In January I saw something that I didn’t like in a magazine. Full of righteous feminist fury, I whizzed off a couple of letters of complaint. I thought they might be worthwhile reprinting here, to give an example of the kind of thing that you can do if you see something that you don’t like; wherever it was you saw it.

And all you need is a pen and some paper.

The picture was in the now defunct fashion magazine Nova, and was illustrating a humorous article about not being in the mood for sex. But the image had absolutely nothing to do with the article itself, and showed a couple of weird line drawings of skeletal women. It looked for all the world like you’d just walked in on two anorexic/bulimics bingeing. Anyway, suffice to say, the images disturbed me.

I objected to the idea that this could be considered a normal representation of women

Nova had always featured stick-thin models, and I was getting increasingly bored of them. But this seemed just freakishly bizarre and over-the-top; and the way it was just stuck in there next to a completely unrelated article as if this was supposed to be ‘normal.’ I think that was what most annoyed me: I objected to the idea that this sort of image could be considered just a normal representation of women.

I just could not understand why this picture was used, and why on earth the editor would think that women would like it. What were they trying to say? If the image had been illustrating an article about, say, women’s love-hate relationship with food, I could just about understand it. But no: this was Nova saying that this hideous image was what normal women (their readers?) were like.

Funnily enough, the editor at the time was male. The artist who drew the picture was also male. Hmmmm…

So anyway, here’s the letter I sent to the editor of Nova.

8th January 2001

Dear Mr. Langmead,

Usually I look forward to Nova and enjoy reading it every month, so much so that I subscribed. However, for the first time I have been moved to complain.

I am writing to object to the illustration used with what was otherwise an entertaining and truthful article: ‘Not Tonight’ on p.63 of the current issue (Issue 9). I found the images truly sickening and I honestly could not believe that you would decide to publish them.

I will describe them to you. On the first page, a drawing of two skeletal women (or girls?), slumped on a sofa. Their eyes are darkened in their sockets, cheeks hollow and shrunken, their heads and hands unnaturally out of proportion as if they are famine victims. Their expressions are dead and lifeless, and no wonder. Absolutely listless, the only energy they have is to lift a spoon, with which they are eating, of all things, Haagen Dazs. They look as if in the advanced stages of anorexia or bulimia.

I don’t know if this starvation imagery was intentional, but I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind this picture. For one thing, it has absolutely nothing to do with the article itself. The worst thing is that by meeting the eyes of the front figure it looks as though the first thing she is going to do after eating the ice-cream is rush to the bathroom and shove her fist down her throat. And this is supposed to be sexy?

I just cannot comprehend the thought-processes that went on in choosing this picture for this article. Do you think women like seeing images like that? Am I supposed to relate to it? Be envious? Am I supposed to aspire to look like that? Is this ‘cool’ and I’m just out of touch (I am 23 years old)? Really, I just don’t understand it at all.

On the following page, what seems to be a prepubescent girl lies, eyes closed, on the floor. She seems to have no breasts. Her shoulder bones and ribs jut through her skin, her stomach almost concave, her legs like twigs. She looks for all the world like a sick pedophiles’ fantasy. Again, this is shown to us as sexy. She is wearing stockings, a choker round her neck, her thumb is pushed provocatively in her mouth. For an article that talks about hot water bottles and tartan pyjamas, I cannot think of a more incongruous image. It almost made me physically sick to look at.

A few pages on, an article discusses body dismorphic disorder: “imagine hating your appearance so much that you won’t even step outside the door”. This strikes me as hypocritical at worst, and darkly ironic at best. From the impression I have got from previous issues of Nova, no doubt you will argue that the women who read Nova are strong minded enough to make up their own minds about what is beautiful – and I agree. Many of us are strong enough to mentally filter out damaging images, or identical images of so-called beauty being shown to us again and again and again – we have had enough practice at it.

But why should we have to?

I digress.

This whole thing has really disappointed me. For a magazine that purports to be different from the rest, and treat grown women with respect and not patronise them, this is such a disappointment. And what’s worse is that this sort of image would never have been published in the other mainstream glossy magazines which Nova, justifiably usually, sees itself as more advanced than. In this sense it seems even more of a letdown.

Nova has, on several occasions, impressed and pleasantly surprised me. In contrast to the images described above, Nova has featured some of the most exciting and refreshing images in a woman’s magazine I have seen lately. Some examples I particularly liked were: the Kate Moss shoot (Issue 2), Off the Wall (Issue 8), Artist’s Model (Issue 7), Odd One Out (also Issue 7). In the current issue (9), the accompanying illustration to India Knight’s column is excellent as usual. And a woman’s magazine without those pathetic horoscopes? Thank God!

I do enjoy Nova, but it seems to veer from the sickening to the sublime. I do wish you the best, as an innovative and often exciting magazine. The articles are usually excellent. You have proved to me and your other readers that at times you have the courage to be truly different from the competition. Please, I urge you now to continue to be more different. I would hate to be disappointed again.

I would appreciate a reply to this letter. For your information, I intend to send a copy of this letter to Haagen Dazs and to the advertisers whose adverts surround the offending article: OleoMed and Tisserand Aromatherapy.

Yours faithfully,

Catherine Redfern

Well, one thing’s for sure – I’ll never work for IPC…

I didn’t really think that much would come of it, but I thought it was worthwhile making my feelings heard. I did think that Jeremy Langmead would hate me and dismiss me as an idiotic feminist rather than take my views into account as a reader of the magazine. He’d probably be pleased that he’d shocked someone. I pessimistically predicted that they’d probably reprint the image again in the letters page just to rub it in. Well, guess what? Uh-huh.

But as you saw, I didn’t just write to Nova. I wanted to try out the ‘power’ that Naomi Wolf has said we have as women consumers:

“Reader pressure can force advertisers of fashions, cosmetics and other goods whose sales depend on women’s goodwill to give something back to women’s political empowerment and to the image of feminism itself. Advertisers are currently courting women’s goodwill… We don’t have to pretend their motives are pure in order to use this trend to our advantage. If women realise their true consumer power and see that the advertiser-consumer relationship, like the media-consumer relationship, is actually dictated by the mobilized consumer, they can treat these efforts as a drop in the ocean.”

And again, Naomi Wolf has said women have power as readers and viewers:

“Advertisers want 25-40-year-old women’s good opinion more than they do that of any other demographic group. Women have such tremendous power as consumers that when a woman writes a letter to a magazine – objecting, for example, to an advertisement, or a sexist feature – that letter is counted as representing thousands of readers, according the the editor of one woman’s magazine….”

Advertisers often influence the content of magazines

It’s the advertisers that often have the real power when it comes to magazines. That’s why it’s difficult complaining to a magazine about the adverts it carries: without those adverts paying thousands of pounds, it wouldn’t exist. Magazine editors have little power over the images advertisers use. But, it does work the other way round. Advertisers often influence the content of magazines. That’s why I decided to write to the companies whose adverts had been printed next to the offending pictures. I also wrote to Haagen Dazs, whose product was featured in the illustration. If you’re gonna complain, you might as well do it right!

8th January 2001

Dear Sir or Madam,

I enclose a copy of a letter that I have sent to Mr Jeremy Langmead, editor of Nova magazine (published by IPC), complaining about an illustration used in their recent issue (Issue 9, February 2001) which I found incredibly upsetting and offensive in its portrayal of women.

I am informing you of this because I noticed that your advertisement was placed directly adjacent to the offending images. Please note that I am not complaining about your advertisement, simply informing you that it was positioned directly opposite an image which I found extremely distasteful.

I know that advertisers often have a lot of power over the content of magazines that they advertise in. I also know that the image of your company and brand is important to you and that you want to be associated with positive images of women. This is the reason I am informing you, in case you should wish to mention to Nova that images such as these are distasteful and that you do not wish your advertisements to be positioned next to them.

Perhaps I am too cyncial, but I do believe that magazine publishers and editors will listen more to the advertisers who pay them than to their own readership, so I believe that advertisers do have power to makes changes for the better if they wish to do so.

If you do decide to take any action on this matter I would be very grateful if you could let me know. Many thanks.

Yours faithfully,

Catherine Redfern

Well, I never received a single reply from Nova, not even a form letter. I never got a reply from Tisserand or Haagen Dazs. But I did get a response from a lovely woman who was the product manager of OleoMed. I would reprint it for you, but I wasn’t sure about the copyright implications so I’ll just summarise it.

For the launch, she had had to go through several magazines to see if they fitted the image, and she wasn’t sure about Nova but decided to give it a go

The woman thanked me for my letter, and explained that as OleoMed had only recently been launched, positioning and targeting to get the right image was vital. For the launch, she had had to go through several magazines to see if they fitted the image, and she wasn’t sure about Nova but decided to give it a go. Even so she still had her concerns over the magazine. But after reading my letter and looking at the magazine ‘from a consumer’s point of view’ she decided to pull the advertising from the magazine and would not advertise in it in future. The reason was that even though the OleoMed advert had nothing to do with the images in the mag, it appeared hypocritical; as Oleo Med was all about being healthy and the images seemed to contradict that.

Well that did make me feel a little shocked, let me tell you! But it just goes to show that you can have an impact sometimes. Even if you don’t get a reply, you never know what is happening behind the scenes.

But did it actually achieve anything? Well, that depends. We’re not going to demolish the beauty myth overnight by sending one letter! In fact, its debatable whether its worthwhile focusing on trying to change the images in the industry (feminists have different views on whether this will ever have an effect). But even so, I felt I had achieved something. At the very least I had expressed my view to the editor of a magazine and three other organisations. If any of them were encouraged to have a better image of women from that, then that’s achieved something. If my letter comes to represent the views of many more readers, as Naomi Wolf suggests, that’s fantastic. And I managed to communicate with a sympathetic advertiser who decided to change their advertising policy because of me. I feel that’s achieved something.

This poster was an example of something good!

I’d like to end this article on on the positive note! To counteract the image that feminists are always complaining, here is a letter I sent to Blacks outdoor clothing company after seeing a poster that I really enjoyed. At a time when I was thinking about advertising’s images of women, this poster was an example of something good (unfortunately I don’t have a copy of it to show you).

Besides criticising the images we hate, it’s often worthwhile to praise those we like.

18th January 2001

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to let you know how impressed I was with one of your recent advertising campaigns. As I have written letters of complaint about images I’ve found offensive to women, I thought it was only fair that I also praise those images which are so much better. I am happy to say that you definitely fall into the latter category!

It is rare that I see an advertisement that improves my mood and really pleases me, but you have certainly done that with a poster I saw on the London Underground at the end of last year. The poster I am referring to was of a woman alone in a rough, grassy landscape, riding a mountain bike. Her face is splattered with mud and her hair is tangled and windswept. The caption reads: “my daily mud-pack”.

I love this poster. It is humorous, but not at the expense of women. It subverts stereotypes that women are obsessed with their appearance (she obviously doesn’t care how she looks). It shows an image of an independent woman (to use a rather tired phrase), doing something she enjoys – for once not involving make-up or obsessing about weight! And it’s great that she is doing something usually associated with men: being outdoors, mountain biking, getting muddy, and loving it. It manages to give a positive image of women without putting men down – also quite unusual!

I remember getting on the tube and craning my neck to stare at the poster as the tube pulled away. The image stayed with me for long afterwards. I cannot thank you enough. It was fantastic – and rare.

I hope this letter will encourage you to continue in the same manner. Please pass on my appreciation to whoever was responsible.

Best wishes,

Catherine Redfern

Have you ever complained about images of women? Send us your letters and stories and we’ll print them!