Growing Up a Cosmo Girl & Goodbye Helen Gurley Brown.

Via on Aug 14, 2012
Photo: Wickipedia

Former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown, died yesterday at age 90.

Today this one-time Cosmo Girl has an admission: I both respect and despise what Brown represented.

She was a pioneering woman of trendsetting vision. And she was a regressive woman who championed sex as a bargaining chip and made being sexy the female equivalent of male influence and power. In Brown’s flashy world, a Cosmo Girl learned to put her make-up on perfectly, dress like a siren and flaunt her cleavage to get places in life.

And this message was delivered with blunt force.

If, like me, you were a post-puberty female in the 1970s or 80s, you couldn’t escape the check out-stand clarion call to sexually liberated womanhood. Cosmopolitan magazine covers blared out in Helvetica bold and Times Roman italics messages on how to get a man, please a man, be better in bed, dress like a sex symbol and act like, well, a slut.

Granted, this all happened in a pre-herpes and HIV era, and at a time when birth control pills liberated women to live up to Sex and the Single Girl, the sensational 1962 bestselling book by Helen Gurley Brown, published three years before she would captain the Cosmopolitan ship through thirty-two years of selling the virtues of sex and sexy to young women.

I lost my virginity at age 19, in 1981. Just before I surrendered my cherry, I began pouring through back issues of Cosmo in the university library, keen to bone up on my non-existent sex skills. (Factoid: Helen once told Time magazine that she looked after her husband like a geisha girl.)

Well, I wasn’t going to go into my sex life unprepared—by the time I finished reading a year’s worth of Cosmo issues, I’d memorized a list of sex tips to make me a better lover. (My favorite: when performing fellatio, try tugging gently on his testicles.) Never mind just asking the man I was dating, what might please him. Cosmo Girls came to the bedroom well-educated sexperts, equipped to provide pleasure.

Photo: Wickipedia

To give Helen Gurley Brown deserved credit, she stewarded a lackluster publication focused on home and hearth from 800,000 subscribers in 1965 to 3 million by the 1980s peak. She broke ground for women by cutting the cord that for so long bound sex to shame. Now it was no longer sinful to have sex without marriage—it was instead a sign of freedom and power to be a single woman playing the field.

But the message of Cosmo was mixed. The content exhorted women to be sexy and sexual, but not for the sake of celebrating the female body or the inherent wholeness of orgasmic pleasure. Rather, the underlying message was always about sex as a means to an end. That end was to get or keep a man.

Ultimately, Helen Gurley Brown was not liberating women to be powerful players on the same playing field as men. She was teaching women to be powerful geisha girls, armed to the teeth with tips on how to capture, please, serve and maintain a man.

My mother was a housewife who, like Brown, spent several years as a secretary before settling down in 1962 to marry and raise children. But unlike Brown, my mother did not write a book about how having sex with male employers was worth the furs and mistress apartments. Instead, my mother always encouraged me to have a solid career of my own so that I could be fulfilled without a man. Such a different message than the grand dame of Cosmo had for me.

In the end, both messages merged into a conflicted bi-polar life. I was a wife with children, struggling to seductively love my man with sexual prowess and to keep that post-baby body hot while maintaining a career in journalism. I had to be sexy, motherly and business savvy. Something had to give, and in the end, my mother lost to Helen Gurley Brown and all the other media messengers promoting feminine value as measured by sexual desirability and ability to get, keep and please a man.

By my thirties, my career took a back seat to my Cosmo Girl mandate to be a sexy, physically fit wife who aimed to play the concubine. I missed the mark during my first-born’s first seven years, a time in which I let my fear of being a bad wife overrule my instincts to be a good mother. Romantic trips when he was a baby, weaning too early, the roster of sitters and the sense that my time at the gym was more important than time with my toddler are just a few of my Cosmo Girl mistakes.

It’s not all Helen’s fault. Let’s face it. She was just the spearhead for a whole onslaught of sexification of women’s magazines. Ironically, Cosmopolitan magazine, pre-Gurley Brown, featured periodic current events pieces—articles that engaged women readers in areas of political and social commentary. Articles that appealed to women’s minds rather than plea-bargained with their sexuality.

Helen Gurley Brown, you were a part of my coming of age and you informed generations of women it was okay to be sexual. I just wish you hadn’t at the same time messaged it was most important to be sexy.

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About Lori Ann Lothian

Lori Ann Lothian is a spiritual revolutionary, divine magic maker and all-purpose scribe. She writes about love, relationships, enlightenment and even sex, at Huffington Post, Good Men Project, Yoganonymous, Origin magazine, Better After 50 and on her hit personal blog The Awakened Dreamer. She is also a senior editor at the online magazine, The Good Men Project, where she founded Good for the Soul, a section dedicated to the exploration of men and spirituality. Lori Ann lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and daughter, where she has learned to transcend the rain and surrender to mega doses of vitamin D. Tweet her at Twitter or friend her on Facebook at Facebook.

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15 Responses to “Growing Up a Cosmo Girl & Goodbye Helen Gurley Brown.”

  1. Mamaste says:

    Just intro'd on FB to: Love, Sexy, Enlightened, Culture & Equal Rights.
    ~Mamaste

  2. Scott says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece. I heard nothing but praise for her in the media outlets even NPR. While I think she pushed the envelop, she did it with what I think is a lack of authenticity. We men became victims of this too. The American male psyche saw women as sex objects and it seems women did too. Now granted most of us want to connect on a deeper level but her approach put barriers to getting to that type of connection. I think in someways even pointed us in the wrong direction. I hope that we are coming back to a place where sex and sexuality are used to show authenticity and create truer connections. I see the beauty of a woman in how she holds her self not in her makeup or her perfect body or her stylish clothes. When she is in touch with herself and is able to share herself honestly and openly, now that is sexy.

    • Thanks Scott for your feedback. Yes, media representation of sex and sexuality IS maturing and beginning to represent the once taboo topic in an authentic way. That's one of my goals at elephant love and relationships, to take the discourse beyond surface level objectifcation and sexification. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Lori Ann Lothian
      (team leader/editor, ele love)

  3. Prema says:

    Really good, Lori Ann, You managed to thoughtfully criticize the message without demonizing the messenger. HGB was a product of her times, and, as such, she was brave, misguided, gutsy and energetic. Now it's up to us to steer the ship of femi-macho-humanism in some rational and heart-ful direction.

    • I never saw Helen G. B as darth vader, and yes! she was gutsy and full of vim, vigor and vision…ironically, she was 'fired" more or less in 1997 as cosmo head honcho, because she was seen as not keeping up with the times…for instance, diminishing HIV risk in hetero sexuality…I am glad she created a freedom around sexuality. I am no so keen that it became about being sexy…which is a gambit for getting a man.

  4. Kuru says:

    With all due respect, Lori Ann, you are too young to appreciate the climate of man/woman relationships in the '60's, when this publication came of age. Sex at that time was something women tolerated because men expected it. You say "never mind just asking the man what might please him"…. the truth is that men didn't know either. Men were like rabbits pumping away, while women were tolerating it. Not too balanced. Helen Gurley Brown helped get us together in a sensuous way so we could enjoy each other, which was really her whole point. It was the '60's when everything was being let out of the box. What I see today in boob jobs, face lifts, never-ending botox is not at all what she promoted. She promoted confidence, definitely not empty-headedness. That actually was more the wife's role of the time. I remember one chapter of her book that focused on how an "ordinary looking" woman could be as sexy as a beautiful one. Women's liberation got a good start in the '60's that many young women don't understand or appreciate. I think where it went wrong was the commercialization, and the selling of sex, the almighty dollar that seems to ruin everything, but that was not what Helen Gurley Brown was about. If you read her book and skip Cosmo, you'll get a different viewpoint.

    • Thank you Kuru for this perspective. I can see how HGB's ship could have steered away from her, for advertising dollars and top-down directives–at least to some extent….I will read her books (there are at least three). She was a pioneer and due credit given.

      • Kuru says:

        Sex and the Single Girl is the book I was referring to. I wonder how it would read today. She was truly a sexy feminist just like me, as you might have guessed.

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  6. Tabby Biddle says:

    Well done Lori Ann Lothian! I loved reading your piece. I absolutely agree with you that Helen was both pioneering as well as regressive. Empowering and disempowering at that same time. Bizarre, but true. I think there's a way to empower women with their sexuality that isn't about, as you say, "championing sex as a bargaining chip." I think it's important to look at the difference between sex and sexuality and how one serves (or doesn't serve) the other.

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  8. [...] the other side, we’ve become a nation of Cosmo women, who act like we’ve got it together in bed, but have absolutely no sense of our own pleasure. Or [...]

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