Before boarding a train in New York last weekend, I stopped at a newsstand to buy my usual travel provisions: a bottle of water, some Orbit gum, and a newspaper. Then, standing over the shelves of magazines, I gave in to a guilty desire and bought the March issue of Cosmopolitan. Whenever I pick up a copy of Cosmo, my immediate impulse is to pull the magazine close to my chest and to look around to check that no one I know is present to witness the act. This reaction must be a throwback to the grocery store checkout lines of my youth in which my gaze at the magazine’s dirty cover was liable to ignite a rant from whatever adult I was with on the decline of modern society.
I know the magazine is trashy, but its scintillating headlines promise something delicious: “NAUGHTY SEX TRICKS (Let Out Your Inner Bad Girl!)”
“My inner bad girl? How exciting!” I think as I skip along in my pink Oxford and pearls. I’m not the only one. Cosmo is one of the most popular American women’s magazines, boasting circulation in the millions—“The Bible!” Legally Blonde’s lead Elle Woods dubs it.
When I first started reading Cosmo—mostly on trains and planes as a teenager—every glossy page fascinated me. I wondered if this was really how glamorous grownup women lived: Fashionistas in three-inched heels who, in between their high-flying jobs, rock hard abs workouts and French manicures, managed to make time for to-die-for sex with their smoking hot boyfriends.
It’s been a while since I’ve read it, though, and I guess I’ve grown up a bit since the last time I did, because my reaction to the March edition was that Cosmo is not the glamour puss monthly I had previously thought, but a magazine for tragic women. Madame Bovary would surely have subscribed if she could have.
Reading Cosmo, it’s a wonder any woman would want to involve herself with men at all—the entire experience is horrible if anything Cosmo publishes is true. Cosmo girls, in fact, aren’t free-loving nymphs—they’re slaves to men and slaves to sex. In Cosmo’s March issue alone, there are nearly two dozen articles on how to keep your man happy.
In the article “The Look That Keeps Him Hot for You,” Cosmo warns readers against getting too cozy with their boyfriends by detailing the things that will turn him off. I’ve committed “Turn-Off 5” endless times by “pulling a hairstyle that says ‘off duty.’” Apparently, a “messy bun” does not suffice, and Cosmo suggests that I “sweep [my] hair into a seductive, low side ponytail.” If I don’t do this, my boyfriend will leave me. My only comfort in the whole affair is that—according to this month’s Cosmo Quiz—I’m a “coy seductress... Thanks to clothes that bare just enough to tantalize and your A-plus flirting skills, you give a vixenish coming attraction, not a vampy all-access pass.”
I’m not naïve—there is an obvious gaming element to love, lust, and relationships—but Cosmo takes it too far. In Cosmo girl world, a woman’s existence revolves around fear that her man is going to leave her and anxiety over how to keep him. Such a state could not possibly make a woman happy.
Perhaps the most appalling Cosmo article in this vein is a piece written by a male “relationship expert” on how long to wait before having sex with a new guy. Apparently, even if you both want to have sex, it’s your responsibility as the woman to hold off, because once you do the deed, he will lose interest. “Even though he may turn on the charm subtly (or not so subtly) pushing to get you into bed, the truth is, he’d rather have you turn him down than give in…As long as you dangle the promise of sex in front of him, he’ll be fixated on you.”
This is part of the irony of Cosmo: It’s exactly the sort of publication the conservative matriarchs of my family shun, and yet the magazine itself reinforces some of those old-fashioned values. There are many good reasons to wait on sex, but fear of a boyfriend leaving you should not be one of them. Certainly, any man who would leave a woman because she slept with him too soon (or didn’t sleep with him soon enough), is not a man she should even be considering as a mate in the first place. And this is not the only bad male behavior Cosmo excuses—in another article entitled “Decoding Male Behavior,” the author writes off all sorts of rude, oblivious, and irritating things men do to their girlfriends. The gist of the piece: If you’re miserable in your relationship, it may be because you’re too stubborn to let go of your boyfriend’s harmlessly insensitive behavior.
Nothing about this publication is healthy, yet women keep buying copies in the hopes that Cosmo is the panacea to their lifestyle and relationship malaise. They’d do better to skip the overanalyzing and let their relationships evolve naturally.
What is most distressing is that there is still such a huge market for this magazine. The fact that so many women continue to read Cosmo is surely indicative of how much progress women have left to be made. We’ve come a long way, baby, but apparently not quite far enough.
Lucy M. Caldwell is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.