The other day I left my book at home. Not a disaster, true. But on this particular night, I had no social plans and I wanted to take myself out for dinner on the way home from work. I do this a fair bit, as I enjoy eating in restaurants alone, for various reasons.
Anyway, on this evening I was bookless. So I popped into a newsagency to buy a magazine to read. A long time ago I stopped enjoying trashy women’s mags, as celebrity gossip is drivel (even though I love pop culture) and I don’t really care what they’re wearing on the red carpet. But as there are a number of more quality magazines with real journalism in them (Time, The Economist etc) I entered the newsagent with the intention of buying one of those, and making my dinner a somewhat informative and interesting experience.
The first thing that struck me (as it has in the past) was the gender division of magazines in newsagents. Women’s mags on one side, and men’s on the other. And I, not for the first time, took offence to the fact that intellectual magazines like The Economist are located on the men’s side of the rack. As are movie and music magazines. And while I accept that perhaps more men read these magazines than women, I know plenty of women who are into movie and music and politics, and I take issue with the fact that they’re not at least located gender neutrally, in the middle.
Regardless, this particular newsagent was quite poorly stocked, and didn’t have many intellectual magazines anyway. And the ones it did have were being sold for the exorbitant price of $15 each. Given I was only buying it to pass the time of a bowl of pasta, I thought, well perhaps I’ll lower my standards.
So I drifted over to the women’s section of the magazines. And while it is not a revolutionary thought, it really did strike me with startling clarity, what the magazine industry assumes women are interested in. Celebrity gossip, clothes, losing weight, make up, men, homewares, cooking, craft. Perhaps it struck me with such force on this occasion because I have been reading so much amazing journalism on women’s issues online – Hoopla, Women’s Agenda, Salon, Jezebel, Daily Life and lots more – that it was staggering to me that an industry which is apparently dying is so out of touch with its market.
As a woman, according to them, our choices are “trashy celebrity gossip, with a side of judging how fat celebrities are, a hint of clothes you need to buy, and a splash of ‘how to lose weight this summer'” or “supposedly in-depth celebrity interview (with accompanying airbrushed cover), a side of ridiculously expensive clothes you can’t afford, and a hint of ‘how to please him in the bedroom'”. In dismay I moved over to the Country Life, and assorted cooking magazines section, but again felt cheated.
I’m a university educated woman, who is marketing manager of a company. I have a brain I quite like to use. Why is it that if I chose to read a magazine I am suddenly a labotomized zombie who only cares about clothes and how fat people are, or my home and how to feed my (non existent) family? Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking, and country houses, and clothes but I also love reading intelligent journalism.
Frustrated, and getting hungry, I told myself “it’s just one dinner, just get something cheap”. Like every other woman on the planet, I’ve read my fair share of Who and NW and Grazia, and even enjoyed them on occasion. So I picked one with a cover that looked the least painful, and didn’t have a celebrity talking about their “baby joy”. I paid my $3.50 – and my soul.
And as I sat there, eating my delicious carbs, flicking through the pages of this magazine, I became acutely and fiercely aware at just how pervasive the cult of beauty is in our society. I flicked through page after page of clothes and weight loss and skin cream and judging celebrity looks, and like never before I was appalled. I know this isn’t revolutionary. These magazines are shallow and stupid, I know. But it’s not that they’re shallow. It’s that underneath all of the aspirational beauty bullshit is the message that the only important thing for a woman to be is beautiful.
The intelligent feminist writing that I read online has drawn time and again the very real picture of a world where women are objects, and men are instigators. Women look beautiful, men do things. Which is why people always say to little girls “You look so pretty” but they say to little boys “What did you do today?“. It’s pervasive and it starts at birth.
But as I “read” (ie. looked at the pictures of) this magazine, that very idea throbbed in my mind over and over. Nowhere in this magazine did it ask women to think, or to do (well, anything except buy clothes, and lose weight). Nowhere did it value our intellect, or our sense of humour, or our opinion about something actually important, or anything that wasn’t related to how we look.
And while I used to just get depressed when I read these mags (because I felt fat, didn’t look like Blake Lively, and couldn’t afford all the clothes) this time I was mad. All the beautiful, intelligent women out there who spend so much time worrying about how they look, when we all should just get on with being fabulous.
If you want to run, run. If you want to sit on the couch and eat donuts, do that. But the one thing we all need to do is keep using our minds, and our bodies to do great, interesting things, and stop worrying about how we look so much. Yes, it’s nice to look good. And it’s good to eat well. But don’t let it become the only thing you think about. We are so much more than that. We are readers, and thinkers, and conversationalists, and confidantes, and comedians, and organisers, and doers, and adventurers, and partners in crime. You don’t have to be “good”, or thin, or straighten your hair, or get a fake tan. You can if you want, but the only thing you have to do is know that who you are, and what you think is more important than any of that crap.
And most of all, don’t forget to take your book.
Want to read more on the pervasiveness of body image? Check out this great article by Kasey Edwards.