Here's what the perfect women's magazine would look like

Let's have less Photoshopping, less of the "circle of shame" and less of the ridiculous sex tips, and more of what women might actually want to read about: practical life advice, clothes a human-shaped person can wear and - heaven forbid - <em>books</em>.

In this world of "Celebrity breakdowns gone wild: side-boob edition", "Make-up tips for the birth of the royal baby", and "Is guacamole making you fat and infertile?", it’s not hard to have gripes with the institution that is The Women’s Magazine. You only have to lazily scan a news stand in any local supermarket to see that the content in publications in the "Women’s Lifestyle" section is lacking. This celeb is too fat; this one has a diet you can follow; this one’s biological clock is ticking; this one is doing an interview on how motherhood and the workplace are incompatible. As we currently make a living from slagging off the most insidious examples from these Conde Nasties and National Magazine meanies, attempting to defend ourselves and womankind from guacamole-induced anxiety and side-boob panic with a semblance of satire. Which is all very well, our critics cry, but what would our ideal magazine look like? Well, here are our recommendations:

  • Every model would have her own limbs. Nary a tacked on, Photoshopped leg nor a slimmed down waist would marr the pages.
     
  • The diversity of the models’ ethnicities and body types would directly reflect that of the general population. Being a size 14 would not be treated as some kind of freaky health condition whose only possible treatment is a wrap-dress, and the fashion spreads would cease to look like a brochure for a summer camp for Aryan teenagers. Healthy BMIs only. No under sixteens.
     
  • No cosmetic surgery advertorial. Especially not positioned next to features on "body confidence".
     
  • Cover interviews with interesting women who have done fabulous things, none of whom employ the terms "down to earth", "normal", or "just like you". No picking over of their diets and exercise regimes. No PR puff. Instead, questions would cover a wide range of topics, ranging from "what’s your horrible terrible?" and "how do you think Obama’s doing?" to "if you could live inside a painting like the little girl in Roald Dahl’s The Witches does, which painting would it be?"
     
  • Since many of us do have a secret interest in why Kanye called his baby North West or whether or not Boris Johnson and Eminem share a hairdresser, the celebrity section would remain. Only this time, there aren’t any sneaky photographs taken by photographers hiding in the bushes and judging women’s baby weight or headlines proclaiming their imminent breakdowns - "Rihanna looks painfully thin and probably broken inside as she wanders desolately along the Hollywood Boulevard with a heartbreak-flavoured ice cream, thinking of Chris" - will be absent. Tired gender stereotyping will be done away with entirely.
     
  • In place of where the latest woman would be held up as a tragic spinster or hysterical diva, editors will be encouraged to be far more creative. "Megan Fox emerges from a local bar, looking for all the world like she’s had an exhaustive argument about the Israel-Palestine conflict and eventually ducked out because she was getting shouted over by some bigot who didn’t even know anything about West Bank settlements", as an example. "50 Cent is spotted hand-in-hand with a twentysomething woman: could this be the handshake marking a new technological business deal in nearby Silicon Valley? More news on her possible profession inside", as another.
     
  • The Fashion Section. Wheeling out the same old Topshop jeans to illustrate "What To Wear" would be replaced with something a little more inspiring, such as artistic fashion photography and an encouragement to experiment with style. If you like those embroidered knee warmers, then you should go ahead and wear them without judgement.
     
  • There would be a moratorium on using "the circle of shame" to point out where celebrities went wrong with their red carpet dresses. The perfect fashion section would be a nurturing environment from which the readership could emerge, bright-eyed and unafraid, to toddle out onto the high street and buy whatever the hell they want. No more tears in the changing room because Cosmo said you couldn’t do disco knickers.
     
  • Why not show us what women across the world are wearing? We’re a nosy bunch, but most of us know that the women in current so-called "street style" sections in magazines are not only school friends of the features ed but are also styled and preened to within an inch of their lives. What we’d really like to see is Anna from Norway’s amazing hangover grocery shopping outfit, and how she has successfully merged the steam punk aesthetic with silky pyjama bottoms and a beanie. Also: no fascinators.
     
  • Oh, and stop telling us "this dress will change your life".
     
  • There would be no further attempt to correlate the female body type with that of a fruit or root vegetable. We are not an apple, a pear, or a butternut squash, and, being adult women, most of us know how to dress ourselves.
     
  • Oh, and we couldn’t give a shit what’s in your beach bag.
     
  • There would be a ban the phrases "OMG", "totes", and "amazeballs", and a shift towards the use of plain English. Hashtags would remain the preserve of Twitter, and portmanteau phrases such as "babymoon", "momtrepreneur" and "yestergay" would be consigned to the dustbin.
     
  • The female columnists would write hilarious, clever pieces on a wide range of issues. We’ve got to a point now where there’s nothing to be said about multi-dating, and referring to your partner as "the boy" when you’re in your mid-thirties and peppering your copy with "lolz" just begins to look as though you’re desperately trying to be down with the kids. Can we get some new blood please? Preferably someone with an interesting life.
     
  • Make-up. Yeah, we like it, but it doesn’t merit the 60 or so pages that are currently given over to it, especially as we’re onto you fuckers and we know that much of it is much of a muchness. Why not replace it with usefull stuff, a la Rookie Mag, such as how to buy a used car or make your own lipbalm, or a story about losing your virginity? Or even, y’know, women’s issues or politics?
     
  • Please, stop reminding us about our ovaries having a sell-by-date. Believe us, we know.
     
  • Accept that we are never going to be as obsessed with scatter cushions as you are. Bear in mind that the "fuck it" generation are only just coming of age. Home decoration tips for the impoverished, please.
     
  • Tell us not that mayonnaise is "sinful". It is a condiment made almost entirely from egg yolks, we never assumed it was healthy. We’d like to see fridge raiders features, in which dieticians berate B-list celebrities for the food they eat, replaced by a "Woman v Food" challenge. Holly Willoughby has a god-awful hangover- can she rustle up a cure from the contents of her cupboard? And will it all fit in her mouth at once?
     
  • Health. At present, magazines are failing to cover the full spectrum of all the things that can go wrong with your vagina. They have the twin pillars of cystitis and thrush pretty much down, but we’re talking rarer shit, like vestibulitis and syphilis. It’s good to share, and it’s good to be aware.
     
  • The sex tips would immediately become more female-focused - no more "Slap on a PVC G-string and gyrate around a £200 pole until your boyfriend feels up to it", and no more pretending that getting your boyfriend to test spaghetti sauce by licking it off your breasts is conducive to good sex or good cooking. The "U-spot", "T-spot", "VV-spot", and all the other imaginary "spots" that have been made up by desperate editors will be replaced by a more sensible and fruitful focus on the clitoris. Oh, and no more orgasm-shaming. Reading another feature called "The 45 orgasms you must totally have NOW otherwise you’re a loser" will pretty much kill our will to live.
     
  • Books. We read them. And not just books by women with names like Felicity Meadows and that tell the tale of a small-town girl who moves to the big city only to discover that her boyfriend is a tool.
     
  • If you could mention a woman in print without putting her height and weight next to her name in brackets, then that would be awesome, ta.
     

Got more ideas for the perfect women's magazine? Let us know in the comments, or tell us on Twitter via @VagendaMagazine or @NewStatesman

Down with this sort of thing. Photograph: Jessica Mullen on Flickr via Creative Commons

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

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA