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"Feminists do the best Photoshop": the independent women's magazines getting it right

As <em>Bust</em> magazine celebrates its 20th birthday, Anna Carey writes in praise of the women's magazines that avoid the diets and the circle of shame in favour of stuff women might actually be interested in, like swearing and graphic novels and femini

Tina Fey's "Bust" magazine cover from 2004. She wrote in her memoir that "feminists do the best Photoshop".

The first time I saw an issue of Bust, back in 1998, I thought it was too good to be true. The cover showed Jon Spencer, frontman of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and his equally cool wife Christina Martinez of Boss Hogg, and the cover line read “This is girls on sex. Any questions?” The magazine’s tagline was “For women with something to get off their chests”, and it was aimed at young women who loved indie music and feminism and charity shop dresses, who had grown up with zines as well as Just Seventeen. It was, in fact, aimed at people like me, and I loved it.

This week, Bust will celebrate its 20th birthday with a party attended by former cover stars Kathleen Hanna and Gloria Steinem. The magazine’s survival is particularly impressive given that back in 2001 it was briefly bought by a publishing company that then went, well, bust. But co-founders Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel bought back the title, and now release six issues of Bust every year. Everyone from Mindy Kaling and Beth Ditto to Helen Mirren and Missy Elliott has graced its cover; Tina Fey did so in 2004 and wrote about the shoot in her memoir Bossypants, saying “feminists do the best Photoshop”.  

But perhaps what’s most surprising in an age where we’re constantly being told print is dead is that Bust is not alone. In fact, the last few years have seen the emergence of several new independent women’s magazines, from the dreamy Oh, Comely and the elegant, grown-up Libertine to the fresh, funny Frankie. These aren’t lo-fi zines; they’re all beautifully designed and produced on high quality paper. They’re not trying to be hugely political or radical, and they follow the classic women’s magazine template; they have fashion spreads and features on new products. They just assume women are interested in reading about stuff like swearing and graphic novels and feminism and space travel.

Recently on this very site Rhiannon and Holly wrote about their ideal women’s magazine, and in many ways these titles fulfill their requirements. They’re not perfect, of course. Most of them are quite white, straight and middle class (although Bust has always showcased a comparatively wide range of ages, sexualities, body types and ethnicities). And Oh Comely and Frankie can tend towards the twee, which is fine by me but which some may find off-putting.

But they’re all smart and imaginative, and they don’t lecture or berate their readers. Oh Comely’s motto is “Keep your curiosity sacred”, and the latest issue includes pieces on both pregnancy and Mogwai. The beautiful first issue of Libertine had a “space and science” theme; the second issue’s theme was history. Recent Frankie features include a history of big hair and a homage to female anger; the latter’s author writes, “Maybe I’d be smiling more if I didn’t live in a world where even the action of my facial muscles is supposed to be pleasingly bland and non-threatening. Didn’t think of that, did you, weird old dude at the fruit market!”

I cherish these titles. It’s not that I don’t love internet publications – I’ve been writing stuff online since the nineties. But magazines are special, which is why people keep starting them. Nothing beats the tactile and aesthetic pleasure they inspire, and I love that, unlike a website, each issue is self-contained, an individual parcel full of potentially interesting and beautiful things. I love the whole idea of magazines. I just want them to be, you know, good. I want to feel like they’re written for women like me.

On the rare occasions when that happens, I fall in love. It happened a few times in my teens and early twenties, when I was besotted by the groundbreaking American teenage mag Sassy, hilarious British glossy Minx and, before it descended into self-referential smugness, former Sassy editor Jane Pratt’s women’s magazine Jane. I’m 37 now, and I’ll probably never feel as strongly about magazines as I did back then.

But I look forward to every issue of these new ladymags. They not only give me something lovely to look at, they entertain and inform me. They may inspire me to spend money, but it’s more likely to be on the books and music recommended in Bust’s extensive review pages than on clothes or make-up. Unlike some mainstream women’s publications, these magazines don’t make me dissatisfied or irritated. They make me want to make more and read more and do more. They make me happy. I hope they all last for another twenty years.

Now read about the ideal women's magazine, as imagined by Rhiannon and Holly