Should Young Girls Be Reading Cosmo?
IN my early teens, I suddenly found myself left behind – by my peers and by time. The things I had liked and which had made me popular as a child were no longer cool. Inventing games at break was less likely to gain friends and more likely to cause derision. Being open and straightforward, annoyed or provoked mocking rather than endeared. My body decided to betray me by changing beyond recognition in the blink of an eye. I had absolutely no idea how to navigate attraction and no desire to swap my romantic ideals in favour of the harsh realities of being mauled at discos by sweaty red-faced boys too cowardly to even initiate said mauling without the help of their friends.
Unsure of how to proceed and rather thrown by how different being an actual adolescent was to how it was portrayed, I turned to research. Ever the good student, I thought that my questions and unease could be solved by the written word. Magazines were my main resource as the covers boasted the answers to prevalent questions inside. But I also devoured celebrity gossip. I saw it as a way to relate to those around me – who were peers but sometimes seemed so alien and strange. I needed a ‘thing’ – something to be known for other than being a bit of a geek. This thing was to be entertaining, funny, to make people laugh in hopes they’d overlook how nervous and awkward I was.
I always had funny things I’d read about popular actors or musicians to whip out and discuss when in doubt or horrifying/interesting/hilarious/embarrassing true stories to relay. When I was too scared to be just myself, I had a vast body of material to choose from and throw around like smoke bombs. It all worked a little too well. Even now, if I’m uncertain or ill at ease around new people, I put back on the veneer of funny and fun. Sometimes the pressure weighs upon me – to be always happy, to be breezy, to be ‘on’.
Perhaps the most damaging thing that was caused by my intense relationship with magazines during those years is the host of bad habits I picked up from the likes of Cosmopolitan. I was young, silly and clueless and I took their advice as gospel (aside from some of their ‘sexy tips’ that sounded dubious to even the most inexperienced). As a romantic and someone who garnered little male attention that wasn’t middle-aged or generally creepy for much of their life, I was more than a little eager to try anything. The worst of these habits is biting my lips. I cringe writing the words but at 14, I read a piece where guys on the street were asked what they found (double-cringe) sexy in girls. One guy said a girl he went on a date with kept biting her lips and he found it incredibly beguiling (my word, not his).
As my lips are a particularly prominent feature of my face, I thought that this tactic was well-suited. Alas, it developed into something I can no longer control, something I do all the time, something for moments of boredom or nervousness or thoughtfulness. It has also evolved from biting at them into picking as well. I don’t think there’s anything especially attractive about someone who is constantly pulling at their lips. There are other things I do, assumptions I make based on the advice proffered in such publications but none which affect my life on a daily basis in the same way.
Admittedly, I was probably too young to be reading many of the articles included in these sorts of magazines. As the oldest sibling, however, I was often afforded the trust of being my own censor that, perhaps, I did not deserve. I was recently regaled by older cousins at a family gathering with the charming tale of how I picked up the word ‘horny’ from TV at six and began using it without knowing at all what it meant – thanks for the reminder. I don’t blame my parents for any of this – they had their hands full with my younger siblings – twins.
Really, I think, the fault lies with the wider problem of sexualising young girls and sending them the message that they should occupy their thoughts with how to please and attract men. Advice and ideas aimed at older women is often packaged in pretty pastels, attracting younger attention. Girls are bombarded with images of one kind of femininity that may now include having a high-powered job and other aspirations but seem to invariably include learning to please men and using bibles like Cosmo to do so – images of somehow being all things to all people, being sexy and smart and strong and kind and maternal and…you get the idea.
Yet it feels as though my generation was only the tip of the iceberg and these issues only become worse and worse for girls growing up today. Perhaps hope comes in the form of the new Cosmopolitan. Since Joanna Coles took the reins at the US edition a few years ago, it seems other (for lack of a better description, more serious) issues are being presented to its readers. While fun is all well and good, if younger women are going to be reading publications aimed at a very different, more mature target audience it’s nice to think they’re being introduced to topics rocking our world and not just the bedroom.
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