Ruthless reading of everyone's least favourite inadequacy merchant

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Marriage, jumpers, ALL THE GENDER ASSUMPTIONS, and a visit from a 1950s life coach

So, Rosie Mullender’s column in February’s Cosmo starts by comparing (heterosexual, mono, yaddayah) relationships to shopping for a jumper. Because they’re the same, obviously: in both situations, you browse a selection of inert objects, which you exchange for a specific price in a one-time deal, & once purchased both are guaranteed to stay the same and under your control for an indefinite period. What, you mean relationships might be a little dependent on growth, change and human individuality? WHAT? DO THE PEOPLE KNOW? It appears not, if the people write Cosmo.

Anyway, the point of this somewhat strained analogy is for Rosie to miss out on a particular jumper, mourn (because consumer goods are about form, not function! Self-definition through purchase & display! Yay capitalism!) and reflect (I quote) ‘Imagine if that almost-perfect jumper were a man…snapped up by a woman more sensible than me.’ Human beings don’t change, you see: here men, as well as women (maybe the shift is refreshing? Hmm…) are finite and unchanging objects devoid of will but possessed of finely graded desirability, capable of being purchased and possessed simply through an act of will on the part of the purchaser. (We won’t even get into the problematic assumptions being made here about monogamy, possession, exclusive rights, the actual functioning of a relationship. Evidently such sophistication is far beyond Rosie’s remit.) She continues: ‘With marriage rates at an all-time low, I wonder if the reason lies in our unswerving belief that there’s always something better around the corner, whether that’s a snuggly jumper or a husband.’

Well now. So many assumptions I don’t know where to start. Even if marriage rates *are* at an all-time low (and i’m not presented with any evidence, so I’ll just be taking Rosie’s word for it here), WHY IS THIS A BAD THING? Surely - given divorce rates - fewer people entering into a legally binding contract (from which extrication is complicated and expensive) if they’re not sure is a good thing? Surely people not marrying simply by default or to meet others’ expectations is a good thing? Surely increasing variety in socially acceptable ways of maintaining love relationships is a good thing? Well no, apparently not. And from Rosie’s point of view, apparently, the rates must be falling because *men aren’t proposing*, because (the assumption on which this whole piece hangs) *ALL WOMEN MUST WANT TO GET MARRIED*. (Yet again, I’m leaving the questions of queers and the non-binary gendered out of this rant, because they’re so obviously not even considered by the source article, but let me state once again here that SUCH EXCLUSIONS BOTHER ME. Hey, I don’t exist, folks, and neither do a substantial proportion of the people to whom I’m attracted! Oh well, we’ll just be having the kind of mindblowing kinky sex Cosmo doesn’t believe in either, off in a corner somewhere.) I just don’t know how to deal with this. I mean really. Since when do all woman want to get married? Isn’t that what we’ve had the last 50 years of feminism for (that and massive sociopolitical inequality, etc?) - so women have independent means of economic and practical support, so aren’t dependent on matrimony? Isn’t this a *good* thing? Why present a female hunger - hah - for weddings as a sociocultural certainty? just to alienate those who don’t? (FTR: I’ve been engaged twice, and the second time I imposed a compulsory ten-year waiting period, just to make sure we were sure about it, and even then I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Turns out I was right, but that’s over in another blog I’m afraid.) The thought of having anyone stay with me resentfully because of a piece of paper rather than actively choosing to be with me every day is kinda anathema. Let me state further, lest it’s unclear: I’m female, and I don’t want to get married. Yeah, I have fairly serious trust issues (see previous) but there are a huge number of people for whom marriage is equally distasteful for political or life-experience reasons, all of which are valid. But for Rosie Mullender, this apparently isn’t the case. ALL WOMEN HAVE TO GET MARRIED, RIGHT, OR WHAT ARE WE FOR??

Ignoring any of these issues, however, the piece continues to tie itself up in knots of inconsistency and illogic. ‘I’m not saying we should all settle for the first half-decent man we find.’ (See previous; are you suggesting the third, then, or the fifth? If we’re not waiting for somebody we are actually sure we want to marry, should we wish to do so, how are we supposed to decide which ‘half-decent’ one to pick? I wonder.) ‘[Like Walter from Sleepless in Seattle], ’ I don’t want to be someone anyone settles for.’ (But, cf jumper analogy, if you’re not quite what the someone in question would have wanted to marry, them marrying you anyway is fine. Hmm, big distinction there.) ‘But in the old days, before internet shopping, you’d go to yr local C&A, pick the best jumper from 4 unflattering clockhouse numbers, and be perfectly happy with it. And likewise, choosing a husband was easier. One of the handful of guys you came across at school, or down the shops, wd stand out. You’d fall in love, marry him, and live happily ever after.’

Oh God. Ohgodohgod. Let’s pause there. Because ALL MARRIAGES pre, say, 1980 were happy? Domestic abuse in these partnerships formed by proximity and coincidence didn’t exist? All marriages pre-divorce were happy? Nobody - particularly no women - ever lived unfulfilled and curtailed by marrying too young an unsuitable partner she wasn’t old or wise enough to recognise the dangers of? ALL FEMALE OPPORTUNITY NOW IS A BAD THING BECAUSE WE MEET TOO MANY MEN? Are you *sure*?

Even the jumper thing is problematic. I’m younger than Rosie’s 33, but not much, and I too remember pre-internet clothes shopping. And I spent my adolescence saving up for trips to Camden, in a different city for God’s sake, just so I could get clothes that I felt comfortable and myself in. (Like a good little capitalist teenager.) Trying to find the perfect jumper. I certainly wasn’t a different person, happy to ‘settle’ for something I disliked simply because it was available. And nor, given the sketch that opens her column, was Rosie. That’s just *not* how it works. Has she ever read any of the ‘kitchen sink’ novels of the 1960s, those in which young women exchange sex with men they’re not sure about for rape & the promise of a ring, intelligent women are trapped in unfulfilling marriages by just such choices, or condemned to loneliness without them? Does she really, REALLY think that marriage pre-divorce rates was *better*?

Apparently so. Now, the imperfect man you’d supposedly have lived happily ever after with ‘has to compete with all the other men crowding our offices, inboxes and the internet. And when you compare one man to all other men ever, he’s bound to come up lacking.’ Well, I mean, what? Knowing more men is a bad thing? More varied interactions and experiences are a bad thing? Maybe women should never have made it into offices at all; we’d meet fewer men at home slaving over a hot stove! Except wait, no, the internet would still be there! Maybe we shouldn’t talk to men at all? Besides, it’s arrant nonsense. I may meet a lot of men (**AND ATTRACTIVE MEMBERS OF OTHER GENDERS, FTR, Cosmo) but I’m still perfectly capable of identifying those (admittedly few, but that has more to do with emotional scarring, self-knowledge and hard-won maturity than anything else) with whom I would consider a relationship, just as I am those few to whom I am attracted. Really. I wanted to marry my teenage sweetheart, not because he was the first man I met and thus my default choice, but because he really seemed to understand who I was and where I was coming from (and, y’know, ace sex/communication.) Since then, I’ve met…maybe 3 people - all alas impractical - with whom I could fall in love and to whom I might thus have wanted to commit. (I’m leaving marriage out of my personal equation, likewise the openness question.) Numbers simply mean a) greater opportunity b) greater diversity c) greater knowledge, wisdom and experience and d) greater choice. Of which c) is by far the most important. The more I learn about people and their needs/desires and my needs/desires and what I want from a relationship, the more likely I/anyone will be to be able to identify people with whom I/anyone could have a healthy functional relationship. With marriage if both parties are that way inclined.

Still, sadly, this isn’t the end. Rosie extrapolates from 70% of divorces being initiated by women ( a statistic with apparently nothing to do with increased independence and opportunity, or increased unwillingness to tolerate abuse, or any other unsatisfactory elements; reluctant as I am to make gender assumptions, it’s conceivable that were I to do so I could - for example- extrapolate a male reluctance to compromise on domestic matters from Rosie’s figures) to suggesting ‘men are happier to make a choice and stick to it than we are.’ Without knowing the grounds on which 100% of respondents filed for divorce and comparing the female 70% to the 30% male ones, how the hell would she know? Rather than explaining, she brings in a male friend, who blithely binarises along Rosie’s lines by saying ‘Men and women are different. Men realise perfection doesn’t exist, and recalibrate their expectations accordingly. Women shoot for the moon, then get back down to earth to find a perfectly decent man has just married someone else.’ (Someone else who, by his logic, therefore isn’t a woman? Given the shattering heteronormativity of all this, i doubt that was the intended interpretation, but i suspect he hasn’t thought things through.) Rosie concludes that men don’t bother worrying if they’re ‘totally happy’ with their partners (Only to beg the question: and women do? really? Surely women not being totally happy is where this whole mess started? And why *should* women lie to themselves to get an engagement ring, in 2012? I certainly wdn’t want anybody who wasn’t totally happy with me to marry me, or vice versa). For once and for all, ffs: PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT. The maintenance of rigid binary gender roles is an utterly pointless exercise. WE ARE ALL PEOPLE, WITH DIFFERENT NEEDS AND EXPECTATIONS AND DESIRES, and the sooner you start trying to communicate as an equal with another person rather than treating somebody as an alien because they (probably, given that Cosmo seemingly hasn’t heard of trans, intersex, or any variation on medical-textbook heteronormativity) have different genitalia to you, the sooner you both might figure out whether or not you have a connection - and thus might want to get married. Really. 

Her last sentence is breathtaking. ‘If we’re really that keen to get married, maybe it’s time for us to be happy with what we’ve got, and resist the urge to shop around.’ Oh please. Because obviously, loving someone enough to marry them is something that happens to order. If it’s not there, but you want to get married, are you meant to just decide it, or marry anyway? And once again, WHO SAYS WE WANTED (OR NEED) TO MARRY IN THE FIRST PLACE? You may, Rosie, and fair enough - but yours is far from being the only viewpoint. And the hideous, painful weight of gender and social assumption in this little column goes to contribute to an ideocultural world where women are always ultimately competing for men, the universal female goal is marriage (which is always het, mono, etc); capitalism is a perfect model for human relationships, and QUILTBAG people of any flavour doesn’t exist. Nice one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be taking advantage of my nonexistence to have some more of that mindblowing kinky sex I mentioned over in the corner. Let’s hope invisibility covers inaudibility as well. 

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Related video (‘Shit Cosmo Says’ from Those Pesky Dames - enjoy :)

Nb. Nothing wrong with having sex in wardrobes if that turns you on. But anything done because some anonymous other thought it would ‘spice up your sex life’ with no regard to the inclinations of the parties concerned is…probably a bad idea, mmm?

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Masturbation: you’re doing it wrong! Oh, no, wait…

So. Cosmo, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that masturbation is the ’Last Great Sex Taboo.’ Given that as a publication it never discusses queer, BDSM, powerplay, non-binary gender, non-genital sex, non-able-bodied sex, impact play, pegging, group sex, or many other flavours on the sexual spectrum, this seems strange to me, but I’m prepared to admit that as so often I am the freak in this equation. (Hey, I masturbate, guys! Quite a lot actually! Who knew?) In a pleasant change from almost everything *else* I’ve ranted about on here, there are positive aspects to this article: a survey has apparently been conducted, and whilst there’s no nod to the statististical skew of addressing only Cosmo readers with time and inclination to fill in surveys, actual data is good. Furthermore, despite the huge and problematic ideological schema underlying the article, at least they appear to be generally *in favour* of masturbation. It could be worse.

It almost is. Lest any sex-positive feelings or openness readers have about masturbating exists despite Cosmo’s declaration that *even there*’where we’re hardly poster girls for ‘prude’’ they find (gasp) talking about it difficult, negativity is reconstructed through the authoritative tones of ‘orgasm coach’ Dr Lisa Turner: ‘[Women] still have a lot of guilt and shame around experiencing sexual pleasure…’ and ‘only relatively recently been ‘allowed’ to enjoy sex’ (in case you had been doing so without thinking). Nevertheless, having yet again established the magazine’s authority by stating putative pre-extant insecurity, Dr Turner reassures us that masturbation is beneficial – not only because it boosts mood and health, but because it leads to better sex (with other people, right? That’s what you’re aiming at. Can’t be satisfied without a boyfriend, after all…).

Apparently (no evidence given, but y’know) most women discover masturbation in their mid-teens. To be fair, there seems little data available except Cosmo’s own, but going on an unreliable combination of anecdata, personal exp – I was eleven – and this rather confusing graph, I’d be inclined to assume 14-16 is a bit *late* for first masturbation. Regardless of when you start, though, or the frequency/enthusiasm/ingenuity you use, it’s soon implied that you might be (are) DOING IT WRONG or need professional input, hur hur. ‘It might be time for an update’, ‘sex and relationship coach Rachel Foux’ tells us; if you’re still masturbating like you did in your teens, you may not ‘understand *all* your pleasure centres.’ Never mind using your own satisfaction as a guide; if every part of your genitals isn’t sensitive, or you choose not to involve them every time you touch yourself it must be your fault for touching yourself wrong. YOU’RE NOT DOING IT PROPERLY, LET US TELL YOU HOW. Are we detecting a pattern here? Is anyone surprised?

From here on in, it gets worse. I’ve already lost this post once through infuriating lappyfail, and am currently short on time and long on to do list - so rather than going step-by-step through everything that’s wrong with this article, here, for your edification, is that noble form, the bullet-point list:

1)      Certain forms of ‘taboo’ or sexual adventurousness are OK *only* in the form of ‘erotic fantasy’. Group sex, for example, or BDSM, are offered to us as ‘erotic fantasies’ to ‘get us in the mood’, but the possibility of their actual practice is belied by the very het-mono-vanilla depictions of partnered sex. Fantasies are hot because they’re ‘transgressive’, but heaven forbid actual *sex* should be. Worse, the four depicted ‘fantasies’ are described in terms that reinforce the very boundaries the created eroticism is meant to transgress, underlining that troublesome English (female) sex(uality)/guilt dichotomy – public sex is about sex as something you shouldn’t do, s&m becomes about women being unable to negotiate or offload responsibility IRL (plus, only subbing is explained, with the implication that being domme is something guilt-worthy). Group sex is supposed to be about exploring non-monogamy safely in theory (as opposed to practice, obv; god forbid anybody frustrated that ‘we’re expected to be monogamous’ tries to negotiate being otherwise.) Being paid for sex is ‘about being so desirable men will pay to sleep with you’ – call me cynical, and I am certainly very much not an expert on sex work (links to follow when provided by knowledgeable folk!) but surely the myriad reasons why people pay for sex are likely to be a bit more complicated than simply the desirability of a particular partner? Like,I don’t know, something about the nature or quality of the interactive experience? Which is, y’know, fine, and being used in various ways is a fantasy in itself – but not for Cosmo, which has to pretty it up with the same assurance that a woman’s worth is her physical desirability. In all four, ‘eroticism’ becomes essentially a fantasy of increased object value –‘it’s flattering’, ‘it’s about being so desirable men will pay to sleep [note euphemism] with you’, ‘it’s abput desirability, more than one man wants you.’ (Because you stop being desirable to men the moment you are possessed by another one, obviously. NONE OF US EVER FANCIED ANOTHER PERSON’S PARTNER. What do you mean, world literature historical epic cinematic history popular music? Oh, yeah…)

2)      It would be easier to trust Cosmo’s data were their conclusions less confused – I mean, if over 90% of respondents ‘save it for the bedroom’, how come 1 in 5 have masturbated at work? I’m not a statistician, but unless 10% of respondents have a bed at work… There’s similar confusion over multiple orgasms – apparently ‘over a third hit multiple orgasms each time’, but only 5% have more than three. At least that dichotomy can be mathematically resolved, but these conflicts in presentation are incomprehensible.

3)      Important issues – like >40% of respondents using porn to ‘get themselves in the mood’ are glossed over. The patterns evident in 1) – respondents fantasising about domming/subbing/plurals, for eg – are repeatedly undermined as only fantasy, despite evidently coming up in the data.

4)      Masturbation is even sold to us as a diet aid – ‘it can burn as many as 150 calories per session!’ Well, whoop de do. Heaven forbid that IN BED ON MY OWN WITHOUT EVEN A PARTNER I MIGHT STOP THINKING ABOUT THE PUTATIVE CULTURAL INADEQUACY OF MY BODY SHAPE. FFS.

5)      The article tries to sell us sex toys – again, heaven forbid sex might be fun in ways thatdon’t involve Buying Stuff – but they clearly have NO IDEA AT ALL what they’re on about, and are largely quoting received wisdom or press releases. They recommend toys with phthalates, for eg. Seriously, if you are interested in sex toys for use alone or with a partner or even just in theory, read Ludi Valentine on the subject. She’s great, she knows her shit, she does the science and she actually uses the damn things rather than quoting the box.

6)      The iconography of the pictures are very, very traditional male-gaze orientated, reinforcing the impression that this is what a woman must be like to be acceptably sexual and to acceptably receive sexual pleasure, even on her own. Blonde, low-cut black pushup-nightdress, perfect red lipstick, very St Theresa expression of ecstasy. None of the screwed-up faces or sweat or ruined makeup of casual clothes that might actually come with real orgasm. MASTURBATION DOESN’T FEEL SO GOOD IF YOU’RE WEARING A STOLEN TSHIRT AND PJS, FOLKS. Righhht. What should be the *ultimate* self-determined activity – after all, that’s rather the point – becomes instead a performance constructed for the eye of (male?) someone else.

7)      Which leads me rather neatly onto the biggest problem with the whole bloody article. Everything, and I mean everything, from discussion of erotic fantasy to the use of sex toys to discussion of private masturbatory practice, is constructed as a buildup to heterosexual monogamous coupledom. Repeatedly, ‘masturbation is fun and good for you in these ways’ [paraphrase] is followed by ‘and above all it will ‘help you to better enjoy sex with a partner.’ Both ‘expert’ opinions – Alice Little from Lovehoney, Rachel Foux – and reader/respondent contributions (with one notable exception out of four, although we’re nevertheless repeatedly assured that she does *have* a boyfriend, so it’s ok to listen to her opinion, you won’t die alone masturbating in a garret) follow this structure. Even masturbation isn’t space to be entirely selfish or focus on your own needs, but a means of enhancing that het mono relationship into which you can’t introduce your fantasies. (Not that there’s anything *wrong* with being in a het mono vanilla relationship, nothing at all, different strokes, but it certainly shouldn’t be imposed, and those who make other choices shouldn’t be made to feel inadequate about it. And it certainly shouldn’t be the ultimate end point of everybody’s self-pleasure!) To coin a phrase, FUCK. THAT. SHIT.

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Inside Men’s Minds, via Cosmo and the capitalist oppressor

Apologies for the hiatus, Cosmopoliticians, I have no excuse other than trying to write a PhD/3 other blogs/book reviews/dance in a queer burlesque troop/have a life, but I hope you can forgive me. Anyway, just in time for the new issue to come out and this to become obsolete, here’s October’s exciting little excursion into the living hell that is Cosmoland: this time, the Inside Men’s Minds section, (handily) about sex. In order to spare regular readers, I won’t harp on about Cosmo’s pernicious insertion of itself as a mediator in other people’s relationships, creating its market through creating insecurities, but I will if you ask me. Or you could just reread previous posts. :P Anyway, the naïve or optimistic  might hope that here would be a heartening opportunity for the wise Cosmominds to emphasize how different people are, how membership of a single category (eg ‘man’) by no means dictates how one might think or feel, how everybody feels and thinks differently about sex regardless of gender, race, orientation, whatever. But, er, no, unsurprisingly, that’s not quite what happens…

It’s fundamental to Cosmo’s presentation/worldview/business to create binary gendered oppositions, sides, carefully ignoring that its self-presentation as an authoritative spy in the male camp is somewhat undermined by said male camp’s (and everybody else’s) awareness of precisely what Cosmo is, eg,it  pretends it tells women what men’re thinking. Because that wouldn’t screw the data. It’s quite an impressive feat of fantasy actually. First information given is affected by what informants think a) women and b) journalists want to hear , and *then* it’s affected by how journalists choose to present it and what they think readers want to hear. Which does make the ‘undercover info!’ hook somewhat ridiculous in context.

Still, onto the apparent revelations presented to us. We leap straight in at the deep end with whether ‘men’ are fantasising about other people when having sex. As a woman who has sex, my own answer would be ‘only rarely – if I’m thinking about someone else, or indeed thinking at all, either something is a bit wrong or you’re not trying hard enough.’ But I would no more posit this as a universal characteristic of femininity as I would a preference for tall, skinny, strong-featured Northern men or tiny androgynous prettyboys. Cause it’d be bollocks. Perhaps expectedly, the gentlemen differ. Unsurprisingly – oh, I’m cynical – the men not under pseudonyms and in relationships assert they never think of anything other than the woman they’re with, the lone single man asserts he’s *always* thinking of other women. Reassurance (undermined, obviously, by anyone canny/stupid enough to actually read the introduction to the piece and put two and two together) followed by the recreation of insecurity. Nice one Cosmo. In case we miss the point, Cosmo’s ‘Man Undercover’ (aka journalist) interjects ‘Erm, that’s nice’. Hey girls, YOUR man (absurd constructions intentional, btw) may secretly be thinking of your best friend! Does he love you? Read on for further clues!

Next, we learn foreplay may become formulaic (‘you find yourself checking if she’s ready: no, not yet, give it a bit longer..’)  Hey girls, WHILE thinking about your best friend, he might also be BORED of trying to turn you on – he’s just waiting to stick his dick in it. Hey girls, who feels fun and confident now? By the way, the ‘sexiest thing’ is when you’re gagging for it without being touched at all. See point above re just wanting to stick his dick in it. Of course, given that my own – female – sex drive can tend to the insatiable, I have no problem with that being thought of as sexy – just *huge* problems with the implications that I *should* feel – or fake – that in order to be sexy. FFS.

Here natural difference asserts itself. Some men worry about climaxing too soon, some are always trying to speed it up. But they don’t – apparently – worry about not pleasing you, in either case, because either they’ll still get sex with you the next day (this is me not commenting) or they can’t remember that ever happening. If you don’t come yourself through PIV intercourse, though, it’s ‘disappointing’ and makes sex meaningless. Suddenly the proportion of women faking it makes total sense. All the men agree that the one thing they all want in bed is longer blow jobs: ‘she should do it like she really wants to do it’ not like ‘she’s just waiting for her turn’. Whilst one man does point out that ‘it’s up to us to let our partners know what we want’ and take some responsibility, the others just feel disappointed by women’s perceived lack of enthusiasm. Compare and contrast to the ‘is she ready yet?’ comment – from same man! – about foreplay above. What if the lady really doesn’t want to do it? She’s anathema, presumably. I personally happen to infinitely prefer giving head to getting it, because I’m hypersensitive and most lovers press waaay too hard so I have to stop them, which feels rude – but I also expect to take responsibility for telling people this, and what they can do about it. (Any lovers reading this, the trick is *tease me*. Tip of the tongue, and no pressure at all. Any readers loving this: you see, I never said communication was *easy*. I have to put it out there in a public forum rather than giving direct instructions in bed…:P) Digressions aside, the *last* thing I want is anyone going down there *pretending* enthusiasm. Who wants an unwilling lover? The possibility that women may not like giving or getting head here, or than an occasional not-in-the-mood might be met with understanding rather than (at best) resignation, completely disappears, only the men’s wishes are given any prominence or relevance.  There’s a bit of discussion about sharing with partners, underwear, etc – making an effort is always appreciated, it appears; ‘erotic dancing’ is not  - before we get to that holy grail of contemporary cultural insecurity, *weight gain*.

Again, I doubt anyone needs telling that we live in a culture which identifies women’s (and often men’s, but much less all-pervasively) worth with their bodies and has increasingly exacting standards for acceptability, let alone beauty. Or that these ideals are compatible with healthy food behaviour for only a minority of the population. But I’ll say it anyway. It would be nice to think that love relationships are the last bastion of sanity and freedom, where people are valued for what they are rather than what they look like, caritas dignifying amor. However, Cosmo and its advertisers have the ultimate vested interest in maintaining readers’ insecurities, all the more so in the ‘stuff he’s afraid to tell you’ format (hey girls, even if you’re dating an apparently loving guy, he’s secretly thinking about your best friend in bed AND he’s bored! Do you feel fun and confident yet? Do ya?) so let’s not pretend for a second that this is a likely outcome of this conversation. Instead we get ‘I don’t dislike her body, but it’s certainly not as firm as it was’ and ‘When we first started going out my gf was a size 6 or 8, but now she’s put on a bit of weight.’ Hey ladies, on the offchance you don’t feel too bad about your body, say you’ve put on maybe a dress size over the nine years you’ve been with your partner and figured ah well, your body has matured and had children, who cares if you’ve ascended to the dizzy heights of *gasp* a SIZE TEN (?!?) – FEEL INADEQUATE NOW. Secretly, he thinks you’re ugly – the warmest we get is ‘don’t dislike’. Called out for being ‘harsh’ by another interviewee, we find out this particular gentleman has put on two stone during the same period, whilst his unfortunate lady has only put on ‘maybe 7lb’. He thinks her cellulite is ‘not that bad’, though, aren’t we all gathering round to praise his loving supportiveness? I thought not. We might, however, raise a toast to Leo, who (in addition to being the caller-out above) says ‘if she can put up with my hairy bum, I can put up with her cellulite’.  Alfie’s response is ‘if she points out her flaws, I just lie to her’, so we’re not allowed to relax just yet.

Just as well, because next up is whether these men compare their partner’s performance to their exes’. They all agree that ‘subconsciously, yes’; but they disagree on implications: whilst for Leo ‘you wouldn’t marry somebody if they weren’t the best you’d had…’, Tom ‘would have sex with a girl who, um, experiments’ but ‘wouldn’t want to marry her’. So even if he’s having a really good time, even if you’re ‘the best he’s had’, be careful not to do anything too ‘experimental’, or it might make you unloveable. And talking of love, apparently sex is only an emotional experience for men until after they climax, so forget the ‘part of a loving relationship’ bollocks. Secretly, it’s all about the squirting bits, this relationship lark. (and forget any suggestions *girls* might squirt, that probably counts as ‘experimental’…)

It’d be funny if so many women didn’t genuinely worry about this shit. 

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Are You Insecure Enough In Bed? Or, Your Sex Life is (literally) Cosmo’s Business (PT 1)

So, biggest headline on October’s Cosmo cover (which may actually receive its own post at some point, as it surpasses even Cosmo’s normal levels of Utter Fail) was the superlatively infuriating 'how normal is your SEX LIFE? / 21 QUESTIONS YOU’RE TOO SCARED TO ASK IN BED (yep, even *that* one)’. Because I don’t have all night, here’s a list, just a list, of all the things wrong with this, before we even get to the article in question: 

1) THE VERY CONCEPT OF ‘NORMAL’ IN THE CONTEXT OF SEXUALITY IS BOLLOCKS. Nobody gets to be ‘normal’. Everybody is different. The same person’s sexual desires, expressions and preferences change over time. Whilst it might be possible to loosely plot a bell curve showing the frequency of sexual practices, not only would this have to be so generalised as to be pointless, but pretty much every individual becomes an anomaly in some way. Plus the frequency of an act bears relatively little relation to its meaning. There *is* no meaning without context. Is oral sex more ‘normal’ than, say, heterosexual vaginal intercourse, because participants can be of any combination of genders? I suspect a substantial body of opinion (although perhaps not one for which I have much time) would be quite resistant to that idea. Physical intimacy has no meaning outside its meaning to any particular participant. People, let alone all the questions of identity so intimately, hah, connected to desires and preferences, are so infinitely various and impossible to categorize that really, I think we should all give up, go home and have a cup of tea.

2) The concept of normal is damaging in so very many ways. And while we’re at it, Cosmopolitan’s definition of sex could do with some work.

3) Who the hell wants to be ‘normal’ anyway? Sounds fucking *dull*. Isn’t sex all about intimacy, liminality, excitement, communication, fun? *Distinct individuals* doing what turns them on? Well, maybe not for Cosmo…

4) ‘We hear there might be one area of your life in which you feel happy and comfortable. Please let us undermine that, replacing your trust in your partner/s and your own feelings with reliance on our inexplicable authority.’

5) ‘Not feeling judged yet? Feel like you manage ok? Read this! We are here to judge you, whether for deviance or dullness…’ (with thanks to the Facebook friend who commented with some of this)

6) ‘WE CAN SEE INSIDE YOUR MIND. Decided not to worry about something? Here, let us fix that for you. Personal inadequacy, only £3.50! We can criticize your body too!’

7) ‘Communicating honestly with your partner/s in bed? Tsssk….you shd be *scared* to express your concerns. What are you, some kind of FREAK?’ (‘Don’t talk dirty, pay for dirty(ish) instead…’)

8) Even among those with the relationship structures (eg, heterosexual monogamy) Cosmo would probably consider ‘normal’, people are also variously kinky, differently orientated, with their own personal quirk, foibles and fetishes. THERE IS NO NORMAL. Are we clear? 

The cumulative effect is to remove all that is joyous, human and fulfilling about sex and replace it with anodyne limitations and a hefty side order of suggested insecurity. Nice one Cosmo.

So, onto the article in question. It turns out *not* to be - just as well, given the impossibility of the task - an objective analysis of what constitutes ‘normal’ sexual practices, but the ‘answers’ to a selection of anonymous sex-related questions collected from clubs ‘across the UK’. The ‘experts’ answering these questions include Nadia Ansari, described as a ‘relationship expert’ who has founded her own life coaching service based on John Grey’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Unhelpful binaries, problematic gender assumptions, het privilege, yadda yadda yah. It could be worse, but only if she was *also* Nigella Lawson. They also include two authors of books about sex - about whom I can’t bitch properly without reading the works in question, but who look to have similar ideological issues, plus the convenient assumption that everyone’s bodies work the same way. However, I may be doing them a disservice. Helpfully, the subheading insists that ‘Cosmo’s own knowhow’ will be helping its panel of ‘experts’, which in no way makes me quake in my loving communicative kinky boots. The headline - ‘COME BACK, I’M LOOKING FOR YOUR G-SPOT!’ manages to assume that a) readers don’t communicate with their partners b) heterosexual men have issues with anal stimulation, which c) our putative reader must have forgotten despite constant helpful hints from their favourite magazine and d) said men will automatically run away screaming rather than saying ‘er, sorry honey, not for me’ because e) men don’t talk, especially not about sex. Hence, supposedly, the need for Cosmo. As previously suggested, if people had more open, (often) healthier sex lives, they might have to come up with actual meaningful content, and then there would they be?

So, the questions.

1) 'Do men prefer blow jobs to penetrative sex?'

'No, it'd get dull, only 'young, inexperienced' men particularly like getting head. Most men need the feeling of being inside a woman to enjoy sex' says Richard Emerson, author of Explosive Sex. Because all men are the same, obviously. They're all het for a start. Being down my throat doesn't count as being inside me. If you (or your partner) particularly like being teased/deep throat/a certain amount of tooth (although oral sex is obviously always the same, God forbid one varies technique according to partner, mood, situation, position, dynamic) you/he must be 'young and inexperienced.' Or there must be something wrong with you. Real adult men want vaginal sex with women (which is also always the same.) Come on, what *is* wrong with you/your partner?

(Here, just for kicks, is another link to Silicone Valley’s ‘Why it is damaging to articulate ‘sex’ as penile-vaginal penetration’ post. Because it’s an important point, well made.)

Also, oral ‘would get pretty boring if it were the only way a man could get his rocks off - a bit like eating nothing but chips.’ [kudos to the food/sex metaphor, esp for those familiar with my other work…]THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO FELLATE, MULTIGENDERED AUDIENCE. And that one way - which everybody knows instinctively and does the same - is nothing more to any man than ‘a step up from masturbation, without the effort.’ It certainly isn’t a loving and intimate act, or experimental, or varied, and it doesn’t take effort. Physically or emotionally. God forbid some men are shy or nervous about being vulnerable to a partner in that way. (Or particularly enjoy having a partner vulnerable to *them* in that way.) They all automatically love it when any other person puts their cock by their teeth.

Underlying all this, of course, is the assumption that our putative male subject is a) always up for sex b) always wants sex focused on the penis c) isn’t particularly susceptible to having balls/anus/anything else orally or manually stimulated in ways that are more difficult during penetrative sex d) doesn’t vary in mood or desire at all. Every man always wants vaginal sex. Not unlike how a lady - for example - wdn’t have ‘i just want to get ploughed’ days, and ‘i want you to tease me with your tongue’ days and ‘I want you to pin me down and come over me’ days and ‘I want your hands inside me’ days and ‘I want to do whatever you want’ days. Oh dear me no.

2) ‘How likely am I to catch an STI from one-off unprotected sex?’

This actually has a relatively sensible answer, admittedly from an obviously-biased Durex spokesperson, but he does at least loosely explain the concept of mathematical probability and discuss the importance of knowing your partner’s sexual history and how it wd affect answers to the question.

3) Do men like girls to be noisy?

yes yes YES’ says Nadia, Mars/Venus lady. Because all men are the same, and none of them are the gentlemen who in previous Cosmos complained noise implied their gfs were faking it. (That pissed me off royally, admittedly, but it does indicate there is at least debate on the subject.) Whilst her logic does come down to communication being a good thing - fair enough - do NOT assume everybody, male, female or other-gendered, responds - or ‘should’ respond - the same way to stimulation. Alright?

Oh Christ, there are 21 of these. TBC….

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A Fake Arse Will Solve All Your Life Problems

So, now we come to one of my favourite magazine features, the ‘You look fakin’ fabulous!’ page. In case you’re lucky enough not to be familiar with it, the basic schtick is that readers (supposedly, presumably to suggest it was a bored intern on a quiet Friday would be unfair…) write in with their bodily insecurities, and ‘fashion expert’ Clare suggests a product they can purchase to tackle these ‘problem areas’. So yes, you’re right, we are back to that really empowering ideology that runs basically that a woman’s body is the absolute limit of her social and personal value, her confidence and appeal depend upon it entirely, and it should be as close to a culturally prescribed (and intensely unrealistic) ‘perfect’ as possible.

Should this appear unfair and unrealistic to you, should you perhaps have the ghost of a scintilla of a sensation that possibly the shape of your arse is not the fundamental factor upon which all personal and professional success hangs (hah!), should you perhaps have got up this morning focusing instead on your plans for the day and the important meeting you’re presenting to this morning, never fear, here are other women to set you straight. Note the introductory sentence: ‘tips for enhancing what Mother Nature forgot’. So clearly when Mother Nature/God/FSM/deity of your choice/evolutionary processes made you petite or curvaceous or small/large breasted or small/large bottomed, it was a *mistake*: your natural body’s a mistake, gals, only the Cosmotically enhanced, culturally normative version is acceptable. God forbid you should be happy or confident with a body that doesn’t resemble Kate Moss’s (or, y’know, Cheryl Cole, Eliza Doolittle, Jessie J., Kate Bosworth - all names picked randomly off the fashion pages, all somewhere between a 6-10 and mostly under 35), or even not think about it for a bit. So much for actual confidence.

Sorry to sound like a stuck record, but Cosmo’s refrain is more constant than mine. Unhappy with your body? (and/or, by frequent implied extension, your life?) Forget genuine self-esteem, focusing on your achievements or talents, doing fun stuff or hanging out with people who love and inspire you, valuing anything outside your appearance and its adherence to an unrealistic culturally prescribed norm - BUY SOMETHING! Be a good little consumer! Focus on your appearance! The success of your birthday party depends on how slim you look! (Really). 

It’s worse, though. So many of the ‘problems’ seem to neatly gather up anybody whose personal insecurities haven’t already been prodded by the magazine’s constant visual emphasis on thinness as index of worth. Small boobs, ‘petite’ness, ‘lack of curves’ and a ‘flat bottom’ - just in case you didn’t feel too fat to be attractive after staring at the size 6 6’ models, here’s more things to feel insecure about! Plus more advice on things to buy to make it look like you’ve lost weight, in case you weren’t worried already. Maybe you should buy things anyway, just in case! Capitalism - consumerism - is always the answer. God forbid we all wake up and make the question ‘why should we care?’

(Next time: ‘Caught by a Cougar’, or, ‘Why Sex is only acceptable for skinny under-25s, and even then only if it’s about what *he* - always ‘he’ - likes.’ Rock on.)

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Sex and solidarity

So for today’s foray into the stimulating world of purchasable inadequacy, we have a particularly egregious example of the ‘[hetero]sex is a game you’ll lose unless you buy Cosmo’ genre, today with added undertones of ‘other women are the Enemies you compete with for Men, mysterious beings whose sexual desires are paramount.’ Yeah, you guessed it, it’s the September issue’s '63 sex moves his ex didn't do’.


The sheer number of problematic assumptions here leaves me somewhat breathless. First, the predictable assumptions of binary genders and heterosexuality. If you’re gay, genderqueer, whatever, forget it. In fact, why’d you even bother picking up the magazine in the first place? Secondly, the aforementioned assumption that women are in competition with each other, while men are the prize, and that Cosmo itself acts as some kind of mediator between two genders who can’t communicate directly. As a charming addition, we also have the implication that women (should) never communicate directly about sex, either to their partners or, heaven forfend, with their girlfriends. Call me naive, old-fashioned, foolish, idealistic, but if a woman feels insecure about her sexual performance, could she not ask the all-important male partner in question for reassurance, ideas, his thoughts? Could sex not be openly discussed, and both partners’ fantasies/desires/proclivities considered? Even if this is beyond the pale - it would require a man to communicate, after all, and Cosmo repeatedly assures us men communicate only with each other and/or a female journalist who just happens to be taking notes - could a woman not ask her friends for support, reassurance, ideas, embarrassing stories, shared experience? Apparently not. Possibly because *all* women are supposed to be competing fiercely for Men *at all times*, and any other woman is simply a competitor. Instead of sharing her experiences, good or bad, a woman should seemingly keep them to herself in an effort to ensure she’s every man’s ‘best’ lover. Regardless, presumably, of their individual compatibility, communication, whatever. Because clearly all men must be the same, right, and therefore one man’s unfulfilled sexual desire must stand for *all* men’s, even if, as in some cases, they are entirely opposite.

An example: no.36, Brad, 24: 'Speak up! I can't tell you how much more vocal I wish women would be!' vs no.40, Keith, 37: 'I had an ex who moaned loudly with every single thrust. I wish she’d been more real with me. I know I’m good, but I’m not that good.' (As a highly sexed, sexually hypersensitive and consequently vocal woman, I have some sympathy with his ex here. Volume =/= faking it, just ftr, Keith.) Not to mention Saul, 20, who mentions his desire for spanking - unlike, one presumes, Tom, 29, who ‘pretended he liked it’ when his older lover spanked him and declares ‘Never again’. It seems to occur to the men questioned even less than to the article’s author that perhaps both parties - especially in a relationship, ffs - have some responsibility to communicate their sexual desires to their partners. If, eg, you’ve always wished your lover would ‘pay attention to the scrotum as well as the shaft’ or ‘give me a blow job to completion’, and you were together for THREE YEARS, *surely* at some point during that time you could possibly have suggested this to her? She’d probably have been happy to oblige - the whole schtick of this article, problematic as it is, is that women want to make their partners happy, after all.

Women may, but men appear to be a separate matter - and the article encourages a scenario whereby women attempt to be a man’s best fuck without ever considering their own tastes (no pun intended). The whole question is presented as an attempt to get one over on other women, not to enjoy oneself or build closeness and fulfillment through communication. Thank FSM for Kyle, 35, whose main problem with his ex was apparently that he ‘never felt she was open to conversations about what worked or didn’t work in bed’ and ‘would love to be able to have an open talk’. If only all the other men with individual fantasies (being tied up with thongs, hand jobs, surprise sex, mirrors, having their nipples/anuses teased, nothing too kinky, heaven forfend) could take a leaf out of his book. A depressing number of the interviewees generalise, which would be less excusable were they not encouraged to do so.

So, on top of encouraging women to question their sexual performance and mistrust their partners - after all, few of these men suggest they tried to communicate - Cosmo then presents itself as the reader’s salvation. Its language is quite unambiguous: ‘We got men to confess what their former girlfriends failed to do in bed.’ Confession implies intimacy with the men, but it’s predicated on both purchase of the magazine and other women’s ‘failure’. What comfort are readers offered, for the fact that their putative former lovers actually witheld something as fundamental as their sexual desires? ‘Revel[ling] in the knowledge’ of other women’s ‘failure’. So much for the sisterhood.

And just for the record, I’m pretty sure I don’t have ‘moves’. I’m pretty sure I just go with the inspiration of the moment, based on my partner’s reactions. And I don’t think, actually, that’s a bad thing. If - just theoretically - sex was discussed less as a technical matter of negotiated gender-bound rivalry, and more in the context of mutual desire and communication and connection (in and out of relationships), I suspect a lot of people would be having a lot more fun in bed. All those guys, for a start.

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Calling a cunt a cunt and other pernicious cultural assumptions

The Femfresh ads scattered all over London have been annoying me for a while, with their relentless insistence that ‘loving your la-la’ (translation: looking after - because ‘loving’ means ‘looking after’ for women, obviously - your genitalia) equates to buying a specific product whose sales are obviously down and who’re therefore going on a huge marketing campaign to convince us that yet another aspect of the female body is unacceptable without having money thrown at it. Complete with relentlessly false joviality and a litany of ridiculous euphemisms, it’s a one-way train to seething incandescent rage at the pressures contemporary culture and the forces of capitalism put on women to continually focus on manipulating tiny details of their bodies to perceive themselves acceptable rather than, eg, taking over the world. Nowhere is it implied that possibly ‘woo-hoo for your froofroo’ (really) might consist of, eg, having really good sex, learning about one’s own desires, masturbation, not feeling under pressure to behave physically in any particular way, conducting your sex life in whatever way maximises your own personal fulfillment (however that may be achieved), or even (FSM forbid!) simply wearing comfy boypants rather than a lacy thong, rather than purchasing a scented was you had no idea you needed until 5 minutes ago. Sure, maybe some shower gels irritate genital skin, but some shower gels irritate my skin full stop, and I took the revelatory measure of *not using those ones*. Shocking, huh? Personally speaking, I shower 2 or 3 times a day (swimmer, sorry), with or without shower gel, and am lucky enough to have a fantastic, healthy and fulfilling sex life. I suspect my genitalia are about as a) hygienic and b) ecstatic as they’re likely to get without immediate manual assistance, and even were this not the case, I’m damn sure a new concoction of chemicals with which to wipe my cunt wouldn’t quite match up to multiple orgasm.

Even more irritating, therefore, is the special ‘promotion’ in September’s Cosmo. Just for the fuck of it, here’s a breakdown of why it pisses me off.:

'Any Cosmo girl will tell you that knowing how to party, looking good and taking care of our bodies improves our overall confidence'. Because using a genital wash = partying, obviously. Jesus. It doesn’t appear to occur to anyone that confidence could conceivably work the other way round, that confident women spend less time obsessing over minute details of their appearance as instructed by Cosmo. 

59% of women spend most time on their faces, with only 2.7% spending an equivalent length of time on their genitals. Well no, really? Apart from anything else, surely a significant proportion of Cosmo readers apply make-up daily, which obviously takes some time. Not to mention that the face is constantly exposed, and so the continuous round of cleanse/tone/moisturise women are supposed to engage in (oops, yet again I fail at femininity…) has at least some logical justification. The implication that somehow we should be lavishing equivalent attention on our cunts is just mystifying. Who for? Mine feels quite comfortable untoned, thank you. And what lover actually wants a mouthful of moisturiser or scented wash if they’re going down on you? Don’t cunts taste hot? It’s not like vaginal secretions can be made to taste of anything other than, well, cunt. Possibly, at a pinch (hah!) cunt and lube. Or am I missing something? And by the way, is anyone telling men they need special washes to make their penises acceptable? Serious question, because if so I’ve missed it. How is it fair that women, specifically, are made to feel anxious abt their bodies’ acceptability? I know there’s a vastly increased male grooming market, but please in the name of all that’s holy tell me it hasn’t got as intense and relentless as the feminine equivalent. I may have to kill someone.

Buying product =/= ‘being kind to yourself’. Rinse and repeat.

Not trying to put unrealistic pressure on yourself = being kind to yourself. Are we clear?

I DO NOT HAVE A VA-JAY-JAY. I have a vagina, a cunt, possibly a vulva (i’ve never quite figured out exactly what that is; the word sounds too much like a brand of family car for my comfort. ‘The drive of your life!’), and sometimes a pussy, if the beautiful person I’m with is that way inclined. I certainly do not have anything so absurdly euphemistic as a va-jay-jay, which takes 3x as long to say and is basically a phonetic adaptation of ‘vagina’ with a cutesy ending. (I’ll draw a veil over the rest. Hur hur.) And all the above feel fantastic or otherwise dependent on factors like recent sexual activity and time of the month; I doubt use of any product is likely to change that massively.

46% of women would feel more uncomfortable without washing their faces that without washing their genitalia. Presumably this is because most women do not go out with their genitalia on show, and are more concerned about the comfort or reactions of others than adherence to a rigid washing routine. (I have been known to go straight to the gym without a shower first. Shoot me now.)

Underneath all this are the same problematic, continuous cultural assumptions, viz:

For women, loving = looking after = purchasing specific products. Failure to do so = failure as a woman = failure at life. YOU WILL NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH. Etc.

Women should be concerned about every minute detail of their physical appearance - and here, not only appearance, but self. The entire ad is calculated to trigger anxiety - am I ‘fresh’ enough to be acceptable? Does my nonscented vagina make me unsexy? dirty? repulsive? Am I just not trying hard enough?

And there’s an unpleasant subtext, too: forget working hard at your job, having fun with friends, having a family, building functional relationships, challenging cultural dictates that oppress and annoy you, campaigning for political change - what *really* matters, ladies, is what you wash your cunt with. That’s what you’re *really* judged on, not your words or your actions or your achievements.

Welcome to femininity in the 21st century. Please leave your independence of mind and your natural body at the door.

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Fundamentally fearful fashion

Well hello there, Cosmopoliticians. Sorry for the prolonged absence, basically the result of the August issue tragically not turning up until just before the September one, thus leaving me with a considerable backlog of sarcasm and fury to vent. However, right now I’m tired and ill, so I’m going to content myself with the so-called Fun Fearless Fashion pages. To be fair, neither the clothes themselves nor those modelling them are half as bad as they could be, with a few notable exceptions we’ll come on to in a minute: to my joy, not only are the ‘personal stylists’ distinctly over a size 6, but the August issue boasts a *size 14 model*, Lily. That her stomach is distinctly flat and the entire rhetoric of the piece highlights the exceptional nature of both curvaceous models and larger girls feeling (or, by implication, being) able to ‘wear anything’ is somewhat unfortunate, but still, simply visual representation of a non-stick-thin-lady is to be highly commended.

It’s depressing that the section’s strapline is ‘yes you can!’, highlighting the extent to which thinness is generally supposed a prerequisite for ‘fashionable’ dressing (and really, is size 14 really that big? *Average* is 16, ffs) and slightly troubling that in contrast to any other model in the fashion pages Lily is shown eating pizza (the implication being, one supposes, that Lily represents a ‘real girl’; ‘real girls’ eat, models don’t) but never mind. The phrase ‘team with your favourite heels’ - especially referring to Christian Louboutins, ffs - is almost as frustrating as what amounts to a litany of looks anybody over a size 10 is supposedly to terrified to wear. (You can wear skinny jeans, ladies, but only if you shell out £500 on notoriously painful shoes! High heels are ‘confidence!’ Who cares about pain when you can, er, feel marginally less self-conscious in leopard-print jeans? etc.) To be honest, I suspect i have thin privilege here, but it wouldn’t *occur* to me that were I a few sizes larger, I wouldn’t feel able to wear bright colours (Joan Holloway, people, Joan Holloway!), jumpsuits (which, after all, cover quite a lot of you!), ‘tone on tone’ (I don’t even know what that is, and the pictures leave me none the wiser…), jeans and a sweater (well, i mean, what?!), a loose off-the-shoulder smock with jeans (ffs, they look GOOD on ppl with boobs and non-bony shoulders!)…the list goes on. Particularly infuriating is the suggestion that the loose smock thing should *only* be worn with ‘a fantastic Charnos shapewear bandeau body dress (£39) to keep you in control’. Because, presumably, the body is a threatening Other, always about to overspill and betray you, which needs to be kept strictly within unrealistic and unnatural bounds of cultural approbation, folks! Insert references to Bakhtin’s grotesque body here. (Also the entire discipline of fat studies, ping me for a reading list.)

What’s ‘fun’ or ‘fearless’ (hah!) about feeling unable to wear even a loose, opaque, drapy garment without an expensive, uncomfortable underdress to control your unacceptable (and entirely natural) curves? Curves which you’re elsewhere instructed to ‘flaunt’: wearing nothing but a bra (‘be sure to flaunt the cutest of bras!’ Let’s infantilise feminine sexuality!) and an unbuttoned cardi, apparently, is a good idea. Presumably it will encourage people to be looking at your breasts rather than your putative ‘excess’ flesh. You don’t say. Because getting perved over, not listened to and ignored in favour of your chest is *fun*, girls! *headdesk*

Anyway. Kudos to Lily herself, who looks hot and spunky, and let’s move on to ‘Let’s Go Shopping!’ (which is what all women like to do in their spare time, obviously) with ‘90210 star’ Jessica Lowndes, picking a favourite outfit from high street stores. The obsession with ‘cute’! ‘GIRLY!’and ‘fun’! (and the verbs ‘love!’ and ‘adore!’…) grates even for somebody who uses the phrase ‘best thing EVER!’ 5 times a day on average. The association of fun - quite an appealing concept, after all - and femininity with both infantilisation and adherence to particular fashion dictates is soul-destroying. Not to mention the unrealism of it all. Take just one outfit, a ‘bralet' and tie-dye skirt, with platform wedges, all Topshop. Jessica's gushing comment is 'I adore Topshop, and this bralet worn together with the skirt is such a fun summer look.' Really, Jess? Really? Leaving aside her superlatives (*shudder*) what on earth would be 'fun', for 95% of the magazine's readers, about wearing something that leaves almost none of the body the rest of the magazine has been parading and encouraging insecurities over to the imagination? It *can't* be 'fun', largely because you've devoted roughly 100 pages of magazine space to implying in various ways that the natural female body is pretty much unacceptable unless it conforms to particular, intensely unrealistic, cultural dictates. Fuck that. I mean really? I can't imagine being comfortable on the streets in nothing more than a slightly extended bra and skirt, and I have a relatively small, normative figure. Maybe Ms Lowndes is genuinely confident in her semi-naked body, eating normally and not overexercising. In which case, all the luck in the world to her, say I, but it's hardly realistic for either her or we to assume that this makes her the norm, even (especially?) among Cosmopolitan readers. On the other hand, and distressingly more likely, perhaps she's always lived in the diet-and-exercise-obsessed world of California and it's second nature to her to manipulate both her own appearance and others' insecurities. Behold the subtext: you SHOULD have a body sufficiently culturally normative that wearing a bralet is fun. Too insecure about the possible tiny faults the magazine instils insecurity over? Then you're not 'fun' and fearless enough, evidently.

Moreover, despite my own love of vaguely retro flowery prints, is it really necessary for *every* outfit not only to feature them but to be described as ‘cute’, ‘girly’, ‘fun’, ‘romantic’? Does every adjective of female appeal have to sound pre-teen, fictional, or both? Never mind that the entire setup of the article implies that one’s activitites (‘chatting with a busker’, in possibly *the* most staged fashion shoot EVER, and yeah, i know; ‘taking a stroll down the Portobello Road’ - in 3-6” platforms? Because THAT’S a good idea. Have you ever TRIED to navigate Portobello at the weekend? Let alone in unstable footwear? Well exactly) are entirely dependent on one’s outfit. God forbid one might ‘enjoy London’s blooms’ without a £120 dress, £800 shoes (WITH 5” HEELS. Have you ever TRIED walking on grass in heels, let alone lounging in a park under a tree? Not a good idea unless you fetishize mud/broken ankles) and two expensive corsages to render you obviously ‘romantic’. And with the best will in the world, the sheer amount of eyeliner Ms Lowndes is wearing - gushing that ‘glamourous and natural make-up is so ‘me’!’, in apparent ignorance of the incompatibility of those adjectives - may be glamourous, but it’s *certainly* anything but ‘natural’. 5-step instructions take an entire page, and the final result is Goth with added brown tones. Nobody ‘naturally’ looks like that - or could fail to notice the presence of makeup - unless they’ve just been punched in the face. Let’s be clear, I wear excessive eyeliner much of the time myself, and quite *like* the ‘look’, but am deeply, intensely frustrated by the implication that it’s ‘natural’. Could we please, PLEASE get away from the constant insinuation that ‘natural’ femininity is - should be, and is unacceptable if it isn’t - glamourous, hairless, sweatless, artifically painted, and infantilised for good measure? Pretty pretty please?

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Editorial: ‘Facing the bikini fear? Read this and think again’..

Because where better to start with a magazine’s empowering, challenging, feminist-orientated message than the editorial - written, after all, by a competent professional woman in a position of power and authority, at the top of her game. And here she is, obliquely anyway, promising to make you rethink ‘the bikini fear’. (Of course, my Eng Lit background leads me to point out that by using the noun-phrase ‘the bikini fear’ - no quotation marks, even - she’s actually creating it as a pre-existent, established concept already part of her readers’ lives, but I can be generous and pretend not to notice.) She cites the story of the undoubtedly courageous Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was ripped off while surfing, age 13, and who subsequently recovered, learned to surf again armless, and is now the subject of current movie Soul Surfer. It’s notable that her account of Bethany’s traumatic recovery hinges on the ‘years of adjustment’ it took to deal with fact that she’d ‘never look the same’. Never mind the minor inconvenience of having NO LEFT ARM, which’d make everything from driving to hanging out the washing somewhat more complicated; the entire story of what Bethany lost is told in terms of ‘looking’. The ultimate expression of her courage is not the relatively small picture of her back in the water surfing again, but the larger picture of her on the red carpet at Cannes, ‘refusing to wear the prosthetic arm made for her’ because ‘“it’s uncomfortable…it makes me look the same as everybody else, but there’s nothing wrong with looking different.”’ True, of course, but Cosmo’s take on it both reflects (fair enough, if challenging it would be preferable) and perpetuates (decidedly *not* ok) a culture where women’s appearance is held up as the most important - often the *only* important - thing about them. Wow, look how amazing she is, she’s brave enough to WALK DOWN THE RED CARPET WITH NO ARM! It gets more attention than, y’know, GETING BACK IN THE WATER AFTER HAVING HER ARM RIPPED OFF. The implicit signal is that the female body’s about form, not function, in all aspects.

The editor (one Louise Court) continues by perpetuating the common myth that ‘if I don’t like [my ‘less-than-perfect bikini body’] I can change it’. Hmm. Within limits, and if you’re prepared to risk longterm consequences and short-term distress, possibly. But some things you actually *can’t* change. Bone structure, height, build, musculature - you can’t do much to change those, for all that every diet ad and gym promotion suggests that if we just tried harder we could all be Kate Moss. To encourage us, Court cites Gwyneth Paltrow: ‘The reason I can be 38, have 2 kids, and wear a bikini is because I work my ass off. It’s not luck. I kill myself for an hour and a half, five days a week.’

Fair play to Paltrow for her honesty. But she kinda leaves out that, actually, it’s not about being *able* to wear a bikini - any woman lucky enough to live in a culture where she won’t be shot for exposing flesh *can* wear a bikini. Has the physical ability to don one. It’s *to feel* she can wear a bikini, to wear one without criticism, to feel comfortable in one, and also (in her case, given her job & husband) to not be hounded by the press of a dozen countries for having ‘put on weight’ and ‘let herself go’. It’s entirely understandable that a woman in Paltrow’s position would feel that working out 90m a day is preferable to the deluge of public press coverage about her ugliness, unfemininity and failure that would ensue were she to say ‘fuck it’, even if her un-worked-on body would only be a size or so larger. But that press deluge should NOT be a given, her body should NOT be the one thing by which Paltrow - or any woman - stands or falls regardless of her talent, aptitudes, productivity or performance, and Cosmopolitan should NOT be contributing to a culture which insists young women’s bodies are the only important thing about them. Why not? Because women are PEOPLE, whose minds are worth just as much (if not more than, like men’s) their bodies, and these damaging ideologies only exist and continue *because* magazines and the media continue to practise them.

Court, however, has a sightly different take. She herself responds to body insecurities not by challenging the culture that imposes them, but by advising readers to check out the ‘Bikini Boot Camp special’ in the magazine. Which, depressingly, in a magazine full of thin, Caucasian, late teenage, heavily made-up models, which assumes women bond over body hatred, adherence to ever-changing fashions, heterosexuality and male-related insecurites, and hair products, probably fits. God forbid we aim for a world where women say ‘fuck the bad hair day, this morning I have a presentation of some work i’m really proud of, nobody’ll be thinking about how I look or what i’m wearing because they’ll be listening to my ideas.’ How’d you use that to sell hair products?