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Vile Bodies June 21, 2007

Posted by Winter in beauty myths, body politics, media.

Recently, ongoing group discussions about the representation of women in the media have turned their attention to women’s magazines. In this instance, I’m going to discuss our responses to the cheaper end of the market because the more expensive magazines do different things which need separate attention, although there is obviously crossover. I’m talking here about the kinds of magazines which line supermarket, chemist and newsagent shelves, and which are particularly concerned with celebrities: think Chat, Closer, Now, Heat, and at the slightly higher end of the market, Grazia, the kind of magazines mainly directed at working-class women, white collar office workers and teenaged girls.

The images in these magazines prompted a strong emotional response in the group and we tried to figure out what bothered us so much about what could be dismissed as a silly, inconsequential form of media. Working to a simple formula, what they do, for the most part, is judge the appearance of celebrities. They confront the reader with a barrage of images of women and tell her which ones are amusing, repulsive or sad, which will be most of them, and which ones are acceptable or to be applauded, the grounds for praise always being subject to seemingly arbitrary change.

They are very much about reiterating “the rules” of appearance for women (Edit: Or, rather, a certain group of women in rich western countries. I don’t want to imply that I think all women on the planet are held to the same beauty standards). Just a cursory glance at a few issues tells me the following. The women with whom the magaziens are concerned are expected to be obsessed with their weight. It’s bad to be too thin or apparently anorexic (naughty Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss), but other women are applauded for losing weight (well done Geri Halliwell) because it’s bad to be too fat. Of course what counts as “too thin” and “too fat” changes from page to page and depends on various factors, such as the celebrity in question’s popularity at this moment. Some women are applauded for being “curvy,” but this is almost always followed quickly by a story that they are now worried about their weight and considering a drastic diet or surgery (Charlotte Church is pregnant and “ballooning,” Lily Allen has gone from proud to considering plastic surgery for her size 12 body). Cue a little bit of sighing over the pressures on women, which comes across as rather dissonant in magazines devoted to maintaining those pressures. Appearing with any evidence of pregnancy on your body (naughty Mel B) is repulsive and losing your baby weight is an absolute imperative. Women who lose their baby weight quickly are applauded, as long as they don’t lose it “too fast” and appear “too thin.” Losing your baby weight quickly is obviously not possible for most women, being as most women don’t have access to elective c-sections, nannies and personal trainers. Appearing to be ageing (bad Kate Moss) or being photographed without makeup (bad any famous woman caught on camera while popping out for a pint of milk) is a big no. You are only allowed to appear without makeup if you’re someone designated the status of a “natural beauty,” whatever that is. Plastic surgery is deemed good or bad depending on whether the woman in question is considered acceptable and what she’s had done, but anyone who has the awful experience of plastic surgery going wrong will be roundly mocked. Sweating is horrid (naughty America Ferreira) as is appearing with any sign of body hair. Wearing the wrong clothes is bad, but again what counts as wrong changes from page to page and woman to woman. And so it goes on. You must not be too fat, too thin, look your age if older than 29 after which you must appear younger than whatever your age is supposed to look like; you must not sweat, have visible body hair, go out without makeup unless you are “naturally beautiful,” wear the wrong clothes, show any physical evidence of having had children, etc. Oh, and no matter how beautiful and sexy you are, he’ll probably leave you for someone else anyway.

Interestingly, the only women I found given almost unqualified approval were “real life” extremes, a woman who was still a size zero after having had 13 children and a woman who was still a size 12 with naturally “perky firm breasts” at the age of 55. Clearly these are not bodies your average working woman could aspire to.

The magazines also treated Beth Ditto and Amy Winehouse as alien life forms, women whose appearance is so far beyond acceptable that they’re offered as exceptions that prove the rule – freaks, basically.

Clearly, the content of the magazines has as much to do with the current state of capitalism and consumerism as it does sexism, for this media is largely about selling stuff to women. What’s interesting, from a feminist perspective, is how they use longstanding oppressive narratives about women to try and achieve this.

Probably the most important message here is not only that women should place most of their sense of self worth and esteem in their physical appearance but that, crucially, they must not be able to win in this respect. As Marilyn Frye writes in her essay “Oppression” that, “One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.” The women’s magazines illustrate one double bind, definitely not the worst or most importnat one by a long shot, but one that does cause a lot of misery. No matter how hard you try to follow the rules and embody the ideal in terms of physical appearance, you will never really succeed because the doorposts constantly shift and, no matter what you do, you will always be exposed to penalty and censure. The apparent contradictions are therefore essential to the narrative because it is essential that women must always be fair game for criticism if a state of female anxiety, despondency and intense self-scrutiny is to be produced.

Some might argue that these magazines are meant to be reassuring, letting women know that even Kate Moss can’t escape the ageing disease, but the fact that the images are surrounded by advertisements for diets, makeup and beauty products, suggests that they’re about undermining women’s confidence. After all, if Kate Moss is really a plain woman, what hope do you, 40 year old mother of three working in Marks and Spencer, have of ever being considered attractive by anyone? You’d better get shopping fast if you don’t want people to be sick at the very sight of you.

I think my own rather visceral reaction to these magazines comes from my feeling that they’re underlined by a palpable loathing of the female body put across through a stream of images which reiterate a sense that women’s bodies are, at best, deficient and, at worst, disgusting. Over and again they suggest that there is something deeply wrong about being a woman, something potentially horrible, which always threatens to make its appearance, no matter how good you think you look, this inherent repulsiveness always lurks beneath the surface. It is your job as a woman to try and prevent it from becoming visible.

Some members of the group put forward the suggestion that the women’s mags are as bad, if not worse, than the men’s magazines, a view which might inspire a collective sharp intake of breath, but this feeling may have its root in a sense that the women’s media is more insidious. Whereas lads’ mags have an obvious shouty “Hurrah for sexism, Yay for objectification, in your face feminism, In. Your. Face” tone, the women’s magazines have a sly “This is for your own good, this is what women are like, this is what women think” tone. Whereas lads’ mags present one type of woman as attractive, the women’s magazines seem to conclude that no woman is really attractive: all women are potentially, if not actually, disgusting. In any case, we generally agreed that you need to look at the women’s mags alongside men’s mags and that the women’s mags are objectifying in their presentation of women’s bodies as things to be judged.



1. Anonymous - June 24, 2007

I think it is more interesting to turn this around, and ask what the buyers of the magazines are freely choosing to buy with their money.

Presumably they get some idea of what the latest fashions are, or at least, what their friends are likely to regard as the latest fashions.

There is also the schadenfreude and reassurance in seeing other women considered to be beautiful in their less fortunate moments.

Doubtless there other things to be gained from such magazines (I am not a connoisseur), but certainly people get something worth the cover price.

I cannot help but think that the standard arguments about misogynistic propaganda etc both miss the point that such magazines are published to make money for the publishers, and treat the women who buy them with rather impressive contempt.

2. Winter - June 24, 2007


I cannot help but think that the standard arguments about misogynistic propaganda etc both miss the point that such magazines are published to make money for the publishers, and treat the women who buy them with rather impressive contempt.

Well, I wouldn’t define these magazines as “propaganda” because that would be giving them far too much significance and I don’t think we missed the point that they’re published to make money for the publishers.

We were careful in the discussion not to make assumptions about the audience because we know that there is a difference between what we think a media is trying to do and how an audience responds to it.

Yes, as it happens, I do think this kind of media conveys some messages about women that are misogynistic (and it was the underlying narrative that we were thinking about in the discussion), but I don’t assume that the audience simply accepts these messages passively – they might laugh at it, get pissed at it, just look in the magazines for fashion tips, or whatever.

If we worked to your argument, we wouldn’t be able to critique much at all, and I don’t agree because I certainly don’t experience someone criticising something I like as showing contempt for me personally. I am able to understand that people see different things in the media and what I might accept as harmless, someone else might see as positively dangerous because I can’t see it from their perspective. That’s not showing contempt towards me, that’s saying “look, I see this differently, because …” Actually, I think the idea that people can’t cope with having their likes critiqued is a little contemptuous.

3. Anonymous - June 25, 2007

Well, that’s the point though, the buyers don’t completely freely choose to buy these magazines with their own money.

They could have chosen to spend their money on a different magazine. Or on something other than a magazine. Or save the money and spend it on something else later.

So in what way are the buyers not free to buy, or not buy, those magazines?

4. Jackart - June 26, 2007

These Magazines disgust me too (I’m a man) but I think women buy them because Celebs are surrogate friends that everyone has and enable one to talk about mutual acquaintances with Maude from accounts over coffee.

Exactly the same motivation for Men talking about footballers and their girlfriends they read about in “Nuts”

They’re exploitative, sure, but no more so than bitchy gossip of village life. Heat and Closer are symptoms of the fragmentation and atomisation of society, not a phallocratic truncheon to keep women in their place.

5. Winter - June 26, 2007

Ok. Say a woman goes into a shop with less than a fiver to spend on a magazine, which I think we can assume will be the case for most women, I just don’t see how being confronted with a range of magazines which all basically say the same thing and which are all largely devoted to trying to sell her beauty and diet products can be interpreted as having a “free choice.”

She does have a choice, sure, but it’s an extremely limited one. If she had even a reasonable amount of choice, she would have to have alternative magazines available to buy, but unless you can give me an example of a widely available affordable magazine for women which says something different I remain unconvinced on that score. Our choices in terms of what we can consume are controlled by the corporations that produce the magazines and the advertisers who control much of the content.

I am not given an option to exercise a choice to buy a feminist magazine, for example, because there are no feminist magazines on the shelves in the UK, as far as I’m aware.

Yes I have a choice whether to buy the ones that are available or not, but that’s not a good thing because women should have more options available to them.

However, the points we were discussing at the meeting had little to do with the consumer choice issue, which is a whole other argument in itself, but were focussed on the way this kind of media rehashes longstanding narratives about women which we find problematic from a feminist perspective.

6. Anonymous - June 26, 2007

Ok. Say a woman goes into a shop with less than a fiver to spend on a magazine,

She does have a choice, sure, but it’s an extremely limited one. If she had even a reasonable amount of choice, she would have to have alternative magazines available to buy,

Our choices in terms of what we can consume are controlled by the corporations that produce the magazines and the advertisers who control much of the content.

I am not given an option to exercise a choice to buy a feminist magazine, for example, because there are no feminist magazines on the shelves in the UK, as far as I’m aware.

I don’t think the Economist is devoted to selling anyone beauty products, and it costs less than a fiver. Or the TV guide, Total Film, New Scientist etc. Most magazines are not specifically marketed to either sex, and can certainly be bought by either.

It is true that there is unlikely to be a feminist magazine eg. Subtext. Or a libertarian magazine eg. Reason. There are only a few dozen spaces at best on most magazine racks, and naturally they go to the best sellers. Any magazine offered for sale must be worth its area in shelf space.

So you do not have a choice of every magazine that is published. But you do have a free choice between every magazine on the rack – most of which are not about some actresses’ problems with cellulite – and between buying a magazine and not buying a magazine.

Not buying a magazine has the distinct advantage of not costing any money.

So if someone buys a copy of Closer we may conclude that they prefer having a magazine to having the money it cost to buy, and that they prefer Closer to anything else on the rack.

From this I conclude that they must find Closer more interesting than any other title on the rack, and that it is worth the cover price.

In the meantime, the publishers are compelled to publish only magazines that will sell, and the newsagents are compelled to stock only magazines that will sell well (in their area). So looking at their wares tells you more about their market than about anything else.

Bear in mind that womens magazines are about subjects that interest women and not men, and mens magazines are about subjects that interest men and not women. A magazine about topics of interest to everyone of either sex is a general interest magazine.

If you look for subjects that interest many, but only, members of one sex, you are likely to encounter the lowest common denominator pretty quickly.

7. Anonymous - June 27, 2007

I would not go as far as saying libertarian, but I was interested in a quote from Hayek “We are concerned in this book with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society.”

Also, ever been in a branch of Superdrug, which caters mostly to women? You won’t find New Scientist or the Economist there, only gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers,

True enough, but it occurs to me that the Economist is published by the same publisher as the Financial Times. They must get a much better reception in the corridors of power than those associated with Closer.

And yet Superdrug stocks Closer in preference to the Economist, FT, Times etc.

So what is the power of the publisher really worth, if they cannot get there own magazine displayed?

All the marketing and psychological knowledge of the publishers has not sold many copies of the Economist to the people who prefer Closer, despite the undoubted desire of its publishers to sell a copy to every person on Earth.

I’ll believe in the power of marketing when I see swarms of schoolgirls reading Chess Weekly, and children persuaded to eat their cabbage by TV ads.

For the moment: I do not think it takes much effort to persuade one young woman to pay attention to the appearance of another young woman.

If something is easy to sell, others must be eager to buy.

8. Anonymous - June 28, 2007

Actually, I infer that some women choose to spend a small fraction of their income on magazines about gossip about some other women.

I do not choose to believe anything as a feminist/ libertarian/ thatcherite/ Marxist/ whatever. People choose to do things for reasons that have nothing to do with my political alignments.

But they have pretty much rendered a lot of the rights women have earned a bit futile. We have (some of) the legal rights, but a lot of the companies that we buy stuff from are above the law, and what’s more they’re not so much marketing a product as an image and a lifestyle.

If we can trust women with a vote on the government of the country, I think we can trust them with the choice of what magazine to read.

After all, no company is as far above the law as the people who write that law.

9. Anonymous - June 29, 2007

However, when trying to be objective it’s a good idea to anounce what your point of view or bias might be right at the start, because it will have an effect on how you analyse a certain situation.

True enough, but if you say “As a member of group X, I believe Y”, without giving any other reason to believe Y, you are suggesting that the only reason you believe Y is that membership of group X influences you to.

Eg “As his mother, I believe that my son is innocent.” Almost everyone would conclude that the son is guilty.

To expand on The Obtuse Argument:

I have been told I am naive to believe that people can choose what magazine to buy because (as I understand the arguments)

a) The choice of magazines is controlled by the shopowner/ publishers

Then there’s the fact that they’re [magazines are – my note] specifically targeted to a certain market. This they do in very subtle, effective ways, that’s why they have marketing guys who know all about human psychology, so a lot of the decision is actually taken out of your hands.

My answer to a) was (however badly expressed) that most magazine racks offer many types of magazines. For downmarket women’s magazines to get any sales from these shops some people (presumably women) must prefer these magazines to any others on offer, despite the best efforts of the marketing departments of those rival magazines. They must also value the ownership of the magazine more than the money it costs to buy one.

b) seems to claim that in the face of modern marketing techniques, people (women at least, as we are taking about women’s magazines) lose control of there own decisions. People not in control of their own decisions can hardly be trusted with any significant decision, such as who should govern the country.

Then again, if Closer can persuade women to buy copies of its magazines, why can it not persuade men? Why can’t Playboy attract female readers? Why can’t the Economist attract more downmarket readers? And so on. I would say that they find it easier to persuade people to buy something they already want to possess. Which takes us back to my original point that the interesting question is: why do people (almost all young women) want to possess a copy of Closer?

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