The Story of O

My question is: Should I renew my subscription to O, The Oprah Magazine?

I’m serious. And it’s not just about the money, although there is that. It’s about my head space and who I let into it.

My history with so-called “women’s magazines” is long, varied and fraught. I started reading Seventeen when I was 12. I was so infatuated with the teenage world I’d glimpsed that I borrowed stacks and stacks of back issues from the library and hauled them home in the back of a little red wagon. Digest that image for a moment. I was an innocent, but I wanted to be sophisticated, and in my preteen mind, Seventeen was the height of sophistication.

And on many levels it was a safe introduction to a more grown-up milieu. Friends and boyfriends and Fall Fashions(!). And even poetry. Yes, Seventeen had a poetry section back then, and it published the work of young writers. A year later, in fact, I submitted some of my poetry, and the magazine bought three of the poems and actually paid me for them. It was heady stuff–my first professional experience as a writer. When two of the poems (the magazine never published the third) were published some months later, I briefly became an extremely minor local celebrity, even causing mutterings from some of my peers. I was the object of envy! Me!

Yet there was a down side, and it was not inconsiderable. My exposure to images of beautiful, slender models was teaching me to become dissatisfied with my body, even as it was growing and changing. The summer of my 14th year I went on my first diet. I drank unsweetened tea, I ate dry toast, I biked a lot, and I took tennis lessons. I returned to school, a high school freshman, and a size 10, barely. Considering I was 5’8″ and still growing in every direction, it was a satisfying result to me, if not particularly healthy.

Before I turned 17, I graduated from Seventeen to Mademoiselle, to Glamour, Elle, and finally Vogue. I’ve since had subscriptions to Mirabella (which I still miss), Bust and More. (And I’ve certainly read others, though I never committed to a subscription. I had a longtime fascination with the Can This Marriage Be Saved? column in Ladies’ Home Journal, decades before I was ever married myself.)

I’m not sure when I connected my persistent sense of insecurity with my brother’s exasperated admonition that I read “too many fashion magazines.” But it began to dawn on me in my 20s that the notion that I was “not okay” partly sprang from the relentless and repetitive articles about losing weight, getting fit, having fun at parties, finding and properly applying makeup, discovering the “right” haircut for my face, and on and on. And though the fashions in Vogue were 100 percent ridiculous for my small-scale, small-income lifestyle, the assault of even that exotic book’s words and images probably shaped me in ways I’m still not aware of. After all, the women’s magazines aim to be “taste makers.” They set the standards for everything.

Cut to the recent past: I’d been nearly “off” fashion magazines for a few years when I got hooked on O. It started–as it often does–with an inexpensive year-long subscription. I loved seeing the glossy, colorful cover in my mailbox every month. I enjoyed all the book reviews, and many of the critics’ recommendations pointed me to delightful novels I might not have discovered on my own. The layouts of lovely if useless items like sleek place mats and brightly colored rubber watches made me salivate with desire. (I’m a sucker for a beautiful layout with a lot of white space.)

And every issue contains content about an important and serious issue–finding and cooking with sustainably harvested seafood; or an intriguing essay about a female author’s romance with a transman. The writing is often compelling and insightful, and I admire (and envy) many of the contributors.

On the other hand, every month without fail, the magazine delivers pages and pages of self-help. Because who doesn’t need some help with relationships, health, finances, diet, exercise, hormone replacement therapy, spirituality, or finding the “perfect” pair of jeans for a wide bottom?

I need all of that stuff–or, if I don’t now, I will someday soon. At the same time, I’m not sure I need it all, every month. And given my own tendencies toward self-analysis and obsession, I’m not sure it’s wise for me to allow Oprah and her self-helping helpers into my home 12 months a year. I don’t know if I want to spend quite so much time with Martha Beck, Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and the rest. Can I cull the good (those reviews of novels I want to know about) and leave the bad (the exhortation to create a vision map I don’t have time for)?

I’m just not sure.

What do you think? Should I renew my subscription to O? Or do you have another magazine to recommend? (Any Redbook readers out there?)

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21 responses to “The Story of O

  1. I have the same torment and conflict and for the same reasons. I have gotten a cheap subscription to Real Simple which is very pretty and calms me more than exacerbates my weakness to start new programs or make-overs. I get O when I fly anywhere (usually depending on the cover) which is seldom or read it in the library if I have time.

    • Maybe Real Simple is what I need. I used to love it, but it’s still got an aspirational quality–real simpler than thou–that puts me off a bit. And however fast it tells me I can put on makeup, it’s not going to be faster than no makeup.

  2. Real Simple. Here’s an idea: you subscribe to O for another year, I’ll reup for Real Simple (which I’ve been debating for much the same reason you’ve been waffling on O), and we can swap back issues–and talk about issues!–with each visit down the Thruway. What do you think?

    • You’re tempting me to consume both Real Simple and O? Sounds like a devil’s bargain, except for the part about discussing and dissecting, which I’d welcome. How’s the writing in Real Simple?

  3. Kind of creepy how an ad for O magazine automatically inserted itself above the comments…resistance is futile!

    • I’m too much of a newbie blogger to have figured out if and how to turn off popup ads. But it’s best to be aware that O (and Oprah) are all-seeing and all-knowing. Oprah, if you’re out there, I’d be delighted to write for your magazine. I am a fan. Mostly. With caveats. You know.

  4. I’ve had similar issues with magazines. I too have weaned myself mostly to just O. But as much I love certain aspects of it, Oprah’s insistence on telling me how I should run my best life is grating my nerves!

    • Alice, if you’re already living your best life, don’t let the Big O bully you into thinking otherwise! Remember, when Vogue wanted to put Oprah on the cover, she lost weight as required. (What, no Photoshop back then?) Be your own person–and it doesn’t have to be Oprah.

  5. You would have saved yourself a lot of grief if you’d believed me when I said you were perfect.

  6. Awww…Uncle David, you’re the best. Reid, we have great Dads; it must run in the Ackley family!

    • An awesome dad can certainly counteract the deleterious effects of fashion-magazine reading. And it’s good to think that awesome dads run in the family, since my niece might someday need shoring up when she discovers women’s magazines. What are the girls reading these days, anyway?

  7. But I do think you’re on to something with this thoughtful piece, Reid. I wonder about this whole self-help notion, and when the idea of working on self betterment slipped across into believing we can attain all-round perfection. Was it when we all came to believe the nostrum that we can do anything we want if only we want it bad enough, and apply extreme enough measures to its attainment?

    I think a lot of effort applied to self improvement is utterly wasted, if only because what we deem improvement is often ultimately destructive: consider the long term effects of cosmetic surgery, for example.

    Well, a great risk of running on here, but I’m glad to have read this, Reid, and found it well worth thinking about.

    • That is exactly my point–or one of them. O delivers one message of relentless self-acceptance and another of equally relentless self-improvement. It’s pleasant, from time to time, to flip through a magazine and contemplate the pursuit of a new color of toenail polish. But in every single issue there is advice about a plethora of MAJOR PROJECTS, from re-evaluating your romantic relationship to deciding if any of your friends are “toxic” to creating a poster-size vision map. It can be exhausting, and counterproductive, to be bombarded with so many “helpful” exhortations to self-help yourself.

  8. As I devoured 17 I remember my mama telling me she found woman’s magazine to be the same year after year so she didn’t read them. I find that to be largely true except for the things mentioned like book reviews. I devour Fine Gardening and Bon Appetit. However, they, too have a sameness- perfect planter, perfect cocktail party, perfect yard for cocktail party. No worries for any of you. You are all careful critiques and consumers. It is education that brings nirvana and education comes in many forms- sometimes in a perfect dress with makeup and sometimes in torn shorts without. Get O if you enjoy parts of it. TiVo past the commercials.

    • rather, critics offering critiques…

    • Yes, there’s a sameness. But it’s a winning formula; that’s why it comes off as formulaic. And unfortunately the ads are often at least as delicious and tempting as the editorial. And then there’s the hybrid beast–advertorial, or advertising with a helpful message thrown in at no extra charge. A well-designed magazine has a visual unity to it–Vogue is gorgeous throughout. Provocative or offensive occasionally, but generally gorgeous. So TiVo-ing past the ads is often beyond my powers. I get sucked in.

  9. Critics giving critiques. Glorp…

  10. I’m commenting late to this post, but it spoke to me! It really did!

    I tend to think of magazines as junk food, and of books as nutritious fare. When I spend whatever leisure time I have reading a good book, I feel so much more fulfilled than when I flip through random magazines. I can make the same analogy with sitcoms vs. hour-long dramas (like Six Feet Under–how I miss that show)!

    Does this mean I don’t read magazines? Of course not! I’ve been a subscriber for years and years to Better Homes & Gardens, Newsweek and This Old House. But I really get stressed out when they start to stack up on my nightstand. Kind of like that platter of brownies on the counter. I tell myself that if I just eat them now and get them out of the way, they won’t taunt me anymore. So I do. Then I feel like crap. (See how this analogy is working?)

    I was reading an issue of BH&G a few weeks ago in the Adirdondacks and it was only after I read the whole thing that I realized it was a back issue from 2001! I hadn’t even noticed. They really do take the same material and just repackage it with a different bow each month.

    My vote: Cancel the subscription and read it in the doctor’s office or the grocery checkout line, where its ability to suck you in will be limited. And then you’ll have more time to read even more good books than you already do and you can send along those recommendations to me!

    • Your analogy seems apt to me. I have trouble having just ONE (article). Even when I’m reading such apparently blameless fare as Yoga Journal, I can be beset by feelings of inadequacy–Why can’t I do that pose? Why, why? Why am I not a vegetarian yet? Why, why? Many people are probably not as susceptible to these messages as I am. So maybe, like an addict, I need to go cold turkey and cancel (almost) all my subscriptions. Except for the New Yorker, which is elevating and enlightening and only makes me feel bad when I’ve got a huge backlog of amazing, brilliant articles I would be a fool not to read. As opposed to most of the others–where the backlog of magazines is large but I would be a fool to read them.

  11. Pingback: The Absurd Awkwardness of Bereavement | Reid Is Reading

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