Never the right body: On Okay magazine, words and pictures

Does this blog make me look fat? I only ask because, in a recent flurry of hostile comments from men’s rights activists, I’ve found several telling me I’m “fat and ugly” or “fat and bitter” or  – well, lots of things, but it’s always “fat and [something]”. So go on, give it to me straight — do these posts look plump to you? Are these the kind of opinions which might be caught celebrating their curves? Go on, I can take it.

It’s strange that, of all the things that could be used as an insult, “fat” comes up so often. Hell, I can think of a million things that are wrong with stuff I’ve written, but none of them have anything to do with the size of my thighs. When it comes to attacking women whose views you don’t like, “you’re fat” remains the weapon of choice. To be fair, I’m not surprised. It has two advantages: it doesn’t demand any intellectual effort yet it manages to convey female inferiority without even seeming to do so (yes, you can say “you’re fat” to a man but it won’t mean the same thing. Indeed, chances are he might actually be fat, which wouldn’t make you any less of a judgmental fuckwit, but a different kind thereof).

Women are told they are too fat or too thin every single day. They didn’t use to be. It used to be more intermittent, with thoughts of diets and weight forming an imperceptible background hum for the rest of the time. When I first suffered from anorexia in the late 1980s, it was hard to find a consistent supply of magazines with “size zero body shocks”, snide “lovin’ their curves” specials, celebrity food diaries, intrusive back-from-the-brink eating disorder stories, calorie counted recipes etc. If you wanted that kind of thing you had to purchase an actual diet magazine. Celebrity magazines were about celebrities. Now they’re about women being the wrong size. That is, at heart, the sole topic of Heat, Now, New, Closer, Okay and Star. Whether Miley Cyrus is taking the diet too far. Whether LiLo or Nicole Richie was the true victor in Starve Wars. Whether Natalie Cassidy has really found her “happy weight” and will keep the pounds off. You don’t have to purchase the magazines to know this. The covers are always a stark mix of bright bikinis, flesh and bone. They’re very hard to miss.

The latest, of course, is Kate Middleton’s alleged weight loss plan being emblazoned on the cover of Okay one day after Middleton gave birth. Most people are, gratifyingly, appalled by this. Nonetheless, I fear this might be yet another thing that gets slotted away as symptomatic of a vague “obsession with appearance / celebrity / size”, when really it’s more than that. Increasingly, I can’t help feeling that the dissection of the bodies of female celebrities springs from misogyny, pure and simple. It’s not just the photos but the words they use. The circle of shame, the muffin top, the thigh gap, side-boobs, back fat, all of these little phrases become embedded in the minds of women, telling them they’re not good enough, no matter how hard they try. It’s a way of destroying self-esteem.

What’s particularly insidious about all this is the double-whammy effect of making women feel ashamed of their bodies, and then being able to portray women as superficial and self-absorbed for feeling that way in the first place. When an emaciated starlet is on the cover of New, the tone is not one of concern, but ridicule. How foolish! How could she have done that to herself? The implication is that women suffer not because they are trying to make their bodies acceptable to social norms, but because they are vain. Hence the “good on you, lass” back-slapping mixed in with the mockery when the emaciated starlet puts on weight again.

Dieting is presented as something all good girls can do, provided they try hard enough. But starvation changes the way your mind operates, making you utterly obsessed with food. Not starving is natural and human but it’s presented as failing. The default assumption, backhandedly reinforced by every Dove advert, is that women hate their bodies. It’s unfeminine not to.

Saying “you’re fat” to a woman you cannot see – and have indeed never seen – is not a statement of fact, but an expression of presumed superiority. It’s saying “I can make you feel bad”. It’s saying “your body will never be acceptable in my world”. What’s disturbing isn’t the accusation but the hate that underlies it.

The hatred of women that oozes out of Heat, Okay, Closer et al needs to be challenged, and it needs to be done so in a way that doesn’t fall back on blaming women themselves (because they edit it, they pose for it, they buy it). Frankly, I don’t care who makes it. Perhaps these women hate women too. Perhaps they hate themselves. The point is, the daily chorus of “too fat, too fat, too thin, too fat” isn’t really about weight. It’s about power and positioning. It’s not about pictures but words.

21 thoughts on “Never the right body: On Okay magazine, words and pictures

  1. Women’s worth on this planet is primarily judged by their attractiveness to men. What you are saying is not attractive to these men ergo you must be unattractive which immediately equals fat. You are right they are trying to assert some kind of superiority over you because ultimately they believe in the inferiority of women. Just like the men who cat call women on the streets or shout “smile” (my particular favourite). It is also serves as a reminder to you of what your priorities should be i.e. being attractive to them

    It is absolutely all about misogyny and within that the objectification of women.

    Great article. Shame you have to write it. We have a long way to go.

  2. While I agree entirely with the issues girls face around being comfortable with their own bodies, this is not something attributable to men or misogyny. The phrases you mention are unlikely to be found gracing the pages of men’s periodicals. FHM does not particularly care about the terms used to describe bits that women are or are not proud of; I’ve never read an article about “back fat” in GQ. True they use a certain amount of sex to sell their product but they don’t exclusively pick size zero models, they pick whoever is famous right and take some photos of them in their underwear. In fact ask most men and they will tell you size 0 is not an attractive shape.

    The problems around body issues stem predominantly from tabloid newspapers and women’s publications. Compare a women’s publication such as Cosmo with a men’s such as FHM. Both contain pictures of women – the men’s in a suggestive way and the women’s in an exemplary way. Throughout the magazines, whether it’s reviewing products of interest or articles about celebrities, the man’s mag says this is what you could have if you were famous, the woman’s mag says this is how you should be. It’s self denigrating on the part of the women who buy into it, but it’s not misogyny.

    The truth about men is they will find most healthy women attractive, regardless of whether she is a size 0. But women need to collectively rebel against the diet culture; vote with their feet and stop buying anything that subscribes to the diet culture.

    This is not a problem caused by men. Men like looking at women, always have and always will; it’s never going to change. We wil generally look at pictures of women of any shape or size, it’s a rare man that would write to FHM or GQ complaining that the women contained therein were too fat or too skinny.

    When it comes to tabloid media

    1. Apologies for incomplete posts.

      When it comes to tabloid media, men generally ignore the bits about diet, celbrity gossip etc. In fact the only bit of the tabloid that men have even a passing interest in that may be a contributing factor to women’s body issues is the photographs on page 3. Personally I don’t think page 3 is a contributing factor, the women pictured are generally of a healthy size and weight – neither under nor over weight – but I’m sure someone will disagree.

      But in summary, women’s body issues are a problem promulgated primarily by women – not by men. It is women that aspire to be a particular shape not because men have told them that’s what they want but because the media has told them that is how they should be and it is a media that women readily buy into.

      1. But this isn’t about how men respond to magazines which are not attacking them. It’s about the broader positioning of women. Moreover, regarding your comment on men’s magazines, I’m sure the day the “healthy” bodies you describe become anything other than “very thin but with a boob job therefore curvy” there will objections. It’s not fair to ask women to respond to this only as individuals, nor is it fair to blame women for not fighting back if you’re unwilling to place the increasingly negative messages within a broader framework.

        1. Men’s magazines feature a wide variety of body shapes, from the OTT, surgically enhanced, to the skinny to the curvatious. It’s generally the fame of the woman that gets her into the magazine, not her size. I remember seeing Cerrys Matthews and Gillian Anderson in FHM (in fact Gillian Anderson was voted sexiest woman of the year back in the mid-90’s). As long as there are pictures of women in them, FHM, Loaded, Nuts etc will all continue to sell. There is no real requirement on what those women look like, as long as they are attractive. And given that the Sun has a strict no implants policy, it’s unlikely that the figures sported by page 3 models are surgically enhanced.

          You say it’s not reasonable to blame women for not fighting back. Is it therefore reasonable to blame men for this problem? Because in my experience, as a man who knows lots of men and spends a lot of time with them, I’d say that they’re not as fussy as the media will have you believe. You don’t need to be skinny like Okay tells you, you just need to have a female shape; fundamentally (with no specific size requirements) some hips, a bottom and some breasts, and if you assess the women that appear in men’s magazines, they all share these features to a greater or lesser extent.

      2. “But in summary, women’s body issues are a problem promulgated primarily by women – not by men.”

        No. Who is cat-calling women in the street? Who is leaving insulting comments for Glosswitch? Who is Page 3 for? Who owns these magazines and newspapers promoting women’s bodies? Who pays for the diet ads directed at women only? And to go further, who are lap-dancing clubs for? Who is pornography for? All these add to “Men like looking at women”. Even in your response you are framing everything around how attractive women should be/are to men.

        “it’s a rare man that would write to FHM or GQ complaining that the women contained therein were too fat or too skinny.” But they clearly do then? They think it is OK to comment on whether a woman fits their ideal, bearing in mind most of the women in FHM or GQ already pass some fuckability test i.e. are skinny with boobs. So in fact they are judging women. Just like the man on the street shouting comments, trying to humiliate a woman minding her own business. Just like Glosswitch’s commenters. Just like John Inverdale. Just like all the other commenters when women deign to have an opinion. Just like the journalists who comment on Teresa May’s shoes or Anee Widdecombe’s appearance rather than their work. It isn’t women’s comments that stop me going running near where I live. It isn’t women’s comments that have stopped me posting on a sports chat room. All through society men are their making their approval/disapproval of women’s appearance and place in society known.

        1. Page 3 no more contributes to body issues than topless sunbathers on a beach or pictures of women in their underwear (unless of course it’s the nipple that causes the issues). If you don’t agree with page 3 then you can’t possibly agree with topless sunbathing. I’ve been on some beaches where it is so prominent you literally don’t know where to look first. Male attention does not contribute to body image issues, regardless of whether it’s someone looking or someone wolf whistling or cat calling. Being told you’re too fat or too thin might do but men generally don’t say those things to women, the media does that – a media that men neither read nor buy. It’s preposterous to suggest that male attention contributes to body issues and is one of the weakest arguments of feminism.

          Women’s body issues are an entirely artificial problem manufactured by the media and cosmetics companies. It is neither created by nor driven by men who will generally find women of many different shapes, sizes and colours attractive. The paradigms of beauty to which women aspire are entirely artificially constructed and generally are not considered to be attractive by men. I don’t know a single man who likes the size zero look.

          And the trolling comments being left on the blog are hardly any different from trolls all over the internet and similar in nature to comments left on other blogs and youtube channels to which I subscribe, many of which are left by women about men. The truth about thr internet is that it’s full of people who cannot create a reasonable argument and so resort to insults, flaming and trolling. This behavior is not limited to a single gender nor is it necessarily more prevalent in one than the other, as I have seen on various Men’s forums and blogs. Thankfully They’re not representative of wider society and certainly should not be used as a stick to beat anyone with.

          And if you want to talk about objectification, I’ll just say 3 words. Diet Coke Break.

        2. These are the same cut-and-paste arguments that come out every time this issue is raised. They don’t make any sense, or even respond to the arguments presented above. Closer and Okay do not exist in a vacuum. Women do not respond to their own bodies in a way that has nothing to do with how others respond to them – or with how they are able to access power, money or even freedom of movement. Until you know what it is like to experience the world as one prolonged objectifying Diet Coke Break you’re not in a position to question what is or isn’t a response to these widespread messages. And besides, going back to the recent Okay cover – if this was purely about appearance and not sexism, a load of women would have been on twitter commenting on how Prince William now punches way above his weight in terms of the attractiveness of his partner. There is no male equivalent to Page Three and the magazines women buy feed a disordered attitude to body shape which is in no way innate. You cannot challenge the magazines without challenging the culture that surrounds them. This is not finely balanced. It’s simply dishonest to pretend it is.

        3. You see, men do objectify women I accept that, what I don’t accept is that it is a problem, not in the case of page 3. It’s basic human nature and until you can somehow stop men from being interested in womeb and sex it’s never going to change. But here’s the thing. Men in turn don’t tend to be bothered about being objectified nor about the objectification of males in general. It honestly doesn’t bother me or anyone I know – in fact a lot of men quite like it. So until you’ve lived a life of being a man, then by your rationale you also cannot really comment in the reverse direction. Or maybe you can and maybe we’re all allowed to have our own opinions? For me it’s about determining where the boundary between an acceptable level of objectification and an unacceptable level objectification lies. I personally think page 3 is on the acceptable side of the line. It only shows breasts, it’s not lewd in the same way that pornography is lewd and it shows no more flesh than a person might see on a beach.

          You say my arguments are cut and paste and they make no sense and yet your own arguments could be said to be exactly the same. They are the same old feminist whines that have been heard time and again about page 3 and female objectification. It’s often said that Page 3 objectifies women but its doesn’t explain how. Saying how something is is not the same as explaining why something is.

          Technically there are equivalents to Page 3. Heat magazine runs a Torso of the Week feature. This does not bother me. And the culture that surrounds magazines such as OK and Heat is predominantly female orientates. Men have almost zero interest in the magazines or any of their content. It’s just utter drivel. You can’t blame men for the content, you can’t blame men for the demand for them nor for any of the problems that ensue. Men, collectively, do not ask women to achieve unnatural body shapes. We do not ask women to look like Hollywood celebrities or size zero models. The obsession many women have with the superficiality that is stardom is in no way the fault of men and is in fact one of the many things about women that continues to baffle men. I have no idea, none of my friends have any idea, why anyone would be interested in anything as banal as celebrity lifestylea and culture.

  3. But ignore the trolls, as insulting and uneducated as they, the one thing about Trolls is that the internet is full of them. The more popular your blog becomes, the more Trolls you will attract. My advice would be to ignore them, no matter how personal you might think the insults are. Their insults say much more about them than about anyone else. If someone is calling you fat, it generally means they do not have the mental capacity to even begin to construct a critique of your work or formulate a counter argument.

    And for the record, the insult “Fat” is just as damaging to men as it is to women. Some men will shrug it off, some men will suffer immensely. It’s every bit as personal to a man as it is to a woman and more so if it was made by a woman. By being told we’re fat we are saying we are being told that we are not attractive to the opposite sex, we are useless, we have no purpose in society or we are a burden on society. Men feel the sting of those sentiments just as much as women do.

    1. Leave troll comments as they are and allow your fans to attack them. Hell, I disagree with almost everything you say and I’d still attack a Troll on your comments (I quite like Troll slaying).

  4. There’s a lot of evidence that the acceptable norm for women is getting narrower and narrower. I have a theory which I can’t prove, which is that the more strides women made towards equality, the more deranged the body demands get. If women can’t be made to fit into narrow social and gender boxes any more, because they’ve rejected them, then they can be straitjacketed by their looks.

    1. You are right. It’s Backlash. Don’t know if you’ve read Susan Faludi’s book of the same name. It was written in the 80s but has been updated since and although based in the US is still relevant. It is an eye-opener to explain a lot of trends/reactions after women make some gain in rights and respect.

    2. I definitely think you’re right — every time we make any kind of strides forward, we’re pushed backwards at least as much.

  5. To onlyonepinman:

    “If you don’t agree with page 3 then you can’t possibly agree with topless sunbathing.” So what you are saying is that women topless sunbathing are there purely for heterosexual men’s pleasure? Because that is what Page 3 is.

    “Male attention does not contribute to body image issues, regardless of whether it’s someone looking or someone wolf whistling or cat calling.” Yes thanks for denying women’s feelings and reality there. I am not talking about looking, although there is looking and then there is ogling. It is a right that men feel they have to intrude on a woman when she is in a public space. Whether it is a “compliment” (about her looks, naturally) or an insult they think it is OK to offer that opinion without invite. A compliment or an insult is still a judgement.

    “Thankfully They’re not representative of wider society and certainly should not be used as a stick to beat anyone with.” I am sure it is very convenient for you to think that all the situations where women state opinions, raise their head above the parapet, walk down the street and are batted down by men (yes it is mainly men whether you like it or not) are unconnected. But there are very definite patterns. You may not see them because they don’t affect you, but projects like Everyday Sexism, Hollaback etc are certainly proving the patterns are there.

    “The paradigms of beauty to which women aspire are entirely artificially constructed and generally are not considered to be attractive by men.” So why is Page 3 still around? Why are lap-dancing clubs still around? Why are the majority of female actors extremely attractive whereas there is much more variation allowed with male actors? I agree that they are artifically constructed though. Women generally don’t ‘aspire’ to those levels of beauty, it is expected of them. By men.

    But thank you for saying women can have different body shapes from these images we constantly get bomnarded with. That’s very kind of you.

    1. I never gave you permission to have a body shape because it’s never been man’s to give. Men do not expect you to have any particular shape and certainly not the shape women aspire to as seen in magazines. Women do that all by themselves and as long as you continue to blame men, the problem won’t get solved.

    2. Men do not expect women to look like Hollywood stars, that is an entirely female driven phenomenon and is fuelled by the media with which they are presented, that is written mostly by women and which is read, voluntarily, even eagerly, by women.

      Most men aren’t that fussy. Just because we think celebrities look hot doesn’t mean we don’t think other girls are hot. We do, we like lots of different shapes and sizes and all men like different things.

        1. What an amazing piece of writing! I particularly liked the catch 22 in which you place men. Either we’re the cause of women’s body issues or we are accusing them of being deluded, superficial and stupid. Basically men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Are women planning on taking any responsibility for their own lives any time soon? Because I don’t see men forcing women to read Cosmo or Heat or Glamour. I don’t see men starving their wives. If you want to solve body issues it should start right there, in those crappy magazines. Get them to publish tips on how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, rather than a specific shape. Ban celebrity gossip magazines that fuel the obsession with the superficial. There is absolutely nothing men can do to fix this problem so it’s pointless to try and blame us.

          Also, the girls of page 3 are slim, not emaciated and there’s a difference. Emaciated is when you can count ribs. I’m not saying you have to like page 3, only to respect those who do and those who pose for it. It’s called freedom of choice. You are free to look or not. Free to buy the paper or not. Free to pose for the photo or not. Personally I don’t look because I don’t buy the Sun, but I respect those who want to keep page 3 alive because I respect their right to make that decision.

  6. I agree with what you are saying, and feel so angry at how OK framed a women a day after she has given birth. However I was wondering what your thoughts were on Cosmo/Mizz etc etc they all have female editors and I feel that their content can be as damgining if not more damanging then lads mags/page 3 etc? Thank you for writting this blog it is what I needed to read right now as I am struggling with my body imagage after having my daughter and feel the presure from society to “bounce back” even though I am aware no matter how little I eat this will not happen.

Comments are closed.