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.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad