How I became a lads' mag feminist

Lulu Le Vay used to physically balk at the sight of a young bloke flicking through the bosom-heavy pages of a lads’ mag. But once she started working for one, she became a lot less sure that these publications were as "degrading and harmful" as she had al

Gender equality pressure group UK Feminista are the key activists of the "lose the lads’ mags" campaign - the impact of which has resulted in a number of these publications being "modesty masked" in high street supermarkets. Some, however, have stood their ground. Nuts, Front and Zoo have been removed from the shelves of Co-op stores entirely, preferring to lose their spot than comply to media censorship. According to UK Feminista: "Lads’ mags promote sexist attitudes and behaviours. They normalise the idea that it’s acceptable to treat women like sex objects. These are degrading and harmful publications."

A year ago I would have agreed with this statement wholeheartedly. I physically balked at the sight of a young bloke flicking through the bosom-heavy pages of one particular lads’ mag on a bus or a plane. This was a magazine I detested from my core. I made a snap judgement and assumption about both the reader and the publication. I instantly placed that person and the magazine within a certain category - a category beneath the one I "believed" I was smugly sitting in. My belief in being perched high up on the snobby social mobility ladder protruded with as much pride as the cover stars' monumental assets. But what were these judgements based on, precisely? My perspective on lads’ mags has now completely changed, since I started working on one of them.

I have always been interested in girls' and women’s issues since I was a teenager. Being a 1970s child born last into a family dominated by older brothers (11 kids in total, spawned from two mothers), I had no option. I had first-hand experience of growing up within the dominant patriarchal society. At 10 years old I was demonstrating at Greenham Common with my mother - an ardent first-waver. Her passion for women’s rights was a big influence. My first degree back in the 1990s in Art History explored issues of the representation of women in arts and the media, and when I embarked on a Masters in Gender, Media and Culture last year, my interest and knowledge peaked. I became immersed in Feminist Theory and got to grips with semiotics, which has enabled me to pick apart media messages with a number of underpinning theories. I have now embarked on a PhD in Sociology focusing on the feminised social body and media effects in relation to trends in assisted conception. I can now - and do - call myself a feminist. I've earned - well, am earning - the academic stripes. 

So, with this in mind, it seems remarkable (if not unfathomable) to me that I’ve made such a U-turn on my venomous standpoint against this one specific publication, that was making my feminist blood boil. Much to my own surprise I was offered - and accepted - freelance work on this magazine as a subeditor: the person who proofreads the copy, conjures up hilarious picture captions (well, I try) and creates snappy headlines.

Over the last few months I’ve been brought down a peg or two. Why? Because through the nature of this work I have had to delve deep into the magazine content and read it, rather than simmering with sanctimony from afar. To my surprise the copy is clean - there are no swear words, and no derogatory language is directed toward the featured women. The tone is light, fun and friendly. Even working in the office I’ve found myself surrounded by a pleasant team of educated, happily married blokes who are simply doing their job, and doing it well. The sprinkling of girls working in editorial and advertising are also perfectly content. Interestingly, there are more girls doing work experience than boys, mostly coming from a media undergraduate background.

During my time on the "inside", thus far, there has been much discussion about the feminist campaign against them, and how they "treat women like sex objects". The arguments that have arisen are openly debated amongst colleagues, which has been impossible to ignore. Why should the covers of lads' mags be singled out and not the torso-glistening covers of gay magazines? Why is it acceptable to have a size zero model with her nipples out in a fashion title and not acceptable to have a size 12 or 14 curvy woman doing precisely the same thing in a lads' mag? (These women would be considered too fat for the emaciated requirements of fashion mags). So, this provokes some questions. Do different rules apply within differing class categories? Does an image of a naked woman hanging in an art gallery mean less objectification because of the more esoteric space, and because the audience is of a different socio-cultural background? These arguments are complex and there are no clear answers. But they are there, and should be openly considered.

Now, more informed, I’ve become far more broad-minded. However, I still have concerns with the representation of young women in these types of publications. My issue now is not so much about the actual magazines featuring them, but more so with the girls' desire to be featured. These magazines are inundated by young girls - models and regular girls - desperately wanting to make a nudey splash across the pages; clambering for affirmation of their value, for some kind of societal approval. Is it here the cycle needs to be broken? Or is it not their own choice - emancipation through objectification? Are we as a society simply being too uptight?

I am now wrestling emotionally and intellectually with these two worlds. One moment, in my personal study, I’m exploring ideas around women’s bodies being both subjects and objects of images, and how young women’s bodies "become" through relationships with images under dominant patriarchal codes, which could be related directly to the content I am working with at this particular lads’ mag. The next moment I am confirming my next subbing shift and discussing with the production editor what cake I should bring in so he can let me leave early to meet my supervisor.

The feminist within me is now not fully sure if these magazines are "degrading and harmful", after all. But what I am decided upon, is that one genre of publication should not be targeted, and that this objectification finger-pointing is a class issue as much as feminist issue.

If society disapproves of objectification of the subject, then cover them all up - only then would that be true equality.

Why should the covers of lads' mags be singled out and not the torso-glistening covers of gay magazines?

Lulu LeVay is a sociologist, feminist, writer, DJ and fitness fanatic.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.