10 Sep 2012 No Comments
Helen Gurley Brown, 1922 – 2012
She was an icon in her trademark oversize glasses. She was the and doyenne of advice dispensing wisdom on “love, sex, and money” to young women for decades. To most people she was the head of Cosmo Magazine until 1997 and still part of the Hearst publishing until her passing recently. She deserves a long rest and some good reading material.
I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario (population 350). It was a quiet hamlet with some nice turn-of-the-century stone or board and batten homes flanking the main street and a couple of quaint cement bridges. We had a community hall and one gas station with a snack bar, long since closed. Off the main road there was a mill pond, a baseball diamond, one church, a Lutheran summer camp surrounded by hay and cows on the various farms. There was no school in town, no McDonalds, no bus to the next town, a mere 10 km away but as inaccessible as Mars if you didn’t have a vehicle. It was pastoral place that you passed through on your way to somewhere else.
Growing up there meant you knew all your neighbours and they knew you. If you were ‘a nice girl’ like me, you spend Friday and/or Saturday evenings babysitting for the neighbours. There were ballgames in the park in summer that was converted to a skating rink in winter. It was beside ‘the big hill’ down which we tobogganed and sat on top of in summer. We spent our summer playing in the back yard on the gym set, swam in the millpond, rode bikes, fired bows and arrows, flew kites, climbed trees and hiked in the camp next door exploring the network of trails. If you were one of the ‘local kids’ you hung around the gas station, talking, kicking stones and smoking. I wasn’t part of that group. My mother is English and she felt that wasn’t the place for me and my sister. We were enrolled in Brownies, Guides, Pathfinders, Sunday School and 4-H. When not at club meetings, I spent many happy hours at home making crafts with mum. I sewed and read a lot and watched tv in winter when I wasn’t outside. It was a happy childhood.
As I grew older, I realized there was a limited selection of small town boys of my age, most of whom teased or ignored me because of my thick glasses and lack of feminine attributes. Their attitude seemed to be “No tits. Why bother?” My attitude was “No brains. Why bother?” I was mildly envious of my sister who attracted boys like moths to a flame but with the available candidates, I wasn’t impressed. So I waited for my first kiss, first date, first anything patiently impatient.
Then in high school, Fortune smiled on me. Halfway though grade 9, I met a lovely boy who was funny and smart. He thought my glasses were “kinda sexy” and wrote me my first love letter. I was all aflutter for the first time. This was young love and we hung out like boy and girls do, on the front lawn of the high school, kissing, talking and trying cop a feel under the watchful eyes of the teachers. I had him to myself each day for half an hour after school before the big yellow bus carried me home. For the first time, I looked forward to going to school so I could have his kiss before class. By the end of the year in June, I used up two sticks of cherry lip smacker.
He wanted to teach me how to French kiss but I was nervous about it. I was anticipating our summer of adventure but Fortune is capricious; we had just 2 dates (both with parents in attendance the whole time), he spent a month in hospital with acute appendicitis, and then his family moved when his father’s job transferred him to an even smaller town in Northern Ontario. We didn’t even get to say goodbye face-to-face. My teenage heart was broken. I had no one to teach me how to French kiss. I was aware that girls ‘did things’ with boys but I lacked the skills and now even my partner-in-crime was taken from me
Fortune smiled once again; that sad summer I found half a dozen issues of Cosmo at a garage sale. They seemed racy and powerful so I secreted them to my boudoir like coveted treasure. During those humid late summer days, I devoured each page like candy, lying on my stomach on my bed, feet kicking the air behind me. I kept a larger book handy in case mum came up the stairs to see why I wasn’t outside playing in the sunshine. It felt so clandestine and naughty. Or I’d carry them off to one of my ‘secret forts’ in the campground next to my parent’s home where a sturdy limb in a maple tree, at least 25 feet off the ground, would be my refuge. No one could disturb me there. No one even knew I was there. Oh, happy days but for the lack of male companionship.
I LOVED the photography. I cut out and kept the pages that captured my attention. One image was of a man’s hand resting on a woman’s deeply tanned upper thigh. You could almost feel the heat radiating off her skin. The other image was a man in a suit with his hand resting on the small of a woman’s back just above the top of her low-cut velvet gown. Oooh! (shiver) Would I ever wear a dress like that? Where would we be going? Would a man touch me in that sensual way? When? When??
The Sex Tips made me giggle; what did I know from my virginal loft high above the unsuspecting town, far from the sex-crazed libertines who inhabited the big cities, far, far away? “25, 50, 100 Ways to Make a Man…” Really?? That’s even possible? All those accumulated tips and no one to try them on.
And those Cosmo quizzes! ‘How to Tell if He’s Right for You…the One for You…Cheating on You’. For me, they were all hypothetical since I didn’t have a ‘he’ to be ‘Right, the One or Cheated on’ by. My boyfriend was a fiction to be created and recreated in my mind as I saw fit. He would always be faithful, fantastic and exactly what I wanted at that moment. My quiz results were always ‘He’s not real, is he?”
The articles, while beyond my full comprehension, piqued my curiosity and opened my mind to what might be possible when I grew up. I didn’t know what some of the technical terms meant and our Funk and Wagnall Encyclopaedia was just too outdated to be helpful. This was before the internet and search engines. My hometown didn’t have a library or even a bus to one and you certainly didn’t ask mom sex questions. That just wasn’t on. I had to wait until the school library opened in September to look up ‘clitoris’ and ‘glans’ in a medical book! Oh my!
Those issues of Cosmo seemed like another world populated by tall, perfect, sexually aware beings that I couldn’t relate to. I was growing impatient for my turn to experience sex which seemed wild, crazy and free. I thought I was ready for it; I wanted it but I knew I didn’t want to lose my virginity to one of the local boys. Ick. I’d wait and concentrate on building my babysitting empire until there wasn’t one family with kids whom I hadn’t sat at one time or another. I was ‘one of the nice girls’ who made money every weekend and, with no where to spend it, amassed a small fortune.
I was accustomed to being on my own with hobbies and books to entertain me. I still wore thick glasses and looked more like a tomboy than a young woman. I understood the lessons in Cosmo but I didn’t have anyone to practice on. Flirting, stroking a guy’s ego and leading him on was something other girls did. I didn’t have another boyfriend in high school. I did, however, make some good male friends who were like brothers I needed but didn’t have; we didn’t ‘date’ but hung out together. I learned a lot from them and I’m still friends with most of them after all these years. I’m grateful for that.
As it happened, after graduation I did move to another world; the city of Mississauga, Ontario, population 250,000. I got my first real job, rented a room and soon had a couple of boyfriends, each of whom was different from the last. The sex was okay but not quite the “wild, crazy and free” dynamite I’d been lead to believe; it carried risks, responsibilities and liabilities. Also, heartache when a relationship didn’t work out. But Cosmo was there to comfort me with words of wisdom, platitudes and humour. I was reassured to read “25 Reasons Why You Don’t Need That Man” and plenty more life-affirming articles to give me hope. Better days would be ahead. The glossy pages told me so.
Then, in my second year of college while I was studying fashion design, I met a young animation student at a Halloween Party. Our two disciplines never had reason to cross paths but we hit it off like eggs and spam. He made me laugh and we had ‘a date that never ended.’ We fell in Love, finished our educations, found jobs, got married, started a business and made a life for ourselves. The next 15 years were about love, devotion and vanilla sex but for the most part, I was happy. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t. Fast forward to 2006 when we crossed the country to our new home and then, out of the blue , he asked for a divorce because he fell In Love with someone else. My happy little world came to a crashing end.
Cosmo was no longer relevant to my situation. I was older, hurt by the loss of my beloved and on my own for the first time in nearly 20 years. How does “How to Spice up Your Sex Life” apply when you don’t have one? The advice seemed to fall short on articles about “What to Do When Your Partner Splits” or “How to Rebuild your Shattered Heart” and “How to Begin Dating Now that You’re ’40+ and Single Again’” I needed articles that spoke to me and they weren’t in the magazines. Cosmo covers and taglines just made me feel old as I stood in line at the grocery store. When did this beacon’s light cease to reach me? All the ‘advice’ seems tailored to a youthful, middle-American audience. I wasn’t willing to part with my money any more and I didn’t even bother to skim it while in the grocery store line up. Cosmo was a young woman’s read now.
I began to read real books: The Ethical Slut, The Naked Ape, Sex at Dawn, The Art of Loving, etc. I read books written by people who wrote from experience (their own and case studies) and shared a broader point of view about sex, love, relationships. Cosmo, in comparison seemed like one point of view catering to an agenda focused on one meme; one man and one woman together by marriage till they die. I don’t relate to that but I know it still holds appeal for many. So, for entertainment value Cosmo still holds center court but for real world help, its not the wellspring.
I will give Cosmo and Helen Gurley Brown it a nod of thanks for opening my eyes to the world beyond my front door, beyond small town attitudes and out into a bigger world. I don’t believe sex can’t be ‘wild, crazy and free’ but it does come with some sobering reminders that one must be responsible and adult if one wishes to survive and thrive. Sex is absolutely wonderful and fulfilling under the right circumstances; the right people, the right reasons. I appreciate what I have as much as what I had and what I have yet to have. I know what the big words mean, the tips often make me laugh, the quizzes are still fun and the photos are still tucked away in my images folder.
To this day, I think guys should make passes at girls who wear glasses. They’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the mousey bookworm is actually a smouldering sex-bomb waiting for the right man to set her off. The men who took the time to see beyond my spectacles have been pleasantly surprised. Thank you, Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmo for your part in guiding my evolution.
Thank-you to my girlfriend and Guest blogger “Rhana”