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Ethnic Magazine Editors Talk About Body Image


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, Dr. Maya Angelou on patriotism, freedom and heritage. It's a very special Wisdom Watch.

But first, it's the Fourth of July and summer is truly underway. It's a time of year when some of us look at the newsstands with a mixture of anticipation and dread, a time when many major magazines publish their swimsuit editions. But maybe we needn't feel so exposed. With more fashion industry leaders saying they no longer want the waiflike, emaciated looking models, maybe the tide is turning.

So we decided to talk about this, among other things, with our magazine mavens, three editors from top women's publications. Joining us now are Anita Malik, editor in chief of East West magazine. She joins us from our Phoenix member station. And Betty Cortina, editorial director of Latina magazine and Tatsha Robertson, senior news editor at Essence magazine there in our New York bureau. Ladies, a pleasure as always.

Ms. TATSHA ROBERTSON (Senior News Editor, Essence Magazine): Hello.

Ms. BETTY CORTINA (Editorial Director, Latina Magazine): Hi. Thank you.

Ms. ANITA MALIK (Editor in Chief, East West Magazine): Hello.

MARTIN: So each of your magazines recently or currently featured swimsuits in these pages. Now, tell the truth. Do these layouts inspire hope or dread in your readers, Tatsha?

Ms. ROBERTSON: Definitely hope. What we do is we use women of different sizes, you know, someone who might be a six, size 10, size 12. We've got 14, 16. We just - and we make sure they're all featured in different swimsuits, what flatters them the most. And so I think it just provides a lot of confidence, you know, in our readers.

MARTIN: Betty, what about you?

Ms. CORTINA: Same thing for Latina, we always feature a variety. Not just when it comes to swimsuits, of course. We feature a variety of women in a variety of sizes. And we not only want to do something different because we think it's important, but our readers really demand it from us. And not unlike in the African-American community, there is a very healthy sense of body, I think, in the Latina community as well. And we help different sized women and frankly different shaped women so that they can go out confidently.

MARTIN: I noticed that both Latina and Essence feature the word curves on their cover. But Anita, you know, I must dog you, I'm sorry.

Ms. MALIK: I knew this. I knew it was coming.

MARTIN: There is nothing in this magazine that I could, well, I could fit - if I got two, I could slide one on each leg. What's going on, Anita? Come on.

Ms. MALIK: No, no, we took - we take the word different - from a different approach for our swimsuit issue, and so we didn't really go with different sized women. We do use a model, I think a very healthy portrayal, but what we did was take a different look at swimsuits and go with the whole idea of a cover-up. If you're not comfortable in swimsuits and, you know, the Asian-American culture sometimes is a bit more conservative, you can go out there and you can be comfortable in something that's a little bit more beachy and fun and summery but not necessarily the swimsuit. And I will tell you, Michel, that those pieces will fit anybody because that's what's so great about them. They're tunics or cover-ups and they look gorgeous on everyone.

MARTIN: Betty was making the point that their readers demand that they show different body sizes. I think that Tatsha made the same point. Do your readers, your Asian American readers, Anita, also have requests of you in terms of the types of images they want to see of themselves?

Ms. MALIK: Yeah. I think it's split down the line. We get both opinions from our readers. And one is that, you know, we'd like to see more real people and that real image. And then we also get people that really are looking and kind of have a fashion viewpoint on things. And so we try to come to the middle ground. You know Asian American women, unfortunately, there's a lot, especially East Asian women, there is a stereotype that they're, you know, naturally skinny and very waifish and very slender. And so if you don't fit that mold, there's a lot of pressure to fit that stereotype, so we really tried to stay away from that.

MARTIN: That's interesting. On the one hand, you constantly hear women complaining about the images being presented in the media directed toward women fashion magazines in particular. On the other hand, would readers buy a magazine with a so-called average looking, regular person on the cover, Tatsha?

Ms. ROBERTSON: Oh, gosh, you know, we struggle with this all the time because we get e-mails all the time saying, we want a real woman on the cover. But we do tests and we talk to people, and we really think people want to see those celebrities on the cover. Now they want to see real people in the magazine and we have shoots, you know. People from all over New York City and New Jersey will come in and they'll try on jeans and we'll feature real people in our magazine. But on the cover I think it's a totally different thing.

MARTIN: Hmm, that's interesting.

Ms. CORTINA: You know…

MARTIN: Betty?

Ms. CORTINA: …what Tatsha is saying is so right. And I think part of the issue is that if you've been to any newsstand or any magazine rack or section in a supermarket or in a bookstore, you realize that there are literally hundreds of magazines just staring back at you. And what a celebrity does is it jumps out at you. And it's somebody who they recognize and it might be somebody who they're going to grab for because they're interested. And quite frankly, it's that split-second that we are very often forced to use to just grab your attention. And so a celebrity does that much more efficiently than somebody who people don't necessarily recognize. Because you're going to just stand out there and stare at these hundreds of titles and, you know, your eyes are just are going to gloss over a whole lot of different things and you're going to reach out to the person who you know, and that's really the function of the cover.

MARTIN: We're joined by our magazine mavens Betty Cortina, Tatsha Robertson and Anita Malik. Before we move on, I wanted to just ask one more question about this whole question of body image and how it's being presented in the various magazines. We recently had a conversation with opinion writer Debra Dickerson. She's not a fashion writer. She writes a lot about politics and culture. She was bemoaning the rise of - there's no other way to say it - the big butt women like those featured in many hip-hop video.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Because her attitude is it's not healthy. Get it straight, folks, it's just not healthy. So it shouldn't be celebrated. Talk to me about that, Tatsha, if you can.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Yeah, I totally agree. In Essence, we try to promote health. I mean, again, we try to promote all body types but we would never tell our readers eat anything, you know, don't exercise. We try to tell them you can, you know, love your body, but definitely check your blood pressure. Check your, you know, your weight. Go to your doctor. Do all those things that are important. And that, you know, then your beauty will, of course, show. But more importantly is your health. Now, I know there has been a lot of controversy about, you know, the big butt women, but I don't know if that equates to unhealthiness. I mean, I don't know how you feel about that (unintelligible).

Ms. CORTINA: Yeah. I mean, I think what winds up equating more is the size of your waist…


Ms. CORTINA: …your weight. In Latina, it's not about a particular one size for every woman. It's about how healthy you eat. It's about how often you exercise and, by the way, how you feel. If you feel like you have energy, if you feel that you can walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator, if you feel you can run without losing your breath, that's what it's about. That may come in a size 12 or it may come in a size two.

MARTIN: We are celebrating July Fourth. Happy Fourth, everybody. I wanted to ask, and Anita maybe you'll start here. Does the issue of patriotism, how women relate to their country, ever come up in the magazine and the discussions that they have? And we're all women of color, and all people of color have had some scar tissue related to the relationship with the country.

The first immigration law that specifically excluded people based on race was targeted at the Chinese. There's of course the issue the way Native Americans have been treated. There is the question now of the way many Latinos feel about whether the country is really welcoming of them and their contribution. Tatsha, of course, we certainly know about legacy of the uneasy relationship sometimes African-Americans have had. So I want to ask how each of you as writers, as thinkers, as people who represent communities, think about patriotism. And Anita, will you start?

Ms. MALIK: Asian Americans traditionally have been questioned about their patriotism in this country. There's a lot of that throughout history if you go back and look. And so we went ahead and said, you know, what about the word foreign. There's a lot of Asian Americans born in this country, raised in this country, that truly feel they're American.

The culture might not encourage them to so much portray that in a way that we think of patriotism, that we truly think of it in this country, but they really believe in the American dream. That's what a lot of Asian Americans are here for. And so we said, you know, if you're being labeled a foreigner, how does that relate to your being American when people think of you as a foreigner and how does that come together. So we ask that question a lot with the publication, and the way we do it is really by letting the readers have their say and how they feel about being Asian versus being Asian American and where does that put you.

MARTIN: Betty?

Ms. CORTINA: Very similar in many ways at Latina, because I think especially now more than ever we are very often seen as the group that walked across the border, came across the border illegally. And one of the interesting statistics for us is of the 40 million Hispanics - more than 40 million Hispanics that there are in the U.S. today, 60 percent of those, more than half of those are actually born in America. Those are American citizens. I still very often will get a question on a personal level when I'm either talking to advertisers or different groups on behalf of Latina, you know, when will I, quote, unquote "acculturate" or become American.

MARTIN: Really? Advertisers ask you that?

Ms. CORTINA: On occasion they do.


Ms. CORTINA: And sort of, you know, I'm shocked by the question as well. The suggestion obviously being that I'm not an American. And I was born in Chicago. I'm an American, and I feel very much American. I also feel very Latin.

And I think very similar to most of our readers, we feel a hundred percent of both. And maybe that math doesn't make sense to a lot of people outside of our community, but it makes sense to us. And so, we deal with it in this discussion about immigration, especially the debate has focused so much on what Latinos are doing to America. And it doesn't often talk about what America does to our community and how it changes it.

MARTIN: But you also, I think - what I see in the magazine is you're lifting up that one does not need to choose, that one can be both. What I - in fact, I'm intrigued by your - one of your cover stories is "106 Reasons to Love Being Latina Right Now." And one of the things you say is that our pages are stuffed with evidence of why we'll never get tired of celebrating our culture and why America loves us. It's almost like saying, look, you can't - you don't have to choose. Although, Betty, I do have to dog you. One of the reasons you say is the color red - that you all own the color red. Tatsha, I think, you'll agree with me. I think…

Ms. CORTINA: Can we share the color red?

MARTIN: I think we have to share the color red.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Oh, I don't know. I think we own the color red. Go back in history a little bit. Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's true. Tatsha, will you take that question for a minute? Do you ever grapple with the whole question of the duality of identity and patriotism in essence, and how do you deal with that?

Ms. ROBERTSON: We do deal with all types of issues. We deal with patriotism on so many different levels. Sometimes it's just a story about politicians, about Barack Obama. What is his relation to African-Americans and what is his appeal to the rest of the country? We did a really great story on land. African-Americans have owned so much land and in the Charleston area. And all of a sudden, that land is being taken away from them. So we really dig deep into patriotism and history.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, before I let you go, I got to ask you about the iPhone. You know, I'm looking at these lines. We just (unintelligible) Anita? Do you personally care?

Ms. MALIK: I personally meet…


Ms. MALIK: You know what? I think our readers do care. They are big technology adapters. They're usually first to kind of know about things. But I think, overall, they're also looking for something that's probably not so mass media at this point, and that's already may be coming in the future. That's kind of where our readers are. So…

MARTIN: Betty, do your readers, are they big into technology and (unintelligible)? You send somebody to stand in line for your phone, right? (unintelligible) got it like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why am I my editorial director if I can't send somebody to stand in line for my phone?

Ms. CORTINA: This is why I've worked to get all the way over here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CORTINA: But I actually - I do think that Hispanic women and women in general don't get enough credit. I think there's a perception in many ways from a lot of advertisers that those are still male-dominated targets. And I was presenting, about a year ago or so, to an advertiser who will not be named, who was focusing on expanding their advertising in electronics in general. And one of the main things that they were advertising were plasma televisions.

And there was this perception in the room that the plasma television, well, that was going to be decided by the man. And I was sitting in a room filled with women, and I said, and there was - there were a couple of guys in there who were the ones who were explaining the male target position. And I said, you know, just as an honest question to all these women in here, can your husband or your boyfriend come home with a $3,000 plasma television and put that in your living room without checking with you first?

MARTIN: Hello.

Ms. CORTINA: No way. Thankfully, the advertiser was smart enough to listen to that and change their target. I think, in general, though, there's - women don't get enough credit for being tech savvy and for wanting technology and for having people talk to them in a really smart way about it.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, Tatsha, final thought from you.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Well, you know, we love technology. Our readers absolutely love technology. And I think we're very interested in the iPhone. But I have to be honest. We're not going to wait in long lines for the iPhone. It's just not going to happen.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, ladies. We will check in with you again next month, if you aren't lounging poolside somewhere.

We're joined by our magazine maidens, Betty Cortina, editorial director at Latina magazine, Tatsha Robertson, senior news editor at Essence magazine -they were in NPR studios in New York - and Anita Malik, editor in chief and founder of East West magazine. She joined us from member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

Ladies, thank you.

Ms. CORTINA: Thank you.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Thank you.

Ms. MALIK: Thank you.

MARTIN: And happy Fourth.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Happy Fourth. Thanks a lot, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.