The Knot

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Magazines: Inspiration Or Salvation?

As a magazine editor, I often wondered just how much advice the readers of my magazines took note of. Women's magazines are full of ideas and advice, designed to inspire. But how much of it is adopted in everyday lives?

When I was the editor of Dolly I knew that many of the thoughts shared by my team through the pages of our magazine were consumed en masse. Teenagers, the least confident of women, are more likely to follow advice exactly as presented, so we were always extra careful. If you call something a must-have, then they really will believe that they need to own it which leaves little room for individual expression.

When I progressed to grown-up women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and ELLE, my readers did too. I assumed they had started to develop their own sense of style and that, rather than adhere to all advice and ideas religiously, they would cherry pick the most relevant parts. (That, incidentally, is why it's so much harder editing a magazine for all women - all women have different needs and wants once they find out who they are post teen years.)

So I was intrigued to hear that a woman in the US had decided to slavishly follow the advice of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey as a year-long experiment. Robyn Okrant kicked off her Living Oprah project as a New Year's resolution on January 1, 2008. For 12 months she consumed Oprah in every medium that her advice could be obtained: television show, magazine, book club, website. Her goal was to discover if a person could really live their best life (the Oprah Winfrey brand promise) by doing things the Oprah way.

The hilarious, and at times alarming, result is documented in a new book released last week called Living Oprah.

The book is compelling, you won't be able to put it down. I read it from cover-to-cover in two sittings and I would have stayed up all night with it if I didn't have a day job. I have to admit to squirming (as a former editor) as Okrant battles with her innate individuality, though, as I was provided with a wake-up call about the potential impact of how-to magazines on the less confident and cash-poor.

"There is an inner battle taking place inside this wannabe nonconformist who doesn't want to admit that being Oprah's poster girl is the least bit agreeable," Okrant writes on March 22, 2008 (less than three months in).

"The jury is still out on whether it's worth it. On one hand, from the outside, things in my life are probably looking better: I'm dressing in a more stylish and trendy manner (according to Oprah and her style experts), I've slimmed down a bit from the regularity of my Best Life Challenge exercise, the readership on my blog is growing steadily...and I'm getting a bit of press about Living Oprah. But inside I'm feeling tired and stressed. Living life in this manner is like an endless run on a woman-sized gerbil wheel."

I won't ruin the ending for you. Definitely worth a read - even if it never gets recommended by Oprah's book club.