Friday 15 December 2017

Girl, Uninterrupted: Why is my life so different to what I see in the glossies

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

It was the cringe heard around the world. When Glamour magazine recently ran a list of ways to make a man fall hard for a woman, the blowback was fairly shrill.

No doubt trying to be (cough) 'helpful', the magazine issued a cut-out-and-keep guide of rules that women should abide by to 'lock him down'. For those lucky enough to have missed it, here's a boiled-down summary: become a sex robot who laughs at his jokes, makes grilled cheese sandwiches after nookie and allows him to solve 'your petty work problem'. Betty Draper, much?

As if that wasn't proof enough we have reached Peak Women's Mag, another outlet, (who shall remain nameless so as to spare their blushes), offers advice on answering nature's call at your boyfriend's house. Yep, that call.

I've put my time in at the coalface of women's magazines. Many of my editors have been remarkable women: some finely attuned to what women want; others willing to put the needs of the magazine's readership first.

That said, I've chalked up several articles that you may be familiar with: How to drive him wild in bed (or, how to be sexually servile enough so as to keep him off Tinder a few more weeks); How to look thinner ("hint: cross your legs, thus creating an optical illusion").

Also: How to look younger by doing nothing (well, buy this magic potion and hope for the best).

I've made shoes and bracelets sound like a girl's best friend and completed sex supplements that ran several pages (leaving me needing a darkened room and several cold showers).

Of bedroom gymnastics, I have written in eye-watering detail, yet I fear I am still none the wiser. Bluffing? Moi?

It's no secret women's magazines run on a curious, odourless but noxious fuel - that of female insecurity.

High-end advertisers - the kind who peddle butter-soft designer bags and four-figure face creams - need to create a low-level anxiety in their readers, so they will pay for the sweet ambrosia of confidence.

Eye serums, hair botox, NutriBullets… rarely a month goes by where women aren't encouraged to hand over cash for a product that will finally make them feel better.

Spoiler alert: it barely does. Very rarely do women's magazines impart the really essential stuff: be yourself. Your body size has nothing to do with your self-worth. Forget the tips and tricks and corkscrew techniques in bed… try having an emotional connection, instead.

Still, what better way to do that than imply to the readership that if they don't play by the 'rules', they're likely to end up a hairnet and be a ready meal away from Grey Gardens territory? The powers that be at fash mags do a remarkable line in upcycling this insecurity into a sort of sage, big-sisterly advice. A design for the good life.

Time once was that women's magazines were a brief, fun escape for a lunch hour or plane ride. Somewhere down the line, all that changed. As we get older and supposedly have more disposable income, this aspiration feels even further from reach.

Recently, I opened a British women's magazine and endured a blizzard of Jools Oliver-type diktats.

Picnics on Orla Kiely rugs. Ruddy-cheeked children named Sebastian and Cosima. Winters in Mustique. Women who own Bella Freud jumpers and write their morning journals in Smythson notebooks. Women who know how to pack weekend suitcases without ever incurring baggage fees at the Ryanair desk. Not that they're flying Ryanair. But whatever.

With the cliff face of 40 looming into view, my life looks a little more like this: a guilty splurge in Boots, tea dresses from Penneys, rainy weekends in front of Netflix, checking how much, hypothetically speaking, an airfare to the Maldives might cost - then going back to Netflix.

There aren't too many female magazines out there for the smart, literate, worldly, salty woman.

Given the ailing state of the publishing industry, it's not likely that delicious gap in the market will ever be filled. It's a shame because many smart, intelligent women I know love to pore over glossies… but all too often, they come away unfulfilled, the niggle of insecurity like an itch they can't scratch.

Others, of course, take glossies in the spirit in which they're intended. Not so much a design for life, but a half hour looking at pretty things before it's time to go back to the grind.


The searing irony, of course, is that the teenage magazines of our youth likely started it all. In providing us with a sense of sisterly belonging, the likes of Mizz, Company and Just 17 got us all irrevocably hooked on glossies.

Yet they didn't feel so much like a gateway drug as a call from the heavens telling us we were normal and we were going to be okay - that we didn't need Pamela Anderson's body to get boys to like us.

We figured out not how to covet high-end leather accessories, but how to flirt, how to date and how to break up.

Their tone was always upbeat and cheerful, like a pal with a kind hand on your shoulder. The teen-mag ships were seemingly manned by women and men who had all the answers to questions we didn't even know we had.

How sad and strange, then, that as we got older, magazines saddled us with even more questions, often about ourselves and our place in the world.

No doubt, as I did, the men and women who helm female magazines truly believe they are providing a vital and reassuring port in the storm of womanhood.

It's just such a shame that so much emphasis is still placed on our ornamental value as women, or our value as objects of allure to men. Still, I guess it's a case of hating the game and not the players. For it is a pretty wicked game.

Katie Byrne's column has moved to Weekend magazine, every Saturday in the Irish Independent

'Mags told us we didn't need Pamela Anderson's body to get boys to like us'

we didn't need Pamela Anderson's body to get boys to like us

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