Hadley Freeman has a very smart piece in the Guardian today about a very disturbing phenomenon: female journalists publicly baring their depressing and ultimately unsuccessful battles with various forms of self-loathing.
Freeman specifically mentions Christa D'Souza's Daily Mail article about her increasingly harrowing experiences with breast implants, and of course Liz Jones's truly upsetting story (also, predictably, in the Daily Mail) of trying to treat lifelong anorexia with three weeks of scones and brie and — shocker — still feeling bad about her body afterwards. But she has a larger point: a genre has sprung up in contemporary lifestyle journalism, in which "a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship" and usually ends up "sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece."
As Sadie pointed out in her coverage of Jones's piece (Jones is pictured above), this kind of writing is bad for everybody. It's bad for the writers, who — if they're not totally manufacturing their distress for the reader's benefit — probably need therapy. But Freeman argues that it's actually worse for readers. For them, she writes, articles like Jones's "are surely just as dangerous and potentially influential as the photos of the skinny models the journalist professes to abhor."
Liz Jones is certainly troubling as thinspo, but Christa D'Souza is more complicated. Her experience with scar tissue, lopsided breasts, cancer, pain, and the total absence of any self-esteem boost from her new breasts isn't going to convince anybody to get implants. But it might convince some readers — male and female — that women are "self-hating, self-obsessed," and that it's normal to be like this.
One of the best pieces of feminist advice I've ever gotten is not to insult my own body in front of others. It perpetuates the idea that women should hate our bodies — that our inevitable physical flaws are worth valuable brain-space and conversational time. But pieces like Jones's and D'Souza's aren't just body-snark, they're self-snark: public expressions of low self-esteem so intractable that it lingers for years, harms relationships, and even endangers physical health. Freeman says editors assign these pieces because they have a "misogynistic image of what women are like," and that may well be true, but it's a vicious cycle. The more "boom and bust boob" stories we read, the more it seems that women are like D'Souza or Jones — irrevocably fucked up by aesthetic or social strictures they recognize are unhealthy but can't seem to escape. And the easier it is to assume that we, the female readers, can't escape them either.
These strictures aren't just about beauty — Zoe Lewis's I-chose-a-career-and-now-I'm-miserable screed and Lori Gottlieb's cautionary tale about how failing to "settle" caused her lifelong loneliness are basically cut from the same cloth, maybe just a little more highbrow. All these sob stories basically promulgate the notion that women can't have it all, or even much of anything, because even smart ladies who write for newspapers and magazines are basically unfulfilled and miserable.
The truth, of course, is much more complicated than that — even the disturbing Liz Jones is probably happier, at least at times, than she seems in her anorexia piece. Freeman is correct that most confessional journalism of the Jones/D'Souza variety is likely conceived with the goal of "getting a reaction from readers," and female misery seems to get hits. But editors who rely on self-loathing for numbers (and we're looking at ladymags too here) need to recognize that they're exploiting their female writers and giving their readers a twisted view of what it means to be a woman.
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