Aoife Barry’s hilarious post on the impractical and condescending advice on offer in fashion magazines was a pleasure to read last week. I still do purchase “Grazia”and “In Style,” because they do their job and report the trends. You’ll never catch me claiming that style empowers women, but it sure can make us feel as though we’re kitted out to cope, to muster the confidence in those moments under pressure, and it makes life easier through an appearance of compliance. Even folks who say they don’t have a style have one, and it’s usually just as affected by aesthetic whimsy as any hardcore fashionista. Hipster gals with thick rims, skinny jeans and a plaid button-down have a style progenitor to the same degree as the woman who cops to the glossy mag habit. On the same note, it’s rare for “Vogue” to wind up in my shopping bag, because there’s nothing affordable or practical in its pages, so I may pick up the September issue for a ritualistic nod. I own my habit as a resource to cut to the chase on the beauty standard expectations.
One may well argue that the glossies are a waste of money and only serve to foist harmful images as well as consumerism on a female audience. The fashion magazines do trade on what is difficult to attain in terms of body size and designer goods, but I won’t write off their value entirely. Pause for a minute to consider that femininity is compulsory for women, and that there are palpable disadvantages for women who are not complicit with the principles set for muliebrity. The novelist Erika Lopez wrote in her last installment of the Tomato Rodriguez series, that the quickest way for a woman to become invisible is to put on a brown muumuu, the least feminine or attractive garment known to humanity. Are beauty standards unfair? Hell yes. There’s still nothing that women can do about that in patriarchy. I’ve had this discussion numerous times, usually with irate men who demand to know how I can be a feminist in a dress and heels, as if I should wear my politics in sack cloth carrying a sign “kick and revile me, I’m a feminist.” The ability to change the dominant social order, the sum of human ciivilisation remains outside my meager powers. Funny how people think that some average woman should be held accountable with an indignant wave of the wine glass, when really, she’s just trying to not get bulldozed and defeated by a culture which subordinates vagina-bearers.
The glossy network does feature ridiculous tips and nonsense, no question. What is of importance in taking a clear account of their role in women’s lives is the observation that women are smart enough to figure that out as individuals. Women do not exist as vacuous sponges who refrain from critical thought in the world they inhabit. They can smell the bullshit above the stinky perfume samples a mile away. Women are smarter than even most women will credit. We can look at a Frankenstein-ish photo shoot spread and see how heavily or rather scantily the model’s body has been manipulated. We know that you cannot shred two dress sizes in a week, and real weight loss can only be achieved with a systematic approach to a sensible diet and exercise. We know when expensive crap is ugly and overpriced. We recognise the tricks of the glossy magazines.
There may be women who purchase and read the three dozen lady mags on the rack, except that I never knew such a woman. Most get one or two a month, maximum, from what I see at the market, and I’ll bet that plenty of women buy them on a seasonal-turning basis, as I often did. In a cultural climate where femininity is rewarded, and a lack of it punished outright, women turn to the magazines, to see what’s coming, how the rules have shifted, what’s expected of them. No woman wants to be the one in a room people snigger about for a look deemed passé. I remember well being a 19 year-old waiting tables when the woman who worked the door as the host had a dress in her wardrobe rotation, a one sleeved sequined number held over from the 80s Disco-era, along with a pair of harem pants she wore every two weeks. This was 1988, making those garments more than five years out of date. Every single time she wore either outfit, she was ruthlessly mocked by wait, bus, bar and kitchen staff, both by men and women. The customers probably did the same. She was a laughing stock. It was a cruel response, and though I had never joined the mocking, I also knew that I was never going to be the joke if I could help it. Culture holds women must aspire to beauty/ fashion standards and no, I’m not willing to risk being a pariah and say ‘screw culture and pass me the sackcloth.’ Instead, I maintain my two mags a month habit and scan the pages for what’s in and out.
Another reason I feel compelled to defend the glossy titles falls to the fact that women like them. And along with romantic comedies, chick lit, makeup, shopping, spa visits, or any activity or past time once tainted by the gender police, it automatically gets written off as shallow, silly, wasteful, insignificant. Meanwhile, whatever becomes associated with or gendered male becomes the most important, special, interesting and significant thing of all time.
The glossies have given me useful information over the years. I’ve learned how to pick the right colour for clothes and makeup; what to look for in stitching and details when I shop; what shapes look best on my odd mix of frog-and-pigeon frame; I’ve picked up exercise tips to strengthen my lower back; found reviews on books and films I may not have seen cited elsewhere; and gained the confidence to move away from an all-black wardrobe because the fashion mags have helped me figure out how to dress myself. Muliebrity is acquired, learned, practiced over time. The glossies can save time and assist in the countless set of choices we’re asked to negotiate over the course of our lives.
Few media outlets are perfect since we live in patriarchy, anyway, and most things reek of misogyny.