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The "lads' mags" debate

Photo: Dave Thompson / PA Wire (via The Guardian)

So I've just watched some discussion show where they talked about the recent news that the Co-op will ban lads mags from their shop if they do not either tone down front cover images or come in modesty bags from September.

The panel talked about the topic and also brought in via live feed various people to voice their opinions - the head of UK feminista, a glamour model and the editor of Nuts Magazine.

It provoked some interesting discussion but also some dubious points that had me shouting at the telly.

Looking at various news articles, some of which quoted local people's responses, and also Twitter - I can't quite believe some of the responses.

There was a lot of frustration from people about the action with the eventuality this could happen being called a 'travesty' and 'pathetic'.

This I really don't understand. With the addition of modesty sleeves, the Co-op will still sell the magazine. So they're not being banned, and could still be purchased. In which case, is seeing a row of scantily clad flesh when you visit a supermarket that important to you?

One person commented that women campaigning to cover, or in some cases, remove these magazines is a case of 'male oppression by women.' Where do I even start?

You only need look at the timeline of @EverydaySexism to see what women have to put up with on a daily basis. Women are still fighting for equality, and to me - seeing these raunchy images as a standard everyday thing just keeps us behind. It's embarassing.

Also, with modesty covers - men can still buy the magazines. Is that really oppressive?

Part of that comment also addressed the fact that magazines with topless men were not part of this campaign. To be honest, I don't remember the last time I saw a topless man on a cover. When men are part of a cover at all it's often stylish, black and white with a feeling of James Bond about it - very different from women pouting and winking in their knickers.

Even if covers do feature topless men, it just doesn't have the same effect. As I wrote about in my No More Page 3 response post, men can whip their tops off at the first sign of sunshine - if women were to do the same it'd be quite a different situation. Men don't have boobs - there's nothing private about that space of their body. You can't compare.

During the programme, they flashed up a viewer comment. This talked about the nudity of both genders in paintings in art galleries - "should they be covered up too?".

This made me laugh. A lot.

The problem isn't with nudity or female flesh or anything like that. If something is done with artistic purposes, it's very different to seeing '100 VERY BOOBY BABES' (see image at top) on a trip to get a loaf of bread.

Equally, you can take children to a gallery and not feel embarrassed. The art has value, these sort of magazines do not.

That's not even a culture/class judgement - it's just quite clear that these images in galleries  celebrate the human form in a way that standardised front covers of these magazines do not.

I guess the magazines do celebrate the female form - but it's largely one type of woman they celebrate. She tends to be white, young, slim and have big boobs. So that's problematic too.

The editor of Nuts magazine cited how the girls are celebrities and the magazine conveys their personality through interviews and the like. Regardless of whether she's adored for her acting skills on Coronation Street, ultimately she's in that magazine because she looks good and she's willing to get her tits out.

So no, the problem isn't nudity - but where and how it's placed in the public sphere. The glamour model on this programme talked about how people will always have a desire to see the naked body and to have sex, and how would you know what to do without seeing these images?

For a start, these images are unrealistic so using them as guidance is silly. If you get into a relationship and hope to see your partner looking like these girls, you're likely to be disappointed.

The model was right though - people will always have a desire for those things, but what effect would covering up these magazines have on that? It's not stopping anyone either seeing these images or having sex, and to imply that is ridiculous.

Something brought up both in this programme and online over and over again, is the responsibility of parents. Two points are often made - that children should be brought up properly to respect both genders, and that they shouldn't be allowed to wander down magazine aisles freely.

This seems massively problematic. Children's magazines exist, and so while a child is choosing what they'd like - it only takes an upward tilt of the head (they may be small, but they do have this ability) to see the top shelf.

This worries me. For a child to look at the children's shelf - and see Dora the Explorer and Ben 10 and feel happy and safe. Then to look up and see the 'grown up' shelf with sexualised female images, and think that this is what the future holds. It's not my world and I don't want them to think it is, nor that it would be theirs.

It also implies letting your children have no freedom which is implausible and a little sad considering there's an easy solution being offered.

I'd often pop round to the shop when I was little to get some sweets or a magazine. I remember looking up at the top shelf with a mix of curiosity and disgust - not at the women but at the overall seedy nature of these magazines.

I was brought up by good parents and in good schools but not everyone is, and regardless it doesn't negate the need for the campaign.

Another troubling counter-arguement constantly brought up is double standards with an "all or nothing" approach.

It becomes an arguement of if you're going to cover lads mags also cover fashion and celebrity magazines. And what about music videos? And Rihanna and Miley Cyrus? And interns not being paid? (Wait, what?)

Suddenly people start reeling off a list of things that are also not right. It's an effort to shut down the debate, but actually it furthers it - these things do need thinking and talking about.

Of course the problem is much more widespread than this one debate, but does that mean we stop with these campaigns and actions - because it won't fix everything that's wrong in society?

It's an implausible and damaging argument. I hate the phrase there are "bigger issues" as if there's a hierachy of bad things in the world - and until we've stopped third world famine and cured cancer we can't move onto other things.

I try to raise awareness of mental health and also of physical health issues such as my little known about chronic illness. When the No More Page 3 campaign came along, and this debate started, I didn't think "sorry chums, my quota of caring about things is full" - I got onboard because we can multitask, and especially online it's easy to show support for these issues.

There's no feminist superhero that's going to come along and sort all of these problems within society, so why not do a bit at a time. It'll be slow and hard - but that doesn't mean we don't do it.

In this instance though, this action point from Co-op is what I'd call a quick win. It's not going to solve everything, but it's one very easy and quick step forward.

That's why I find the counter-arguement of hardcore pornography being the "real" problem difficult. Again, it's about where content is found but also yes, let's talk about that, but also talk about this?

It also leads to a superficial line of thinking. To imply that seeing scantily clad women on these magazine covers is not problematic to children's attitudes towards gender because they're not hardcore is odd.

Surely there's grey areas, and just because direct evidence cannot be found it doesn't mean it's not problematic. What about anecdotal evidence? As in the feedback the Co-Op received from it's customers, many of whom worried about the effect on children.

Perhaps in twenty years time we'd see the real effect but why wait? Even if it turns out there's no effect whatsoever, where's the harm in covering the magazines? Other than going along the lines of censorship and Big Brother - as with page 3 (anyone heard a good defence arguement for keeping the feature?), who could really fight for these magazines not to be covered? On what grounds?

I really respect groups like UK Feminista for campaigning for this action, and it pains me to read Sarah Woolley in The Guardian write "in an age in which feminism is used an accessory to who you are instead of what you do, our activism needs to achieve more than a superficial change."

The women running UK Feminista, Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 are everyday people - fighting for change. They can't solve everything - they don't have the power to (who would? how?) but they're doing something. These "superficial changes" Woolley writes of will build up. It's happening quickly, and as it does the conversation grows.

People are #shoutingback on Twitter (or maintaining the #TwitterSilence) - but whichever way you look at it people are doing something. They're talking about their rights, their position as women in the world, and yes, feminism - in a way I haven't seen in my lifetime.

Will covering up lads mags solve everything? No. Is it a start? Yes.

So let's give it a go, and let's keep having these conversations.