While the magazine is often seen as degrading, Elizabeth O’Malley wonders if the publication has recently gotten an overhaul
Cosmopolitan is something of a guilty pleasure, to be read only in hairdressers and on holidays.
I always imagined it to be aimed at a particular woman; the type of woman who owned designer everything, including underwear (no granny panties for Cosmo woman). She knew how to match her clothes and make up perfectly. She was hyper organised, got up at 6am to go jogging and then drank her own homemade smoothies, full of antioxidants! She had sex with exotic men on beaches and knew how to please her man in over 100 different ways. She also made her own shampoo.
This woman was like a modern day Disney princess, living a charmed but completely artificial life.
For comparison, I once picked up a copy of Esquire at a café. It had articles about how to get the best deal on your furniture, how to be completely comfortable in any social situation and how to get promoted at work.
Jesus, I thought to myself. It’s no wonder women are behind in the workplace. While men are reading about how to get on the next rung of the career ladder, women are learning about how to get the perfect lipstick to match their skin tone.
But I’d recently noticed a change in what I’d considered a vacuous magazine that only served to convince women they could be perfect if they only spent more money and tried harder.
During the UK general election they had done a four page spread on the different political parties, giving their responses on the issues voted most important by their readers, including housing and stopping domestic abuse.
There was also a noticeable downtick in the number of sex articles about how to rock your man’s world. This is possibly due to the fact that they ran out of tips, having become increasingly desperate. One piece of advice was to give your man a ‘blow’ job, i.e. to blow air on the man’s bits. Arousing, said no man ever.
I recently had a haircut and decided to test my theory that Cosmo had improved. I looked through the November, December and January issues, and bought the February issue.
What I found was far more substance than I expected.
There were sex articles, but they were about the experience of having sex with another woman and how to give yourself an orgasm, not about pleasing your man.
The November issue had a feature on the gender pay gap as part of their #equalpay campaign. It had reviews on the latest feminist book releases, and an interview with Jill Abramson, the former New York Times editor. It warned women about the dangers of Botox. It had a section from powerful women giving tips on how to get ahead. It also had a section called ‘My Body’s Amazing Because’ and showed an un-photo shopped picture of a cancer survivor.
The December issue had a feature on Ellie Goulding’s ‘Chance for Change’ project promoting health, education and justice for women around the world. There was a feature from a plus size model who was proud of her size.
The January issue had five pages discussing the issues surrounding rape culture, consent and telling women that they never owe sex to anyone. It had a feature on how to network and one on how to avoid burnout at work.
And the February issue featured regular columnist Jameela Jamil encouraging women to love their bodies, regardless of size. “Most of us spend more time than men getting ready, lose sleep so we can wake up early to look good at the office, go on fad diets that encourage us to give up vital nutrients, wear bastard heels that hurt our feet and dresses that cut into us… It’s slowing us down and setting us back.”
Of course, Cosmo isn’t just about feminism. Often it talks out of both sides of its mouth. It tells us to stop trying to be someone else and to love ourselves just as we are, while having features about blasting your belly fat and giving your suggestions on which diet you should go on, including recommending a book called ‘The Soup Cleanse.’
It tells you you’re beautiful while pointing out that your skin gets tired and wrinkled in the winter weather, and suggesting ‘miracle’ cures.
It has a feature on how make up companies trick you into buying more at the counter, while surrounded by adds for L’oréal, Estée Lauder, Clinque, Max Factor, Maybelline, Olay and The Body Shop.
Ads, articles about the next fashion trends, suggestions for your next make up purchase and notes on how to look pretty still make up the biggest proportion of the magazine.
I suppose I shouldn’t be naïve. Magazines don’t survive on sales, but on advertising. Without it Cosmo would no longer be in business. Maybe it is too much to expect a mainstream magazine whose primary goal isn’t to sell women the dream of an ideal life, as defined by make-up and clothes companies.
It is also positive that Cosmo is moving in the right direction, with more considered and empowering content.
But I don’t think it’s going to be recommended on a feminist studies course list any time soon.