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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.