Women’s mags have power: Here’s what I learned from editing one

Siena Yates is a journalist and the former assistant editor of Woman magazine. Hear her talk on Stuff’s Tell Me About It podcast.

OPINION: Throughout my life, glossy mags have been the home of the rich, famous and Pākehā.

There were notable exceptions of course; the Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbells and Oprah Winfreys of the world. But they were just that – exceptions.

My early exposure to magazines consisted of a steady supply of Woman’s Day and Woman’s Weekly mags that my Mum and Nana brought home. Then, mags like Girlfriend, Dolly and Cosmopolitan made it onto my radar as friends brought them to school, mainly so we could giggle over the sealed sections.

Honestly though, I never had much interest.

Journalist Siena Yates told the Tell Me About It podcast she never felt represented by women’s magazines, where white, stick-thin models were the norm. As the assistant editor of Woman magazine, she did her best to change that.


Journalist Siena Yates told the Tell Me About It podcast she never felt represented by women’s magazines, where white, stick-thin models were the norm. As the assistant editor of Woman magazine, she did her best to change that.

As far as I could see, magazines were full of women I’d never look like, clothes I’d never be able to afford or fit, makeup I didn’t know how to use, stories I couldn’t relate to and an obsession with boys and femininity when I didn’t know if I liked or wanted either.

Plus, I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, the peak of messed-up beauty standards, body shaming, slut shaming, and the idea that women existed to look good, cook well and master “20 ways to please your man in bed AND in the kitchen”.

So, when the opportunity arose for me to work at a brand new glossy mag named Woman, I was sceptical. My immediate gut reaction was a hard “nope”.

But then editor Sido Kitchin – who launched Woman in 2020 along with three other very glossy mags at School Road Publishing – told me her vision: a women’s mag that was by and for the women of Aotearoa. One that steered away from gossip and scandal and towards in-depth profiles, and the stories that Kiwi women want to read. And, more importantly, one which made a concerted effort to be more inclusive of women we never got to see in such mags growing up.

I didn’t know Sido then but many of the women I respect, respected her, so I climbed aboard and sure enough, I was wildly privileged to be able to spend the majority of my days profiling – largely – wāhine Māori and other indigenous women.

It wasn’t just, “here’s a brown woman who’s on TV or starting a new business” either; they were telling stories only they could tell as women of colour. I would be invited into their homes, meet their whānau, we would laugh together, cry together, share kai together and whakawhanaungatanga. We talked about racism, discrimination and struggle, but we also talked about decolonisation, reclamation, community, empowerment and the unyielding power and depth of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) women.


Tell Me About It is weekly podcast offering an intimate and expert look at the messy complexities of feminism, gender and simply trying to survive as a woman in a world built for men.

Writing these kinds of stories anywhere is a joy and a privilege, but I quickly learned that glossy mags hold a special kind of power. They send a message to anyone who sees them on the shelves that the women in them are the definition of beauty, that these are women we value, women we believe our rangatira should be looking up to, women who have something to teach us.

The highlights of my time in mag-land are also highlights of my entire career, for that reason. A story I did about Fat February featured three unapologetically fat and indigenous wāhine telling stories about not just the discrimination fat women face, but also the joy they experience in their fat bodies. It was a story I would’ve never read, with gorgeous photos I certainly would never have seen growing up. And our Matariki issue featured nine inspirational and beautiful wāhine Māori in traditional kākahu and kirituhi and sent the message that Māori is beautiful and Māori is just as cover-worthy as any American supermodel.

The thing is; we can disparage women’s magazines all we like, but the fact remains that they have long been and still are a huge part of shaping our culture and society, and the way we see ourselves and our potential. People love them. We like seeing what celebs are doing, we like knowing what’s in fashion, learning new recipes and even just doing the crossword. And, as with any form of media, we especially like the idea that one day we might see ourselves reflected in the hallowed pages previously reserved for superstars.

So, since it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon, now is the time we should absolutely be talking about them, the many things that are wrong with them, and how we can fix them.

The rest of the media landscape is evolving, and I’ve already seen proof that women’s mags can too.

Listen to Siena Yates talk about being a wāhine Māori editor in a very Pākehā medium on Stuff’s Tell Me About It podcast.






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