If the covers of women's magazines are any guide, feminism has not come a long way, baby, but gone the wrong way, baby. 

What I Learned from Magazines

If I was 10 years old today and wanted to find out about sex and how to live life, I wouldn't have to search long or hard. Details permeate television programs, books and magazines.

This is a far cry from when I was actually 10 and had to depend on an old copy of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and my mother's family medical book to piece together a vague picture of the emotional and practical side of sex. I never forgot the medical book's advice for the wedding night, which had precious little on actual mechanics, but an intriguing warning that if the groom finds himself ahead of the bride in the proceedings he should concentrate on the drapes in order to slow himself down.

For years, I imagined sex was some kind of foot race around the bedroom, which required interesting window treatments. Later on, I would fill in more gaps with Betty Smith and D.H. Lawrence novels, which taught me sex was a whirlpool that sucked you down into emotional distress and disastrous upheaval. I made sure most of my real life encounters did just that.

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, illicit sex has lost its tarnish and is now a routine part of dating. Whereas once we worried about knowing which fork to pick up first when trying to impress a suitor, now we must know more tricks than Penn and Teller. If the covers of women's magazines are any guide, feminism has not come a long way, baby, but gone the wrong way, baby. We are more obsessed than ever with superficial details about our appearance and coquettish performance.

A recent Mademoiselle promised "Hair Lust! 100 men rate 24 real hairstyles." An unkept, curly, chin-length do was the magazine's favorite. My basic hairstyle was not even remotely represented in the group of 24 options. The closest was rated "she lives alone with seven cats."

Other articles promised to reveal "the frightening new twist in sexual harassment" (it turns out that men now sue women), how to get a "miniskirt body" and "30 sex stats to know before you go" on a date, the first being men will lie to get laid. Well, that hasn't changed in 30 years, and amazingly, women still haven't figured it out. This is where the women's movement has failed. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone anymore.

Jane, a British magazine I thought was for young girls, promises to teach how to "strip for leering men" on its cover. Sugar, another British teen magazine, headlines, "I caught my boyfriend snogging his mate." I can't even imagine.

Maybe Ms. is offering women advice that assumes we are engaged in more than sexual commerce. "The virgin gets a makeover" sounds tawdry, but turns out to be female artists re-depicting the Virgin Mary. (One draws her in a rose-covered bikini.) "The latest lie about abortion" is they don't cause stress and emotional problems. Have one and call me in the morning.

The supermarket checkout magazines are schizo. They alternate headlines about food with dieting. On the cover of Family Circle "Fast-Fix Meals!" is followed by "Diet Truths!" and "Great Chicken!"

Woman's Day is an even blander assortment of stories on cooking, organizing and decorating the house, as well as free dress patterns for the Amish among us still stitching up our own potato sacks.

Ladies Home Journal just lies to us, with things hot and heavy on the cover, but the stories inside don't match the hype. In fact, I can barely figure out which story goes with the cover headline. "Jump-start your passions" advises us to do different things in life, like taking a community college course.

But a recent Redbook makes up for it, depending on the tried, true and dead Princess Diana to sell its magazine, as well as the headline, "Men confess: The sex move that blew me away!" That story, buried on page 131, suggests having sex in a store dressing room to revitalize a moribund relationship. I know J.C. Penney will appreciate it, too. Jumping to page 152, other suggestions include sex games, exhibitionism, smearing food on your body, lingerie and sex toys in order to "take care of Mr. Willy."

This, according to the Redbook worldview, is probably why Princess Diana is dead. No one told her there is more to life than taking care of Mr. Willy with whipped cream on your stomach.

Good Housekeeping doesn't know from Mr. Willy. Its cover offers things you can get free, how to lose 10 pounds, how not to kill your baby, and how to find a job. (Answer: Be a nurse. That always works.)

In my late teens, I discovered that Cosmopolitan had all the answers I sought to the mysteries of femalehood: Get an important job and sleep with the boss, a game plan that screwed my life up thoroughly more than once. If the magazine was that misleading and disastrous in the 1960s, imagine what it is now. Seeing the familiar letters C-O peeking from the back row of the magazine rack, I pulled one out.

Only it turned out to a be a British rip-off named Company, with the same half-dressed model on the cover and stories like "I was forced to marry a man I hated" and "when bigger boobs go horribly wrong." That article promised a "gruesome sealed section," and the pages were, indeed, glued together.

I found the real Cosmopolitan that same evening on a rack at Food Lion. The cover stories have become so alarmingly ribald the store had to put a wired-on plastic shield in front of the magazine so you could only see the title. Since I was in the express lane, I didn't get a chance to check out the answers to the dilemmas the cover headlines posed: "Lust Lesson: 10 crazy sexy bedroom tricks," "Does he touch you hard? Soft? We decode his caresses," and "Caught with their panties down."

That only leaves the pop, feel-good psychology of O (as in Oprah, not as in the "Story of") and Rosie, magazines helmed by women who make fabulous salaries seeking emotional security and self-actualization in the public eye. Give me a TV show, too, and I will share my pain and confusion with you.

Men's magazines, although not immune to articles about working out for a buffer body and maintaining potency, at least imply that a man's life experience goes beyond securing and servicing a woman. They are taught about cars, electronics, outdoor activities, sports, understanding the stock market. Their summer novels involve spies, lawyers and espionage, not murder mysteries drenched in romantic acquisitions.

Life as a man is more practical, or so it seems. Don't take it so fast, but concentrate on the drapes, grasshopper.

Mariane Matera is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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