Not-So-Helpful Advice from Women’s Magazines

// 28 November 2009

Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday while waiting for an appointment, I picked up one of the women’s magazines on the waiting room table and started skimming through it to pass the time.

I came across an article entitled ’25 health tips women doctors want you to know’. I thought this may be interesting – or at least more interesting than how to emulate the latest look from the latest celeb, so I started to read.

To say it was disappointing is somewhat understating the matter. One tip told me to use moisturiser. Another to walk rather than take the lift. Another to eat plenty of calcium. Then one tip was to buy a vibrator. While this may be good advice, the explanation behind it was infuriating! It said that some men are not good at foreplay, and if this is the case with ‘your man’, then rather than be frustrated, get a vibrator instead and you won’t have any problems any more.

On so many levels, this is dreadful! Firstly, many women are single, many are with women not men. Heterosexist presumptions still prevail everywhere. Secondly, still calling it ‘foreplay’ separates it from ‘sex’ as if they are two completely different matters, with one building up to the other rather than it all being one whole experience. And thirdly, if your partner is bad at sex, or does not understand your sexual needs or desires, then that is something to work on with them, have fun exploring and mutually learn about. Saying, ‘oh he’s not good at that bit’ is kinda letting him off the hook, let’s face it!

If your male partner was having trouble enjoying sex with you, you can be sure the magazines wouldn’t advise you to get him a blow-up doll or simulated vagina, it would tell you ‘how to please him’ and exactly what you should do to make sure he was happy.

By all means buy a vibrator, and enjoy it. But don’t take advice just because it comes from a doctor in a magazine and use it to substitute a partner with good technique rather than talking to that partner about the problem and what you do and don’t like.

I very rarely read women’s magazines these days, and if I do it tends to be the Chat and Take a Break type when I’m ill, rather than the beauty / fashion ones. But whenever I do look at those – usually in a doctor’s waiting room – I see that the same old messages we have always had from them are still there.

A few weeks ago I made some photocopied flyers to surreptitiously slip inside teenage and women’s magazines in shops. They counter some of the usual crap messages we get from these publications, and question their content. If you want to get hold of any of these flyers I’d be happy to send you some if you send me an SAE to

Pippa, PO Box 4663, Sheffield, S1 9FN

Alternatively if you want to get any of my zines just let me know when you order that you want some of the magazine flyers and I’ll stick some in the envelope for you.

It’s small actions like sticking the flyers in the magazines that can actually make a real difference. When we are feeling powerless in the suffocating patriarchy around us, knowing that a woman or girl somewhere who might never have been allowed to challenge the presumptions of heterosexuality, the fascist beauty standards around us or the everywhere-written laws of body hair, who bought that magazine today, may get some relief and empowerment from the words they unexpectedly find stuffed inside, really does help.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 28 November 2009 at 12:57 pm

Ah patriarchy is so clever because for eons now women’s magazines have been promoting women’s sexual pleasure as ‘foreplay’ and not remotely connected with female sexual expression. Always the same male-centered messages emanate from these magazines. Heterosexual women – your only sexual role is to always please your man and if you desire any sexual act which puts your needs first then it is just ‘foreplay’ not ‘real sex.’

Real sex only commences when the penis comes into play and of course always culminates with vaginal and increasingly anal penetration of female anatomy.

Phillipa your flyers are an excellent way of disrupting the phallocentric dominant claims of what does and does not pass for ‘real sex.’

But of course I do not advocate such radical disruption of patriarchy because women should always remain at home and continue their knitting!

Philippa Willitts // Posted 28 November 2009 at 1:02 pm

Jennifer you explained the foreplay thing so much better than I did, thank you!

Anne Onne // Posted 28 November 2009 at 7:12 pm

I wonder how most of this counts as useful doctors’ advice. Unless you’ve got a severe skin condition, you’d think a doctor would be focusing on more important medical advice than telling you what 90% of women’s magazines pressure you to do anyway!

You’d think since this was touted as important advice from female doctors that there might be more on women’s health and how to understand and appreciate and look after your body rather than beauty advice! Out of interest, was there any useful advice, particularly on gynaecological issues, or was this it?

You’ve really pinpointed what’s problematic about the vibrator advice: it’s not really addressing any problems a couple have with communication or asking for what you want in bed.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 28 November 2009 at 7:16 pm

You’d think since this was touted as important advice from female doctors that there might be more on women’s health and how to understand and appreciate and look after your body rather than beauty advice! Out of interest, was there any useful advice, particularly on gynaecological issues, or was this it?

I also thought it would be much better advice than it turned out to be, and that there was so much beauty advice in there really annoyed me. Like you say, from the headline it should have contained really important information for women, from women, on our health and bodies.

I didn’t read the whole thing as I was called in part way through, but what I did read there was very little legitimate health advice from what I could see. Lots of beauty tips, with occasional nods to health issues (wear a moisturiser with sun block!) but not much of substance.

Lianne // Posted 29 November 2009 at 6:23 pm

That’s both shocking and unsurprising at the same time; the former because I’m always taken aback at how ludicrous various ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing claims in these types of magazines, and the latter because I then remember that they are and seem to always have been full of shite ironically designed to damage women’s autonomous self-image.

I really like the article’s and Anne’s analysis too, good job!

Pearl // Posted 30 November 2009 at 12:24 am

I have to agree with the doc on this one. I never had an orgasm until I got a clitoral vibrator. The men I had been with to that point, a couple of women too, must have learned how to make love from watching men’s pornos. After having an orgasm, possibly the doctor feels that a woman might become a little more demanding of her partner. And why not take it into bed with the pair of you? That way both partners are getting pleasure. Once a woman demands an orgasm from a man, the pressure is on again. He will not stop poking and prodding her until she convinces him she has had one. It would be nice to have a caring, loving male partner in the bedroom who would love to experiment but realistically, that’s not what society teaches men.

Women’s magazines are telling us how to please a man because we are still caught in the gender trap. It’s up to us to say, “Write an article that I can show a man that lets him know how to please me.”

I do disagree with the doctor differentiating foreplay from intercourse but by the way, many lesbians and heterosexual women do enjoy penetration and their ‘foreplay’ does culminate in intercourse with fingers or dildos or penises in the case of heterosexual women. It’s what the other hand or the mouth is doing that is important during penetration.

P.S. I like the flyer idea.

sianmarie // Posted 30 November 2009 at 12:12 pm

hi pippa

we did something similar in bristol the other weekend – slipping flyers into closer and bridal magazines, as these often print letters from readers worrying about their finaces are going to srtip clubs on stag dos. the mags tend to have a boys will be boys response, and we flyered the mags to say if you are uncomfortable with it, then you should talk to your partner about it and discuss these issues – not hide the head in the sand!

i completely agree, the messages that are given in these magaiznes are heteronormative and also so focussed on pleasing the man, whether from hiding your true feelings or ignoring issues in your relationships to keep him comfortable. grr!

zohra // Posted 30 November 2009 at 10:26 pm

Great post Philippa.

These magazine tips are so ridiculous sometimes, they parody themselves. I love that you’re sticking in alternative flyers – I would so love to see someone’s reaction. That could be a fun game: film people finding the flyer and then interview them after about their thoughts and reactions. Like ‘you’re on candid camera’, but for feminist media/pop culture subversion.

polly // Posted 30 November 2009 at 10:38 pm

My doctor’s surgery always has some real crap lying around, but the worst thing I ever came across was some kind of magazine that was obviously produced directly for doctor’s surgeries that was full of cosmetic surgery ads and ‘articles’ on cosmetic surgery. It was horrifying because it was basically packaged as health advice, when it was nothing of the sort.

coldharbour // Posted 1 December 2009 at 5:16 pm

“i completely agree, the messages that are given in these magaiznes are heteronormative and also so focussed on pleasing the man, whether from hiding your true feelings or ignoring issues in your relationships to keep him comfortable. grr!”

I think the problem with this statement is that it is assuming what “womans” magazines or the rest of the patriarchal media say men like and what individual men like is actually the same thing. Conforming to patriarchal stereotypes about what men like or do not like is not exactly becoming part of the solution. Young men in todays society are coerced by patriarchy into subjugating their feelings in order to feel like a ‘real man’ or to impress their male/female peers. Asking for a cuddle or talking about personal problems is far less socially acceptable than alcohol/drug abuse, self harming and male/male violence in many (predominantly poor working-class) environments for young adult males in the U.K. today. .

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds