8 surprising things that aren’t at all surprising!: Women’s magazines

Boyfriend1. One day I buy a women’s magazine. I won’t name names. Suffice to say it has a celebrity on the cover in a state of undress. Some gossip here, some unflattering celebrity shots with irreverent captions there, and a wad of photos of lonely-looking but very attractive loose-limbed models wearing chic wooden sandals and carrying messenger bags made from Navajo blankets. There are articles about the nine workout mistakes you didn’t know you were making, five ways to get rid of little white bumps on the backs of your arms, an article written in the first-person about a girl who searched for her sperm donor father, and ten reasons to eat walnuts. There is the revelation that even though bran muffins seem healthy, a whole one contains more than 400 or so calories and 34 grams of sugar so it is basically just a round slice of cake.
2. I finish the magazine and slop it on the floor by the couch. From time to time throughout the week I flick through it again. Every time I pick it up – inevitably when I’m avoiding thinking about things I should be doing – I feel a funny sort of relief, as if I’m finally being honest about my shallowness.

3. I hope that this relief is really just the feeling of being comforted. I’ve been reading these things for so long that I have been primed to seek comfort in them.

Honey, April 1970Honey, April 1970 (via 20th Century Collectibles)

4. But then when I put the magazine down I feel an interesting mixture of emotions, mostly existential horror.

5. Ever since I was eight years old and sneaking into my friend’s older sister’s Dolly, Girlfriend, Cleo and Cosmo magazines, I’ve periodically entered a world where women exist in a state of arrested development. Every day is a kind of battle for them: a battle to lose weight, to get flatter abs. Their primary purchases are clothes and cosmetics. They hang out for ‘me time’ in the form of spas, pedicures, cocktails, or some other small acts of hedonism. They have bikini lines and cuticles. On Fridays after work they meet their loyal girlfriends to talk about men and bitch about their bosses. They drink vodka and when they order hot chips, they cover the bowl with a napkin to stop themselves eating any. In this world, metallics are always coming back into fashion and peasant blouses are always on the way out. In this world, you measure peanut butter by the teaspoon. You take quizzes to tell you whether he’s thinking about dumping you and what face shape you have. In this world you are at the mercy of your gender, which dictates your interests, insecurities, and ambitions.

Cosmopolitan USA cover with Paulina Porizkova - May 1991

6. But more and more, I’m suspecting that the magazine’s notion of gender isn’t real. It’s not even old school. It just never existed. If it was only ever a fantasy, the fantasy is now defunct. People are such strange hybrids anyway, and the world we’re living in is becoming increasingly ungendered. It doesn’t make sense to make a magazine out of ‘stuff women like’. I was talking to my friend James about this yesterday over coffee (we’re both unemployed at the moment so we have to structure our days with multiple coffee breaks – coffee is our reception, boss, and HR department) and he described it as a feeling of smallness: ‘The bigger the magazine, the smaller you feel after reading it.’ It’s the feeling you get when someone friendly-seeming and attractive strikes up a conversation with you and slowly reveals himself to be a mad-eyed salesman trying to sell you an freakish Italian jacket out of the boot of his car (this also recently happened to a friend of mine). It isn’t happiness.

7. I want to say, ‘So I am never going to buy another women’s magazine in my life. Not even the advent of the talking magazine will change my position on this.’

8. But the reality is that I’m a flake. A few months from now, I’ll be in the supermarket. There’ll be something I want. What the hell is it? Gnocchi? Crumpets? Wait a minute … and then suddenly I’ll be learning about perfect-for-summer haircuts, five things I do that stress him out, and ten surprising facts about leggings, and again I will be fascinated and appalled but mostly disappointed that none of this information is changing my life.

July Cosmo cover

Rihanna reveals her deepest feelings in Cosmopolitan. Plus, what men crave in July (via Cosmopolitan.com)

Postscript: Since writing this fairly patchy post well over a year ago, I have not bought a women’s magazine like the ones described above. It feels wonderful. – 14 April 2013

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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2 Responses to 8 surprising things that aren’t at all surprising!: Women’s magazines

  1. I was very excited to discover a fantastic mag shop here with countless titles in English – there’s something about buying them and carrying home a nice stack – I slightly overdid my purchasing first time I went in to the store as I was so excited to see them all in a language I can read, so it was more of a pile than a stack if I’m honest. They look so nice artfully arranged on one’s coffee or bedside table. I think you hit the nail on the head though – it’s definitely that mix of being fascinated and appalled. But in my defence, who could resist a shirtless, buff Rob Lowe – my dream boat when I was 14 – staring knowingly at me from the cover of Vanity Fair? I couldn’t and he looks damn good on my coffee table!!


    • Ha! Rob Lowe’s CHIN is amazing. I would’ve done exactly the same in your situation.
      It’s a really tricky thing. I grew up reading those magazines and learned a huge amount of stuff (some of which I wish I hadn’t learned). I still remember the special sex ed lady who came to our primary school who had a quiet word with the teacher after our first session to express concern that I “knew too much”.
      But magazines have changed a hell of a lot over a couple of decades. What was once risque is now banal. And accordingly, I’ve gone from savvy expert in sex ed to withered old prude.


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