Observer Woman Disappoints

// 15 January 2006

Like any other good middle class, left-wing Briton, I know there is only really one newspaper out there for me. The Guardian, of course. And on Sundays, the Observer.

Refuge of crossiant munching liberals and socialists lost in the wrong class; its readers are derided as“the yoghurt- and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity” on the one hand; accused of misguided paternalism on the other. But the fact is, the Guardian and the Observer are the home of serious-minded, high-calibre journalism intent on exposing social wrongs and giving a voice to progressive values.

All of which led me to expect better. I expected the Observer’s new monthly women’s magazine to edge closer to Ms than Vogue. I expected investigative journalism not a 10 page shopping guide. I did not expect yet another women’s magazine that reduces “women’s interests” to fashion plus body image. I think I expected the women’s section of G2 but expanded into 70-odd glossy pages.

What did I get? Well, here are some of the worst parts:

“15 things that women care about that are absolutely wasted on men” (examples: 1) Shoes with very pointy toes)

“I love you just the way you were – There’s no law against staying slim and beautiful for your husband, says Phil Hogan” (quote: “It’s much easier for someone to love you for who you are if you happen to resemble, say, Scarlett Johansson”)

“Why American women are sexier than British girls – by a man who knows” (note: this one was written by the Observer’s literary editor)

On the other hand, Observer Woman has managed to sneak in a few genuinely interesting features.

Most fascinating is the interview with Nancy Weber, who swapped her name, home, wardrobe, job and lovers with a stranger in the ’70s. The book she wrote about it, The Life Swap, was the genesis for all those reality TV shows from Wife Swap onwards.

Her readers were scandalised and fascinated in equal measure: ‘People wanted to know: did you really sleep with her husband? So I said, about 150 times: “Yes, I did, and I find it much harder to eat unflavoured yoghurt for breakfast.”‘

The front page feature examines the role of body hair, or the lack of, in our society. Polly Vernon admits to a near-pathological aversion to her own body hair when she quits shaving for a month:

No one hates my hairy legs as much as I do. I do not feel liberated from the shackles of shaving. In fact, I miss the ritual of it. I see nothing beautiful in my untended state. The longer I leave it, the worse it gets psychologically. I become constantly aware of the growth beneath my jeans. It starts to feel malignant, threatening. I can’t do a full month. Three and a half weeks into my experiment, I shave, and am elated after I do so. I rub my hands up and down my smooth shins repeatedly and blissfully.

And finally. In what looks like it’ll be a regular feature, Beryl Bainbridge tells Observer Woman what she knows about men. Beryl, Beryl, Beryl. I never thought much of your books, but now I am genuinely disappointed in you:

I am not a feminist in the slightest. I was brought up to believe that women were much superior to men, only you kept it very quiet. I remember an occasion at some feminist meeting, years ago with FayWeldon, and I happened to bring up rape and all the women got rather hostile. My theory is that as long as there is no violence \x96 no holding a knife to you \x96 it can’t be classified as rape. A husband can’t rape a wife; I don’t think it is possible. As long as you’re not a virgin I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. When I was younger you just didn’t mention abuse, whether it was by strangers or your husband. You just got on with it and it didn’t half help you to deal with men.

Do I really need to dissect why she’s so wrong? I hope not.

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