Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter of the Vagenda Magazine

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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.

The choice on offer in the newsagent's. Photo: Getty
We're not anti women's magazines. We're anti magazines that are anti woman. Photo: Getty

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.