About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 17 May 2013

With my clothes on

I am going to be in next month's issue of FHM (For Him Magazine). I am not a regular reader, but I am fairly certain that most of the women who usually feature in FHM don't have PhDs. Most of them don't even have many clothes.

Every now and then I receive media enquiries related to my work on water. Usually the journalist is just looking for a crash course in the topic - something beyond wikipedia, but nothing that will take up much of their time. I am mostly happy to oblige and occasionally I am interviewed and quoted in their final piece. 

A couple of weeks ago I received an email query about bottled water from Dan, a journalist at FHM. I gave a quick reply with some basic facts and wished him luck with his story. A reply came back asking if I would participate in a blind tasting of different types of bottled and tap water, to actually be part of the story. 

At this point I thought I should look up FHM. I had in my mind that they were 'For Him', but my familiarity with the range of available lads mags is fairly limited. The main feature of the June issue was 'The 100 Sexiest Women!' - a quick sample revealing none with PhDs, but one who had been enrolled in a media studies course for a term before her modelling career took off. Apparently, sexy women have large breasts, small waists, long hair, pouting lips, tanned skin and wear bikinis. Apart from hair colour, it is quite difficult to tell them apart... but I digress... FHM features lots of photographs of women, selected on the basis of their youth, 'beauty' and state of undress. It also includes some articles about stuff men like - video games, movies, football, sex and factertainment. Its representation of women is not as bad as others in the genre, but it clearly uses heterosexual objectification of women to sell magazines and advertising. On the upside, it has some very sensible advice about how to have heterosexual sex with real women, and some of the writing is genuinely funny (even this middle-aged, pale, short-haired, jeans and blazer clad, PhD qualified woman chuckled during her reconnaisance).

I emailed Dan, saying I would need some time to consider whether appearing in his publication was a good idea. His reply was polite, and his concern for his readers' education was touching. He reassured me that if I agreed to participate I could keep my clothes on, and said that FHM readers had as much right to know about their water as anyone.

Like all good social networkers with a moral dilemma I consulted Facebook. The results of my 'FHM Y/N?' poll were about as helpful as my 'Android or Apple?' consultation, that is not at all. My 'friends' seem to have almost entirely missed my feminism. Comments were almost exclusively along the lines of 'hell yeah!', and included 'do you get to be nekkid? ;)'. One faithful pal replied 'GOD NO!', and a couple of university types took an unhelpful Socratic line including 'you know the F doesn't stand for Feminist?', but in the end Facebook said 'yes'.

Like any decent person with a moral dilemma I consulted trusted colleagues and 'real' friends. People with much more media experience than me asked me to consider the need to speak to audiences beyond the usual 'people-like-us'. It is easy to reach the readers of the Guardian and Times, harder to communicate science and engineering to the great bikini-loving masses. Someone asked me to consider if one of my male colleagues would do it (the answer is probably not, but being a woman presented me with a different set of questions). Overhearing the other side of one of these phone conversations the officemates of one colleague said sending me to an interview with FHM sounded like a worthwhile feminist social experiment. Some other trusted women laughed and said 'why not?', basically echoing Facebook. 

I said yes.       

I emailed Dan my decision, asking for the chance to review any quotes and encouraging him to consult The Women's Room database of experts for future stories. Dan agreed that his publication could do more to balance its representation of women, and that I would be able to check what I had said before publication. 

A couple of days later I went to Dan's office for the blind water tasting. FHM consists of one corner of a large open plan office housing several publications owned by Bauer Media. Dan described it as a 'big boy's bedroom', and I took his word for it. They have a pool table in their coffee room, which made me jealous (we don't have a coffee room). I sipped water and made fact-laden jokes about it with Dan. He recorded our conversation. He was nice. It was fun. He sent me the quotes as agreed, and none of them seemed outlandish. 

The story appears in the July edition, which is out at the beginning of June. Don't buy it. It is a magazine full of scantily clad women. I would prefer not to support this kind of business model, but I can't escape the reality that it exists. Tits-n-arse sell magazines. I have very little power to change that. When faced with the opportunity to be presented as a woman with useful expertise, I figured it was worth taking a chance to at least try to even out the balance. The readers of FHM are not going to change their ideas about women by picking up a copy of Ms. magazine, so perhaps we have to take alternative representations of women to them. And afterall, they have as much right to know about their water as as the next person.

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