Saturday, October 29, 2005

Passport for Planet Woman

I think I'm shopping above my demographic. Since we started having our groceries delivered by Ocado, they've been giving us free samples that seem designed for someone else's lifestyle entirely. It was all very amusing when we were getting cognac and flavoured soya milk, but recently they've switched to introductory issues of upscale women's magazines and catalogues.

I don't often visit the land of women's publications, and these keep giving me culture shock. It's not the fluff about clothes and diets, which I expect; it's the offhand remarks and images that reveal an utterly foreign outlook on life, making me wonder: Do most women really think like that? Did I miss the initiation?

I first encountered this with a sample of
Easy Living, a new magazine aimed at women between 30 and 50. The feeling of foreignness came upon me during an article claiming that women often buy things based on ambitions that they will never fulfill (for example, joining gyms they will never go to, or buying elaborate cookbooks when they live on takeaways). I could just about go along with that until the author revealed what she considered to be the ultimate example of this failing: subscribing to The Economist.

Now, I subscribe to The Economist, and I usually read the whole thing; and what's more, I find it more interesting than Easy Living. But the author and editors clearly thought this sentence would make the average 30-to-50-year-old woman nod and chuckle in self-recognition.

Our next delivery included a
Boden catalogue, featuring pictures like this:

I'm afraid my first impulse on seeing these models is not to pick up the phone and order the clothes they're wearing. My first impulse is to call a doctor. I don't expect or want a mainstream fashion catalogue to feature Dawn French, but it's certainly possible to find lovely, slim models who don't look like they're about to fall over from emaciation. Here are a couple of examples from catalogues that I actually get by choice, Lands' End and Traidcraft:

Lands' End model Traidcraft model Of course, Lands' End is a former sail manufacturer that specialises in a sporty, casual look, and Traidcraft is avowedly for granola-muchers, so neither of them could be called typical of fashion-land. Perhaps folks in that strange country really believe that the models above have the perfect shape, which would mean that those at left are bloated and grotesque. I'm not familiar enough with their customs to say.

Last and worst was
Grazia, 'Britain's First Weekly Glossy,' which arrived last Thursday. Inoculated by my previous encounters, I held out for a while. I got through the stupid celebrity news. (It seems that when actresses pop out for a pint of milk, they often don't look as good as they do at film premieres. A team of dedicated editors is working around the clock to unravel this mystery.) I coped with the fact that the only dress in the magazine I liked appeared in a still from Bleak House. But I could no longer bear it when the magazine praised a celebrity for wearing a skirt suit without 'looking like Condoleezza Rice.'

Excuse me? I disagree vehemently with Dr Rice on most issues and I hate where she and her boss are leading my country, but it never occurred to me to criticise her clothes. In every picture I've seen of her, she's been dressed like a grown woman doing an important job -- which is, of course, precisely what she is. However you feel about Dr Rice and her politics, you can't deny that she is one of the few women in this world who is always assured of being taken seriously.

It's a well-known misogynist strategy to undermine a powerful woman by questioning her 'femininity' or attractiveness. Such attacks are meant to keep not only the woman in question, but all women, in their proper place. Yet here we have a magazine allegedly produced by and for young, modern, forward-thinking women, mocking Dr Rice for not dressing sexily enough -- unfavourably comparing her to a bit of bone-structure-for-hire who probably didn't even choose that skirt suit herself.

If that's how they do things on Planet Woman, I'm content to be an alien.


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