Why is there so little diversity in parenting magazines?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Sue Lyons-Joell

As of this writing, I’m going the distance waiting for my first child to be born… so that means I am sorting, cleaning, shopping, and otherwise being as unprepared as any newbie parent. In the course of the nesting frenzy, I paged through the various pregnancy and childcare-related magazines I’ve collected over the last 10 months, deciding whether to clip articles and such. I came to one big conclusion. Diversity in parenting magazines is about as bland a landscape as the average fashion rag, and probably for the same reasons.

Now I can’t claim to have done any sort of official study, and the magazines I have are definitely not a great sample, but my science brain kicked into gear and said, “Oh Yeah? Prove It!” My starting criteria were:

  • I would try to count visible minorities in a sampling of the magazines I had on hand. I excluded ads and cartoons (not that there were any minorities portrayed in the latter);
  • I would try to identify them, as the average American, would by rough ethnic/racial category;
  • If a model appeared in the same article more than once, I’d count them only once;
  • I’d separate child vs. adult models and solo vs. group shots;
  • ’d take magazine size into account – more pages = more photo ops

Now for the disclaimer: I used my own opinions as to the ethnicity of the models. I included an “unknown/ambiguous” category for models that I couldn’t immediately eyeball; that category may include Latinos, as well as multiethnic folks. It goes against my principles to tell someone, even in my head, what ethnicity they are… but that’s what happens every day, and I won’t pretend that those first impressions aren’t significant.

The magazines I had around were American Baby, BabyTalk, Fit Pregnancy, and Parents. I grabbed magazines from October or November of last year. Parents and American Baby are from the same publishing group, The Meredith Corporation, which also publishes Better Homes, More, and Family Circle. Fit Pregnancy is published by American Media, Inc., whose magazine family includes Country Weekly, Star, and the National Enquirer (home of BatBoy). Babytalk is published by The Parenting Group, who is also responsible for In Style, Real Simple, and Essence. Remember that last one – it’ll be important later.

I originally wanted to look at all the rags I’d collected…but I got too discouraged. Here’s how my sample turned out (V.M. = Visible Minority):

At first blush, Parents seems to be the clear winner from a diversity standpoint – 10% of the pages had a visible minority in a photo. Perhaps because the magazine covers a range of ages and topics, and is well established and respected (and has a bigger budget) it may be easier for them to find diverse subjects, models, and stories. Or it may be a conscious decision on the part of the managers and staff – I really have no idea. One thing I also noted, but didn’t table, was the types of articles in which minorities appeared. In this issue of Parents, minority representations were scattered throughout the table of contents, regular columns, special features, and the cover stories.

The clear loser was BabyTalk – given, a magazine with a short length and even shorter focus: infancy and toddlerhood. That said, I must confess that I had to change which issue of BabyTalk I used. The first issue I grabbed from my pile, March 2007, had no visible minorities. None. So I was forced to find another issue, and on the third try, I was able to use last November’s. In this issue of BabyTalk, minority representations were present in the cover stories and columns. However, almost all of the appearances (4/5) were for clothes or a baby carrier. No visible minorities were in the medical, health, or childcare articles, except for one child’s picture (of 4 on the page).

What about the breakdown of Visible Minorities? Well, only one magazine, Fit Pregnancy, seemed to portray Latinos (although to be fair, I may have missed several, or they may be in the “unknown” category). I also may have just hit on a good issue, as 3 of those 5 Latinos were in a blurb about a former cover model’s family – and I was able to tell ethnicity from their last names. African-Americans appears to be well represented in Parents and American Baby, but were conspicuously absent from BabyTalk. Actually, every minority group was absent from BabyTalk, except for Asian/Pacific Islander.

So why should I even care? They’re just selling products and blurbs of information ripped from the latest parenting trends and pediatric journals, right? Maybe – except that magazines usually want to either reflect their ideal reader, or make a reader want to be as cool and as happy as the people in the articles (and therefore want to buy the products to achieve that state). Or they tell stories of medical miracles, relationship interventions, and behavior problems that both give advice to readers and let the readers go “There but for the grace of God…”

But if art imitates life, and life in turn imitates art, what we see can easily influence how we see the wider world, even when intellectually we know better. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but if magazines usually reflect who their target audience is, or who their audience would like to be, I am obviously not the target audience for most of these magazines. If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like family magazines in particular and print media in general to recognize that their typical reader may not be so typical after all.

Sue Lyons-Joell is a wetlands scientist near Philadelphia, PA. Also known as Lyonside, she has been active in various multiethnic groups and online forums since college. She’s more of a blogging fan than an actual blogger. Sue and her husband are expecting their first child in February 2007.

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