The F-Word: Women’s Magazines


Women’s magazines. What a broad and far-reaching topic. My guests last night, FreshAir’s Head of News Elyse Jamieson and Edinburgh Labour Students Chair Anya O’Shea, did a fantastic job of talking through some of the reasons why these publications can be problematic for women in the 21st century, but I’ll be using these weekly blog posts to get across some of my own views on the issues raised in the previous night’s show.

My own relationship with women’s magazines is a complex one, and to be honest I’ve always struggled with feminists who direct their criticisms solely at these magazines – partly because I thought there were bigger battles to fight and partly because I still think that being a feminist by it’s very nature means I should be able to read whatever the hell I like, thank you very much. But I’ve grown older, and allegedly more mature, and I do find myself questioning the content of these magazines more and more as I stroke my chin and gaze out of the window, pondering the big questions…

Not really. But every now and again I’ll read something that will make me stop and think ‘what?’, and that’s exactly why I chose this topic for the very first episode of the F-Word.

I remember being 12 and tricking my dad into letting me buy Sugar magazine by telling him that my mum said it was okay (I think she’d want it on record that she definitely didn’t). I’ll never forget the front page of that magazine, now out of print but at this time aimed at 14-18 year olds – “I WAS FORCED INTO PROSTITUTION BY MY OWN BOYFRIEND”, next to a picture of a 15 year-old child primped and preened into a glossy cover girl, smiling and flashing her sparkly lipgloss underneath the horrific headline. I had to ask my dad what prostitution meant, and after much umm-ing and aah-ing, he diplomatically explained that it was “when a person sold their body”. Aged 12, this conjured up terrifying images of people chopping off arms and legs, trading kidneys and browsing through potential new eye colours, but I accepted his definition with a nod and never asked again. I tell this story to illustrate the ease of access that pre-pubescent girls have to this type of content and that, even worse, it’s actually targetted at them in the first place. That’s scary, and I haven’t even touched on the issues of body image, sex, or the reinforcing of institutional sexism through these magazines. There isn’t time here to go into all that but, basically, IT’S BAD. And this little anecdote shows just how early women are introduced to this potentially very damaging world of female media, and how it’s very possible that we consume without even realising the often horrific implications of what we’re reading on our own identity and sense-of-self.

Fast-forward 5 or 6 years in the life of a woman, and you find her confronted by an array of glossy magazines promising to make her sexier, better in bed, fitter, healthier, sparklier and “more glowing” – notably never just happier or ‘actually not anything -er because I’m quite happy the way I am, thanks’. My main problem with these magazines – and it’s a big one – is that these attempts to actively promote female empowerment are done in such a way that they manage to simultaneously be blatantly sexist. Quite the feat, really.

Take More magazine. During this summer’s Olympics, they did the honourable thing and dedicated a 4 page spread to some of Team GB’s ‘golden girls’. Great, you might think – but don’t celebrate just yet, because the feature title read: “Behind every golden girl is a great man supporting her”.


This title, emblazoned above pictures of Jessica Ennis hugging her fiancee and Victoria Pendleton on a romantic stroll in the park, does nothing for women’s liberation. I’d go as far as to say that it’s detrimental to the cause. Where are the pictures of Ennis willing herself through the final lap with determination in her eyes? Where is Pendleton on the podium, celebrating the reward for years of hard work and dedication? According to More, these women are not interesting until OMG! They totes have this season’s latest accessory; a super-hot, protective and strong boyfriend. SO. CUTE.

I didn’t think it was possible for sexism to be any less palatable, but if it is then it must be when packaged in a way that claims to be celebrating women. It’s sexism alright, but its coated in sugar, flowers and sequins – because otherwise it wouldn’t be inkeeping with the latest SS12 fashion week collections. Obviously.

Cosmopolitan is even more explicit in this sense, actively promoting a campaign – incidentally also called the F-Word – to celebrate the use of the word ‘feminism’ and encourage women to identify themselves accordingly.

But wait a minute. Isn’t this the same magazine that runs a regular feature called ‘Men vs Fashion’, asking a panel of (inevitably white, twenty-something and suitably attractive) men to discuss the outfits of female celebrities, many of whom feature in pictures that were taken while they nipped to Tesco for toilet roll, or took their children to school? These women are definitely not dressing for men, and the suggestion that they are – or that they ever should – is explicitly offensive. Coupled with Cosmo’s ‘Men On…’ column, fascination with “please your man” sex tips and their current ‘Bag A Boy’ article – “Why can’t you seem to get a boyfriend? Could you be coming across as desperate? Here’s how to get that ‘I need you’ tattoo permanently removed from your forehead” – there seems to be some decidedly mixed messages going on.

This topic is far too big and broad for me to ever be able to get all my thoughts across, which is a shame. But that also says something in itself – the influence of these numerous magazines shouldn’t be underestimated, and nor should their complex relationship with the contemporary young women they are targetting. I’m not adverse to gender-exclusive magazines and I like the idea of an empowered female community of readers – I’m just not convinced that it’s possible right now, with magazines being as they are; all feminist and proud one minute, all “male writer Joe Mott talks about the biggest mistakes girls can make when they’re out on the pull” the next. It seems to me that the female magazine industry is in the midst of an identity crisis. Poor them. But I’d feel a lot sorrier if they weren’t leaving large percentages of young women in the same position as a result. 

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