A simple example of what you can do with a pen, some paper, and envelope and a stamp. Catherine Redfern gets scribbling.
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/bulemics bingeing. Anyway, suffice to say, the images
I objected to the idea that this could be
considered a normal representation of women.[pulloutbox]
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
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?
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?
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
Well, one thing’s for sure – I’ll never work for
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
“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
And again, Naomi Wolf has said women have power as readers and
“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….”
[pulloutbox]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.
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.[pulloutbox]
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
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
[pulloutbox]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
I hope this letter will encourage you to continue in the same
manner. Please pass on my appreciation to whoever was responsible.
Have you ever complained about images of women? Send us your
letters and stories and we’ll print them!