If you’re a runner, no doubt you’ve heard about the SELF magazine tutu debacle. The summary is that SELF magazine contacted a runner, Monika Allen, to request a photo of her running in a tutu. She supplied it, not realizing it was going to be published as part of SELF’s “BS Meter” – calling runners out for wearing tutus. Well, it turns out that the tutu-wearing runner is a brain cancer survivor and sells tutus from her website Glam Runner, in part to support Girls on the Run. People found out about Monika’s back story and SELF’s Facebook page blew up with people outraged and canceling their subscriptions.
SELF issued a sort-of apology, followed by a more genuine apology and interview with Monika. They have also decided to discontinue the “BS Meter” feature. Several people commented, “too little, too late,” and claimed that if SELF really supported women, they never would have run the piece to begin with. I think, though, that we can stand and say “this wasn’t okay” AND “thank you for trying to make it right.” I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation.
I’ve been following this story and thinking about it a lot; I’m always fascinated by anything that involves women’s media. Not that long ago, I wrote a post about women’s magazines and how terrible they are, and I feel like this fits right into that narrative.
Many people commented about how SELF should be building women up and not tearing them down, regardless of whether they are cancer survivors or doing charity work. I’m glad to see that sentiment being promoted, because I agree with it. My biggest problem with SELF’s feature is that it tears down women who are doing something active and healthy. Someone wearing a tutu affects me not at all, so why the hell do I care if they wear one?
But I wonder how much of this sentiment would have been expressed if Monika hadn’t been battling cancer. Perhaps this is cynical, but I can’t help but think that without the backdrop, most women would have maybe rolled their eyes at the feature and flipped the page. Maybe they would’ve written a letter to the editor to complain, but I doubt that SELF would have seen 9,000+ comments on their Facebook page.
I say this not to defend SELF’s actions, but because I think they fit in to a larger paradigm where magazines tear women down so we strive to find a way to build ourselves up “thinner, leaner, faster, meaner” than ever before. Several commenters said, “this makes you no better than a gossip rag.” “Best and worst dressed lists” are often popular and we flip through them without a second thought; I’m not sure how I see this being different. Why do we tolerate it in some media but not others?
Also, even magazines like SELF that are supposedly supposed to support and empower women are filled with articles on how to become our sexiest selves, get thinner, beauty tricks, landing Mr. Right, etc. It’s a typical narrative about striving to be something better/different in order to be happy/successful, and for women, a lot of the emphasis is how we look and whose arm we’re on. It’s also a tremendously white, cis-gendered narrative that’s not representative of the real world at all. (To give SELF some credit, their site also has stories on “Thinking Like an Athlete” and Barbell Training, so that’s pretty cool.)
No doubt SELF’s decision to run this feature was wrong, and I’m honestly happy to see the backlash of women saying, “this is not what we want to read about.” But I also want to acknowledge that SELF doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a media world that profits by telling women how they aren’t good enough and how to be better. I hope this incident changes the way SELF approaches their content, and in an ideal world, it would spread to all magazines. I’m not confident it’s going to have a lasting change on content across the board, but I’m thrilled to see people starting the conversation.