Jewish World Review March 18, 2004 / 25 Adar, 5764

Aman Batheja

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Former editor of Ladies Home Journal lambastes women in the media | (KRT) Stress, Myrna Blyth says, has become the new cellulite: the latest scourge to beset American women.

Or at least that's the ginned-up reality that women's magazines are trying to sell to their readers, along with a biased dose of liberal politics, Blyth argues in her new book, "Spin Sisters," an insider's critique of a world in which she once made a comfortable living.

"I wanted to write a book that would make women think and help protect them from some aspects of media," Blyth, former editor of Ladies Home Journal, said in an interview last week. "Women are told to be afraid of everything from Teflon to toilet paper."

After 20 years at the helm of a premier women's magazine, Blyth, 64, has written a book that doesn't just bite the hand that fed her, it chomps it off. She excoriates magazines like the one she led for manipulating women by telling them they are too stressed, too fat and not liberal enough, and then she dumps on women television personalities like Katie Couric and Barbara Walters for the sin of "marketing themselves as ordinary women."

The book has roiled some of her former magazine publishing colleagues (Glamour editor Cindi Leive told Newsweek magazine that the book was an "act of arson"), but it's landed Blyth happily on the pages of national newspapers and magazines, where she continues to launch her attack on the industry.

"My book is not personal about the women's magazine editors," Blyth insists, but then follows it with this zinger: "Let's be honest: I don't think it's personal if Vogue chooses to start a beauty school in Afghanistan instead of giving money to a women's hospital.

"I think that's a choice that shows what they think is important," she said.

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The book is shot through with personal vitriol that diminishes it on some level, and its message at times is as puzzling as it is scattershot. Blyth takes aim at women's magazines for scare tactics; at successful media women for making too much money; at Rosie O'Donnell for acting nice when she really isn't; and at all of them for promoting a liberal agenda - even ABC's Diane Sawyer, who started her career working for Republican President Richard Nixon.

But it all comes under the blanket of "women's media," which, Blyth argues, has become an influential filter that lets through only certain images of women, images that rarely include those of women she describes as conventional, traditionally moral and conservative.

"Yet millions of young women are like that," said Blyth, who writes that when she was a magazine editor, she often found herself the only conservative in a sea of liberal women. "It would be nice if (the magazines) were more fair and balanced."

Blyth, who in 1999 received a lifetime achievement award from the Magazine Publishers of America, acknowledges her past role in the women's magazine world and says she views her book in part as a mea culpa.

"I confess, I didn't do enough," writes Blyth, who also was founding editor in chief and publishing director of MORE magazine. "What I regret is that, as an editor, I didn't use that bully pulpit as much as I probably should have."

She began thinking about writing the book in recent years, when she says she witnessed - and participated in - an inexorable shift in the focus of women's magazines from celebrating women's new lifestyle choices to concentrating on the difficulties of women's lives.

"Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America" by Myrna Blyth; St. Martin's Press (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

"The media stopped focusing on the upside of opportunity," Blyth said. "Now the poor thing is too stressed if she is working, stressed if she's home with no economic security, stressed if she didn't marry or stressed if she's having baby hunger."

Sure, women are facing these stresses, she allows, but the media is exaggerating them.

In her book, Blyth includes an anecdote about a young woman she knows who has a lucrative job, a supportive husband, children, a nanny and someone to clean her home. Yet during a get-together with Blyth, the young woman's shoulder's sag as she describes how stressed she is.

Blyth practically snorts.

"It's the pedicure syndrome," she said. "Somewhere along the way, feminism morphed into narcissism.

"You are not you as a woman when you are working. You are not you as a woman when you're with your kids," she said. "You are not you unless you're pampering yourself or shopping. Women are told this all the time and have begun to believe it. Come on."

The women's media have played a central role in creating among women this sense of stress, Blyth says, when women today have more of everything than any generation before them. It's one message in her book that has considerable resonance, and her advice - "most of us can cope with our ordinary lives; you can do it" - is simple and well taken.

But her reasoning on other aspects of the so-called "women's media" at times stretches credulity.

Does she really believe, as she insists, that women who watch television view Katie, Barbara and Diane as their "sophisticated girlfriends who come into their homes" and are thus unduly influenced by them?

Does she really think, as she writes, that women are gullible enough to buy into beauty and stress scares, like "the killer in your handbag"-type stories she refers to? Or that tactics used by television personalities like Barbara Walters to sew up interviews are unique to women? Or that successful women dating or marrying successful men is somehow bad or suspect?

Blyth's theories at some level appear conflicted: She writes that women are gullible enough on one hand to buy that Rosie O'Donnell is a nice person with a crush on Tom Cruise, but then notes that they dump Rosie when they discover she isn't so nice. She writes that women are influenced by magazines that overstate the risks and downsides to their lives, but then notes that circulation of such magazines is falling.

But Blyth says she wants to leave women with the message that not only should they always compare media hype with risk, they also should be aware that the political message they are receiving is "one opinion."

"I'm pleased and proud I wrote this book," she said.

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