Just As Beautiful - now available in print

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The UK's first magazine solely aimed at and featuring plus-size women has made the transition from online to print, generating a lot of discussion in the process.

Just As Beautiful magazine, which has been available to subscribers in online format for three years, can now be purchased via its website. When i tweeted the news this morning my words were met with several irritated reactions from friends and followers - people who sit in the 'plus size' category themselves yet feel that a magazine that singles them out is patronising and offensive to women whatever their size. People who aren't plus size and felt the language used by the magazine is negative and defeats the object of being more inclusive.

I took a look at the press release about the magazine's launch and I have to say, it rubbed me up the wrong way immediately. Reference to Christina Hendricks? Check. References to 'size zero' and 'impossibly skinny' models? Check. Footnote declaring that 'Men prefer women with curves'? Oh yes.

There's some good points in there - the fallacy of the diet industry, the editor's statement that she wants readers to feel they shouldn't have to change the way they look to be happy. But really, did it have to packaged alongside all that 'size zero debate' (come on, it's not 2006), 'what men really want' rubbish?

Whenever I talk to women about magazines they usually make two main points. Firstly, how much they'd love to read publications which feature a wide variety of women and secondly how much they'd love to read publications which didn't insist on telling us 'what men REALLY want' every issue. In an ideal world this would work out fine. I'd love to see magazines which really support women and don't rely on pitting us against each other by making snide comments about what's supposedly attractive and what's not. It's such a tabloid tactic - women vs women, good for a bitchy feature.

Many mainstream women's magazines are guilty of fatphobia. I don't this means that publications seeking to be inclusive and raise self esteem should go the other way and start promoting themselves alongside quotes about the desirability of 'curves' and comments about the bodies of models - who incidentally, are 'real women' too, no matter how thin they are. And while plus size women may shop at different places to those usually featured in mainstream magazines, what's with all the rest of the content especially aimed at the larger woman? I couldn't help feeling that this setting apart has got undertones of those times when major fashion magazines produce one issue featuring curvier or older models, yet refuse to feature them at any other time of the year.

I started a discussion about Just As Beautiful at a community I'm part of, laying out my thoughts and feelings about the way the launch has come across first. The general consensus was that while the magazine's aim is probably in the right place, it's not something any of the women who commented on the post would want to buy. The magazine's title was a major sticking point. You can't deny that it's a fine example of an almost unbearably patronising title. When I was growing up there was a plus size shop in my town named 'Pretty Big' and to be honest Just As Beautiful has that same level of cringe about it.

Some noteworthy comments:
"There is a major issue of fatphobia in women's magazines but by publishing this, they're shooting everyone in the foot. Specialist magazine showcasing plus size women and issues = no longer concern of regular magazine because there's a magazine doing all that. What little exposure plus size women/issues get in other women's magazines might go *poof* in light of this..."
"Just because my body is a particular size or shape, it doesn't mean that i'm going to automatically need to read all about it, you know? I'm not just a body, grasping for anything that vaguely might resemble me. And if it had some intelligent articles about women's bodies, the problems facing all sizes in the media - it'd be different. But this just seems reductive and patronising."
"I've always felt that even though I'm a size 16/18, I have exactly the same lifestyle, goals, interests as a size 6/8 woman. It means that a fat woman's lifestyle is dictated by her fat, and suggests that they need to approach life in a different way from a slimmer woman, which is perverse. Although I 'fit in' with this magazine's target audience, the fact I still live my life as I would whether I was bigger or smaller means that it's entirely redundant to me. I dress how I want to dress, I socialise how I want to socialise, I have attractive partners to whom I'm genuinely attracted...I'm strong academically, I have distinct ambitions. And none of that has anything to do with my size."
"...it makes me feel really uncomfortable when plus-sized women...are labelled as 'real' women - thin women aren't imaginary! It's another way of saying that attractiveness in a woman is defined by whether or not men find her attractive. Aside from the inherent heteronormativity in that way of thinking, it's just plain misogynistic."
Overall there was a feeling that trying to keep two groups of women separate purely because of size is a negative thing and that magazines should be trying harder to be inclusive of everyone.

Obviously there's the other side of the coin to consider. According to its editor, the magazine has achieved great popularity over the last three years and has proved a great find for women who feel excluded by mainstream mags. You can't disagree that many of these magazines display an extremely dismissive attitude towards women who aren't thin, most obviously when it comes to features about clothes. As I mentioned above, there's the one-off issues 'celebrating' women who aren't young, white and thin but sadly that's all they are: one-offs.

These magazines do need to do better. Stop sending your size ten writers off to get Harley Street treatments for 'that stubborn tummy roll' or 'those nightmare saddlebags'. Stop pretending that crash diets are normal. Start taking a more inclusive approach to fashion. Maybe then women bigger than size 12 won't feel like they need a separate magazine to cater to their interests and lifestyles.

There is a problem with self esteem linked to women's magazines and by being critical of Just As Beautiful I'm in no way criticising its readership or its original aims. But it's certainly something which has got a lot of people talking and many things about it have made me uncomfortable.

A few good links

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A lot of my time recently has been taken up with life in general and it's been nice, but hasn't left much time for blogging. I'm training for the Great Eastern Run and with two weeks to go that's keeping me pretty busy so you'll have to excuse the fact that some of these posts have been around for a while now. It's taken me a while to get round to compiling this post - so here, have a few links to things I've been looking at recently.

- I can't believe I've only just been alerted to the existence of Fat Quarter, a 'woman-friendly' publication/site which was set up 'as an antidote to the rafts of women's glossies' (which is what I like to hear). Go and see for yourself or better still, purchase a copy!
- Speaking of woman-friendly enterprises, I'm delighted to be involved in a new project - Siren magazine, spearheaded by my friend Felicity of The Tempest in the Teacup. Inspired by alternative women's magazines and websites, Siren plans to provide food for thought for women who are sick of reading features about diets and finding a man. I believe women want - and need more. Inspiring content on careers, relationships, news and issues, culture, creativity and hobbies. Technology, travel, sport and women who are making a difference. Siren launches on October 1st so keep your eyes peeled.
- Ruth Rosselson writes about why fast fashion is a feminist issue, discussing the ethical issues surrounding garment production and the way that fashion companies do business, arguing that we need to see drastic changes to make sure that the people who help produce clothes are treated more fairly. A few days ago I was discussing with friends on Twitter how an emphasis on ethical clothing can exclude people who don't have the money to pay for it and obviously there are not just 'fast fashion' issues but class issues having an impact here. In short, there are many problems to take into consideration.
- Cath Elliott has done a sterling job of compiling a list of UK feminist bloggers. Plenty of great sites to explore.
- A piece from the Guardian details the full horror of the extent to which female genital mutilation is being inflicted on girls worldwide, with emphasis on the fact that up to 2,000 British girls have undergone 'cutting' this summer. Although it is illegal for anyone to perform FGM on a permanent UK resident, no prosecutions have been made.
- A brilliant post from Sian entitled "If I Was A Superhero".

Last year's Great Eastern Run caused me to miss Feminism in London but this year they're being held on different weekends so I will be attending the conference. Call this advance warning because I'm a big fan of meeting up with blogging acquaintances at events like this. Hope to see some of you there!

Review: the newest Mitfordian memoir

Friday, 24 September 2010

Every year it seems that a new biography, collection of letters or anthology of writings is added to the already wide-ranging library of books about the Mitford sisters.

Those who have no love for the fascinating family and their exploits tend to find this somewhat tedious, but as a fully paid-up Mitford fan I welcome them all. The past few years have seen a number of wonderful additions to the ‘Mitford industry’, from Mary S Lovell’s biography of all six sisters to a collection of their letters to each other and an enormous compendium of Jessica’s letters.

I’d been anticipating Wait For Me!, the memoirs of youngest sister Deborah all year and I know I wasn’t alone. Now ninety years old and more commonly known as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, she has always been one of the less controversial members of her family.

Eldest sister Nancy is famous for her books, Diana and Unity well-known for their unpalatable political affliations and Jessica infamous as an activist and journalist. But Deborah – always ‘Debo’ to her family and friends, has remained ambivalent about politics and followed a path much more conventional for an upper-class woman of her generation – marrying the man who was to become the Duke of Devonshire and spending decades as the face of Chatsworth House.

People have eagerly awaited what she has to say about her family and her connections to so many of the 20th century’s famous faces – Winston Churchill was a relative and the Kennedy family were close friends. They're certainly in for a treat with this treasure trove of history, hilarious anecdotes and surprising admissions.

The first few chapters of Wait For Me! take us through the author’s childhood, something which will be familiar to Mitford fans or anyone who has read Nancy’s novels – although here and there you’ll read snippets of new information. But as you read further on into Debo’s teenage years, the memoir really comes into its own with decades of intriguing encounters and exploits to tell.

One criticism of the sisters over the years is that they’ve seemed somewhat emotionally detached, almost cruel – and cold in their feelings towards their parents and children. It’s a theme brought up at several points throughout the book and it’s clear to see that certainly for Debo, this attitude was down to convention rather than anything else – the famed English ‘stiff upper lip’ and the fact that in decades gone by, you just didn’t ‘talk about your feelings’.

She writes movingly of her love for her parents and their support for the family, of her devotion to her late husband Andrew and the way she helped him battle alcoholism and most heartbreakingly, of the pain she felt at losing three babies within hours of giving birth to them.

Some find it hard to feel sympathy for those who have lived such privileged lives – and you don’t get much more privileged than the duchess. It might be hard for some to read of her sadness at the way life has changed since the Second World War, with the destruction of country houses, inheritance tax and the reform of the House of Lords all coming in for criticism. Hers has been a life of stately homes and hunting, parties with royalty and connections with the great and the good.

But it’s also been a life blighted by tragedy. The deaths of three children. The loss of her only brother, four of her closest friends and a brother-in-law in the war, not to mention the attempted suicide and early death of her sister Unity. Reading of her obvious strength and dignity through such tragedies gave me a great respect for Debo and an appreciation for her unique sense of humour.

If you want dirt dished on the sisters and all those famous friends, this isn’t the book for you. The duchess has a lot to say about the ‘Mitford girls’ and while she sets the record straight by stating she always disagreed with Jessica’s communist politics and the fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity, she sticks to writing about her love for them despite their views. She does, however, have a bit to say about the revelation that Nancy informed on Diana and recommended she be imprisoned. Sister Pamela, usually lampooned as the least exciting of the family, is the focus on many a hilarious tale and it’s good to see her receiving some attention.

Similarly, Debo writes at length about the Kennedy family and in particular her friendship with JFK, but doesn’t address the rumours of an affair which have surfaced over the years. She is also quick to criticise the media obsession with famous peoples’ sexuality, expressing disapproval at the way some of her friends’ relationships have been picked over by the press.

Lack of salacious gossip aside, Wait For Me! is a wonderful addition to the Mitford canon and a fascinating account of one life lived to the full. Behind the glittering gowns, parties and enormous houses you get a picture of a woman who loves life’s simple pleasures – nature, animals and family. A woman who has weathered many storms with steely resolve and a woman who is immensely thankful for the life she has led.

This piece originally appeared at BitchBuzz.

Who destroyed the 'gentle art of feminine food'?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

In case you were in any doubt about the way feminism has destroyed society, the Daily Mail has decided to tell us this week that us women’s libbers are also responsible for the popularity of fast food, obesity in children and the death of home cooking.

In an article written by food writer and journalist Rose Prince, we’re told that as a result of the call for equality 50 years ago:

“Domestic cooking was chucked aside as an irrelevance, an icon of unfairness to women — which allowed a very eager food industry to leap forward with the convenience-food solution.

Yes, it’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity.”

You know when you read something and that urge to repeatedly bring your head into contact with your desk immediately comes over you? This was one of those moments. Prince names a host of issues – children not exercising, consumption of convenience foods, less time spent eating – all tenuously linked to the fact that some decades ago, women wanted equality and better lives and therefore, apparently, stopped cooking nutritious meals.

Now Rose Prince has a new book out. Kitchenella is apparently a celebration of simple cooking on a budget which is “not about showing off and extravagance, but generosity and kindness; a subtle and intelligent way to nurture”.

This sounds good to me. I love cooking – yes, you read that correctly, a feminist who loves cooking – I have to cook on a budget and I also think that cooking for people is a really great way to show generosity and kindness. It’s a great mission statement for a cookery book – so why does it have to come alongside such ridiculous assumptions about societal problems?

Doubtless it has something to do with the newspaper Prince is writing for on this occasion. But to look no deeper into the reasons people aren’t getting adequate nutrition or living healthy lifestyles is naive.

For a start the effect of consumerism needs to be looked at – the way that labour-saving appliances and foods have been sold to us over the years as ‘essentials’. Then there’s ever-quickening pace of life and rising cost of living which leave people with not only less time to prepare food, but less money to spend on it.

We know it’s all right for those who have the time and the cash to source their produce at farm shops and trendy delicatessens, feeling happy that they’re buying organic and cooking out of the latest must-have tome from Hugh or Nigella.

For most of us, however, that’s not reality. And when the cheapest food in the supermarket and the quickest food to prepare is the unhealthiest, we end up with what’s known as food poverty. It’s estimated that food poverty affects four million people in the UK. If you can’t afford to travel to somewhere which sells fresh or healthy produce and don’t have the time to cook it because you’re holding down two jobs, convenience foods are going to win out.

There’s a rather large pair of rose-tinted spectacles being employed here: I don’t think most people are under any illusion that everyone cooked fabulous and nutritious meals in years gone by. People cooked with what was available to them. And today we have a lot more choice.

What’s also of concern is Prince’s allusions to the “gentle art of feminine food”. I agree with her when she says that lots of today’s TV chefs showcase recipes which are too expensive and complicated for a lot of time-poor people with limited funds to bother about.

But following this up with the statement that “being a feminist does not mean dropping femininity”? If I see one more newspaper or magazine article wheeling out that old chestnut as if it’s the most important thing women today need to know I’ll probably lose it.

Prince’s article contains a rather bizarre account of how she found the sight of Germaine Greer cooking “like a Fifties stay-at-home mum” on Celebrity Big Brother “touching”. Bizarre to me and just as bizarre to the rest of you kitchen-loving feminists out there, feeding your families and friends, dreaming up new dishes and selling your creations.

Thankfully her new book is aimed at “modern cooks, both men and women”. Because there I was wondering why men as nurturers, cooks and carers weren’t mentioned. Maybe the thought that some women just might not care about cooking is also too much to bear.

This article originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via twopinkpossums's Flickr.

Birthday Celebrations for BitchBuzz

Friday, 17 September 2010

Last Friday I was down in London catching up with some people and attending BitchBuzz's second birthday party. I've been writing for BitchBuzz for almost a year now and I'm so pleased to be contributing to such a great site. It's so important to me that websites and magazines aimed at women have something to say. Something to say about a wide range of topics and something to say which doesn't involve crash diet plans and features on 'how to keep your man'. That's why I'm proud to be part of BitchBuzz and proud to know its other contributors, who are amazing and intelligent women. Above: Charlotta, me, Alison and Lori.

The knees-up was held at Jewel Covent Garden - wonderfully easy to get to for us out-of-towners - and it was lovely to catch up with everyone and meet new faces as well.

Editor-in-Chief Cate (centre) with Sarah from Uplift magazine and Fleur, whose blog Diary of a Vintage Girl is a lovely new discovery.

Appropriately feisty decorations

Cate and Lori

Equality not superiority

Sunday, 12 September 2010

It's always disappointing when spaces which should be characterized by tolerance and acceptance turn into exactly the opposite. This weekend I've been watching at first with interest and then with growing anger as drama has exploded in the comments of this post over at The F Word.

When I first read Laura's blog post on comments made by Church of England priest Miranda Threlfall-Holmes about women and the church it felt very timely. Just recently I've had to deal with some things that meant her reminders about Jesus's commitment to the marginalised, those who were 'different' and his disregard for societal convention in choosing friends were very reassuring to me.

I am a Christian feminist. A feminist Christian. I'm not quite sure which way sounds best. It's a phrase that doesn't sit well with a lot of people; the Christians who don't like feminism and the feminists who don't like Christianity. By and large I've always been able to use those two words together just fine. Talking and writing about the intersection of the two belief systems is something I've done a fair bit of and it's always good to see a piece on a major site like The F Word dealing with religion.

By writing the post about Threlfall-Holmes's comments, Laura hoped people would discuss the things she talked about - her worries that some people are still making the church an unfriendly place for women, that they are forgetting Jesus's radical treatment of women and the importance he accorded his female friends. It could have been good.

Unfortunately the discussion was derailed right from the start, the voices of religious women who may have wanted to contribute silenced - by those who felt that the issue of whether Jesus was actually a real person was more important. In the very first comment on the post, Amy Clare asked whether there was any evidence that Jesus existed. She closed her comment with the words:
"Repeat: there is *no evidence*. Sorry if that's inconvenient."
Next we heard from Zelda:
"Still, it's all fairytales... no substance, only speculation...Religion (esp organised religion) has done much more harm than good, especially for women. Why is she still in the C o E? Why hasn't she walked out in a rage..."
It's telling that many people commenting subsequently - Christians and atheists alike, felt the need to point out that actually, there's plenty of evidence that Jesus was a real person. Many of these people also commented that they weren't impressed by the sentiments expressed above. Said Ruth:
"As an historian by training, I find it two parts risible and eight parts offensive that you dismiss ("sorry if it's inconvenient") written records (and records are a lot more than official documents)."
In response, Amy Clare wrote:
"Do you really not care whether people you meet tell you the truth about things? Seriously? If you *do* care about truth from the standpoint of your everyday life, but don't care about it when it comes to religious texts, why the distinction?
...I'll always believe in gender equality and call myself a feminist but I just don't want to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don't matter."
Here's the part where I lay out how I feel about this. Let's start at the beginning. The purpose of Laura's post was NOT to discuss the evidence for and against the existence of Jesus and the truth of what his followers believe. It was NOT to discuss faith schools and what constitutes 'indoctrination' by parents. The purpose of the post was to discuss women in the church. Whether atheists like it or not, there are a lot of religious feminists out there. And guess what? We're all part of the same movement. As far as the aims of the movement go, their lack of religious belief does not make them any more important, enlightened or intelligent than our personal faith does for us.

Some people need to remember that. The fact that from the off, some people wanted the discussion to centre on disproving Christianity was dismissive and silencing. I have no doubt that it was off-putting to some women of faith who might have had very valid contributions to make, but may have felt marginalised and attacked by the way their beliefs were referred to.

There absolutely should be room for religious women - whatever their religion - within feminism. I have never met a religious feminist who thinks her religion should have the monopoly on the women's movement and that's because we should be working together for the good of ALL women, whatever they believe in.

My feminism supports and builds up and listens. My feminism does not belittle and attempt to claim intellectual superiority over matters of faith. Being obsessed at all costs with concrete evidence is flawed, as plenty of people commenting on the post pointed out. Repeatedly asking women to justify their religious beliefs in the face of insults and disrespect goes against what so many of us stand for and is NOT acceptable.

One point which came up a few times was the fact that Christianity (and other religions) have been used as a tool of oppression and hatred for centuries. This much is true, I can't deny it. But as someone said to me afterwards, it's important to realise that although things done in the name of Christianity are abhorrent and that others continue to feed poison into many peoples' lives, these are the works of people, not of God. God's truth is positive and freeing and a force for good.

Laura was right when she commented to say that the opportunity for decent discussion between Christian women on that post had been closed down immediately. What could have been incredibly interesting and enlightening was derailed in the worst way possible. I'm pleased that the collective plans to amend its charter and comment policy to reflect the fact that religious women should be free to discuss issues surrounding their faith without attack and ridicule.

For those who felt the need to derail and silence, what did you achieve? You left plenty of people very angry and disappointed that such intolerance should characterize what could have been a fascinating comment thread.

I think it continues to be a problem that some church groups paint feminism and feminists in a very negative light, one frequent accusation being that our aims are contrary to 'God's plan' (for those Christians who believe in male headship, patriarchy or even those letting it hinge on single issues like abortion rights). This is discouraging to a lot of people, not least burgeoning Christian feminists who might be unsure how they fit into the church or how they might fit into feminism itself because of their beliefs. When they see comments threads like this, I'm afraid it DOES show the movement in a negative light.

And the comment about not wanting to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don't matter? As I said before, atheists have not got and will never have a monopoly on the women's movement. If 'truth and evidence' no longer matter because respecting the faiths of all women does, because including ALL women whatever their culture and whatever their religion does, I'm happy to stay part of it. And if you can't deal with this necessity for tolerance and respect then maybe it isn't for you.

Earlier this year there was an interesting post by Renee Martin at Womanist Musings entitled Liberal Spaces and Christianity. The post dealt with the way individual Christians are often attacked by those who link their personal beliefs with the unpleasant actions of fundamentalists, of bigoted people who spout hatred in the name of Jesus and how this is problematic in feminist spaces - not least because it can also become a race issue. The post ends with a quote I felt it was important to post here.

"If you silence voices that would help you, then you are denying a valuable resource that could potentially be marshalled in the cause of justice. The next time you are thinking of saying why doesn’t someone speak out, remember that I do everyday and it is because I am a Christian."

Note: I will not be responding to any calls to justify or 'prove' my faith which may appear in the comments. It's just not what this post is about.

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