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Making feminism look good

16 November 2018

Natalie Collins talks to Ruth Afolabi about a magazine with a mission


Ruth Afolabi

Ruth Afolabi

A COPY of Magnify magazine arrives in the post. Letitia Wright, the star of the superhero film Black Panther, stares out at me from the cover. In its 152 pages are interviews with a diverse range of individuals, from a former gang member to the founders of a lingerie brand.

There are articles on topics such as #metoo, adoption, ethical clothing, and sisterhood, all underpinned by Christian testimony.

Entrepreneurialism is a prominent theme. With a minimalistic feel and high-end design, these pieces are interspersed with photos of young, thin women staring vacantly at the camera, modelling brands that include Jimmy Choo, Christian Dior, Topshop, and Karl Lagerfield.

“Here’s to strong women,” the opening page declares. “May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”

I have been asked to interview Magnify’s editor-in-chief, Ms Afolabi, not because of my expertise in women’s magazines — I don’t read them — but because the magazine’s strapline is “faith, feminism, fashion”. As a Christian feminist activist (that’s a lot of -ists), my interest is in Magnify’s values. How do the three cohere?

Magnify itself acknowledges this tension: one feature in this issue asks whether a Christian feminist is “a perfect oxymoron”. Fashion is also contentious: both feminism and Christianity are concerned with the exploitative use of cheap labour.

Many believe that fashion seeks to undermine women’s (and increasingly men’s) self-esteem in order to sell it back to them in this season’s colours. Reading through Magnify, I found that the fashion presented did not seem to veer from this perception: conventionally attractive young women promoting expensive brands.

Currently, girls make up 90 per cent of those admitted to hospital with eating disorders, and women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety. One study found that, within three years of the introduction of television in Fiji, the number of teenage girls scoring highly on eating-disorder scales had doubled. Fashion seems to be part of the problem, not the solution.


Iakovos KalaitzakisThe cover of the fourth edition

I EMBARK on interviewing Ms Afolabi with trepidation, presum­ing that we would have little in common. Ms Afolabi, perhaps, also feels this: as we sit down for the interview, she tells me that she is not a gender specialist. This prompts me to explain that I am not a magazine or fashion specialist (my clothing choices might already have given that away).

We meet in Magnify’s new Shoreditch offices, and Ms Afolabi tells me that the location is apt: “Shoreditch is the creative part of London, and even the fact our road is called Holywell Row. The adjacent streets are Tabernacle Street and Worship Street — you couldn’t have written that any better,” she laughs.

With a circulation of 10,000, the fourth issue, launched four years after the first, is available in 17 newsagents. Ms Afolabi’s speaking appearances have helped to generate funding from those who came to hear her. I comment on the high quality of the magazine. Ms Afolabi explains that, when she was growing up, “my mum and dad always talked about excellence in everything.”

Having worked for brands including L'Oréal and Burberry, she has sometimes been frustrated by “complacency” among Christians: the idea that the content of the message means that the method of communicating it is of little importance.

The cover star is undoubtedly a coup. It is rare to hear a Hollywood star talk with such candour about Jesus (“I’ve tried everything else, from partying to other religions, to deal with the feelings of despair; but Jesus helped me and set me free, and that’s why I speak about it.”)

Ms Afolabi is from a Christian family, and moved to the UK with her Nigerian parents (“my heroes”) when she was six months old. She describes herself as having a nice life — including education at a private girls’ school, North London Collegiate — but says that her faith was shaken by the death of several family members in close succession, just before her first term at Durham University.

Having learned at school that “as you long as you work hard, life will pan out for you”, and at church that God was “all-powerful and all-loving”, her disillusionment was compounded by the reaction of friends at Durham who, on hearing about the tragedy, could only provide “blanket answers” such as “everything happens for a reason”.

Things changed within months. “A light bulb was switched on in my head: God was still God, despite everything that had happened, and true faith couldn’t be dependent on whether things always went well.”

From here, her faith grew. Speaking to young black women she was struck by the sense that “being a Christian was a very certain model you had to fit, which was middle class, white, from boarding school”. She also discerned that Christianity, as presented at university, “wasn’t very accessible” to friends who were interested. Were Christian Union debates on hell likely to appeal?

In churches, meanwhile, she felt that women’s ministries, sometimes characterised by nail-painting and cupcakes, weren’t providing a forum for women to know “that God places value on you, and that isn’t just when you become married to a man at church”.

Magnify grew out of building such a forum through events designed to enabled women curious about faith to “explore further”, with story-telling always central to the approach. “The goal was to give women the opportunity to explore Christianity, and see how a personal relationship with Christ can make a difference.”

MS AFOLABI laughs as she tells me that the book that propelled her to launch Magnify was by the American Calvinist John Piper: Don’t Waste Your Life — a surprising choice, perhaps, given his anti-feminist views. At the time, she was not a feminist.

She recounts an explosive argu­ment with a cousin who expressed disgust that she did not call herself a feminist. Ms Afolabi recalls telling her: “This is exactly why I stay away from feminists, because you’re so regressive and feel like everybody must get on your side and have ‘feminist’ written all over their forehead.”

Growing up in a high-achieving girls school, she “never thought about the word feminism, or thought that I couldn’t do something because of my gender”.

But away from single-sex education and strong Nigerian women, men would talk over her, and seemed to want relationships only with women who played the part of “supportive wife”.

Another catalyst for change was encountering women who either “do not feel they are being treated as equals or are clearly not being treated as equals”. At one church a 35-year-old lawyer who had recently come to faith described how it was only after becoming a Christian that she had started to feel inferior as a woman.

There is, Ms Afolabi has concluded, “an importance in stating what your clarity of position is”.

The next step is “to do more work in gaining a very solid theological understanding” and acquire “a more robust view of what our feminism actually means. Clearly it does not mean everything that a lot of the world’s ideas about feminism are about.”

She mentions that a lot of friends who are black feminists “really do not agree with the current mainstream movement”.

is one element of her work in the media. She and her husband, Ayo, have documented their relationship online, via their blog, The Afolabis.

In one video, Think Like A Man, Mr Afolabi tells female viewers: “Guys are programmed to pursue, are programmed to hunt,” and advises women to wait for men to show interest.

Although the video has since been taken down, Ms Afolabi does not believe that this message contradicts her work on an avowedly feminist magazine. For her, men’s pursuit of women prevents their harming women by being unintentional. It would be hard for a man to become the head of the home if he had been pursued, she suggests.

I was taken aback. Male headship is definitely at odds with how I under­stand both faith and feminism.

She views marriage as a partner­ship without defined roles — men can be stay-at-home dads, women can be breadwinners — but believes that men must be the “spiritual head of the home”.

Both her and her husband’s Nigerian heritage are part of this, she explains: “We’ve always been taught from a biblical perspective of the man pursuing and being the head, but never to the point where the woman is not equal. If anything, in Nigerian culture it’s actually the opposite, where women always use that phrase, ‘Even if the guy’s the head, you’re the neck, and it’s the neck that turns the head.’”

She observes: “I don’t think you’d go to any black majority church in the UK where you would hear that the woman is the head or you are equally heads. But also, for us, it’s been very clear that women are valued and have a sense of purpose and equality.”

A lot of Nigerian men have grown up with “very strong” mothers, she observes, “and therefore that is what they are also looking for”. Her own husband, was drawn by her “sense of purpose and vision”.

Ms Afolabi’s Nigerian culture encouraged women to be strong and independent, but she found that this was not universally true within British Christian culture. She created Magnify to provide a forum for women to know that God valued them, and not just as wives.

While mine and Ms Afolabi’s views on male headship may differ dramatically, there is a shared experience of womanhood in areas of Christian culture which led us both to embrace feminism, even if our understanding of what constitutes feminism differs dramatically.


Andrew Hiles A fashion shoot in the fourth edition

EARLIER this year, Ms Afolabi noted on Instagram that the American pop singer Beyoncé was guest-editing the September issue of Vogue: “I’ve read magazines since the same age I’ve read books. But, growing up, besides Naomi Campbell, I never saw women who looked like me on the cover or in the pages.”

When Magnify chose a black model for its third issue, she became aware that improving the representation of black people was difficult. Modelling agencies had few black models, stylists did not have the right clothes, photographers were unfamiliar with lighting darker skin, and the make-up artist had only two shades of foundation for black women.

There were similar challenges in increasing the diversity of body types to include larger and plus-size women. Stylists usually get free samples of clothes from brands for magazine photo-shoots; but those samples will be in smaller sizes, although there are plans to invest in buying larger and plus-size fashion. Even when it comes to ethical fashion, Ms Afolabi explains, companies are not always trans­parent in how they run their business.

When it comes to cheap fashion, and the price paid by labourers – something she feels “more and more passionate about” – she points out that consumers “don’t want to pay the real price of goods”. She doesn’t want to showcase brands that, six months later, are “found to be paying their workers £3 an hour”.

Something she’s learned is that leadership is “a journey full of making hard decisions, but you can only make those decisions with integrity when you understand your vision. . . Bringing diversity is going to be a gradual process but ultimately God has not called Magnify at its core to be a diversity champion. That’s a wonderful by-product but . . . if it takes us five years to release the next issue because we’re raising funds to be as diverse as possible, we also have to understand what we’ve actually been called to do…”

Her view is that fashion is an expression of creativity, and becomes problematic only when it is “a driver for consumerism”. She is inspired by the craftsmanship of clothing and the “beauty of the collaborative pursuit” and feels that Christians who condemn the entire industry are seeing it in a “reductive” way.

While this may not be enough to persuade everyone, her overall fashion tip is to “find your natural style, because fashion is a form of self-expression.” This would be a welcome message to be expressed through the models in Magnify — and perhaps even the least fashionable of us can agree that self-expression and personal creativity can be both good and God-given, even if that involves the great Christian fashion statement of sandals with socks.

Each of the three “fs” in the strapline have provoked criticism from different quarters, she says. In churches, some have asked “what on earth is feminism doing on the front”? While she senses that, for mainstream audiences, putting faith on the front is seen by some as “aggressive”.

Her own desire is to see feminism “celebrate the beauty of being a woman”. She is concerned that, “in recent times there has been a tinge in the feminist movement that has made it quite sour”.

In some quarters, “We’ve turned being a woman into being like a problem, and being the ultimate example of being a victim … Of course there are challenges and people who don’t see us as equal, but I would never want to lose the beauty of how we have been created.”

Not everyone will be convinced that faith, feminism, and fashion fit well together. And many may be less than sure that Ms Afolabi’s understanding of feminism coalesces with theirs. She represents, however, many millennial Christian women who are dissatisfied with Christian culture (and feminism) and are making new connections and pathways that fit with their world-view and lives.

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