Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Women readers need more than just beauty, fashion

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Stop by a newsstand, browse through women's magazines, and what will you find?

A series of glossy magazines that are more or less the same: Focusing on fashion, beauty and lifestyle. A certain franchised monthly magazine even serves as, like a noted American author once pointed out, a harrowingly explicit sex manual.

Compared to the 1980s when there were few women's magazines, there is certainly an increase in the number of such magazines now. With once only local Femina and Kartini, now the market is inundated with franchised magazines like Cosmopolitan Indonesia, Singaporean's Herworld, Female, Lisa, Good Housekeeping and Harper's Bazaar Indonesia, although the latter is more of a fashion magazine.

However, content-wise, there is not much difference between the magazines.

"As most of them are franchised, some of the articles are just plain translations instead of adaptations. So, they are not applicable anyway," said Fitri, 31.

Moreover, the content of the magazines still deals with typical women's issues, such as beauty, cooking and housekeeping.

"They also contribute to keeping the beauty stereotype, like beauty is good, and beautiful women are those who are skinny, have fair skin, and long, straight hair," said Fitri, who prefers to buy foreign women's magazines.

Aside from the mainstream magazines, also emerging now are Islam-based magazines like Noor, which serves a particular segment and also focuses more on domestic issues.

What is left then is the feminist journal Jurnal Perempuan, which is too heavy and academic.

Why are the choices of local women's magazines so limited?

Sari Narulita, chief editor of local Herworld said their publication differed from mainstream women's magazines, although she did not deny that the focus was still fashion and beauty.

"It seems that we're focusing on beauty and fashion, but we still feature articles on career, environmental issues, or the tsunami disaster. And from letters sent us by the readers, they said they were helped by the articles," said Sari, formerly the chief editor of Cosmopolitan Indonesia.

However, she said, research conducted by the magazine shows that women still favor magazines with a major section given to fashion and beauty.

"It's the market demand. Let's face it, 'serious' magazines like (now defunct) literature journal Horison don't sell. So, to be able to sell, the package has to attract the readers, and that is fashion and beauty," said Sari, adding that Indonesian Herworld now has a circulation of 65,000.

A former senior editor of one of the leading women's magazines once told The Jakarta Post that there had been a drop in sales when the magazine included articles on heavy topics like domestic violence.

"At the end of each year, the magazine's owners would show us which issue sold less, and apparently they are the ones with such topics. That's why we rarely cover them anymore," she said.

According to Lia, 31, the head of an advertising agency, the case of women's magazines versus advertising was a chicken or the egg issue.

"Ad agencies are opportunist, so they won't focus on skin whitening, for instance, if people don't want the product.

"However, it's different with women's magazines. It's not clear who's stirring whose taste. Sometimes it's the readers who demand that the magazines focus on something, but other times it's the magazine itself which wants to concentrate solely on things that clearly sell, like fashion," Lia said.

Whether it's the chicken first or the egg, women readers here deserve better options to what's already in the market.