We're not anti women's magazines. We're anti magazines that are anti woman. Photo: Getty
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The Vagenda: why we must fight back against media that is sexist and degrading to women

Seeing plastic surgery ads nestled up next to body confidence features was the final straw. We had to do something.

There is one particular instance of magazine idiocy that always crops up when we’re asked about our media satire blog, The Vagenda. To us, it perfectly encapsulates why we wanted to bite back at the magazines that had been a major part of our lives for so long, and scrutinise just how far they’d been allowed to go.

It was a double-page spread in Cosmopolitan, with one side dedicated to a feature on body confidence. “Love yourself the way you are” was the message, explaining to its readership that building up your self-esteem and concentrating on accepting your own, natural body and face was far more important and rewarding than vainly pursuing beauty treatments or diet stresses in the hope that you will suddenly morph into the identical twin of a Glamour cover girl. It was a seemingly positive piece. But then, on the opposite page, juxtaposed with this supposedly sincere message of love and acceptance, was a full-page ad for a Harley Street plastic surgery clinic, illustrated perfectly by a woman holding up a sign that said: “I’ve just had my breasts done, but the biggest change you’ll see is on my face.”

For us, this was the last straw. Seeing plastic surgery ads nestled up with body confidence features, where both used the theme of inner confidence to peddle contradictory things, made us realise that women’s magazines had gone unquestioned, unexamined, and free from mockery for far too long. The airbrushing, the routine Photoshopping, the lack of diversity of the models, the plastic surgery normalisation and the “circles of shame” that picked out the perceived flaws of female celebrities were getting too rampant to ignore. Every other page it seemed that some woman was being fat-shamed, or judged a revolting slut or an uptight prude, or being portrayed as a crazed, over-emotional harridan. These were the female archetypes being paraded before us over and over, in a media that was supposedly created especially for us, and often by us as women – with all the presumed authority that that carries with it. Enough was enough. This relentless stereotyping was not a justifiable trade-off for a few pages of good fashion photography. And it still isn’t.

We launched the blog because we felt that, for far too long, women’s magazines had been getting away with making us feel bad about ourselves, and we knew that we couldn’t be the only ones who were feeling this way. It turns out that we weren’t. Mainstream media had failed to cater to swathes of dissatisfied young women, particularly those who had grown up in the feminist vacuum that was the 1990s, with all its rampant consumerism. This general feeling of dissatisfaction with the way women were being portrayed in the media is partly the reason why the blog was so successful, and why it has now been turned into a book: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to The Media.

When we started The Vagenda, we didn’t know exactly where it was headed. We had never visited the school where the female pupils would tell us about the boys-only debating society, “because girls aren’t intellectuals”, or the rape jokes their male friends made in between classes. We had never met the young man who stutteringly told us after one talk that we’d made him feel less alone as a non-masculine teen in a heavily gendered society. We didn’t know that when we walked into universities and schools and sixth forms and conferences, we would meet so many girls and women hostile to the idea of having their Cosmopolitan subscriptions wrenched out of their hands, but who would then start openly admitting how insecure they felt when they flicked through page after page of tall, thin, white, straight women who ate power salads and had thigh gaps. The message was clear: almost every mainstream publication aimed at women was unrepresentative, patronising and disappointing, and they were having a dangerous effect on the body image, not to mention the ambitions, of the next generation.

Nobody we spoke to about the insidious effects of women’s magazines wanted to be told they weren’t allowed a “light read”, and that has never been our message. Like us, they liked the idea of magazines specifically tailored to women, with interesting fashion and beauty features amongst other editorial. They just didn’t want all of that to come with a hefty dose of back-handed compliments, often driven by advertisers who make a fast buck out of creating insecurities and inventing unnecessary solutions to ridiculous problems (such as the plastic-sanitary-pad-like SmoothGroove, a “remarkable solution to camel-toe”.)

Though The Vagenda has received extensive coverage, vocally criticising the women’s magazine industry has not been an easy ride, and the media has not always been receptive. Perhaps it is because those who are already comfortably ensconced within a narrative are just not that interested in challenging the assumptions that potentially contradict it. Or perhaps it is because an older generation of journalists don’t quite realise just how absent feminism’s challenging of stereotypical gender roles has been from the lives of the younger generation. They think they’ve seen it all before. But the media bubble is a long way away from a “Freshers Violation” nightclub, or a classroom full of exhausted, malnourished girls on a juice diet, or a daily grope on the school bus. We grew up with MTV and Eurotrash and internet chatrooms and the Special K diet. Now, our little sisters are growing up with sexting and internet porn and 5:2 fasting.

The Vagenda book humorously and rudely makes a case for urgent intervention, a case that we know our readers believe in. From the young woman who told us that our blog made her realise that it’s OK to be herself, to the woman in her fifties who said her mum was too busy being arrested on Greenham Common to realise that her daughter was obsessed with make-up and boys, we know that you care, because you have told us. It’s a long, uphill struggle, but we know that out there are thousands of you out there who know in your hearts that being a woman is about more than looking good in French knickers, and that is what our book is about. It’s about looking all the bullshit in the face and laughing at it, in the hope that, one day, things will be better for all of us.

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

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.