Cellulite, Implants, and Other Titillating Topics

A few years ago an American friend of my then-boss came to the New York Times London bureau for lunch. She looked a little shaken and explained that she’d had a bad experience with a perverted taxi driver on the trip in from the airport.

At first, she said, she was impressed by the cabbie’s friendliness and ability to find his way around. When they became stuck in traffic, she readily accepted his offer of a newspaper to read. But when she opened it up, she was horrified. “Warren,” she said to my boss, “it was pornography!”

Well, not really, as it turned out—it was only the Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid with a circulation of more than 3 million and a Page Three that, every day, features an enormous photograph of a young, air-brushed woman wearing no top. To some people this might be porn; in Britain it is a mainstream newspaper.

It’s hard, as an American, to know exactly what to make of the Page Three girls, as they are universally known. Of course it might seem annoying, if not degrading, to pick up a morning paper—a paper you see people openly reading on the subway, in cafes, on the bus—and find yourself facing an enormous pair of boobs, as the Sun (and everyone else) likes to call them. Yet after a while you begin to forget how offended you were; the girls and their boobs and the inane little quoted comments that accompany them become as much part of the background media babble here as the endless first-person columns about the ups and downs of people’s relationships with their spouses, children, pets, and plumbers.

Other national newspapers might not go as far as the Sun, but they expose plenty of flesh. The Daily Telegraph is a generally sober, Conservative-leaning paper, but rarely a day passes without a huge photograph of some attractive young woman—a model, an actress, a celebrity going to a party—splashed somewhere on its front page in order to attract more readers at the newsstand.

The Daily Mail, a paper that has been stunningly successful in tapping the anti-immigration, anti-Europe, anti-government sentiment of its middle-England audience, intersperses articles about politics and the events of the day with huge illustrated spreads about female celebrities in bathing suits. The topic might be who has cellulite and who does not; which television stars have had boob jobs, and which might strongly want to consider them; which 40-something has-beens look good for their age in bikinis; and whose diet has been the most successful.

As in American supermarket tabloids and US Weekly, stories about weight gain, weight loss, and eating disorders are big news in the Mail. A typical scenario, as played out in the case of the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, would be for the paper to print unflattering pictures designed to point out the star’s pudginess and then, sometime later, go with a big splash featuring the attractive new look she has devised by virtue of her new diet and exercise program. When she goes too far and her body begins to look like that of a prepubescent boy, the paper can run lurid, alarmist stories quoting unnamed “friends” who are terrified for her health, illustrated by photographs of her horrible bony physique. Later, after the traumatized star has responded to all of this attention by retreating to her house with a year’s supply of Mars bars and six seasons of Friends on video, the paper can run new pictures applauding the return of her “womanly curves”—the same curves, which, when she had them to begin with, it deemed fat.

Feminism in Britain is sometimes seen as an alarming throwback to the excesses of the non-leg-shaving, bra-burning 1970s; the honorific “Ms.” has never really caught on here, and most women take the approach that it is better to get on with things than to make a fuss. Women tempted to complain about their gender’s portrayal in the news media have to tread carefully, because they run the risk of being branded unattractively humorless—or just unattractive. In the 1980s, Clare Short, then a young member of Parliament, became a laughingstock when she tried to introduce legislation to ban pictures of naked women in newspapers. Unfortunately for her, when she mentioned wistfully last year that it had been a good idea, the Sun swept into action.

Transposing Short’s head on a flabby, naked middle-aged body, it dubbed her “Kill-joy Clare” and called her “fat and ugly” and “short on looks.” It sent a team of semi-naked Page Three Girls to her house in a double-decker bus, where they parked outside in the January gloom and brandished huge glossy photographs of themselves. “It’s not porn, like she’s saying it is,” one of the Page Three girls, 19-year-old Lashana Nottingham, argued in her local newspaper. “It’s only like going topless on the beach. It’s not like it’s the bottom half.”

British national newspapers, scrapping for readers in one of the toughest newspaper markets in the world, make much less money from advertising then their American counterparts and depend much more heavily on newsstand sales. With so many papers to choose from, readers can be fickle, selecting one paper over the other because of an enticing headline; a special contest or giveaway; a drop in the newsstand price that makes them, temporarily at least, 20 cents cheaper than their nearest competitor. Or they can go for the one with the most girlie pictures.

In 2003, the Sun got a new editor—a woman named Rebekah Wade, a founder and former chairman of Women in Journalism, which had campaigned against sexism in the media. As a deputy Sun editor earlier in her career, Wade was said to have argued that it was time to retire the Page Three girls as an embarrassing anachronism. But on her first day in her new post, at the Sun’s office in Wapping, she made it clear where she stood. As a little inside joke, her first Page Three girl was identified as “Rebekah from Wapping.”