I love the funny, frank and sometimes provocative feminist blog the Vagenda. It's refreshing reading articles deconstructing horrible gossip mags, picking up on advertising crap or talking honestly about relationships. I don't agree with everything that I read there, but that's part of the enjoyment - in responding to a range of perspectives and opinions. Sometimes there are particularly pertinent pieces, such as this introspection on the dissonance between writing about body image and knowing how ridiculous society's ideals are, but still wishing to lose weight (something that particularly resonated with me at the moment).
Back in the early days when my first tendrils of interest in feminism were stretching, I wrote a little opinion article for them titled 'Confessions of a Teenage Feminist' - and have done a few others since.
I also relished reading their book which came out a few months ago - the subtitle 'A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media' laying clear the line of argument. From lads mags to marriage to how uncomfortable thongs are, it's a smart and often hilarious read with a more sober underlying message.
The brilliant founders Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter (who both write individually for a range of publications, as well as together) agreed to do a Q&A with me, talking about magazines, fashion and the potential of the internet...
What sparked you wanting to start up the Vagenda?
H: We started the Vagenda because we’d spent a lot of time together, penniless and bored, buying a stack of magazines and the two-for-a-fiver wines at the corner shop. We didn’t have a lot of money - I was a recent graduate, and Rhiannon was a student - but we wanted a fun night in. What surprised us was how quickly we tired of what we were reading. It was boring, it was repetitive, it was strangely lacking in kink and completely chockablock with beauty products. The turning point for me was a double page spread in Cosmopolitan, where one side was a feature about body confidence and the other was an advert for plastic surgery. At that point, I think we both thought, ‘We have to challenge this.’
R: I had been quite insecure about my looks as a teenager but it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I realised how magazines were negatively affecting my self esteem, especially with all the diet tips and airbrushed images. It was getting worse and worse - some of the weight loss tips they have now would not be amiss on a pro-anorexia website, and we both felt that this was deeply wrong. We started the Vagenda partly because we felt there was no alternative narrative for young women. They are being told to act a certain way and look a certain way and the pressure is intense. We felt there was a space for a website criticising and examining that in a humorous way and that's how we came to the idea of the blog. The low point for me, I think, was seeing a picture of a spaghetti bolognese with the headline: 'SOME WOMEN EAT THIS AND STAY SKINNY.' We'd just had enough, frankly.
Has your relationship with magazines and the media changed since beginning the blog and publishing the book?
H: I can’t read them for pleasure anymore! Having spent over two years now making fun of their more ridiculous parts, I now see every section as ripe for analysis. As for the media at large, some have openly despised the Vagenda and some have got on board with it. We’ve had some encouraging conversations with magazines like Elle about how they can make their editorial more feminist.
R: I can't read them for fun either. They still have an effect on me, though. The other day I read a feature in Now magazine that was called 'WHAT THE STARS REALLY WEIGH' and it made me feel truly awful about myself. Just because we take the piss out their content doesn't mean we're immune from magazine manipulation. I'm more discerning about what I choose to read now. I like Elle and Vogue because they still seem to value intelligent women's writing, though I wish they featured a more diverse range of ethnicities and body types. Libertine and Stylist are great as well - I love that Stylist still does books where other magazines have stopped. For teenagers, I actually found ASOS magazine to be setting an incredible example when it comes to featuring models with different looks and styles. In one issue white women were actually in the minority, which was refreshing. Online, I tend to read blogs, but there's Rookiemag, which is awesome. I'd say the main thing is that, since doing the Vagenda, I've become more interested in what alternative content there is out there, and more inclined to seek it out rather than defaulting to the mainstream media.
Was there a chapter or area that you particularly enjoyed writing about/ ranting on/ picking apart?
H: For me, I really enjoyed the sex chapter, because we had such a laugh writing it. We got to read through hundreds of ridiculous sex tips and hilariously tear them apart, as well as share some of our most embarrassing sex stories with each other, which was ridiculously fun. But I also feel very proud of the lad culture chapter - it felt so cathartic to hit back at all the UniLad-esque bullshit that was going around, and we were writing it only a couple of weeks after Steubenville, so there was a real sense that this was important.
R: Yeah the sex chapter was probably the most fun to write, but the dieting one is the one I felt most strongly about, I think, because of all the ridiculous fads out there and the impact that such content has historically had on my own self-esteem (I've done every crap diet under the sun). So writing that was really cathartic.
I particularly enjoyed your observations on body image and fashion (various cutting comments on the latter really made me laugh). I tend to get very irritated when people suggest that one can't be a feminist whilst also enjoying clothes and the cultivation of appearance. What's your opinion on the intersection between the two?
H: I hate this ‘You can’t be a feminist and X, Y or Z’ stuff. Feminism should be a straightforward belief in gender equality, without any further checklist. You can be a feminist and vajazzle, you can be a feminist and love fashion, you can be a feminist and experiment with clothing and make-up in a way that indulges your creative side and makes you feel happy. Fashion has been going on in one form or another since time immemorial, and just because it’s sometimes been used for anti-feminist means or has sometimes produced serious issues (such as the size zero phenomenon) doesn’t mean that that’s intrinsically what it’s all about. I feel very similarly about fashion as I do about women’s magazines: I love them both, want to access both, and only have a problem insofar as the industries aren’t currently doing women justice.
R: I love clothes, always have, always will. I don't think there's anything anti-feminist about wanting to express yourself aesthetically. Fashion can be so creative and fun, and it can make you feel great. I think the problem is that women are expected to conform to certain ideals that are prevalent within the fashion industry - such as extreme slimness - that it becomes dangerous. The unethical treatment of workers in sweatshops is a big concern for me, and of course that has feminist implications. I also hate how everyone is put under pressure to look the same. The kind of fashion I adore is when I see women wearing beautiful, ethically made clothes that reflect their personalities in a creative way. I love it when people make the effort to stand out from the crowd, and wish women felt they could do it more.
With the amount of media at our fingertips and messages blaring about what we should be looking like, how we should be behaving etc, is it just harder to be a young woman today - or are there advantages too?
H: You’re right that on the one hand, we’re being constantly bombarded with something we used to be able to escape from a bit more. But on the other, the growth of Twitter and blogging culture has given so many people a voice. The Vagenda was started by us two as a labour of love, with no money, using a free platform, and was spread throughout social media by people who liked what they were reading. There was no PR, no printing press, no hidden costs. The fact that so many people responded and were able to get on board with submissions about their own lives says it all. We are increasing diversity in a really powerful way through the internet - no longer is the media solely for one sort of person (who probably has a trust fund and a load of parental connections.)
R: I think there is a generational aspect to it, certainly. I recently wrote an article called 'On Bikini Body Bullshit' that was about feeling under pressure to diet and had a big response especially from young women. I think we've grown up in an era where we've had 'the beauty myth' rammed down our throats in a way that is more rampant than our mothers' generation, as our society has become more and more capitalistic. You'll often get older women saying 'we always thought magazines were rubbish, we don't need you to tell us', but we grew up in a feminist vacuum and realising that perhaps the media didn't have our best interests at heart was a real epiphany. Saying that, we've had some amazing letters from older women expressing real anger that nothing seems to have changed since their day and indeed, things seem to be getting worse.
Do you think there's any conceivable way that the media might be forced to change in coming years?
H: I think we’re already seeing this new ‘feminist zeitgeist’ changing the media. Grazia now has a political columnist, Elle staged a debate on feminism, even Cosmopolitan tried to make ‘the F word’ trendy. The media can’t ignore a huge resurgence in feminism, or they’d look out of touch. I think all sorts of things are currently changing, and will continue to change, because of that. The consumer has more power and more of a voice now, too, so we can put the pressure on for change to happen faster than it might have done otherwise.
R: I think it will change in the coming years mainly because of competition from the internet. Celebrity magazines will all but die out because Mail Online and others are simply able to disseminate the news at a speed that Heat and Closer just won't be able to keep up with. I'm not saying that's a good thing because at least Heat and Closer have narratives, even if they are often cruel ones, while the Mail thinks a flash of sideboob or a woman getting changed is headline-worthy. So the change will be because of market forces, not because of feminism. But I think sites like the Vagenda have proven that there is an appetite for funny, intelligent content for women and media companies will be trying to appeal to those readers. Also social media has increased pressure on media outlets to be ethical, which can only be a good thing, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself.
Any plans to set up that ideal magazine you outline in the conclusion?
H: Not quite yet! That’s a financial impossibility for us - plus we’re taking a short breather after writing the book(!) - but there are some people out there who are producing some truly fantastic mags that we’d love to read. The latest one I got hold of was one we promoted on the Vagenda. It’s called Juniper and was produced by a young girl during her course at Northumbria University. It’s forward-thinking, feminist, and full of fashion tips. I think it’ll really take off.
R: We can't afford to but all power to anyone who's out there doing it. My friend Hannah has a zine called Queen of the Track which is also a fantastic read, and Libertine is brilliant too. There are some fantastic independent magazines out there for women if you look hard enough!
I really enjoyed doing these (ever so faintly) subversive images to accompany the Q & A - with a Barbie in tow. Take what you will from the visual message. I dressed in colours to emulate the book, naturally. The skirt belonged to my late grandma. She actually wore it to my parents' wedding! The top is a dress (from a charity shop) and everything else is second hand.