On Women’s Magazines

“I can’t believe you read those things,” my (male, if it matters) friend said to me as I opened a copy of Marie Claire.  We were on a coach to a demo.  I was a relative newbie to the whole activism thing but I was learning fast, and this day’s lesson was that if you are a politically active female you do not read women’s magazines.  It made sense, after the initial rush of excitement for all the ideas for self-improvement the magazines left me feeling oddly deflated.  I accepted the line fed to me by more “experienced” feminists that girlie magazines are the enemy.  Give them up, you’ll do better without them.

I hadn’t even questioned this blanket dismissal until the other day when I tutted at my sister telling me that she bought a copy of Cosmopolitan (even though she was tempted by the Tatler because it had Ed Westwick on the front.  We have such enlightening conversations).  “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she insisted.  “It makes me laugh.”

“While undermining how women feel about themselves, by making us feel as though we should all be on diets, shop all the time, be perfectly groomed and constantly ready for sex.”  I said.  “Give them up, you’ll do better without them,” I parroted.

Yesterday I bought a copy of Elle.  I bought it because it came with eye-liner that was worth more than the £3.50 magazine price.  But I also really enjoyed the magazine.  Then I felt bad for really enjoying the magazine.  And then I thought, what’s the point of calling myself a feminist if it makes me feel bad for enjoying things I would otherwise enjoy?  Is this assumption that women’s magazines are somehow un-feminist somewhat naïve?  What gives us the right to dismiss something that so many women enjoy and tell them they shouldn’t enjoy them?

The biggest problem I have with these magazines is that they make women feel bad about their bodies, but this isn’t limited to women’s magazines.  It’s a problem that all advertising and entertainment seem to have such a narrow view of female attractiveness (i.e. skinny, white and big bosomed).  My own body image breakthrough came during the six months that I lived in India, cut off from Western culture and forced to wear baggy (yet beautiful) clothing that hid my figure.  A combination of the two curry a day diet and heat-induced laziness meant that on my return I was the plumpest I had ever been.  (“It looks like someone has blown you up like a balloon,” said my mum.)  Yet I was also the most happy with my body I have ever been.  Incidentally, being happy with my body and thus having my most healthy relationship with food to date has resulted in me losing two stone without even trying in the last 12 months.  I think this proves an important point about the ridiculousness of the diet industry.  My advice to anyone wanting to lose weight would be: stop caring whether you do or not.

Obviously women’s magazine are not to be taken to seriously and the advice to be read with caution.  But so is anything, newspapers are especially dangerous because so many people think they can be read at face value.  I think women should be credited with enough intelligence to work out what is silly and what isn’t.  As I’ve gotten older, fashion magazines no longer make me wish I had enough money to buy ridiculously priced designer clothing.  They now serve as more artistic inspiration as I think “Oh that’s a good idea – I could alter that dress I never wear/add buttons to this/make something like that/pair those two items of clothing together.”

I wonder if the reason that women’s magazines are belittled and dismissed as unintelligent is that they are aimed exclusively at women.  Perhaps it’s this refusal to admit that they contribute anything useful that is “unfeminist”?  Okay, so as seen with the body image debate and those “you must please your man” sex tips, they aren’t always helpful to the cause.  But of course there are grey areas; that’s what life’s about.  Some importance must lie in the fact that each week/month so many women read them and take something from them.

In the stifling environment of the late 1950s/early 1960s, magazines really helped push social boundaries for young women by providing a space in which topics like sex and contraception could be discussed.  I studied this period for my degree and it is argued by some that women’s magazine were a driver of women’s liberation.  It’s only in recent years that they have been seen to hinder the feminist movement.  As with any journalism, they have the potential to be hugely political.  I recently read a memoir called My Forbidden Face by Latifa, a young women who grew up under the Taliban regime in Kabul.  It was Elle Magazine who provided Latifa and her mother the chance to escape to Paris and tell their story in May 2001.

Read women’s magazines.  Or don’t.  But don’t judge women who do, or feel as though you can tell them why they shouldn’t.

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