Real Women?

November 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: How was it possible 25 years had passed? I couldn’t imagine–standing there at my local newsstand and staring down at the 25th anniversary issue of Ms. Magazine. How well I remember holding the first issue in my hands–my friends and I all lit up by its bold message of anger and hope. Again I heard the voices, remembered the images, the noisy, bumptious parade of agitating women as I flipped through the slender anniversary issue and saw again the old buzz phrases: “Marriage is a patriarchal institution;” “the empowerment of women;” “reproductive freedom.”

As the parade passed on down the street and out of memory I turned back to the news rack and confronted another kind of women’s magazine, the fashion tomes, dense this time of year with the new fall finery and attendant ads for lipstick and lingerie. My desire for equality never precluded my interest in clothes or skirt lengths, or eyeliner. It always seemed to me, in short, that the Ms. in me could coexist with the Vogue in me, a magazine I picked up with regularity over the years. I’ve seen it all–from the mini-skirted baby dolls of the 70’s to the poofily-dressed party girls of the 80’s, to the grunge-garbed kids of the early 90’s, to the recent ghoulish trend of so-called heroin-chic–pale and drugged-out looking models, swaddled in designer duds, arguably a low for the fashion world, itself apparently rife with drugs–all to say that it’s hard to be shocked by anything the fashion designers and magazine editors come up with.

Increasingly, though, they do seem to be engaged in some sort of perverse and rarified spectator’s sport that shows women at their skinniest and spookiest, a scary, starving female specter hanging over the landscape. This year they’ve really done it, coming up with some wittily-named new trend called the heroin chic, which sorry to say turns out to be a bizarre cavalcade of glossy giantesses in spike heels and leather mini-skirts, their cleavage ever apparent. In short, woman as sexual predator, as dominatrix. The magazine features page after page of these glaring amazons, with skirts hugging their thighs and war paint smeared over their eyes, a tough, hostile breed, enough to scare a full-grown, mid-life woman. 90’s sexiness is hard; violent–the magazine quotes Gucci designer Tom Ford as saying. Oh, please, that’s just irresponsible clap-trap, I found myself muttering.

I’m tired like so many people of ugly sex, the kind that stalks through all too many a movie or TV show. Making women the “hurters” instead of the ones being hurt doesn’t change the equation in my book. Surely this isn’t where liberation led. Surely, this isn’t what Ms. had in mind. Everywhere around me I see terrific women, real, complicated, vital, sensual women leading real lives, raising children, opening businesses, running marathons, being tender towards the men in their lives, and yes, buying clothes and makeup.

And yet, these magazines keep pushing further out into some ghoulish netherland, where the women are menacing freaks in black leather. I don’t mean so sound so un-hip. Well, maybe I do. Something in these pictures just hit a nerve, reminding me of how far we’ve come in 25 years to end up back here, where the models de jour are teetering around in track gear, while some fashion designer opines about 90’s sex being rough and violent. Sorry. I’m just not buying it.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.