‘Life is really tough, and you don’t fight it by being coddled’
‘Cosmopolitan’ editor Farrah Storr believes ‘coddling’ is crippling younger generations
Farrah Storr: “With the Tess Holliday cover, it doesn’t matter if people agree or not. It matters that they’re having the conversation”
The week I meet Farrah Storr is a big one for her: so big in fact, that I’m almost certain she will cancel and reschedule. The magazine she edits – Cosmopolitan – has just made headlines with its latest cover star, Tess Holliday. The choice to use Holliday, a self-made style icon weighing 300lb, briefly became one of Britain’s biggest talking points.
In a world of bankrupt women’s magazines, Storr had managed the impossible: a magazine cover people were actually talking about. When I meet her, she is fresh from Good Morning Britain, where she staunchly held her own against a rapidly reddening Piers Morgan.
“I don’t even really mind the trolls,” says Storr. “They’re just people with an opinion. With the Tess Holliday cover, it doesn’t matter if people agree or not. It matters that they’re having the conversation.”
I don’t think enough people are saying: actually, life is really tough, and you don’t fight it by being coddled. You do it by being tougher. Human beings are made to be tough
Morgan, on the other hand, argued that including Holliday would somehow encourage young women to go out “mainlining doughnuts” as a result. “Don’t patronise people,” says Storr, in her strong Mancunian brogue. “Let people make their own decisions. People are pretty well-informed, and bright. It’s our job as journalists not to pass judgement, but to hear every single side of a story and to make an informed decision based on that. I said this to Piers Morgan. I’m a massive advocate of free speech and letting the individual decide.”
The idea of individual accountability is a key tenet of Storr’s first book, The Discomfort Zone: How to Get What You Want By Living Fearlessly.
The book is both business memoir and stridently feminist self-help, taking its cues from modern classics like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Sophia Amoruso’s Girl Boss, and revolves around the idea that putting yourself through awkward, uncomfortable situations is key to thriving. It is also deeply critical of the “coddling” Storr perceives to be crippling younger generations.
“Jonathan Haidt [author of The Coddling of the American Mind] uses the analogy of peanut allergies, which have become way more prevalent now and people can’t understand why. His point is that the more you take something away from someone, the more fragile they become. People are meant to be anti-fragile.
“I do worry about how we encourage coddling,” she continues. “The book is coming out at an interesting time, possibly at a vital time, because you need to have different dialogues, and I don’t think enough people are saying: actually, life is really tough, and you don’t fight it by being coddled. You do it by being tougher. Human beings are made to be tough. Look at our origins.”
‘A woman of colour’
Storr’s own origins are something she ruminates on, and though she is half-Pakistani, balks slightly at being labelled “a woman of colour”.
“I think it’s really dangerous to see people as groups, and not as people. Of course I’m trying to do more for people of colour. But at the same time, I personally have never felt like I’ve ever been discriminated against for being a woman of colour. But the world now sees me as a representative of that.
“If I can be a voice though, I’m glad to be it. I’ve never felt penalised for the colour of my skin or my name – and maybe I have been! But I’ve chosen not to see it. If I start getting hung up about someone not hiring me because I’m half-Pakistani, I’m going to get distracted. I don’t give a sh*t about those people. But are the odds stacked against people of colour in the media? Of course. A lot of people in the Asian community are living in poverty, or are living [away from media centres in London] up north, or have a cultural expectation that they will become doctors or lawyers. So if you want to work in the media and you’re Asian, you have to fight at home as well.
“You also have to be careful about being too tribal,” she says. “You need the Malcom Xs of the world, but you need the Martin Luther Kings. You need the tribalism to get the conversation going. You need those people, who have that sense of identity and can push the agenda. But if you start to see people just as groups, you only see an outline. You don’t see the individuals within the groups. It’s like on sports day at school, and the teacher would divide you into Group A and Group B, and if your friend suddenly becomes Group A, you stop seeing them as your friend. You see them as the competing team.”
While The Discomfort Zone encourages individual action, Storr is canny enough to know a simple “pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality isn’t a catch-all solution, particularly within the media, where internships so rarely turn into full-time jobs.
In 2017, Storr helped set up Cosmopolitan House, an affordable renting solution for young women attempting to find creative careers in London’s insane property market.
“Millennials have it really tough. They’re growing up in this neo-liberal world where you’ve got to be individual, you’ve got to be noticed, you’ve got to make money. But I don’t think the answer is to protect yourself from things that scare you.”