Wedding season may peak from late spring to early fall, but the planning goes on all year. Many a bride-to-be starts her dreaming and planning with a plunge into the sea of wedding magazines and websites, studying images that promise to make her the most beautiful woman on the most important day of her life.
Judging from the covers of the magazines, that woman looks white, young, thin and, for the most part, blond.
Do a Google search of “beautiful bride,” and see how far you have to scroll before a woman of color appears. Look at covers of wedding magazines the next few times you pass a newsstand. A research study published 10 years ago found that no women of color appeared on the covers of any of the top three U.S. bridal magazines published from 2000 to 2004, and they were featured as brides in less than 2 percent of more than 6,000 advertisements inside those magazines.
How much have things changed? In my communication research lab at Cornell University, we followed up by surveying covers of all issues of the top 10 wedding magazines by circulation published from 2013 through 2016. We eliminated ones that did not feature a bride on the cover, leaving a sample of 96 magazines. Our raters found that 74 of the women on the covers unequivocally looked white, six unequivocally looked to be women of color, and the remaining 16 looked as if they could be women of color. It does not seem to be very much progress that in 2016, nearly 8 out of 10 times anyone looks at the cover of a wedding magazine, he or she sees a white woman.
Does it matter? After all, wedding magazines constitute only a small niche of print media: The combined circulation of the top five, at just over 2 million, would barely crack the top 25 list of consumer magazines published in the U.S.
But it is a mistake to overlook the powerful influence that these magazines have on values and norms surrounding a central societal institution. The shocking uniformity in the images presented on cover after cover underlines the painful stereotypes that associate whiteness with virginity and purity, and also reinforces the implication that women of color lack these virtues. In short, the narrative told by these covers is that a woman of color is not the model of a beautiful bride and is a less desirable marriage partner.
This particular narrative is told primarily through what is not said. Although much has been written about the stereotypical portrayals of women of color, media scholars have recently begun to investigate how stereotypes are transmitted by the systematic absence of certain groups or of certain kinds of images of those groups—a phenomenon called symbolic annihilation (pdf).
It is not just about race.
These covers convey an impression that is out of touch with the reality of most weddings today. Although inside these magazines can be found much more representative content—with articles about same-sex ceremonies, plus-size dresses and nontraditional venues, for example—the covers continue to portray a fairly uniform image of how a model bride looks.
The broader effects of exposure to such homogeneous images can be illustrated by a study from my research lab. We asked people to brainstorm while they watched multiple pictures that either repeated the same general topic or showed nonrepeated topics. Creativity was reduced when people saw pictures with one topic, compared with seeing a variety of topics or no pictures at all. Just as for the people in our study, the sameness in the images seen on magazine covers may dampen anyone’s ability to think expansively about the meanings and symbolism surrounding weddings and marriage.
It is not just about weddings.
Recent data from the Dove Self-Esteem Project show rising anxiety and decreasing confidence among women about their appearance. The study suggests that much of the blame can be placed on beauty standards dictated by the media. The impact of such images is intensified within the context of wedding planning because of the strong pressures not only for beauty but also for perfection and the fulfillment of dreams and fantasies.
It is not just about women.
Men and young boys have been found to be negatively affected by exposure to hypermasculine stereotypes in the media. Moreover, it has been shown that the extent to which men subscribe to the female beauty ideals in popular culture is related to their hostility toward women.
People indeed are paying attention: Blogs about the lack of diversity in these magazines, and that describe counternormative wedding plans, have appeared; magazines and websites that cater to broader populations have been established; and there has been jubilation over Condé Nast’s appointment of a black woman as editor-in-chief of Brides magazine —the first black editor-in-chief in the company’s more-than-100-year history.
The notion of a magazine cover may well become obsolete in an increasingly digital age. Until that happens, however, let us demand that the power holders in the wedding-media industry pay attention to the disturbing messages embedded in the homogeneity of all those covers. Let the beautiful bride truly represent all the best hopes and aspirations of our world.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Poppy L. McLeod is a professor of communication at Cornell University and a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.