Women’s lifestyle magazines hate women
EK McAlpine discusses this issue in episode 5 of her podcast A Slice of Feminism, which you can listen to at the bottom of the page.
I had everything for this article, really. Tables. Graphs. Statistics. I was going to go through a whole bunch of magazines and explore the idea that women’s magazines hate women by seeing how many pages were dedicated to typically ‘feminine’ interests; make-up, fashion, perfume, hair. But there’s no point. Because every article in the first magazine was to do with these interests. The least shallow topic covered was reading, for crying out loud.
Welcome to Company Magazine, edited by one Victoria White and reading like a hipster’s tumblr page for thirty years. Forget fashion photography, this publication should be sponsored by instagram. There’s an advertisement at least every other double page, using those airbrushed images we all know and love, to sell cosmetics, perfume and hair products. Music is big in Company, which is nice, but the main focus is fashion. How is that hating women, I hear you cry? Well, you just wait.
If you’ve been unlucky enough to find yourself owner of June 2012’s copy of Company, I ask you to turn to page 52. Welcome to a double page feature written by a Dolly Alderton, titled – and this is a genuine headline – “Get skinnier than all your friends!” Yes. I know. She opens talking of the “three little words” that can bring her to “a weak-kneed mess in seconds” – “Get thin fast”. Promoting – there is no way you could convince me this article does not condone the diet it is reviewing – the idea to “ignore the advice of doctors”, Alderton reads ‘Six Weeks to OMG’ by Venice A Fulton, male diet-guru to the stars. Obviously.
The closest Alderton comes to condemning the frankly ridiculous regime (which is “anti-breakfast”, “pro-black coffee” and advises a “cold daily bath”) is realising that “skinny is an unhealthy word”. Phew! Finally, she’s come to her sens – oh, wait. “The horrible truth is, there is a part of me that would like to be described, not only as skinny, but the skinniest one”. Excuse me? HOW is that a healthy attitude to support in a mainstream lifestyle publication? Alderton does recognise that it “seems irresponsible” to publish a book like this, but seems to happily agree with Fulton’s feedback that women find the regime “empowering.” Sorry, WHAT? Empowering? Seeking a hopelessly unachievable and. let’s be realistic here, unhealthy state of being to compete with your own friends is empowering? I cried when I read this bit. I could scarcely believe that a woman, who talks about “betraying the sisterhood” because of her “narcissism”, feels like this is an okay thing to write.
Near the end she says that “none of us need to be told how to get thin.” But with this phrase she makes the assumption that we all want to get thin. Not once, in a double page spread is it even conceived of that the reader might be okay with the way they look. That they might be healthy and – dare I say it – happy. Secure. Adequate.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I turned the page. And there it was, in full colour. An advertisement for the “Trimmer You Boot Camp.” Yeah. Welcome to our magazine industry, everyone. Where half of it is convincing you that you’re inadequate, and the other half seeks to sell you something to cure that insecurity you didn’t have before you opened the glossy pages.
Elle magazine is guilty of similar offences. While an interview on Kristen Stewart focuses largely on her career rather than her relationships, image and the contents of her womb – which appear to be the only thing magazines find interesting about famous women, it does have a section based solely on losing weight. A piece under Elle: Beauty called “Secrets of Slim People,” gives us all a nice insight into the perfect world of being “skinny” which is apparently the be-all and end-all of our existences. Sure, there’s some decent advice – up your protein, drink lots of water, etcetera, etcetera; but there’s some quite harsh, commanding phrases as well: “Skinny people don’t drink fizzy drinks. Eliminate them”, from Matthew Miller, a personal trainer is one, and “A clean plate won’t help you lose weight” by Paul McKenna is another. These phrases just seem a little… angry to me. Elle, overall, is vacuous, shallow and overflowing with artistically framed, black and white images of pouting, airbrushed women. Yawn.
Cosmopolitan, on the other hand, has a much wider range in its arsenal. From the very beginning we are encouraged to doubt our own ethics; “Can I stay friends with my ex?” and constantly to only value ourselves based on what other people think. From “Men vs Fashion”, with a classy subheading of “We don’t dress for men, but we are always curious about their fashion sense” to a critique of Jennifer Lawrence’s make up – “Is it hot or not?”, the entire magazine is obsessed with measuring self-worth against others’ opinions. We are told to worry about whether we get tagged on Facebook in the “same look twice”. Because who has time to worry about the atrocities in Syria when someone might notice I don’t have a pair of jeans for every day of the fucking year?
Regular column ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ has an apparently sane, well-educated woman dedicating her entire existence to finding a date. A feature on The Saturdays under “Women We Love” spends the first paragraph discussing their relationships to various men and the rest of it talking about fashion, what “type of girlfriend” they are and if they want a baby. The closest they get to a serious discussion is a brief question at the end on band member Frankie’s battle with depression. Two women are interviewed for this piece. Two women that, arguably, ‘have it all’. They’re talented, successful, and largely portrayed as very pleasant people. Do they get asked about women’s issues? About whether they think their young fans will be affected by domestic politics? Even their own music? No, but they do get asked about their “fashion no-nos” and if they always “get approached by guys”.
Women like politics, okay? Just look down the #bbcqt twitter hashtag on a Thursday night. We know our shit, we know how the world works and a lot of the time, we want it to change. We do not need to know what men “really think about love, sex and you.”
According to Cosmopolitan, our “burning question” is whether he – and it’s always he, because apparently lesbians and bisexuals are magically repelled from the women’s lifestyle magazine rack in WH Smith’s – is “looking for just a hook up?” No, actually. That’s not my burning question. And I am the woman you, Cosmo, seek to represent. I am educated. I am, arguably, middle-class. And I couldn’t give a toss if he is “in this forever”. Because I have shit to do. If I have any questions I’d describe as “burning”, it’s less to do with if he wants to “be exclusive” and more to do with “How am I supposed to get a job in this market?” or “Is it fair that my generation will pay nearly £30,000 for an education?” Are you answering that? Are you hell.
Anyway, let’s move on. Cosmopolitan has a women’s issue was a piece entitled “Why do men have to do the chasing?” Again, heterosexuality is implied as the norm – because apparently “nothing gets the blood going like zoning in on the opposite sex”. Must be why all those lesbians look bored; homosexual flirting is so banal. There’s a piece on “love” where we are shown all these cutesy couples in their fabulous heterosexual relationships where they lavish praise upon each other. Bordering on vomit-inducing, it celebrates the ideal that women and men belong together in relationships, and why would anyone be happy to be single? There’s even a feature on women needing a ‘manket’, which is a horribly contrived term to describe something that “every new single girl needs in her life”. Apparently it’s the presence of a male post-break up, because our fragile little lady-brains can’t cope with independence.
Flicking through I feel I could get angry at every page of this Burn Book for society, but then I find a page on how to deal with failure. Hey, that’s nice. There’s a column from Karren Brady on how to “disagree with your boss”, and some positive stories from women who bounced back from various low points. Then, a piece on being a police officer. Wow, this is going well.
And then… oh my Christ, is this what I think it is? A – a whole page… on feminism? Doth mine eyes deceive me? I’ve cleaned my specs – twice – but it’s still there. 21 reasons, taken from twitter, to suggest that “feminism isn’t just relevant, but necessary”. The next page promotes “Ultimate Women Of The Year” to celebrate “amazing women from all walks of life.” I don’t think I can cope with this. I’m so confused. But that’s a big thing about women’s lifestyle magazines – David Gauntlett found in his book Media, Gender & Identity that they offer “a confusing and contradictory set of ideas”. I found that this rings true. On one hand feminism and careers are celebrated. On the other, we fret about cellulite, whether our skin is suitably sunkissed and if our boyfriend likes our shirt.
Cosmopolitan markets itself to “fun fearless females”. That phrase evokes a lot of images. Independent. Fierce. Determined. That, surely, is the real woman readers should be imagining? I sought some opinions online. “A certain kind of middle-income straight woman,” says @jollyhones. “Thin but curvaceous, straight and in a relationship, successful at work but not a ‘hard- nosed career woman’, into fashion,” is @boudledidge’s idea of what these magazines promote. @JoBladd doesn’t think that the aim is to “promote perfect woman, more to create perceived flaws that can only be cured by products advertised in [magazine].” @SoniaRothwell believes that women’s magazines are “complicit in narrowing women’s horizons to their appearance”.
I spoke to Dolly Alderton on twitter, asking her if she understood what she was promoting. That being an unhealthy attitude towards dieting, and a borderline obsession with image. She responded that Company “would never commission a piece promoting bad food attitude.” She says she is the article does not assume that all women want to lose weight, and that she merely concludes “that if you want to lose weight, we all know how to”, going on to say that the diet she reviews “cannot be done”.
There is so much more to be said about the women’s magazine industry. About how it seeks to represent half the population, but seems to be stuck ten years behind. How it never truly addresses feminism, politics or anything but shoes and “your body’s best bikini.” How the pictures of women, pouting at us between shiny pages have been manipulated to look astronomically beautiful in ways no ‘regular’ woman ever could, are carefully positioned between the advertisements that keep these publications going. It’s sick. It’s damaging. It’s horrific.
Welcome to the magazine industry, everyone. Where self-hate is the name of the game, and the best interests of the readers are lost in a deluge of advertising revenue. Where your daughters, nieces, sisters and friends are told that they aren’t good enough, that all they need is a man, that the way you look is vital. Well I’ve had enough. I don’t care about Glamour’s 50 Best Dressed Women, or how to get a bikini body by the summer. Because it’s not important. So I’m saying goodbye to the glossies. Join me. You’ll feel better, I promise.