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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.

London Meals

Like many people, I spent this week glued to the news, following the riots in Britain. I have friends who live in the parts of London which witnessed some of the worst violence, and I was stunned how areas of London I know and love – areas which I think of as home – were transformed by the rioting and looting. Even Bloomsbury was not left unscathed: Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, one of the most beloved bookstores in London, had its windows smashed, rather undermining claims that the looters tended to leave book shops alone. (And such a pity they missed Alain de Botton’s daft School of Life next door.)

So when I read on Twitter that Broadway Market was a potential target for the rioters, my heart sank. When I moved to London to begin my PhD, I remapped the city according to the destinations I most loved: book shops, art galleries (so that was central London, South Kensington, Pimlico, the south bank, Whitechapel, and Dulwich sorted), and places to eat. I did this because I have a comically bad sense of direction. During a holiday in Ireland a few years ago, my friend Carina realised quickly that the best way of discovering the correct direction to walk in, was to go in the opposite way I suggested. If I turned left, it was almost certainly the case that we should have gone right.

Guided partly by the London Farmers’ Markets website, I came to know London through its markets, delis, and kitchen and food shops. I walked all the way to Notting Hill from Bloomsbury once (map-reading has never been a strength) and, disappointed by that farmers’ market, spent the morning at Books for Cooks and discovered possibly the best culinary invention in the history of humanity at a local deli: glass jars containing crème de marrons and vanilla-flavoured yogurt. When Charles Saatchi (re-)opened his gallery in the Duke of York’s Building, it gave me another reason to visit that part of Sloaney London: Partridges also sells those crème de marrons-and-yogurt concoctions (admittedly for £1.50 each, but with all that yogurt they’re practically health food).

At Broadway Market

If I was feeling uninspired on Saturday mornings, I would walk to the inevitable Borough Market through the eerily silent City, and buy coffee from Monmouth and a bacon roll – easy on the mustard, heavy on the brown sauce – and watch the stall holders set up before the tourist hordes arrived.

But my favourite parts of the city were further east. Broadway Market, near London Fields, trades on a stretch of road which has been used by merchants and travellers for around a thousand years. It’s ancient and at the same time, emblematic of the regeneration of Hackney, London’s poorest borough, but also, arguably, its most socially diverse. On Sundays it was a long walk through Clerkenwell, Old Street, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green for breakfast at Columbia Road Flower Market – with coffee bought from what must be the city’s smallest coffee shop – a splurge at the second hand bookshop, and an attempt not to knock over any plants (I once caused, accidentally, an avalanche of Christmas trees).

My other guide was sent to me by my mother: the fantastic London Review of Breakfasts. It’s a website which takes breakfast Very Seriously Indeed. Listing cafes, greasy spoons, and restaurants from all over London, it considers not only what these establishments serve and how they go about doing this, but why. What I like about it most – other than its understanding of the psychologically restorative nature of breakfast – is its anti-snobbery.  Bermondsey’s Cat and Cucumber is given higher – and deserving – praise for its breakfast, than the branch of Whole Foods in Kensington:

It just doesn’t feel organic in the way I understand it. And frankly neither do any of the 26 varieties of killer tomatoes on sale, particularly the insipid orb that is part of my tepid, refectory-style ‘English Breakfast; on the first floor. The rest of this dry, fatty, Americanised assembly – grey-green scrambled eggs, semi-raw sausage, bacon jerky, white toast (‘no brown available’! In the temple of choice!) – requires five separate squirts of ketchup to render it edible. It is pathetic.

More of Broadway Market

No other collection of reviews is this relentlessly entertaining. My favourite remains of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington:

you started to tremble and had to content yourself with an egg mayonnaise sandwich on thick brown bread. It would have been an eggy, creamy delight, I think, if there had been any filling to delight in. But alas, a mere smear across the bread, a hint of a yolk and a whiff of white was all that was present. We wept. I craved a sympathetic glance from the staff. They were oblivious to our pain and announced that “that was how they made their sandwiches”. How they let themselves down. How they let us down. The pastries so perfect. The sandwiches so disappointing. My fan dropped to the floor, you rose from your chair, nearly careering into one of the many mothers with babies as you hastened to exit.

‘Pierre!’ I shouted, ‘Don’t leave me! I will make you an egg sandwich wearing nothing but a silk negligee whilst I recite passages from Voltaire!’

In short, the London Review of Breakfasts sets a standard not only for eating breakfast, but for living.

It’s particularly fitting that this website devoted to breakfast should be based in London. We know that mass urbanisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused changes in people’s behaviour. Quite simply, people lived and behaved differently in cities – where most of them were crammed into tenements and slums – than they did in the countryside. This change was caused overwhelmingly by the fact that the nature of work altered during the 1800s. Cities grew as a result of industrialisation. Factory employees, as well as the office workers who staffed the businesses that serviced these new industrial economies, worked longer and more regular hours than ever before.

In a predominantly agrarian society, work is determined by the weather and is seasonal – hours tend to be longer in summer than in winter, for example. In the factories and offices of Victorian Britain, the clock – and then laws governing how long people were allowed to work – ruled the working day, something Dickens satirised in Hard Times. Work began promptly at around seven or eight o’clock, and continued without stopping until the evening. Gas lamps and, later, electricity, meant that work could go on regardless of when the sun rose or set. Work was decoupled from nature.

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

One of the first aspects of people’s lives to change as a result of these new working patterns was how they ate. In Britain, up until the early nineteenth century, most people ate a substantial breakfast at around ten or eleven o’clock (what we’d now refer to as brunch), and then dinner, the main meal of the day, in the mid-afternoon. In the evening, before they went to bed, they’d have tea with biscuits or a light snack. Supper was a late, savoury meal eaten by the wealthy, and usually after an evening’s entertainment.

With the coming of industrialisation, mealtimes changed and particularly according to the kind of work people performed. For the urban middle classes, dinner moved later into the day, partly as an indicator of the fact that they were wealthy enough to afford candles, gas, or electricity to light the meal. Luncheon and afternoon tea, served with cake and sandwiches, emerged to fill the long gap between breakfast and dinner. Further down the social scale, tea, served at the end of the working day, frequently replaced dinner. This tea – referred to as ‘high tea’ or ‘meat tea’ – included protein, usually potted meat or smoked fish, to assuage the hunger pangs of tired labourers.

The strange British snobbery around the names of mealtimes emerges from this period: it’s upper- and middle-class to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper), and lower-middle- and working-class to say breakfast, dinner, and tea. Breakfast, though, changed in the same way for workers of all kinds: it was eaten earlier in the

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

Our eating habits are still evolving – and they’ll continue doing so, particularly as urbanisation continues. It’s estimated that seventy per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and we know that this will have massive implications for how we live: from the way in which we plan our cities, to how we eat. It’s not simply a case that our food systems will have to accommodate the fact that food will have to travel further – or will need to be grown in cities – to feed us all, but our working patterns will change too. What and how we eat cannot be disentangled from where we live.

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