When I heard that Time Inc. was coming out with a new glossy magazine called Real Simple, I thought the voluntary simplicity movement had finally gone mainstream. I envisioned articles about shopping at thrift stores, organic gardening and renewable energy.
As if! Real Simple is a slick collection of beauty tips, recommendations on wine, home decor and handbags, and “5 ways to banish guilt.” It is really a hipper, trendier version of Woman’s Day, and it has grown with women’s growing clout in the workplace. The current issue is 176 pages and is loaded with ads for hair and skin products, gourmet chocolate and luxury cars and dog food. Time Inc. claims that it reaches “12.6 million consumers” and that the median household income of its readers is $95,434.
The magazine seems designed for upper-middle-class career women in their 20s, 30s and 40s who yearn for a break from the frantic pace of their stressful careers and the needs of children and aging parents. It’s a far cry from Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
Vicki Robin, co-author of a well-known book about simple living, called the magazine “Faux Simple.” Richard Mullins of the Tampa Tribune wrote, “Each month’s issue is a temple to some picturesque tableau of organizational purity and gluten-free, eco-fixated holisticness that I firmly believe is unattainable by humankind.”
But I tried to stay open-minded. My 31-year-old niece Mary is a longtime Real Simple subscriber, and I respect her taste and intelligence. “It is one of the only ‘women’s magazines’ that isn’t totally stupid,” she says. Catherine Newman, an excellent writer who does Real Simple’s etiquette column, volunteers with me at the Amherst Survival Center.
So I went out and bought a copy (for $4.99). I knew this magazine was not intended for me when I realized I couldn’t figure out what the cover art shows (it’s make-up, I’m told). And why abuse a nice adjective like “real” by using it in its colloquial adverb form, meaning “very”?
Later, I realized that the whole magazine’s writing has this colloquial tone, and that may be one of the secrets of its success. On the Editor’s Note page, Kristin Van Ogtrop (shown sitting barefoot on a porch with a black Lab) writes, “Signs of aging are completely fine, unless you encounter them in your own mirror.”
But who am I to pass judgment on What Women Want? So I asked Betsy, my spouse and co-blogger, to look at the current issue. Her response to the cover story on “anti-aging strategy” was “I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about any of that.” She skipped over the articles on yellow clothes, beer and bobby pins. But she liked the back-of-the-book features on “Take Back Your Sundays,” sorting emergency supplies for hospitals, and recipes.
I noted that both the ads and the editorial content (which are sometimes hard to tell apart) promote racial diversity in their models. One ad for Tylenol shows two women with their noses touching (one has a pierced eyebrow) while taking a selfie. The copy reads, “We give you a better night” and “You put more carpe in the diem.” I’d never seen that in an ad before.
I found that an affection for this magazine was sneaking up on me. So what if their use of the word “simple” is different from the way I use it in “simple living”? The English language is flexible and allows for multiple meanings. As niece Mary writes, “They use the word simple’ to mean ‘tips and tricks for making your very busy suburban mom life easier to manage.'” Nothing wrong with that.