Toxic best friend: Glossy magazines and me

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. Continue reading

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Contemporary feminism needs a broader definition of “woman”

What is a woman, anyway? This question has been asked time and again, and still we don’t have a definitive answer. Why would that be? I have a theory: because under a system – patriarchy – which is invested in dehumanising females, the obvious response – “a female human” – would give the game away. Conscious of their own humanity, women might get uppity and stop letting men objectify their bodies, exploit their labour and generally piss about being violent. This would never do. Hence “woman”, unlike “man”, has to be really, really hard to define (so hard that you need a super-clever brain – the kind of brain that shares a body with a penis – to get it just right).

Mount Holyoke’s cancellation of its yearly production of The Vagina Monologues has given rise to a great deal of pseudo-philosophical babble regarding “reductive” and “exclusive” definitions of womanhood. According to a student spokesperson:

At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.

Oh dear! According to Jezebel this is all part of an “ugly battle” regarding “the expansion of the definition of ‘woman’ on college campuses”. Clearly, women are not walking vaginas (they are, as previously stated, human beings). But it seems to me that all the current “let’s make womanhood more inclusive” statements are rather missing the point. Continue reading

Is being a woman empowering or demeaning?

Is having Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated empowering or demeaning? That’s what the Guardian wants to know, so much so that they’ve set up an online poll. Personally, I find the whole thing baffling, but then again, I don’t know what Sports Illustrated is. Is it a wank mag that everyone pretends is a sports magazine? Or a sports magazine that everyone pretends is a wank mag? I have no idea and what’s more, I can’t be arsed to find out. Hence I shall remain neither empowered nor demeaned, languishing in some liminal state of non-womanhood.

The “empowered or demeaned?” game is of course a familiar one. It’s one of those media bastardisations of feminism that ends up reinforcing the dehumanising extremes it claims to avoid. Are you empowered – a tits out, up for it, ball-breaking capitalist – or demeaned – a prudish, frigid, man-hating victim? Are you taking ownership of your life, busting out of the strictures that confine you, or are you standing back, watching while sexism is done to you? There’s no question, really, as to whether or not Barbie, or Page Three, or rape porn, or unpaid labour count as “objectively” empowering or demeaning. It’s all a state of mind. The impression is that you get to choose. There is no such thing as structural oppression. Feminist critique is no longer a challenge to patriarchy; it’s a personal statement. I am empowered, or, I am demeaned. Continue reading

Womanhood, girlhood and shared exclusion

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

Continue reading