A pair of U.K. groups are taking issue with consumer magazine content—both visual and written—on their side of the Atlantic. One, the London-based Royal College of Psychiatrists, is calling for the development of a new editorial code to encourage media in the U.K. to stop its “damaging” promotion of unhealthy body images and the “glamorizing” of eating disorders. In its crosshairs are three main areas of concern: visual imagery (the use of pre-teen or underweight models, or manipulating photos to obtain unrealistic body figures), unbalanced articles (magazine stories that offer dieting advice without information about its effectiveness or hazards of extreme dieting, as well as articles that target celebrities for being overweight), and inaccurate portrayal of eating disorders (articles that portray eating disorders as only “mild” problems or personal weaknesses).
Separately, England’s Home Office—the country’s lead government agency for immigration and passports, drugs policy, counter terrorism and police—recently commissioned a study examining how “sexualized” images and messages may be “affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms.” Among the many recommendations within the study are that sales of U.K.’s “lad” magazines be restricted to buyers aged 15 and older, and that a ratings system be created to let readers know to which extent a photograph has been altered.
Whether anything will come of either of these initiatives is unclear, but one thing is certain: Pushing the boundaries in terms of visual and written content in magazines is nothing new—in the U.K. or here in the U.S. For instance, Borders and retailers in New York apparently refused to carry the “100 Most Shocking Moments in Music” issue of U.K. music magazine Q that featured pop music sensation Lady Gaga on the cover [pictured] exposing a portion of her lower left breast. Last March, Jo-Ann Fabrics banned an issue of Quilter’s Home for a feature called “Shocking Quilts,” which included images of “fabric phalluses,” “gun-toting Jesuses” and a “newborn peering out from his mother’s lady parts.” Countless magazines have been accused of over-manipulating images of models and celebrities to make them look slimmer.
But beyond retailers taking issue with individual magazines, who, if anyone, is to say when “pushing boundaries” in the U.S. goes too far? “The way Britons and Europeans approach these issues is far different from the way Americans think about them,” American Society of Magazine Editors chief executive Sid Holt tells FOLIO:. “Americans have trusted in the marketplace of ideas to address problems like these. And if you compare American newspapers and magazines with those in Britain, it seems to be working—no Page 3 Girls, at least, and our ‘laddie’ magazines have always been tamer and, when necessary, polybagged.”
Editors: Be Aware of Responsibilities
Holt says editors should be “fully aware” of their responsibilities to young readers when crafting the content of their magazines. “I know when I was the managing editor of Rolling Stone, I was certainly aware that the magazine was read by teenagers—because I was one of those teenage readers myself once,” he says. “At the same time, most magazines are edited for adults. If I see my daughters reading fashion magazines or celebrity magazines, I know it’s my responsibility and their mother’s to make sure they don’t read anything we consider dangerously age inappropriate.”
Issues like racy content and slimming down models seem to be more or less confined to consumer publishers and their advertisers and are nearly non-existent in regional publishing, says James Dowden, executive director of the City and Regional Magazine Association. “City and regional magazines are much closer to the community they serve,” he adds. “Self-censorship to conform to the local mores results in a product that would rarely if ever rise to the attention of public censor advocates.”