First let me preface this post with the admission that I used to be a complete magazine junkie. Since my grandma used to send me Fast Forward in the post when I was younger I have devoured magazines. I worked in a newsagents for  a couple of years when I was younger too which gave me even greater access to all the latest magazines, Mizz, More, J17, 19, Cosmo, Company, Elle, Eve, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Easy Living, Red. I’ve dabbled in them all. I’d even occasionally be tempted by Woman and Home, but that just made me feel really old. And yes, I am ashamed to admit my habit stretched to Heat, Closer, and other gratuitous tabloid type magazines. Mine and DH’s favourite pre-children weekend activity was to go to the newsagents and pick up stacks of weekend papers and magazines and spend the weekend lazing around reading them.

But even at the height of my addiction the gorging of the magazines would inevitably be followed by that slightly nauseous feeling. I’d keep ploughing through, even when I’d had my fill, like being at an all-you-can-eat restaurant where you are so full, but you want to get your money’s worth so you plough through yet another plate of noodles and stir fry chicken. Somehow though, I managed to break the habit. I’m not sure which came first, finances or children, but I realised that I wasn’t getting anything out out of the magazines. I was reading the same old articles, sometimes even seeing the same pictures, and spending a small fortune. I also found as I got more into reading Mumsnet and blogs I didn’t need magazines. Online I get beauty tips, real fashion ideas, I learned about other people’s families and careers. I get news and opinions, humour and reality. Most of all I get community and interaction.

This weekend I succumbed to the draw of the magazine again. However this time my motives were more mercenary. Inspired by a thread on Mumsnet I checked out the glossy mags for the freebies and picked up Marie Claire: £3.70 with a free full sized Neal’s Yard Remedies Rose Moisturiser; and Glamour: £2 with a free 100ml tube of Percy and Reed Hair Mask. I thought I’d have a flick, for old time’s sake. As I flicked I got more and more frustrated and cross, and after firing off a couple of indignant Tweets that were duly ignored I thought I would distil my grievances into a blog post.

So I flicked. And I flicked. And I flicked and I flicked. And 38 pages of adverts and publishing credits later I got to my first page of content in Marie Claire: Best High St Buys, some lovely looking women in some seriously unflattering and disgusting outfits. 6 pages of more ads and there is a page on the Marie Claire Runway Launch Party, a new magazine that Marie Claire is launching. Because that’s what we need, more trees felled for a vacuous, narcissistic, masochistic, misogynistic industry. Another 6 pages and it’s the letters page. Surprisingly none of the letters are asking why the reader bothered to fork out money on this crap. More adverts and women in ridiculous outfits, then there is the spread on the 1950’s housewife look. The geometric prints and tailored styles are gorgeous actually, but the spread shows the model in various poses, alone by the pool, alone drinking cocktails, alone sitting in various retro chairs. I don’t know if the model is a good actress but she is certainly pulling off that lonely housewife look; a woman who’s only occupation in life was to bear children and have dinner on the table. Maybe modelling is also a lonely business.

Picture courtesy of Anne Taintor

The 1950s is fairly unique in that it is the only era that is ever used to qualify the word housewife. I think that is because the 1950s epitomises housewifeliness. The decades before were marred by World Wars, and few people’s sole job was to look after the home. Women took in evacuees, they worked the fields and the factories. Before the wars the rich women had servants to do housewifely work like cleaning and cooking and looking after the children, while poorer housewives were literally on their hands and knees scrubbing, mangling, cooking, growing veg, while older siblings tended to the younger ones. This vision of the housewife is not nearly quite as romantic and involves fewer cute outfits than the 1950s, and almost no pastel cake stands. The 1950s saw the rise of domestic appliances, which in theory saved the time of housewives and saved them from manual labour, but in reality just raised standards and in fact barely dented the time spent on housework.

But enough talk of frivolities, back to the serious topic of Marie Claire, where on page 167 Christian Louboutin tells us the 10 shoes every woman should have in her wardrobe. He “knows best” apparently. In case you were uninformed as I was, some of the shoes you must own  include a high heeled peep-toe nude shoe, an evening boot (which presumably can’t double as the Classic Boot at no.8, or the ankle boot at no.9), and finally at no.10 The Uber Heel. For this shoe Mr Louboutin recommends one of his own which stands at a towering 16cm. It shows toe cleavage, which is supposed to remind people (I assume by “people” he means men) of the boob cleavage and the arse cleavage. Now his shoe – the Daffodil it is called – is perfect, not because of the toe cleavage but because if you are bored “you can stare deeply into the crystals for hours!” Yes, that is really what it [he] said. Put down your Proust girls, stop bothering your pretty head about world affairs, or coming up with ideas for female domination; stare at the shiny, shiny shoes instead.

Look girls - shiny shoes - ahhhh!

Now there are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to start. Don’t get me wrong, I love shoes, tall ones, shiny ones, comfy ones, red ones, classic Mary Janes, and a good ol’ ballet pump. But I resent being told what shoes I and all women should be wearing by a man, and a man with an agenda at that. Of course he’s telling women they absolutely must have three different types of boot as a minimum, he bloody sells them for a living! But the real kick in the fanjo for me is that he is telling me I am not a true woman without 16cm heel. You know, no-one is telling men they need to risk their necks, backs, bunions and basically torture their feet into submission all for a bit of toe cleavage! Marie Claire, you are facilitating this misogynistic bollocks.

Now, let’s have a look at the adverts in this magazine. Obviously there is the plethora of designer brands flogging ugly, over priced clothes, and perfume. I don’t understand this craze of scrubbing away our natural smells which aid in bonding with our partners and children, and replacing them with synthetic copies of natural smells. Oh, and in case you were in any doubt that you smell, lady, there is an advert for breath freshener. My hair, the adverts tell me, is either too straight, or not straight enough. But it is ok, I can buy various products to counter whichever aspect at being a woman my hair is failing at. I am also reminded that my skin should be soft and wrinkle free. There are also products for this that I must buy.

But the real gems are the adverts for various cleaning products in this magazine; dishwasher tablets, washing detergent, fabric softener. A gentle reminder, women, not to neglect your domestic duties. But, don’t worry, I’m sure your husbands are being subjected to similar adverts as they flick through GQ and Men’s Health magazines.

What did I expect, you could ask me? Well, perhaps not much given that the Executive Director and Deputy Director of Marie Claire International are both men. But this is the 21st Century and I expect a little bit more than this. I’m not the only one. There is a whole marvellous blog called Glossed Over which highlights the crap spewing from these magazines.

When not angrily reading these magazines this weekend, I have also been reading a book I picked up in a charity shop yesterday called Strong Minded Women & Other Lost Voices from 19th Century England, an anthology of writings, by both men and women, from the 19th Century. I am barely a few pages in, but the first chapter is devoted to Woman’s Mission. One writer, Sarah Lewis, who wrote a book called Woman’s Mission, puts forward her argument thus: men are clearly inferior to women. They cannot keep their tempers, they are profligate and they are selfish. It is a failing in their education. It is our job as Good Women to quietly influence our husbands and sons. We are morally superior to men, even if we cannot equal them in social and political status. So we must quietly, and selflessly do God’s bidding; influencing the men, though we must be sure not to do it a way that they will notice.

Harriet Taylor Mill, in The Emancipation of Women, vociferously repudiates this view, stating that it very much suits men for women to be mere appendages to men. “It is agreeable to them that men should live for their own sake, women for the sake of men; and the qualities and conduct in subjects which are agreeable to rules, they succeed for a long time in making the subjects themselves consider as their appropriate virtues…” Lewis’s pro-female but anti-feminist stance just did the men’s work for them. Yes, we know we are better than men, so let us just suffer in silence in a goodly way, which makes us even more selfless and morally superior.

And yet nearly 200 years on from Lewis’s work we are still doing men’s work for them in repressing ourselves and creating virtuous, smooth, wrinkle-free, uber heeled women who believe they are better than men but are powerless to do anything about it. And while a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, or a young vulnerable teenager may be powerless, YOU MARIE CLAIRE are not. And not just Marie Claire, the media all over. You have unlimited power, you have the ear of women young and old, and you choose to waste it on instructing them on the must have shoes or how to mask their natural beauty with aspirational cosmetics. Shame on you. And shame on me for buying them just for the products that I feel I need in order to smooth soft skin and shiny hair. I will not have my young daughters influenced in the same way that I have been for the last 20 years. My love affair with magazines has been over for a long time. This last fling just reminded me how disgusting and disgusted they make me feel.

26 thoughts on “Women: know your place

  1. I bought cosmo the other day, promptly binned it. Not before I fell about laughing at their ‘we use the f word do you’ article promting themselves as being feminist. Full of gems like how Beyonce is the ultimate feminist, because nothing stops her wearing a bikini !
    I am guilty of wanting to look my best and giving in to modern pressures but at least I don’t pretend about why it is I feel the need to wear make up. Its not because it empowers me, it’s because I lack confidence.
    Loved your article, really resonated my feelings after reading this months Cosmopolitan.

  2. Fantastic post, Dilly! Hit a lot of nerves this one. If you get a chance, check out ‘Understanding Women’s Magazines’ by my old supervisor Anna Gough Yates. She writes extensively about Marie Claire and her book really delves into the industry from an academic point of view.

  3. I could not agree with you more. I used to buy comics as a child which progressed to magazines as a teenager. As an adult I used to buy several weeklies and several monthlies every issue, but I gradually stopped, now only buying two monthly magazines – Good Housekeeping and Sainsburys’ Magazine. That was before the purse strings tightened. I occassionally look through others at work or in a waiting room and find them lacking. As you say, full of ads, that is how they make their money now, not by cost price. That is why you can buy subscriptions for half price or less to lots of them, so they can say to the advertiser that they have whatever number circulation.

    I too only buy other magazines when they have a really good freebie, a quick flick through and then they go straight in the cutting up box for craft. My children always used to choose their magazines/comics based on the freebie on the front. We now give them strict pocket money, they soon gave them up if it meant no sweets or no toys – they look but no longer ask for them.

    With regard to the 50s housewife, I always understood that she was created to encourage the women who had worked during the war, to go back to running the home, so freeing up jobs for the men returning from war. I believe it was all or partly the work of the Government. It may have worked for the ‘middle classes’, but having come from a working class area, all of my Aunts (my Dad’s sisters and sisters-in-law, he was the youngest of 13) either worked on the land or in nursing during the war, which they continued until they retired. In fact, I can only think of 4 women who didn’t work outside the home and that includes when we moved to a more affluent area, where most husbands worked for the local aerospace company and they lived in work-linked subsidised housing.

    1. Interesting about the 50s housewife, I hadn’t suspected government involvement. The stereotype that we have now is very much based on the American view, which apart from being a more idealistic and aspirational country, was also at that time much less ravaged by war.

  4. Great minds think a like! I also bought Marie Claire for the Neals Yard moisturiser. Once I got through the 50 pages of adverts I realised the articles were not worth reading. Now in the recycling. Lovely moisturiser though.

  5. Such a lot of good stuff in this post, Dilly.

    I used to be a Vogue devotee years ago, but completely gave up buying glossies a while back. I recall that wave of self-reproach and mild regret that washes over you after reading one; a nasty combination of hating that you wasted the time on it, and hating that you aren’t a lithe-limbed nineteen-year-old model with perfect cheekbones. It’s a deeply annoying combination; even so, I do still flick through them at the hairdresser. They are unfailingly full of shit, and I’m ever so glad that I’m less susceptible to it these days.

    Is it me, or are those Louboutins actually horrendous?

  6. But it starts so young. My father in law purchased a Disney Princess comic for my 5 yr old daughter- according to this, all you should do is stroke kittens, look pretty and wait for your prince to come. Have you seen it? It is toital and utter SHIT – and it is apparently acceptable reading material for our children. When I voice concerns about this to my fellow mums at the school gate (or in the pub, or wherever we happen to be) I get this kind of ‘well, what can you do’ type response. My daugher is bright and funny and I hate that this is the kind of message that she is being fed.

    1. Oh god, completely! Though my daughter would infinitely prefer a Ben10 or Spiderman comic, and I’m not sure that they are any better!

      The mumsnet feminist boards always have good advice on children’s books. Have you read any of the Princess Smartypants books? Princess Smartypants refuses to get married, and in the second book goes on to have a baby (made out of cake if I recall correctly…) on her own. Also Ella Takes a Chance is a spin on Cinderella. I believe Cinderella runs away with Buttons in the end to start up her own clothing business 😀

      My 4 year old daughter desperately wants to be a boy, which makes me sad. But not because she’s not girly and prefers to wear boy pants, boy clothes and play boy games, but because she expresses the opinions that boys are better. I try and explain that there is nothing that boys do that girls can’t do. She pointed out that boys can pee standing up and grow beards which she can’t do. I can’t fault her logic! But I will keep telling her that she can do anything, and avoid insidious influences like glossy magazines.

  7. Excellent post, Dilly.

    Women of my own age (50 plus) are rarely given a mention in these types of magazine unless it is to advertise Tena pads or ‘The Menopause’. I despair.

    I stopped buying glossies years ago as they were so meringue like, full of promise but mostly air. Warped sense of which shape women ought to be and brutal regimes on skin (not to mention unethical companies flogging the modern day equivalent of red lead and mercury).

    Those shoes are vile, designed indeed to slip a disc and inflict pain but hey! shiny shoes are the new fluffy kittens.

  8. GentleOtter – I salute your comment. So true.

    Dilly. You need to start your own online mag. With contributors from everyone who has commented on here.

  9. Excellent post. I read blogs, and the only occasional times I do buy a magazine it’s generally something niche (like Writing) or something general like The Oldie or The Lady or The Week.

    All aimed at target markets well above my age group but infinitely more interesting and far better value for money.

    PS the glossies are far too expensive for me abroad, and they don’t export them with the freebies. So it really is lose lose.

  10. That is a really good post Dilly, so worthwhile and so true. It’s appalling that Marie Claire, one of the supposedly more intelligent magazines, is still promoting the idea that we need to look at our purdy, purdy shoes to occupy ourselves; a bit like magpies gone wrong.

  11. We must all stop falling for this guff, the anti-wrinkle creams containing pseudo-scientific ingredients, the shiny shiny hair shit, the skinny dream (‘but I love pizza and cupcakes, I’m lucky to have a high metabolism’), the year round tan, the whitest of whites, germ free floors you could eat your baby off. It’s all mind bending crap and we must stop buying into it, the magazines and everything else.

    I’d like a magazine with decent, edgy fashion which I could wear OUTSIDE LONDON, some literature, some politics, some art, some interesting people.

    Great post, touched a nerve!

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