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On 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson, a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. She slashed it with an axe in protest of the British establishment’s hypocrisy for prosecuting – or ‘destroying’, in her words – Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes for demanding the right to vote, while admiring nudes and other idealised women in art galleries.

Although not my favourite feminist heroine, given her future role as the head of the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists, Richardson was the first of a long line of feminists to destroy or vandalise symbols of discrimination against women. The famous (non)burning of bras, curlers, and tights by the New York Radical Women at their anti-Miss America protest in 1968 signalled their refusal to buy into the stultifying middle-class feminine ideal – the ‘feminine mystique’ identified five years previously by Betty Friedan.

So what would women burn or chop today?

In a pleasing coincidence, I began teaching second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s on International Women’s Day on Thursday. What struck – and depressed – me as I wrote these lectures is the extent to which the contemporary feminist movement is still fighting for the same things – equal pay, maternity leave, childcare – as women were during the 1960s and 1970s.

Even if sexism and gender inequality are now widely accepted as measures of injustice, the fact that the collection of nitwits running for the Republican candidateship feel that free access to contraception is an issue even worth debating, demonstrates that feminism still has some pretty basic battles to fight.

So when I suggest that many women would probably choose to burn women’s magazines, I do realise that women all over the world have to contend with considerably worse threats to their freedom. When Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown accused women’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s of promoting an old-fashioned, limiting definition of femininity – one which confined women to the domestic space and which judged those women who chose alternative ways of living, as sluttish and improper – they did so in the belief that publications like Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest contributed to the maintenance of patriarchy.

They bought into the view – told to Friedan by an advertising executive – that ‘properly manipulated…American housewives can be given that sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realisation, even the sexual joy they lack – by the buying of things.’

I gave up reading women’s magazines when I moved to the UK for my PhD. I had to think more carefully about how to spend my money and decided on Waitrose Food Illustrated and Private Eye (I like to think of myself as well-rounded). I felt all the better for not having my various ‘imperfections’ pointed out to me monthly by the eternally chipper editorial staff of Marie Claire.

And that’s the invidious thing about women’s magazines: for all their guff about being aimed at ‘spirited‘ and ‘fearless’ women, these magazines peddle a deeply conservative vision of femininity: in their articles about balancing relationships with work, embracing physical ‘imperfections’ and ‘flaws’, eating ‘healthily’ (or not at all), and conforming to whatever’s fashionable that season, their implication is that the majority of their readers are not actually succeeding as women – that having a well-paying job is abnormal, that being fat (or even just not stick thin) is wrong, that women shouldn’t really enjoy sex, and not wearing or owning what’s fashionable is reprehensible. This is why women need to read Elle, Glamour, and, Lord help us, Cosmopolitan in order to become ‘normal’.

Doing research for this post this morning – thank you Melissa’s in Kloof Street for having such an excellent selection of magazines – I choked on my muesli as I read an article in Glamour advising its readers how to be ‘good at sex’, complete with a ‘confession’ from a reader who was, apparently, ‘bad’ as sex. How? How is it possible to be ‘bad’ at sex? Did the wrong bit end up in the wrong hole? Or what?

But what gets to me the most about these magazines is the nonsense they write about food and nutrition under the guise of promoting ‘healthy’ lifestyles. As the writer Hillary Rosner recounts of her experiences of writing for women’s magazines in the US, factual accuracy seems to be the last thing which interests magazine editors:

I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, ‘Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?’ These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

The Glamour website for South Africa lists a range of tips for healthy eating, most of which are not based on any firm, scientific evidence. For instance, a section on ‘detox’ perpetuates the myth that it’s necessary – and possible – to ‘detoxify’ one’s body after a particularly bad bout of unhealthy eating and drinking. This is not true. There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that going on ‘detox’ diets do our bodies any good. We don’t carry around in us ‘toxins’ and ‘impurities’ which need, somehow, to be flushed out of our systems.

So what do they suggest for detox – particularly when hung over? They begin with water and fruit juice, which are fine. But their suggestions of tuna, brown rice, and quinoa, while good to eat, won’t end a hangover. And, no, peppermint tea isn’t ‘known to speed up the detoxification process’, nor will eating gherkins. They suggest that there’s something wrong about eating carbohydrates (there isn’t) and that drinking milk will in some way ‘prevent alcoholic damage’ to your body (it won’t).

An even more preposterous post lists the ‘junk foods’ which are supposed to make readers lose weight. They suggest, wrongly, that the calcium in ice cream, milkshakes, and cheese will curb appetites and help to ‘break down fat’. And since when were popcorn and potatoes ‘junk food’? The long list of foods which, apparently, fight cellulite – from apples and celery to oats and popcorn (wait, wasn’t that supposed to be junk food?) – are all part of a healthy diet, but won’t specifically reduce one’s cellulite. There is no miracle cure for cellulite.

For a magazine which seeks, apparently, to promote healthy body images, it has a strange obsession with weight loss – and with foods which, apparently, limit one’s appetite. In a single post about ‘Post-Holiday Body Blues’ (no, me neither), yogurt, eggs, and beef are all credited for making one feel ‘fuller for longer’ and for combating ‘food cravings’.

Aren’t women supposed to eat? Or, if they are, they are not supposed to show any enjoyment of it. A post on puddings begins:

If we weren’t afraid of looking greedy, we’d admit that we don’t care much for mains, that starters are quite dull and that what makes restaurant trips so toe-tinglingly exciting is the prospect of gooey chocolate and burnt sugar.

There is nothing greedy, sinful, indulgent, or decadent – all favourite women’s mag terms for sweet things – about eating pudding. It is greedy to accept a bonus of a couple of million pounds; sinful to murder someone; indulgent to spoil a child; and decadent to play stringed instruments while Rome burns. These adjectives do not apply to the eating of cake.

We know stunningly little about the science of nutrition. The most common result on the databases I was using to research the relative benefits of gherkins, ice cream, and popcorn as proposed by Glamour, was ‘no items found’. For all that women’s magazines insist that ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ (never defined and never properly referenced) have proven the claims on which their advice is based, we only know that a healthy diet is high in fruit and vegetables, and relatively low in sugar and saturated fat. Everything else is pure speculation.

And this is a boon to women’s magazines. Their agenda is to discourage women from eating at all, and if they can marshal ‘science’ and facts pulled from the air – or, more likely, dodgy nutrition websites – to support this view, then so much the better.

Given the wide readership of these magazines, this is extraordinarily irresponsible journalism. But it also demonstrates the extent to which women’s magazines are complicit in the promotion of a femininity predicated on body shape: being ultra-thin is, in the eyes of these magazines, a signifier of success and, most importantly, of being in control.

I think that this is best exemplified by the conclusion of an article about dieting in this month’s Cosmopolitan:

And if you have friends who eat healthily and exercise regularly, don’t tempt them to have the dressing or the cheesecake they resolutely resist, or to skip gym or a run…. Be supportive or mind your own business – ‘many lie about their true diet simply because others are judgemental, and you may presume them into deception.’

If this is the only control allowed to women, then feminism still has a long way to go.

Further reading

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl (New York: B. Geis Associated, 1962).

Mark H. Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era, from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Nora L. Magid, ‘The Heart, the Mind, the Pickled Okra: Women’s Magazines in the Sixties,’ The North American Review, vol. 255, no. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 20-29.

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1978).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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