I took Cosmo for a spin before I’d kissed a boy or earned a pound of my own money, and it was probably too heavy for my skinny arms to support, let alone for my brain – drowsy with hormones – to bullshit-detect. When I grew up, I wanted to be just like the women crowding their pages: tall and tanned and shiny-haired and wearing ‘just a little something I got from a vintage market’ and working in an office and having an office romance and writing to an agony aunt about the office romance because he hadn’t called but it’s OK, because Cosmo girls are fun fearless females (just make sure he wears a condom!) Cosmo girls have fun, but fun will cost you a month’s rent for a tub of Crème de la Mer night cream and endorses waxing your pubes before the age of consent so they might ‘eventually stop growing altogether’, as if Barbie dolls had had the right idea all along, but whatever. Aged 13, I thought this was entirely reasonable; nothing else I’d read had disputed this and, after all, who was I to question the mavericks who recommended that I wear a face mask made of mashed up avocado and maple syrup? No-one had given me advice this detailed before – to reject it would be churlish – and, probably, girlish. Cosmo was the first step on my path to womanhood, but I was in the morning of my adolescence and it was going to cost me a a painful £3.20 a month just to subscribe. It was a tough spend. Did I mention how expensive avocados are?
See, that was the thread of consistency that went through every magazine I fawned over throughout my magazine affairs: they were all itching for you to part with your cash. Even the teenage ones, about which I practiced a chaste kind of promiscuity that CosmoGIRL would warn me from and Cosmo Sr. would inspire. I jumped from Mizz (too glittery) to Sugar to J17 to CosmoGIRL to Bliss (too saccharine a name) to ElleGIRL. I stuck it out with ElleGIRL because I’d suddenly discovered the term ‘individual’ and appreciated their commitment to stitching sequins onto garments from a clothing range their demographic could not afford unless their copy of the magazine had been bought from a Londis on The King’s Road (if, indeed, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea allows common things like corner shops to reside along its gold-plated pathways.)
The end to my love affair with women’s magazines came in my second year of university, when – having thrown hundreds of pounds down the drain to be repeatedly lectured about the same fashion trends, health concerns and relationship advice for years – I realised with some trepidation and some elation that though I might be a CosmoGIRL, I was never going to be a Cosmo woman. I’d always assumed that the magazine elders were right about my fate – eventually the blouses and pencil skirts they featured would fit my frame, and I’d be able to afford the non-high street versions if I wanted. I’d get a job and let my outfit do the talking for that all-important promotion, and I could finally find relevant the parts of the magazine that had eluded me.
But then I realised, embarrassingly late, that this was not the way the world worked, and the kind of aspirational lifestyle the magazines pedalled was only depressing me, rather than motivating me. Real life stories (the juicy, funny ‘I got pregnant even though all I did was take the bins out’ ones had been relegated to a different kind of magazine altogether by then) became fixated on preened and privileged women who were the exception, rather than the rule. I tired of reading about women who had become CEOs of companies weeks after giving birth to twins, or who had written an award-winning novel in a Parisian apartment aged 24 with no mention of how she funded herself. These were women placed to make me feel envious and participate in the sport of envy – buying. I hadn’t a hope of becoming one of these accomplished anomalies – not yet, at least – but if I spent enough time with a St. Tropez self-tan mitt, I might have a hope of looking like some of the women on page 67.
Despite the fact that I dumped the rags after this revelation, a certain part of me retains affection for their content. For starters, I’ve an exhaustive education on yeast infections to rival even the most conscientious gynaecologist (as though they think women can only come down with one illness and must remind their readers of the fact every issue. Or, y’know, they run out of ideas for the made-up problem pages.) But it was the self-contradiction that was the final nail in the coffin. Features slut-shaming drunk students co-exist amongst articles detailing how to make the streets safer for women at night. We are inundated with weight loss advice less than ten pages from the last sensationalised eating disorder story. As a young teen with an appetite for reading – ignorant of Greer and Friedan and de Beauvoir – I knew no alternative to the ‘women’s lifestyle’ section of the newsagents. I was an ideal member of their target audience.
I’ve since constructed an ideal for living that takes no inspiration from the shallow materialism that magazines advocate, but finding a replacement for Cosmo is an ongoing task. Asda categorises Private Eye as a men’s weekly – unsurprising as women are famously neither funny nor up to date with current affairs – and I have to root around amongst lad’s mags to get to the NME or Q. Nowadays, reading magazines intended for my own sex has become an exercise in gender politics, rather than the passive hobby I used to enjoy.
And I’ll admit to missing that sometimes.