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.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.