Why Do We Hate Women’s Magazines? They Gave Us Our First Lesson in Feminism After All

Gender

Why Do We Hate Women’s Magazines? They Gave Us Our First Lesson in Feminism After All

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

still remember the first time I fell in love. I was walking to my 10th-grade Hindi tuition when a sexy woman stared back at me from the cover of a women’s magazine in a second-hand book store. It wasn’t just any old desi women’s magazine with recipes of sarson ka saag and sage advice on how to be a sanskari bahu – it was a glossy, sophisticated, “imported” magazine.

“10 Ways to Make a Man Weak in Bed,” it screamed on the cover, next to a model wearing a red evening gown with a thigh-high slit and seven-inch heels that made her look impossibly tall and commanding. My Lady in Red looked like she had a million dollars in the bank and had men falling at her feet wherever she went. Immediately, the 15-year old me knew that I wanted to be like her because she looked like she never worried about boring things like conjugating verbs and remembering the difference between rabi and kharif crops. She’d probably flick a middle finger at anyone who told her she wasn’t right.

That was the beginning of my obsession with women’s magazines. I bought five of them that day and stashed them at the back of my cupboard taking them out regularly to fantasise about the amazing life I’d have in the future, complete with a great career, a fantastic man, trendy clothes, and unlimited make-up. It promised me a life different from the lives of the women around me whose worries began and ended with the level of namak in a dish, errant bais, and rickshaw drivers who refused to take them where they wanted to go. 

This was my first lesson in feminism.

I followed these magazines more religiously than some people follow Kylie Jenner. At a time when patriarchy was so much a part of our DNA that most women didn’t even recognise it until it hit them on the head or slapped them on the butt, women’s magazines worked like an air freshener in a world stinking with misogyny. It cleared the air about women’s issues without putting anybody’s nose out of joint. It became easy for me to pretend that I was listening to everyone’s opinion of how to be a good girl, while I secretly consulted my Lady in Red for advice about how to be a real woman. Whenever the world was cruel and I felt my hopes and dreams slowly shrivel, I’d take out my beloved magazines and feel my spirits revive. My Lady in Red was my agony aunt.

Through the years, women’s magazines have  shown women how to take time out for themselves, celebrate their womanhood in their own unique way and fall in love with themselves.

She was also my love and relationship guide. ”Fabulous looks that will take you from boardroom to bedroom,” sounds horribly cheesy – or plain wrong – in today’s world, but to a 15-year-old who was always told that compromise was part of a woman’s life and sex was something to grin and bear until you had kids, my Lady in Red told me that a woman could succeed everywhere: the boardroom, the bedroom, and everywhere in between. She said it was okay to make the first move if I found my Dhoni just as it was okay to tell him to get lost if he turned out to be a Hardik Pandya. She connected me to other women of the world through our common love for fashion, food, celebrities and romance. She was my guide to a life where I would have it all.

Thirty years later, feminism is out of the shadows and in your face, but newer versions of my beloved magazines are ridiculed and not taken seriously. Just like women, they are accused of being too bold, too slutty, too frivolous, and sometimes, just plain dumb. Its focus on traditionally feminine interests like food, romance, clothes, and beauty products instead of topics like finance or politics is termed regressive and criticised for not keeping up with modern times. I don’t understand why. “Finding the Right Bra” might not be a topic for national debate and it might even be a source of titillation for some, but it is surely a concern for all women. Such topics were and will always be a source of interest and pleasure for women. Men’s magazines are notorious for putting out issues full of cars, cricket, and centrefolds, so why shouldn’t women be informed about their choices about the things that they love?

I suspect the real reason these magazines are not taken seriously, sometimes even by feminists, runs deeper. Society has accepted, even demanded, that a woman be strong, responsible and independent. It acknowledges that a woman is entitled to have it all, but the definition of “having it all” is still very narrow, limited to family and work. Society still has a huge problem with woman being fun and frivolous. The world applauds the woman who cracks the IIT or breaks the glass ceiling at her job, but immediately gets their knickers in a twist if a woman drinks, parties, “sleeps around”, or in any way enjoys herself or puts herself first. Through the years, women’s magazines have  shown women how to take time out for themselves, celebrate their womanhood in their own unique way and fall in love with themselves. Maybe, this is what makes people so uncomfortable with these magazines.  

At the ripe old age of 46, my love for my Lady in Red has matured. I see her faults just like in any other relationship. She did encourage me to spend a lot on myself in my 20s – much more than what was wise, but that’s okay. She left me with wonderful memories and experiences. She encouraged me to ask for what I want. She taught me that you don’t become equal to men by putting them on a pedestal or having them fall at your feet: You do it by simply not thinking about them too much and focusing on yourself. That was unheard of in the ’90s. Did my Lady in Red make me self-centred when I was younger? Maybe, but I was happy, which is why I still love women’s magazines, warts and all.

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