Gabrielle Korn on Feminism, Fantasy, and Writing to Survive

The former editor-in-chief of "Nylon" chats about her incisive, soul-baring memoir, out January 26.

Women’s media often isn’t the rosy-hued, feminist utopia it appears to be. Just ask Nylon and Refinery29 alum Gabrielle Korn.

An out-and-proud lesbian, Korn broke ground when she became the youngest editor-in-chief of Nylon in the magazine’s decades-long history. But beneath the glitz and glamour of her career highpoint was a more sinister reality: Korn had to fight high-level execs to implement her values of diversity and inclusion — and be compensated fairly — at the publication with her name at the top of the masthead. All the while, she was silently battling an eating disorder that threatened to claim her life.

Korn opens up about these battles and more in Everybody (Else) Is Perfect, her memoir debut from Atria Books. NewNowNext caught up with Korn ahead of her pub date to chat about writing as survival, putting feminist praxis into practice, and pivoting the hell out of media once and for all.

The book is so intimate and soul-baring, and I really feel like I know you after reading it. Were there any topics you were nervous or hesitant to tackle?

Oh, I’m nervous about the whole thing. I’m a really private person, which might be surprising after reading my memoir, but I have kept my self fully protected from the public. So coming out as someone who has had anorexia was fucking terrifying. Talking about money was horrifying; talking about relationships was really scary. But I knew how scary all of that was, was why I had to do it.

You wrote about navigating your eating disorder with such brutal honesty. Tell me more about that.

I wrote [that part] first, and when I wrote most of it, I wasn’t thinking about writing a book. It was almost like having a diary because writing about it was really the only way to deal a little bit with what was happening to me. I was at the peak of my career and was given this diagnosis, and it was so incredibly difficult to untangle the fact that the skinnier I got, the more attention I got. But then I had this team of medical professionals telling me that I had to start eating otherwise I was going to die. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it other than my therapist, so I just started writing. And I think that’s why those parts feel the most real, because I wasn’t like, “I’m writing a book.” I was like, “I am writing to survive.”

I can relate to struggling with those issues but also being like, “I’m a feminist, I’m queer, I have a women’s studies background. I should know better.” I know it’s not that simple, but it’s easy to be frustrated with yourself on a personal level.

Totally. And I think the “I should know better” thing is such a trap because what it shows is that contemporary feminism isn’t working for us. Because we still have the issues and the feelings that we’ve always had, but now we just have to beat ourselves up for having them because it feels inconsistent with what we want our values to be.

There’s so little literature about navigating eating disorders or disordered eating as a queer woman. Was that something you thought about while writing?

Oh, totally. I feel like in particular, lesbian eating disorders. There’s just so much fantasy around what happens when men are taken out of the equation as though queer women exist in a bubble, and we’re not affected by the same things straight women are affected by. Most of the theorizing about eating disorders that I came across was very focused on encouraging people to separate themselves from what they think men want their bodies to look like. And I felt like, okay, I think women have these double standards too. I feel like there’s no better evidence of that than what queer women on TV look like, especially when there are queer women behind the scenes making those choices. I came out while The L Word was on TV, so that was the representation I had, and all of those women are so skinny.

Oh my God, completely. Shane in those low-rise leather pants?

That image ruined me but not in a sexy way.

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Shane in The L Word.

Your reflections on working in women’s media as an out-and-proud lesbian made me think about the limitations of visibility as the end goal for LGBTQ equality. Being “visible” isn’t a magic fix-all. What else has to happen to make a workplace truly inclusive?

I mean, we need equality and acceptance. We need our most marginalized people — in particular, Black trans women — to be treated with dignity and respect. I felt like people wanted a pat on the back with having me in the position that I did. They wanted it to mean diversity and inclusion. And the reality was, I was just another white girl. I felt really different, but optically I was not. So I think it was amazing that I had a seat at the table, but what would have been even better would have been if many other queer people and people of color were at that table with me.

That’s so real. It’s almost always white people in positions of power at media outlets, including the queer ones, including the women’s ones.

Totally. That is, I think, one of the best things to come out of this year, was the racial-justice reckoning as it played out in media. And I think replacing white editors-in-chief with women of color is an incredible first step, but those women need to be set up for success. There needs to be hiring with diversity in mind, top to bottom, and then a focus on retention to figure out how to keep people in those positions and pay them fairly and treat them well. It really feels we are only just scratching the surface of the major institutional changes that need to happen.

Your original publication date was pushed back, so you were able to go back into the book and make edits about returning to Refinery29, your first media workplace, briefly in 2019. What compelled you to revisit the text?

I’ve been afraid to write about just how toxic parts of Refinery were because I had a lot of relationships with people who were still there. Ultimately, I did end up going back to Refinery for about a year after I left Nylon. And I just felt like, I’m not going to shit where you eat with this. And then, everything happened. All of these amazing women of color were talking publicly about their experiences, and that really inspired me to just say what I needed to say, which is this place is not what it claims to be.

You’ve since left media for the entertainment industry. How is your new gig at Netflix’s The Most?

It’s amazing. It’s a totally different world, and I’m learning a lot. I think what I’m realizing is that, when I left Nylon, what I needed in that moment was a major life makeover. And with this new job, it’s so new in such a good way.

Would you consider writing a second book?

I am writing a second book — it’s a novel. I wanted to be really honest with myself about why I wanted to be a journalist in the first place. And that was just because of a love of writing, and fiction was my first love. I was like, “I have all this time to just be home and quarantine. I should just do it.” My favorite genre has always been science fiction, so I wrote a sci-fi book.

I’m listening! Is it queer?

Oh my God, it’s the queerest.

Everybody (Else) Is Perfect is out January 26 from Atria books.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella