Diet Grrrl – Feminism and Women’s Magazines

Kate Allen looks at women's magazines today - and thinks enough is enough.

, 16 August 2002

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


Do you know her? Because I don’t. And I don’t think I want to.

women’s magazines are actually

extremely reactionary

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.

Magazine pictures are

electronically edited and airbrushed.

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.

They have hijacked our right to enjoy our appearance and turned it against

us yet again

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


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.

Kate Allen is a national news journalist and is very interested in direct action and activism. she thinks newsagents shouldn’t put music magazines in the “men’s interests” section.

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