The Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown and Influence of Cosmopolitan

The late Gia Carangi, who epitomized Cosmo sexuality

When I was a kid, I once saw my father paging through Cosmopolitan magazine in a check-out line and asked him to stop looking at porn. He replied that it was actually a woman's magazine. It took me several minutes to process the information that women were looking sexy for other women.

This was the early 1990s, when models were celebrities (unlike today in which celebrities are models). This was the era of huge hair, cleavage, layers of makeup: Think Kim Alexis, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Stephanie Seymour. This was when models could refuse to "get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" and still have jobs worth getting out of bed for.

Around the same time, I saw an episode of "Oprah" with Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan who was a figurehead for the magazine. During the episode, she coached women on the importance of looking sexy even when running errands, since Mr. Right might be fleshing them out while they were inspecting cantaloupe at the grocery store.

After Gurley-Brown's passing this year, there were tributes speculating whether her influence moved women forward or simply caused a lot of unintended pregnancies and fueled women's insecurity. After long speculation, I think the answer is both A and B. Cosmopolitan is a jagged little pill: It's complex, a guilty pleasure, a manual for men who want to know the opposing team's playbook.

My sister once told me, "Relationships are not how Cosmo portrays them." This is true: Relationships are far more complex than appearing sexy and seducing your man. If you get past the seduction and karma sutra, he'll eventually learn you're not sexy a lot and it takes effort - a ton of it  for most of us - to appear that way.

What is freeing about Gurley-Brown's legacy is the simple concept that women love sex for their own sake and enjoy their femininity. When I think about the ultimate sexy look, I think of a Cosmo cover and someone like Frederique on it. Gurley-Brown was a woman espousing this until her death, knowing that her age didn't negate her sexuality or femininity. That alone is a liberating message for women.


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