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What 100 Years Of Magazine Covers Reveal About How We See Women

As a century of fighting for equality has seen women smashing gender roles and embracing their sexuality, many magazines featuring them learned to adapt.

Karen X. Cheng, a creative director and viral video consultant in San Francisco, looked at how magazine covers featuring women have changed by comparing covers from the last 100 years. Cheng, along with her co-creator Jerry Gabra, took covers of the past and present from magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair and placed them side by side. In an email to The Huffington Post, Cheng said she took on the project to “see how much marketing evolved.”

Comparing a 1937 issue of Cosmopolitan to the magazine’s July 2015 issue shows an obvious difference between the amount of skin shown and subject matter promoted on the cover.

Cheng collected Cosmo covers throughout the century to place side by side. “Cosmopolitan covers started out with women dressed conservatively. Then they started showing some skin. Then more skin. Finally, they started posing in sexy positions,” Cheng wrote on Medium. “As women have earned more rights throughout the years, they’ve also earned the right to wear whatever they damn well please. Or maybe that just sells more magazines?”

Cheng told HuffPost she’s heard different interpretations surrounding this change, adding an important reminder that showing even a little skin was once unacceptable for women in the early 20th century. But with the liberation of women’s bodies where magazine covers are concerned has come narrow demands for what they should look like — and what they’re selling.

“One interpretation is that women are getting objectified for capitalism,” she said. “Another interpretation is that women have many more rights to express their sexuality now than they ever did. If Nicki Minaj were alive in the 1930s, there’s just no way she would have been allowed to pose like that even if she wanted to.”

In the past, women usually only graced the covers of men’s magazines full of naked women. Covers from recent years have shown progress. Though Amy Schumer’s GQ cover received backlash for the sexualization of the comedian, the fact she was chosen to cover the magazine’s comedy issue is a step in the right direction.

One of the most iconic magazine covers of 2015 so far also made it into Cheng’s project. In an article on Medium, Cheng pointed out the simplicity of Vanity Fair’s cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner earlier this year, especially compared to its past issues that featured multiple stories on its front page.

“They didn’t need to sell the other stories,” she wrote. “This issue was all about her.”

Summing up her analysis of the project, Cheng explained that while more recent covers display the sexism that exists in modern society, they reveal some progress in a historical sense.

“Together, these magazine covers reveal a peek into our history,” she wrote on Medium. “Sure, we’ve gotten more sexualized. More superficial. We read less. We have shorter attention spans. But we’ve also gotten more open-minded. At each step along the way, society has pushed the limits of what’s considered acceptable.”

While the sexualization of women on magazine covers remains an issue along with the use of Photoshop and its effects on body image, there’s no doubt progress has been made.

“As women have earned more rights over the years, they now take control of their sexuality,” Cheng wrote. “And Vanity Fair’s most iconic cover this year is a woman who used to identify as a man.”

One hundred years ago, that would have never been a possibility.

See more of Cheng and Gabra’s comparisons below and head over to Medium for more information on the project.

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