Alongside shaving, high heels and crash diets, the consensus seems to be that so-called ‘women’s magazines’ represent one of the soul-sapping lower level sexist annoyances faced by the modern woman, who must apparently attempt to navigate life and career while remaining AT ALL TIMES eminently fuckable. Magazines seem to be just another eddy tugging you down into the swirling whirlpool of insecurity, self-doubt and limitations that is endemic of contemporary culture’s attitude to women.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case: the magazine business is a business like any other, and a tried-and-tested marketing strategy, rather than simply relying on the whims of the fickle consumer, is to create a problem or a need and then sell the solution. Hence women’s magazines metaphorically scream out from the newsagent’s racks as to whether you, yes YOU there, in the un-dry-cleaned coat with shower-wet hair and croissant crumbs down your front, are thin/groomed/stylish/sexy/attractive/insert-pretty-much-exclusively-appearance-focused acceptability requirement here. But don’t despair, unsightly woman-creature, if you follow this diet/buy this product/dance around a bonfire of organic kale whilst chanting these magic words you can be presentable enough that people won’t cross the street to avoid you. Now arguably all these magazines are doing is reflecting a wider cultural norm that women are to be judged and valued primarily on appearance and not intellect, competence or -god forbid - opinions. But boy do they unquestioningly reflect and perpetuate those norms. Have you ever felt good about yourself after reading Vogue/Elle/Cosmo/Company/Grazia? Or like me have you often come away with a vague sense of inadequacy, if not self-loathing?
But I shall not go into detail here of the many ways in which these sorts of magazines belittle and undermine women, as this has already been discussed in detail by far better minds than mine. My question is, does this have to be the case? When did something nominally feminist - reading material for women - become so much part of the problem of sexism? And are ‘women’s magazines’ as they are now irredeemably flawed? Can they ever be feminist as long as they subscribe to the same model?
My reason for pondering this question came to me on a usual Monday evening commute. Lacking the will and energy to open the philosophical text in my bag, I pounced as soon as the woman reading Stylist magazine across the carriage indicated she had finished with it. Though I generally avoid magazines for the above reasons, Stylist has categorically never been your ‘typical’ woman’s mag. It unashamedly declared itself feminist from the get-go, and focused a much larger proportion of its pages on addressing feminist issues, including gender equality in the workplace, international issues and politics. Features like Work/Life Balance (featuring inspirational women across different fields), the ‘Elsewhere’ page (which often digests key issues facing women in other countries), and sensible articles on political and gender issues are as much part of the publication’s core DNA as their beauty, fashion and ‘Wish List’ pages, which I nevertheless fooled myself were more about trying out new looks and make-up for fun and curiosity, rather than any prescriptive aesthetic requirements. In my (perhaps deluded) mind if this magazine had a ‘personality’, it would be that of the worldly yet kooky aunt, recommending new and exciting things for a sheltered niece (me) to try, while also providing adult discussion of serious issues. A quick scan of their website homepage sees a campaign against Female Genital Mutilation alongside their fashion and beauty pages and confirms the impression that this is a magazine that recognises that women care about serious issues as well as matching their nail varnish to their shoes.
Against this backdrop of preconceptions, imagine my jubilation that dark Monday evening when I saw that their weekly cover story was ‘Feminism: Must Try Harder’ (albeit hidden behind the outer advert cover, which was celebrating 180 years of Rimmel). The first few pages were the usual mix of beauty, the inevitable commercialism, and an excellent interview with a real-life lady research scientist (take that doubters regarding females in STEM areas). To this point Stylist pulled off the delicate balancing act it usually does, a not insubstantial feat of balancing gender-conscious journalism with appealing frippery that challenges the notion that feminist publications must be po-faced and dryly intellectual. Yet, despite all the promise, my feminist joy was short lived.
Next up was their ‘Beauty’ feature, this week addressing the key existential question of whether you are a beauty ‘night owl’ or ‘morning lark’. Now there could have been numerous ways they could have played this: original make-up looks for morning and evening perhaps; how to disguise the fact that you were knocking back overpriced tequila shots at 1am in the morning meeting the next day, hell, even something about the health effects of sleeping patterns. But no. They went for the premature ageing = one of the worst possible things imaginable angle. The focus was on research by Cleveland University Hospital (in association with ‘Estee Lauder’ of course) determining that lack of sleep increased the ‘signs of ageing’. Not health problems or anything like that, but the fact that (in bold) ‘Women who get less than five hours’ sleep have twice the lines and wrinkles’ than those who get more. The implication was that this was a terrible, terrible fate: of course, looking young with ‘firm’ skin should be at the top of every woman’s agenda. They even had the cheek to mention that Margaret Thatcher’s famous 4 hours a night sleeping habit wouldn’t have given her skin time to repair itself. No matter that she had other things on her mind, like RUNNING A COUNTRY, she really should have been making sure she stayed young and fresh so that her Cabinet colleagues would think she was ‘fit’. But no matter, even if you do neglect your future youthfulness (subtext: how dare you enjoy life in the present, you careless fool), Stylist also provided the solution, with carefully selected skincare products for both early and late risers (the cheapest coming in at £16.50 and the most expensive bloody £117).
My first reaction to this article that they snuck into the magazine without warning was mild panic. “Shit”, I thought, “I have a hard time going to bed before midnight, survive off 4-5 hours’ sleep most nights AND drink too much, I’m doomed’. Thankfully, my second one was anger. Doomed to what, exactly? Not living up to the diktats of modern society whereby men become more interesting and attractive as they get older while women should desperately try and look 22 forever, because of course their only value is in being young and pretty? And finally, depression. If even Stylist, the one magazine that seems to pride itself on its feminist credentials, still runs articles such as this, articles that seem designed to do nothing more than make you feel bad about yourself, your appearance and your lifestyle, what hope is there for the industry as a whole? Are nods to feminism by these magazines merely a savvy attempt to appeal to women like myself who are interested in these issues, as a way to lure us in before making us feel bad about ourselves and trying to sell us stuff?
I should mention that their article on the current state of feminism later on was a pretty thoughtful, rallying piece, and that I haven’t wholly given up on Stylist. I think they are trying to break free of the tropes of mainstream magazines for women, but haven’t quite got there. The beauty issues around which these magazines are traditionally framed are hard to ignore completely, but I hope that in future Stylist addresses ideas of ageing and beauty from more of a health and lifestyle angle, or at least acknowledges the ridiculously gendered nature of anti-ageing pressures. I hope they can do this, though I do wonder if there is too much of a formula followed by these magazines for even the most well-intentioned to escape? Can we only have truly ‘feminist’ magazines where beauty issues are not mentioned?
Far from being a frivolous issue, I believe women’s magazines (and I should be clear that in this article I’m talking about the ones on sale in your average supermarket, I know there are amazing niche feminist magazines out there, both online and in print), are an important part of reclaiming media culture from its obsession about women’s looks and how they measure up to some idealised notion of aesthetic perfection. In short, if we can reclaim the average woman’s magazine from being a publication that saps our confidence and weakens the ability to fight for the feminist cause as we instead worry that we are too fat, not a domestic goddess who can give a blowjob while simultaneously whipping up a fondant pudding or not fashionable enough, then perhaps instead they can become tools for mutual support and discussion, and a vehicle for the exploration of the true diversity of female interests. A true ‘woman’s magazine’ would be something owned by women as a collective, rather than representing one group of women telling another group of women what they are doing wrong in life. Magazines could become a help rather than a hindrance to feminist action. This is a somewhat optimistic view, and I don’t know if a better alternative is to boycott these kinds of publications until they die a slow financial death, so I'd be interested to know other people’s thoughts on how the feminist ‘problem’ of women’s magazines can be tackled.
But in the meantime I will leave you with an acknowledgment that this is a problem faced by gender-marketed publications as a whole, not just those for women (see men’s rights sites and magazines like GQ and FHM). Maybe we should all just read philosophy in our spare time.
Though not that bit of Aristotle that asserts that women are worth ‘one-half’ of a man…
On second thoughts screw it, back to watching Netflix…