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My fun fearless miseducation

A look into the inner life of reading Cosmo

Cosmo and I go way back. The first issue of CosmoGirl hit stands on my 12th birthday, and I couldn’t get enough of the glossy girl-empowerment, be-yourself-and-you’ll-go-far rhetoric. The picture of the editor-in-chief as an awkward teen with bushy eyebrows next to a shot of her hotter (and glossier) present-day self made a particular impression on my mind. Trust us, seemed to be the message. One day, maybe you can be hot too.

During high school, friends from less sexually conservative families would bring out copies of the real Cosmo to share relationship advice and try to get me to wear makeup. By reading it, I felt like I could bone up on the information I might have missed about American preteen life. I had a lot of basic logistical questions.

I recently heard in a lecture at Concordia that learning to be a woman through what you read is a phenomenon that goes way back. In the late 1800s, major newspapers in North America generally all had one female journalist on staff, to write the women’s column – they were hired to help the papers tap into a burgeoning market to which they otherwise wouldn’t have access. The columns were widely read, and while these journalists were taking great leaps for womankind, they were also teaching a generation how to be women – and a generation of immigrants how to be Canadian women, in particular. This story resonated with me. So I wanted to tell you a couple things about my pulp and fibre comfort food.

In university, the more I started working outside of school, the more Cosmo – and anything else remotely like it, from Nylon to Marie Claire – became the only thing I wanted to read.

I understand that every issue of Cosmo is basically the same; if you line up a handful of issues, you’ll realize even the headlines on the cover don’t deviate from a basic format from month to month. So why do I keep reading it?
Women’s magazines, on the whole, are ingenious products. They come in different flavours for different crowds, but most will sell you just the right combination of mixed messages to keep you hooked. There’s a batch of articles telling you you’re secretly great and the key to attracting a man, getting an awesome job, and having the life of your dreams is usually some comfortingly intuitive thing, like having confidence in yourself, getting more sleep, or cutting a couple toxic foods out of your diet.

Then there’s the undertow that gently undercuts all that. Every article looks like it’s about women; many women’s mags, like Cosmo, are edited entirely by women. But the articles are all about men. Independence? Guys love that shit. Things you can do to console yourself and feel fine when you can’t find a boy? The lady doth protest too much. Male attention is the measure of most things (problem enough if you’re into the opposite sex; if you’re not interested in men, forget it). I’m not going to touch the obvious – articles on how to be a better girlfriend or give the best BJs. (The articles on looking good actually strike me as the most nuanced, but maybe that’s a story for another day.)
With every issue, you’re reading your way into an understanding of a man-centred universe. Throw in the fashion photography and human interest stories according to taste. Season with horoscopes. Makes multiple servings.

Even Glamour, which prides itself on featuring plus-size models, hits just the right balance of telling you that you’ve got all you need to be a happy, desirable, successful woman, alongside articles that tell you everyone needs bronzer. Even you. Yes, you. When you’re feeling overworked and shitty, there’s the right measure of pick-me-up to make you want another helping, and the right measure of put-me-down to need one again later.

These clearly aren’t just problems with Cosmo or women’s mags on the whole, but they provide a point to fix on to help us tackle bigger things – maybe the structural flaws in the addictive brand of pop-culture female empowerment we get all the time.

But anyway. I have a new issue of Cosmo to read.

Related stories:

Don’t turn your boyfriend gay, says magazine, 2/11/10
The story of O-no, 10/9/08
Commentary: Femininity is fucking fierce, 11/19/09
Gender neutral, but not equal, 10/23/09
Women talk success, 3/9/09