The Cosmic WomanFebruary 11, 2012
I have a confession to make: I love to read women’s’ magazines. Be it Vogue or Woman’s Day, I find myself dreaming of a more domestic, sleek, pulled-together version of myself whenever I thumb through the pages. It’s like taking a vacation from my real self, the Shelley with messy, always a little too-long hair, the Shelley who burns eggs, cannot mix a proper cocktail, can never apply eyeliner without a shaking hand, and who has never thrown a dinner party in her life. The skill set that apparently every other woman in the world has eludes me. Reading a copy of Good Housekeeping makes me feel like it is still attainable in my lifetime.
I’ve always had this love affair with magazines. When I was a pre-teen, I devoured copies of Seventeen and Teen. Then when I hit my late teens, I turned my attention to Cosmopolitan. In that internet-less age, Cosmopolitan was the Google of everything sexy. The cover photos never featured a model in a cute sundress, or a business suit – always the cover model was the personification of luscious, teased va-va-voom, leaving no mistake about what kind of womanly tricks and bedroom advice was inside.
Of course, at 17 years old, sitting in the back of Geography class doing the “Cosmo Quiz”, hypothetically answering questions about activities and experiences of which I had no real-world knowledge, I felt a sense of empowerment. Cosmo laid bare and celebrated the sexuality that my small town, Catholic school circumstances wanted us girls to ignore. Having been in a “Family Life” class (Catholic-speak for Sex Ed) that only briefly mentioned effective forms of birth control and spent hours teaching us the Rhythm method, and having watched every graduating class from my high school have at least one round-bellied girl in a taffeta dress on grad night, we needed Cosmopolitan to tell us the truth.
I have envied the younger generation of girls today, because they have so much knowledge, experience and community easily accessible to them. Perhaps they lose some of the sense of mystery that was so intoxicating to us, but they come into the world of being a woman with hard facts, discussion forums, and instructional videos. They are told everything they need to know and encouraged to decide for themselves when and how to use it. Yes, I see the impossible standards of air-brushed beauty and recognize the lining of sexism in song lyrics and advertising, but I also know that there is an equal wave of activism out there that is sane and aware. Parents and educators are raising these young women to look at all the things in front of them with a critical eye, keep what speaks the truth for them and let go of anything that doesn’t. This generation of girls knows better. Don’t they?
Last week, I made a trip to my favorite expat bookstore in Seoul to indulge in a little glossy fun fantasy time. One reason why I love this particular bookstore is that they package up bundles of back issues and sell them for a deeply discounted price. I picked up a couple of bundles, and was secretly delighted to find a copy of Cosmopolitan wedged in between the magazines I had wanted. I don’t buy Cosmopolitan any more. I have only to look at the article titled “ 4 ways 30 kicks 20’s Ass” to know that I am no longer their intended demographic. Still, I curled up with a cup of coffee and a kind of excitement to peek into the world of sexual empowerment and maybe learn a few new tricks that hadn’t been invented when I was still wearing Doc Martens and Flannel.
Here’s what I learned:
I put down the issue, a wave of sad sickness in my heart. Somehow, the empowerment and ownership of what I now know to be a woman’s rich, powerful, ever-evolving, truly female force, her sexuality, had been reduced to a crash course in “How to make yourself less you, and then maybe, just maybe, a boy will like you.”
I had hoped that the smart, sexy magazine I had once loved would still be telling the truth. It didn’t. So, here’s the truth, my own version of buried, unmarketable wisdom that I think every Cosmopolitan Girl needs to know:
A woman is sexy when she knows how to please herself, and has a comfortable relationship with the mirror.
Intelligence and good conversation is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and you wouldn’t want to sleep with any man for whom that isn’t true.
A man will never lose his erection when you take off your clothes to reveal you are a little ( or a lot ) pear-shaped.
A woman’s sexuality flourishes and deepens well past 35, and so you needn’t be in a rush to see and do everything before 23. Save some stuff for later.
When you truly are “the one”, and you’ve found the right man, he will call you – the next day.
There should never be games and strategies in a real affair of the heart – it’s difficult enough to make things work just using open, honest communication. Start weighing every word you say, and any genuine feeling is doomed.
You don’t really need to read about how to give a guy a perfect handjob. He’ll be more than happy to show you when you turn up in his bed in all your pear-shaped, offbeat, emotionally honest and smart glory.
You don’t need to dress a certain way, choose a certain kind of movie or have the sexual arsenal of a one-woman army to make your guy “hot”. He needs you. YOU make him hot.
Men are complex, beautiful, brilliant beings who are nowhere near as shallow as this magazine would have you believe. They have insecurities and confusion, just as we do. Corporations and advertisers make money from making men feel good about themselves. They also make money from exploiting women’s insecurities. Follow the money, and you will understand why GQ will never dedicate an issue to analyzing how every fashion and grooming choice, every movie pick affects the way women think of them.
I don’t know if I’m being naïve to think that the filter of time isn’t adding a layer of criticism here. It’s quite likely that the Cosmopolitan magazine of my time wasn’t any different. Perhaps it was just as misguided and I, at my raw, easily molded age, confused this kind of cheap man-centric advice with power. I could write a million blog posts about how much I needed male attention to feel validated. I had a heck of a lot of fun and an equal amount of heartache crossing that very long road. Am I now safely on the other side, oblivious to the male gaze? Hell, no. The male/female dynamic is forever compelling and mysterious in all the best ways – when it is recognized for its true nature – not as a way to sell a magazine.
I knew all this before I opened last November’s Cosmo. So, why was I so disappointed? I guess I thought that we had progressed beyond “What he really means when he says I love you” and “Seven ways to tell if your man is cheating.” I had thought that we were collectively engaged in a balanced dialogue about how to make ourselves and each other happy, I had thought we were trying to protect and nourish our young women. Yes, we still need to know how to apply mascara. We do not need to be told that a man’s love depends on whether or not you apply it correctly.
Yes, maybe Cosmopolitan was always this kind of magazine. I was once that kind of girl. So, what’s different? I am no longer a Cosmopolitan girl. I am a Cosmic Woman. And that is the sexy truth.