Kate Allen looks at women’s magazines today – and thinks enough is enough.
She is rake-slim, tanned. Her eyes gaze placidly out from skilled maquillage, her expression indecipherable. Her hair is glossy, clothes casually cutting-edge. She is all-woman – and yet none. She is magazine-girl.
Do you know her? Because I don’t. And I don’t think I want to.
In the preface of her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Freidan wrote: “There was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform”. Although the vast majority of women’s lives have changed beyond Freidan’s greatest hopes since she wrote those words, the disparity between the media’s view of women and women’s real lives is still in some ways present. While adopting a veneer of feminism, women’s magazines are actually extremely reactionary, oppressive and old-fashioned. Open up your average mag and what do you see? How To Be Better In Bed. This Season’s Key Pieces. Eyeliner 101. Celebs talk about their boyfriends. “My Night As A Lesbian”. The World’s Most Romantic Holiday Destinations. Luxury Health Spas. Recipes For A Summer Barbeque. Passing lipservice is paid to independence and career, but the main message girls are getting from the magazines meant to represent their interests is that what is really important is sex and fashion. In theory they’ve got bright futures – but in practice, get thin and get a boyfriend!
Our culture is cursed by its obsessive scrutiny of “image”, and its preoccupation with the construction and maintenance of the “correct” appearance is making us sick – literally. An estimated 2% of women aged 15-30 suffer from anorexia. A further 4% suffer from bulimia. Other illnesses such as body dismorphic disorder, self-harm and binge eating are also affected by media pressure. A 1998 survey by Exeter University of 37,500 young women between twelve and fifteen found that over half (57.5%) listed appearance as the biggest concern in their lives.
Anorexia information charity ANRED says: “Magazine pictures are electronically edited and airbrushed. Many entertainment celebrities are underweight, some anorexically so. How do we know what we should look like? It’s hard.
“Most people want to be happy and successful, states that require thought, personal development, and usually hard work. The media, especially ads and commercials for appearance-related items, suggest that we can avoid the hard character work by making our bodies into copies of the icons of success. “Reading between the lines of many ads reveals a not-so-subtle message? ‘You are not acceptable the way you are. The only way you can become acceptable is to buy our product and try to look like our model, who is six feet tall and wears size four jeans – and is probably anorexic’.”
In 1995, before television came to their island, the people of Fiji thought the ideal body was round, plump, and soft. After 38 months of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and similar Western shows being beamed into their homes, Fijian teenage girls showed serious signs of eating disorders.
What is feminism doing about this? Thirdwave sees the reclamation and celebration of women’s appearance as part of its project. It’s about refocusing our campaigns from the scrutiny of women’s private lives back to the social and economic inequalities that still exist. Young women are free to take joy in their appearance, after secondwave feminists claimed the right for us not to do so. Women’s magazines are the lowest common denominator of this attitude – just as image-fascist as the unreconstructed sexists Freidan wrote about in 1963. They have hijacked our right to enjoy our appearance and turned it against us yet again.
Even the Riot Grrrls, liberated and assertive women, may not have helped as much as they intended – Courtney Love, quoted in Poppy Z Brite’s biography The Real Story, fears the movement was co-opted or its threat neutralised as the Riot Grrrl “style” developed and became fluffier. “Courtney wondered whether these [young] girls understood the irony of this look, or if they were just being encouraged to appear young, cute and harmless,” Brite writes. Love told Melody Maker she feared that Riot Grrrls had become too “teensy weensy-widdle-cutie. I think the reason the media is so excited about it is because it’s saying females are inept, females are naive, females are innocent, clumsy, bratty … I wore those small dresses [too], and sometimes I regret it.”
And it is certainly true that female musicians are easier for the media to accept when their music is presented with traditionally “feminine” accoutrements; Courtney tells Brite about touring after Kurt Cobains’s death: “In Minneapolis I wore a dress that was so restricting and shoes that were five inches high, I could barely stage-dive. “Then I got the best write-ups – for being feminine, I guess. I couldn’t move well and I was restrained, which equals great review. That’s pretty horrid.”
Thirdwave is not to blame for this, of course – but it has to defend its territory. Just because some women see through the myth these magazines are trying to flog does not mean that all do. Far too many girls suffer and are unhappy because a cosmetics company suit wants to sell more makeup, or a clothing company needs to shift lots of stock. Magazines have to recognise the power they have over women’s lives, and the responsibility that carries. They must also be forced to see that makeup, sex, clothes and holidays are just part of our lives – there is so much about their readers that they are ignoring. These are supposed to be our magazines – reflecting our concerns, debating our issues, of interest TO US. Let’s stop letting the suits tell us what to read and buy. Let’s tell them.