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What women want - to read

Magazines that target fulfillment, 'real' people's stories – but leave in the supermodels, please

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2002


Cravings for "authenticity" and "fulfillment" are a hot topic. Words like "spirituality" and "mean-ingful" get heavy use. And praise abounds for a firsthand narrative by a woman who recently rediscovered the joy of prayer.

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If this sounds like a convention of New Age religious writers – held at a cabin in the woods or a commune in the desert – think again.

The setting is a trendy downtown Manhattan restaurant. The participants, perched confidently on tall stools and collectively projecting an air of understated chic, are editors at high-profile mass-market women's magazines.

Their issue for the evening: the future of women's magazines. It's a natural to engross this high-powered panel, whose members hail from "O" ("Oprah's magazine") Real Simple, Body & Soul, and the online

The answer, according to many of these women – and their magazines – is "lifestyle." Think Martha Stewart Living, or the remaking of McCall's into Rosie (for Rosie O'Donnell) and the New Age Journal into Body & Soul.

What all these publications aim to do, some observers say, is to tap into a spirit stirring the new millennium – a trend more spiritual, a fascination with the interior lives of real people, and a hunger for more substance in daily living.

Their target audience is the same one that has long read Vogue for fashion and Good Housekeeping for recipes.

But unlike many of their predecessors, they don't build lengthy editorial sections around choosing the shade of lipstick that suits you best, or feature interviews with super-moms whose lives are effortlessly superlative.

"We profile people who struggle," says Valerie Monroe, beauty editor of "O."

"We use models up to the age of 70 of all shapes and sizes and colors," says Jenny Cook, editor in chief of Body & Soul. "What we do is more about inspiration than fantasy."

In some cases, though, the differences come in subtle shades. "Of course we do lipstick," Ms. Monroe says. "But we may approach it through some psychological concept – why we love lipstick, what draws us to lipstick."

"In many ways we're still addressing the things women have dealt with for years," says Lesley Alderman, news editor of Real Simple. "In 1964, women reading Ladies Home Journal wanted to know how to make the perfect dinner. They still want the perfect dinner – but they want to find a simpler way to do it."

That's because women are searching for deeper satisfaction with daily life, she says. A more organized closet and a simpler dinner menu are important only because they may allow what truly matters in life to take center stage.

Some hail these changes as a proof of a "spiritward" trend in society. Others simply see signs that a savvy industry is learning quickly to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated public.

"All magazines are always a reflection of society," says Martin Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a New York City-based magazine-consulting firm. "Society has changed and evolved. People are more educated and more exposed."

What has really changed in women's magazines, he says, is quality. "There's better writing, better art, better production values," he says. "It's the idea of doing something with some chic and elegance, and yet having it be achievable in the everyday," he says. Today's readers are less content to simply turn the pages and indulge in a fantasy.

But the thing to remember about women's magazines is that they're a wonderfully fluid category, says Ellen Levine, editor in chief of the 117-year-old Good Housekeeping.