I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with glossy magazines. The reason this blog is called Glosswatch is because I originally conceived of it as a place where I’d go to rant about the publications to which I was still, inexplicably, subscribing in 2012.
I knew how these magazines functioned. I could see the way in which, like a toxic best friend, they eroded your confidence by drip-feeding you advice on ways in which to improve yourself. I knew that the solutions they offered were to problems you hadn’t even realised you had. I knew they didn’t really want you to be happy with yourself, since a woman who is happy with herself does not spend vast amounts of money on trying to make herself look like someone else. But I bought them all the same. I’d been buying them for decades.
Twenty-five years ago I used to spend my lunch money on whatever was available in WH Smiths in Penrith. My selection criteria used to be based on how much content a magazine was running about food, weight and diets. If it had an article about eating disorders, ideally illustrated by photographs of anorexic women, I felt I’d struck gold. Day-in-the-life food diaries were also good. Otherwise I’d settle for anything with a special feature on how to make less of yourself. I never actually followed the diets – my own calorie limit tended to be way below the ones on offer – but I liked reading them anyhow.
I had a ritual for my magazine consumption. After purchasing I’d go to a local café – I chose it on the basis that you could get your own Diet Coke from a machine and not risk being given normal Coke by mistake – then I’d sit at my favourite table and take a small sip of drink in-between every nine lines read. I had to read the adverts as well as everything else, on the basis that some things – promotional features, extended advertorials – weren’t really one thing or the other, so it was best to read everything just to make sure. Once I’d finished I’d head back to school alone. I don’t remember feeling hungry, or I’d lost awareness of it. Lines about lipsticks and penis size and this season’s shoes were all I’d have for lunch. I’d spend the afternoon light-headed, coasting on empty thoughts about the food I’d never eat, the clothes I’d never wear and the sex I’d never have.
In the early 1990s I dropped out of university to be hospitalised for anorexia for the third and final time. The treatment worked, insofar as I put on weight and have never been that ill again. A year after being discharged, I started my periods again and suddenly grew breasts. Contrary to popular opinion, delaying puberty – be it through starvation or through drugs – until one is “ready” to go through it does not make puberty any easier. After years of being frozen in time, “becoming a woman” was a shock to the system. Anorexia had offered me an identity of sorts, or at least it had prevented me from dwelling on the absence of one. Without it I felt like a non-person. I had so much flesh, and so little personhood with which to fill it. I didn’t know how to be a woman at all. So I turned to the magazines for help.
I knew that I was not like other women my age because they had been women for much longer. I felt deeply ashamed of my new body, convinced I did not have the personality to match it. I hoped that if I followed the advice of Cosmo, Minx, Catch, Company, More and all the others I would find enough content to fill the void.
For the first time in my life I became obsessed with make-up, clothes and men. I didn’t enjoy sex, which was another source of shame, so I tried to read everything I could on how to do it better. I didn’t necessarily believe that I could become Magazine Woman, but I felt under huge time pressure to find at least one Woman template to match my unfamiliar woman body. I couldn’t relax. The thought of “just being yourself” terrified me. “Just me” was a mound of undifferentiated, wasteful flesh. I needed it to be painted, primped, penetrated, made anything other than “just me.”
I treated the magazines as guides to obeying the laws of femininity, not least because that’s what they were. The eating disorder therapy I’d received had never helped me uncover why I’d been so eager to flee womanhood, nor did it explore ways to cope with suddenly being seen not as a child nor an emaciated androgyne, but as an adult human female. I felt I needed answers quickly and these answers were: wear a push-up bra; smile a lot; remove all body hair; be confident; have a perfect body; don’t be obsessed with having a perfect body; find a gay male best friend who can advise you on how to give the perfect blow job. I felt myself becoming not a woman, but a parody of one. My acting was terrible. Of course, I assumed this was not because I needed a different role. I cursed my own inability to learn the lines.
There wasn’t ever a point at which the mask slipped and I decided to finally “be me.” Various life events – meeting my partner, having my children, finding writing as an outlet, forming friendships with feminists – have loosened the grip Magazine Woman has on me. I know the unhappiness I felt was never really down to her, but to the environment from which she sprang, one which makes women feel they cannot simply be at peace in their own bodies and minds. The one which makes women feel failures at being women and hence purchase the same repetitive, corrosive guidebooks every single month.