a pretty vibrant picture. If Cosmo really wants to diversify, it’ll have to do more than slap one token woman of color on its covers each year.

We can do better, Cosmo. We must.


19 responses to “The Reality of Mainstream Magazines: Being Thin, White, and Beautiful Matters

  1. I have a deep-seated hatred of Cosmo, mostly because I feel like instead of treating women like intellectual and sexual beings it talks about nothing but how to maintain, hunt with, and make fashionable that sexuality and completely forgets that women might be something more than a sizzling bag of hormones out looking to capture a man with the fangs in her nether regions. I am all for the “I am woman, hear me roar” mentality, but Cosmo is using a very simple premise…sex sells…and they are only interested in that. This is definitely further compacted by the fact that you can only apparently be successful at being this ultimate woman if you are white, straight, and a size negative 2 with fake wavy blonde hair…


    • I totally agree! I think Cosmo makes women’s lives seem like they are all about trying to “get” the guy, rather than about living happy, fulfilling lives. Sex DOES sell, so they are cashing in on that, but it’s dangerous that they claim to be trying to “help” us when they obviously are trying to push their own agenda (that you need these magazines in order to succeed/be happy) and often at our expense (by putting us down constantly, we need reassurance we’re ok, so we buy the products juxtaposed next to articles about how we need to cover our flaws). It’s a vicious cycle! Cosmo definitely isn’t the only culprit, but they are one of the big ones. 😦 Very frustrating, indeed.


  2. I’m not really sure if Armenian people count as non-caucasian, as I think they are still European. Someone correct me if I’m wrong


    • I based this off of my findings that some who identify as Armenian also identify as people of color. (See this blog for a little more.) Personally, I am not Armenian, so I can’t speak for them! However, I thought using information about how people self-identify was a good place to start.


      • I think I can explain why this is, sociologically. A generation ago Armenia was invaded by Turkey and Armenia no longer exists as a country. At one point it was legal for a Turk to test a new sword on an Armenian neck. Because of this, many Armenian immigrants identified themselves as white and refused to pass on their language and culture to their children, much the way many Japanese-Americans discarded their culture during and after WWII. It would seem in response to this, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants are identifying as people of color to reclaim some of their culture denied to them by their parents. At least, that’s my theory.


    • Armenians are Caucasian. Armenia is even located in the Caucasus….where that word originates from and also there plenty of Armenians who look like White women and identify as White. Just like there are Armenians who have darker features and might identity as POC, however most Armenians I have met (myself included) identify as White.


  3. THIS IS AMAZING. It’s everything I’ve ever felt, but seeing all the magazine covers back to back like that, it really sinks in how much young girls are saturated with media constantly telling them they’re not good enough. Wow, this is so BEYOND brilliant!


  4. Excellent! What an eye opener…thanks for doing the investigating into this. I’m proud that PS is here to embrace allll these women who aren’t represented in Cosmo and mainstream media.


  5. It’s mystifying to me that the fashion industry is such a culturally diverse, female-dominated field and yet when represented in the media it’s suddenly all about how white and stickly you are. Seriously. I went to an all-day career event for fashion majors and next to men, white girls were the smallest demographic. Why are we getting all the spotlight?


    • That’s a very interesting point, and I have no idea! I wish diversity was just a natural thing that happened in media, rather than it either being ignored all together or feeling “forced.” Sigh.


  6. Pingback: Why Shouldn’t Kim and Kanye Be on the Cover of Vogue? | Positively Smitten Magazine·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s