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Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: The Vagenda (Square Peg)

The Vagenda is the name of a blog devised by the authors back in 2012 that took aim at the way the media portrayed women, in particular women's glossy magazines, mainly by laughing at its absurdities and contradictions.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett ... showing a world where women's achievements are                                                 considered less important than their bodies
Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett ... showing a world where women's achievements are considered less important than their bodies

It invited women to contribute their own observations and experiences and, like other blogs such as Everyday Sexism, soon amassed a ton of readers, leading to this print publication.

There's been a renewed popular interest in feminism over the last few years, with writers like Kat Banyard, Ariel Levy and Natasha Walter following in the footsteps of stalwarts Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi. Caitlin Moran's book How To Be A Woman didn't start this new wave, but it probably did the most to get more women, and particularly young women, interested in issues that traditional feminism had been banging on about for a while, among them difference, identity, autonomy.

What the new blogs are doing, though, is much more confrontational. Everyday Sexism and The Vagenda are, like the high-profile NoMorePage3 campaign, stressing that a line has been drawn: women are fed up, not just with being paid less or having fewer high-powered jobs or less representation in Parliament, but with the images of themselves they're seeing everywhere around them, and how people are behaving as a result of these images.

Baxter and Cosslett's book may seem at first glance like picking on an easy target - nobody ever said the "glossies" were about liberation, exactly - but they quickly and expertly show how pervasive sexist attitudes towards women still are today and, indeed, how much worse they seem to have become in the last few years.

Where once a magazine like Cosmopolitan did blaze a trail for the single-girl-about-town, it now sits placidly alongside all the others in exhorting the virtues of cosmetic surgery and guides to pleasing your husband (one issue in particular contained 45 "body terms" like "bum" and "thigh" but only 9 "mind terms" like "brain" and "think"). Baxter and Cosslett give the beauty industry in particular a bashing for buying favourable copy from underpaid journalists with expensive freebies, which keeps the whole cycle going, a "cosy relationship" that simply means women readers are being flogged items they don't need and often can't afford.

Pseudo-science, faked statistics and fad diets populate women's magazines, the authors argue, all in an attempt to get you to buy their products. But how does that explain the sex advice? Women's magazines have a time-honoured role as sex guides, harking back to an age when women didn't talk about these things publicly. They have responded to the increasingly pornographic world of sex, ramped up by the internet, with advice increasingly based on porn (restructured labia, dancing poles, facials for your vagina - take your pick). This doesn't have anything immediately obvious to sell, but it reflects and participates in a new kind of culture, in turn helping magazines to keep up with trends. Trends that don't seem to be "empowering" women quite as much as they claim they do.

The question of female pleasure is always a fraught one - as the authors admit at the end of their book, they like magazines just as lots of women do. And lots of women love fashion, make-up, interior design, baking. Lots of young women especially need sex and relationship tips. But, they ask, does it have to be couched in such patronising baby language? Does the pressure to be thin have to be ratcheted up until women are anorexic? Do we have to see ourselves so relentlessly through men's eyes?

It seems like an uphill battle. The Daily Mail's "sidebar of shame", which features mostly famous young women in bikinis, or showing too much cleavage, or falling over, has helped it become the most read newspaper website ever. And unfortunately it's mostly women who are clicking on the site and reading something that makes fun of other women. Could it be we are our own worst enemies, as the masochistic, "submissive heroine" in the phenomenally popular Fifty Shades Of Grey (written by a woman, bought and read by women) might suggest?

Baxter and Cosslett don't answer that question but instead show a world where women's achievements are belittled and their bodies are considered more important than their minds. Their prose is fast and funny but their message is inherently depressing: that, according to today's media, "we're as defined by our relationships by men as we ever were". And yet, most women in the real world would dispute this. In fact, most women's lives are not reflected in the magazines that they read in such numbers. The authors of this entertaining, provocative and often perceptive analysis don't suggest why women continue to read them, though. And that needs answering.

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