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.

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue