Women's magazines: exposing their vagenda

You’re no body if nobody loves you, say Rhiannon and Holly from The Vagenda in their first blog for

A vagenda is a woman with an agenda, or specifically a vagina with an agenda. Today’s media is full of them. Unfortunately, more often than not, these vagendas are not your friend - particularly in the context of women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines, which, quite frankly, have come to constitute one of the most underhanded instances of woman-on-woman crime. Fact is: Vogue has a vagenda, Cosmo has a vagenda, and even American teen mag Seventeen has a vagenda - and the vibe in there is not friendly.

Last week saw the meeting of two very different worlds: those of America’s Next Top Model presenter and Seventeen editor-in-chief Ann Shoket, and 14 year old body image campaigner Julia Bluhm. What was Julia’s beef with Seventeen? Namely that a publication targeted at teenage girls – who, by their very nature, are going through the hormonal shitstorm that is puberty, with all the insecurities that come with it – is touting an airbrushed version of physically impossible so-called perfection. Her petition against airbrushed images garnered an encouraging 30,000 signatures in the same week that Vogue editors worldwide agreed not to hire models with unhealthy BMIs. That’s progress, right?

Unfortunately, Seventeen’s response was the equivalent of a nursery school teacher patting a problem child on the head and calling their latest crimson finger-painting a masterpiece of incredible cultural significance. "We're proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue – it's exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers," simpered what we presume to have been the intern, since she was the only person taking calls. "They had a great discussion, and we believe that Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that's how we present them."

What did they do to Julia during her time at Seventeen? To invoke Godwin’s Law, she came out of her meeting with the editor exhibiting a winning combination of optimism and total lack of guarantees, much akin to Neville Chamberlain’s famed "peace in our time" fandango. One pictures a totalitarian "re-education" process in which Julia was forced to watch incessant footage of chirpy cheerleaders in hotpants on treadmills, interspersed with subliminal advertising for the "cherry lip-gloss diet" and periodic snide remarks about her thigh gap (or lack thereof). What Julia has done was truly admirable, but why do we still believe that Seventeen’s thong-clad vagenda is sitting tight? Their inability to commit to one single image free from digital enhancement per issue shouts louder than an America’s Next Top Model contestant faced with the inevitable haircut.

The fact is that women’s magazines nowadays constitute a minefield of body fascism. When you flick through one ("read" is probably too strong a word for the image-and-Tweetspeak-heavy content on offer), you’re always dodging another insecurity explosion. Whether it’s Rihanna’s 25-minute underwear workout (yes, it’s a real thing) or snake venom infused lip-gloss, the underlying message throughout is that you are your body, and your body isn’t good enough.

There has been scant analysis of the effects of women’s magazines outside of the fashion arena. While the "size zero" debate provoked an ironically hefty amount of media attention, the written content of the magazines themselves has attracted less ire. Luckily, we have enough for everyone – and since we launched our blog, The Vagenda, women’s magazines have become our bête noir. Too often the focus has been on men - on page three and lads’ mags - when in fact the women’s magazine market could be seen as equally, if not more, damaging. This is why the term "patriarchy", with all its strictly masculine implications, just doesn’t cover it anymore.

What makes it difficult to be a woman nowadays is a complicated issue, but it starts at thirteen with your first encounter of "love your body, but try this diet." By the time you’re 23, you’re lucky if you’re not lying face-down next to a teetering avalanche of "it" bags, examining your cankles in suicidal horror. While magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour may preach body confidence in their saccharine features, such cloying words of reassurance fall on deaf ears when juxtaposed with Photoshopped hotties and plastic surgery advertorial that includes such outlandish proclamations as "I hated every kilo on my body."  

Photoshop, and Photoshopped images, are now so normalised that we barely register when we are confronted with skin so poreless that it has the silky texture of the Ambrosia custard that "100 ways to please your man" suggests you should be spreading on your boyfriend’s throbbing member. Alongside the obvious, an undeniably sad consequence of this is the rampant neglect of Photoshop’s untapped potential. Being as it is an immensely potent piece of software, it’s disappointing that it’s being used to skinnify limbs rather than to superimpose wings, unicorn horns or mermaid tails onto its unsuspecting victims. The women we see within these pages - their perky tits, their tiny waists, and their elongated limbs - are just as mythological as the hybrids we’ve imagined.

Women inhabit a different world to men a lot of the time, and it’s not because you’re from Mars and we’re from Venus. It’s a world largely foisted upon us by aggressive media tactics, and not one that will be transformed by token gestures such as Cosmopolitan’s F Word campaign, coming as it does wrapped in a fluffy pink bunny tail. A campaign whose central question is "do feminists vajazzle?" is not one that will make our friends, our sisters and our daughters feel any less alienated from the real world that men are privy to all the time, where things happen that don’t revolve around the latest seaweed diet and the newest chemical injection for your crow’s feet. The time we spend worrying about this is time we could be spending becoming equally regarded members of society: it is time lost. So while Julia’s campaign and Vogue’s declarations are to be welcomed, we need a fully mobilised movement to tackle these magazines’ vagendas to the ground and realise that by buying in to these ideals, we may well be selling ourselves short.

Shay Mitchell signs her Seventeen magazine front cover. New Jersey, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland