Women in Chile: Moving towards equality (but only if you look the part)

Chile's Mujer magazine is a bizarre juxtaposition of all that's best in women's journalism and all that's worst in advertising, finds Laura Woodhouse

, 3 May 2007

mujercoverI thought it would be interesting to take a look at the Chilean equivalent of The Observer’s Woman magazine (reviewed earlier in the year here at The F Word), La Tercera’s Mujer: ‘The magazine YOU want’. So, what do Chilean women want? What interests them? How do they see themselves? The most striking aspect of the magazine is the huge disparity between the way in which the written content addresses these questions, and the responses generated by the choice of advertising. I should preface this post with a reminder that the mainstream media in Chile is directed at and often only deals with the preoccupations of the middle and upper classes. For the women I come across in my work here in the deprived areas of Santiago, life offers little more than a cycle of teenage pregnancy, poverty and violence. While domestic violence affects all social classes, the kind of opportunities and the lifestyle available to the readers of Mujer are but pipe dreams for lower class women, and equality is even further from their grasp.

This particular edition is a maternity special and includes articles on the Burundi social rights activist Marguerite Barankitse, ‘The woman with ten thousand children’, postpartum depression in fathers, myths and facts about oral contraceptives, diagnostic errors in fetal scanning and an interview with a pregnant ex-model who has left the city to bring up her child on an organic farm.

The modern Chilean woman is surrounded by inspirational women, not least the presidenta, who represent the increasing opportunities for women to integrate into society in the same way as men

Pretty impressive coverage of the topic, no? Inspirational women, sound sexual health and medical advice, the importance of sharing the challenges and responsibilities of parenthood and – take note Heat, Grazia and all you other women-trashing magazines – photos of said ex-model happily displaying her bump and extra fat with no accusative red circles or snarky comments.

In addition to the maternity articles there is a feature on women who have succeeded in the incredibly macho field of rodeo, the second most popular sport in Chile and an analysis of President Michelle Bachelet’s first year in power from seven different women, all of whom are equally impressive in their own careers, plus a couple of pages of shopping, travel and cooking. To sum up, the modern Chilean woman is surrounded by inspirational women, not least the presidenta, who represent the increasing opportunities for women to integrate into society in the same way as men. She is aware of the needs of her body, will not blindly follow everything the male-dominated medical profession tells her to do and she likes to bake cookies. Yum.

Perhaps The Observer should get in on the action, you might be thinking. Well, yes, until we look at the other fifty percent of the magazine’s content: advertising. Wrinkle cream, lingerie, private primary schools, more wrinkle cream, baby oil, lipstick, Avon cosmetics, wedding fare, hair dye, stain remover, nappies, collagen injections, diet yoghurt, lip gloss, furniture polish.

The bizarrely contorted naked woman with long blonde hair is a far cry from the almost exclusively black and brown locks of the chilenas I see every day

An aspirin advert features post it notes with crossed out ‘To Do’ lists: ‘Iron clothes’, ‘Go to gym’, ‘Pick up kids’, ‘Do the shopping’. The message is clear: Chilean women don’t have careers; they clean, preen and look after kids. Considering that advertising is designed to persuade, rather than inform, I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that this could be read: Chilean women shouldn’t have careers; they should look pretty and stay at home.

plasticsurgeryadThe there’s the plastic surgery adverts. A full page spread featuring a bizarrely contorted naked woman from lips down to thighs, the long blonde hair a far cry from the almost exclusively black and brown locks of the chilenas I see every day, cries ‘Nature created you… We perfect you’ ‘Beauty isn’t only on the inside’. Another advert again features a headless woman, her body emblazoned with ‘laser hair removal’ and ‘VelaSmooth cellulite reduction’ on the relevant body parts. ‘Feel good and 100% natural’. Chilean women need plastic surgery.

Right in the centre of the maternity section there is an advert for a beauty clinic reminding mothers that ‘we too can look attractive’: pregnancy is no excuse to let yourself go

These adverts aren’t hidden away at the back or in the shopping sections. They’re right there alongside the female positive articles, the articles that show Chilean women that they too are free to do whatever they want and to control their own bodies (although no mention of the lack of abortion rights). The mixed messages are confusing. Right in the centre of the maternity section there is an advert for a beauty clinic reminding mothers that ‘we too can look attractive’: pregnancy is no excuse to let yourself go. So which is it: healthy, happy and self confident independent women, or cosmetic-reliant, surgically-altered, stain-removing, body image-obsessive, nappy-changing sex kittens?

As in the UK, it appears that equality, the freedom to choose career, family or both – just as men can – comes with the requirement that we stay forever young, fat free, beautiful and attractive, with the mental angst, diminished self confidence and vast input of time and money that so often accompany it. No matter how privileged we may be as women in the West, we will never be truly free as long as we are subject to this debilitating beauty myth.

Laura is a French and Hispanic studies student at the University of Sheffield, currently working as a youth club leader with underprivileged children in Santiago de Chile. She wishes she was joking when she says she has to walk past five plastic surgery clinics on her way to work every day.

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