It is part of the depressing uniformity of our world that, near the front of any supermarket from Dublin to Durban, London to L.A., pretty much the same sight greets your eye.
It’s the so called ‘news stand,’ which once upon a time was populated by newspapers reporting (sort of) real news, but whose lebensraum is now choked by a profusion of titles proclaiming the imminent scandalous death of everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Donald Trump’s gerbil, to intense and deeply worried speculation about the weight gain of some soap actress you’ve miraculously never heard of, until now that is.
It is these supermarket counter ‘women’s magazines’ whose popularity has continued to fascinate me since their emergence twenty or so years ago. They continue to mushroom across the news stands like a plague of, er, mushrooms. In an age when every other kind of print is supposed to be dying, new titles seem to sprout up every week with friendly names like ‘Hi’ and ‘OK’ and ‘Fabulous.’
The names seem to bely most of the subject matter, which mainly consists of almost forensically detailed photos of models / soap stars / ex-girlfriends of rock stars in miniscule bikinis alongside ‘true life’ stories such as ‘I’m giving birth to my own mother’ and ‘I’m having a baby for some serial killer I met on the Internet.’
It is the photos which intrigue me the most. Indeed, long before your jaded eye has managed to absorb the cheery title, it has feasted on anything up to three cover page images of some voluptuous female personage I’ve never heard of, besporting herself in a bikini under a caption which says “phew! Hasn’t Jade put on an awful lot of weight recently?”
There’s a sort of visual code to the photos too, so you don’t have to scratch your head too hard trying to figure what it’s all about. If Jade, in spite of the incredibly revealing attire, is wearing a pair of shades and has her head slightly bowed, then it’s a safe bet the story will read something like “Jade struggles with weight issues after her break up with Tony,’ or “Where now for Jade after she gains at least six pounds?”
She’s doing a kind of walk of body shame, you see. This is apparently one of the innovations of our age: it’s possible to be photographed almost naked and still manifest all the pious shame of a nun.
If, on the other hand, Jade has her head upthrust, confronting the midday sun without goggles, and is also wearing something that looks suspiciously like a smile, then the caption probably reads: ‘Jade is just loving life and her body now she’s all loved up with Brad.’
This isn’t Playboy. It’s not even labelled as pornography. Indeed, so profuse and fecund are these female oriented titles that they’ve virtually pushed all the good old fashioned smut off the magazine stands. Try very hard and you might just manage to come across a copy of ‘Vintage Car Mechanic,’ buried under all the folds of relentlessly scrutinized female flesh.
A new day, a new Grade Z celebrity being subjected to the probings of the flesh police. ‘Hasn’t Candy got a bit of a belly?’ I’ve tried, I’ve peered as closely as social propriety will allow and I can’t find anything I’d define as a ‘belly,’ but then I’m not the Editor of a supermarket woman’s mag.
Which is kind of the point. These magazines are produced by women, supposedly for the enjoyment of other women. But doesn’t this point to the deeply schizoid nature of this kind of journalism, and indeed of women’s publishing generally?
We hear so much these days about ‘fat shaming,’ ‘body shaming’ etc. We are told these are things that ought to be made into hate crimes. We are told that the objectification of women is evil, but is it only evil if it’s being done by a magazine geared at men?
Feminist scholars lecture the world endlessly on the evils of pornography, side-stepping around the question of why so many women these days appear to do it voluntarily. Yet they are, in general, curiously silent about supermarket women’s mags, which are far more ubiquitous, and therefore surely insidious.
Back in the day, unless you belonged to some coven of hard core perverts, you knew that looking at naked women’s bodies in a men’s magazine was wrong, or at least not something you boasted about. You didn’t proudly display the centrefold to your friends in a shopping mall coffee shop, inviting opinions about whether Shauna or Jana had a bit of a belly.
The magazines were not placed in a way to encourage such social feedback. You had to reach up to the very top shelf, for God’s sake. You had to turn the colour purple and stand in a queue while frantically trying to avoid the cashier’s disapproving eye, as she inquired “do you want a paper bag with that, you f***ing pervert?”
But now? More than one woman will tell you that physical scrutiny from other women is a great more intense, more stressful, than physical scrutiny from men. After all, the evolutionary imbalance between the genders is such that once men have gone ‘phwoar. Wouldn’t mind a bit of that’ that’s pretty much it. Nature has not furnished us with anything else to say.
Female scrutiny is infinitely more sophisticated, infinitely more capable of wounding under the guise of concern.
“Ooh Maura, you’ve lost so much weight. You look fabulous darling, really, really well. Although I’m not sure that colour suits you. Isn’t it amazing how much weight you put on after Slasher left you? Wasn’t he such a bastard to go off with that slimmer woman? But you’ve nearly got it all off now, nearly.”
Is it because of this that feminist leaders, so loud and intense in their condemnation of so many other things, fall curiously silent when it comes to supermarket body shaming mags?
We live in an age when many women, particularly younger women, feel vulnerable and isolated, perhaps even suicidal, because of body shaming. The crazy thing is that most of this scrutiny is being perpetrated by women on other women. Yet we hear barely a peep from the feminists. Why is that?