Some days I pick the longest checkout line in the supermarket. You might think I'm unlucky, but I call it strategic planning. From a distance, it would be difficult to say why I choose to linger. I'll have a Macleans in my hands, or appear absorbed in the decision between orange and white Tic-Tacs. But I'm not looking at breath mints.
My eyes dart over the headlines: "Sexy or skanky? Droolworthy celeb outfits," "Sixty-five HOT things to do to HIS body," and "How even a good girlfriend can drive her guy away."
That's right. I'm a closet Cosmo fan.
I know that young women like me aren't supposed to read magazines like that. I've heard the lectures. They make women feel inadequate, give girls eating disorders and bad self-esteem, and their visual rhetoric is based on the "male gaze." That's why I'm far too liberated to read them--in public.
I've indulged for years in safe situations. At the hairdresser, I'm allowed to eschew the Economist for celebrity gossip. Stretching at the gym, I can check out must-have holiday accessories. It's okay because someone else bought the magazine, and I have time to kill. If I get a disdainful gaze--'Oh… she's that kind of girl'--I can always feign boredom and toss the magazine back in the dog-eared pile.
One day last spring, I tried to shake the stigma by buying one myself. I blushed at the checkout boy as though I were buying tampons for the first time. "Time for a study break, heh heh," I laughed nervously. Tucking the mag under my arm, I strode out to a sunny park on my university's campus.
I turned to page 51 to learn what "My guy's cell phone style says about him." The prognosis was not good: by sporting a new, lightweight Nokia with an illuminated faceplate, he is subtly telling me that he's vain and afraid of commitment. I knew there was something wrong with the relationship.
Adbusters to cover the naughty bits
But soon I sensed the eyes of post-modernist grad students and social justice activists around me. I hadn't felt so acutely uncool since junior high. I tried various postures to conceal what I was doing: cross-legged and hunched over; next, on my back with the magazine folded in half; finally, on my stomach with it buried in the grass. It was like trying to hide nakedness with strategic body positioning. I needed a sensible read--the Globe and Mail, or at least Adbusters--to cover up my naughty bits.
Getting caught reading girly mags is not everyone's fear. But many young women hit the same landmines as they try to navigate their own relationship with the oughts and shoulds of "feminism" as they see it.
My mid-twenties cohort of friends is just starting to hit the big, public decisions. We quizzed my best friend Laura at her bridal shower this summer about her post-wedding plans. We knew they were living in his hometown and she would be substitute teaching, but…was she keeping her name? "No," she said, firmly. There were raised eyebrows all around. "I decided not to," she said. We whispered out of earshot, "but she has two degrees….Is she just going to let him….What is she thinking?"
She has her reasons. Tradition is part of it, and a desire to avoid the awkwardness of a hyphenated household. None of our boomer mothers kept their surnames, and even my married-with-maiden-name friends occasionally use their husbands' names at home. But more to the point: Laura wants to change it. And what principle should guide her decision but the freedom to make it herself?
Let everyone choose
Whatever misguided sense of liberty made my friends and I criticize Laura, I hope we get it out of our systems before we struggle through the next big set of choices: children, jobs and daycare. But it's not likely we'll be the ones to solve this problem.
Women have been living with it for years--since I believed my mother when she told me I was as strong as the boys, since she quit her job to stay home with my brother and I, and long before we were born. The pressure to make the right decision is still there, even if the right decision changes. Do you listen to Britney or Ani? Go to med school or become a nurse? Work or stay home? Read Toni Morrison or Cosmo?
As for me, I have my first step to freedom all figured out. Page 72, the multiple-choice quiz: "What are your romantic expectations?" My answers are every girl's answers. I pick mostly 'B's--we all know that 'A's are high-maintenance and clingy, and 'C's are too cynical to find a man. I took my score-card to the Cosmo-quiz debriefing page. Whew! I'm an "amorous optimist."
Smarter than the quiz
Oh, I know. Even this quiz is pushing me to make the socially acceptable decision. I do it anyway. Like Laura, I have my reasons. I think of it as a ritual, and an escape. It's like watching Hugh Grant play the cad who woos the nice girl he doesn't deserve, even though I'd rather be known as someone who sees independent documentaries at the Royal. This act holds a guilty pleasure.
But the next time I'm caught flipping through the wrong magazine at the checkout stand or reading an inappropriate article in the park, I'll be ready to defend my selection.
Did you know that by reading the cell phone article, I'm deconstructing our culture's idolatry of material objects and emergent technologies? And just by looking at "His moan zones," I'm subverting the male gaze. That's my prerogative, and I'm taking it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some social protest to attend to. Page 88: Scorpio's Love Forecast.
Lisa Johnson is a writer in Vancouver.