With seven little words, Stacey Solomon has helped turn the tide on years of negative media attacks on female celebrities. After Now magazine ran a front page with a large picture of her under the headline, Stacey: ‘Boring’, ‘Desperate’, ‘Cheap’ – Why Fans Are Sick Of Her, the former X-Factor singer tweeted: “That’s the meanest thing I’ve ever seen”.
The article, based on a few social-media comments, claimed that fans were bored of her celebration of her natural body and moves like showing the skin folds of her “mum bod” after having kids.
Solomon wasn’t arguing, or picking a fight – she was simply pointing out the bleeding obvious, and being open about how the cover made her feel.
When Now didn’t reply, she tweeted again, asking why the magazine needed to “constantly tear people down in a bullying manor [sic]”.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live that such articles were upsetting, despite her thick skin. “Sometimes it does get in, I am a human being and sometimes it does really hurt.”
Over 13,000 people liked Solomon’s tweet and 4,100 replied, overwhelmingly in support of the Loose Women panelist, suggesting a tradition that has long been the norm in weekly women’s magazines is becoming outdated.
On its website, Now says it is aimed at fans of celebrity gossip, and offers “the full who, what and why on all your favourite stars” with “breaking news, exclusive interviews and stories to surprise, entertain and inspire you.”
Since their rise in the late 90s, such mags have thrived off gossip about women, often judging their relationships, bodies and private lives to be disastrous, failing or somehow unacceptable. Take the original weekly magazine favourites like the Beckhams or Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, in which the woman in the partnership almost always faced far more scrutiny than the man.
Gossip will always be with us, but it can be a force for good
But the backlash against Now hides the fact that thousands of people still buy weekly celebrity magazines – and the covers are chosen based on what sells.
Women (and people of all genders) have always been interested in gossip. Psychologists have suggested that negative gossip captivates us, because it would have been essential for survival in the past, to help us avoid threats. In 2015, Chinese scientists did research that suggested reading about celebrity transgressions particularly activated a part of the brain known to be involved in the experience of pleasure.
But the tide is turning. Like smoking, we’ve realised that, while these stories may be fun, they can be bad for us. The Chinese research also found that reading negative stories about stars activates brain regions involved in self-control, suggesting that we want to conceal our guilty pleasures.
It’s increasingly clear that attacks on women for simply being themselves have real-world consequences. As Solomon pointed out in a later statement, new stats yesterday showed nearly a quarter of 14-year-old girls in the UK have self-harmed, with many linking this to concern over gender stereotypes and worries about their looks.
Since around 2014, there has been a flurry of women sharing the reasons why they have stopped reading celebrity-gossip magazines. Some 50,000 copies of Now are still sold every week, but that’s a drop of 46% in the last year, a big fall even amid a climate of all print magazines suffering.
And social media means print publications can’t operate in a vacuum any more. With the rise of the body-positivity movement online, Tess Holliday appearing on today’s cover of Cosmopolitan celebrating her curves marks a stark contrast to Now’s cover featuring Solomon.
Online demands for Now’s editor to step forward and “show your face” confirm that people are holding journalists accountable for what they choose to publish. Calling out body-shaming pictures in an unnamed publication in July, Jameela Jamil asked “Which fucking fuck wrote this article? SHOW YOURSELF.”
But the evidence is that magazines may be listening. In a rare move, Now apologised to Solomon, telling HuffPost UK “we simply aim to inspire debate amongst our readers about their favourite celebrities” and “we do not encourage or condone bullying in any form”.
Gossip will always be with us, but it can be a force for good. Take the #MeToo movement, which has relied on informal whisper networks of women warning each other about potential harassers.
Stars and their followers are increasingly using gossip to spread positive messages, from Paloma Faith trying to start “an epidemic of kindness” to celebs like Stormzy performing random acts of generosity to their fans.
As Solomon said of the response to her experience: “The best thing to come out of social media is learning that most people are inherently kind, want to build people up and work together in creating a kinder, safe environment for everyone around them.”
That’s the kind of shift worth gossiping about.