15 ways to please a guy in bed is a common headline seen on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, now better known as Cosmo. I haven’t read Cosmo in a while, but I remember my friend giving me a few issues when I was fourteen. I was curious, I hadn’t read anything like it before. I devoured each one, absorbed by the content. I didn’t know what it would do to my psyche to spend hours reading about how to be “perfect”.
Cosmo has taught me many important things I might have missed out on otherwise. I read about pleasuring myself, periods, sex, and health from a source that is put together carefully every month. Unfortunately, it’s a print magazine, so it also brings along damaging information and unrealistic expectations about what it’s like to be a woman. I’m not here to put 100% of the blame Cosmo for my insecurities about my appearance, unconscious biases, or the internalized sexism embedded into my brain—but I’m sure it has contributed to it.
This month, I got curious and wanted to know if the magazine and its content had changed since I first got my hands on an issue in 2002. I went on the Cosmo website* and found the five following headlines:
Fans Are Worried That Lady Gaga and Her Fiancé Have Broken Up After Her Grammys Appearance
Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?
So, Apparently the Queen Thinks Meghan Markle’s Family Drama Is a “Nightmare” and Told Her as Much
Meanwhile, Prince Harry is “angry” and “upset.”
Selena Gomez Rocks a White Bikini and Celebrates Her BFF’s Bachelorette Party
She looks .
Um, Cardi B Just Deleted Instagram Following Drama with Nicki Minaj
But not before going on an epic rant.
8 Ways to Upgrade Your Tinder Profile So You Get All the Matches
Step away from the sunglass pic.
Note *I visited cosmopolitan.com on February 12, 2019
My first impression was that Cosmo is far more into clickbaity gossip than it used to be. What are celebrities doing? Who are they dating? How hot or not do they look? Readers love celebrity gossip and the competition is fierce now that the Internet makes sharing news and information immediate and disposable. The monthly Cosmo magazine can’t tackle important and current topics like Jennifer Aniston’s Lit Birthday Party in print, because it’s only relevant for a day. That’s why their website and social media channels have become important for them to remain relevant. Whatever gets more clicks and subscriptions will be the content they provide and that means trashy articles of zero added value. Gossip sells, but it’s also toxic.
The Love tab is full of sex positions for same sex couples and lesbian couples. The drawings do depict some racial diversity, which is nice to see, but they still have a long way to go to make it inclusive. Finally the Politics section was a pleasant surprise. The editors don’t post there everyday, but I think they should. There’s always something going on.
In the end, I found myself wondering “when was Cosmo founded?” and “what type of content did it feature back then?” I found some answers and would like to share my findings with you. This is by no means a comprehensive overview of Cosmo’s history, but a glimpse into the past.
In the beginning
Cosmo magazine was first published in 1886. At the time, it was called The Cosmopolitan and was created to be a family magazine. It was bought by the Hearst Corporation in 1905.
The Cosmopolitan Issue No.6 February 1888
For more than a century, Cosmopolitan featured now-famous authors like George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain (Article: When Cosmo Published Mark Twain). As we can see on the November 1917 cover below, most of these authors were men, but that slowly changed over time.
In the 1960s, the author of Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, was looking for a publisher to make her magazine mock-up a reality. The Hearst Corporation was about to stop printing Cosmopolitan when Helen arrived on their doorstep. They decided to let her have a go at revamping the magazine. That’s when it became a women’s magazine.
Time after time
I believe it’s worth analyzing some of the covers together to examine the changes Cosmo has undergone over the years. I assembled random issues and broke down the headlines that appear on each individual cover. I didn’t analyze covers prior to 1960s because the target audience had changed. For more vintage covers, visit https://www.pinterest.ca/vintagecosmo/.
I’m not sure how you’re supposed to choose the sex of your baby, but I’m curious. I would have opened the magazine, just to learn about a possible new scientific discovery. The nose headline surprised me, were women concerned about their noses in the ‘60s? I suppose that after the World Wars and the Great Depression, corporate America saw an opportunity to start becoming profitable at the expense of our media-fueled insecurities.
I like that this cover focuses on the woman; it’s not about pleasing men. It’s reflective of that time in history, the second wave of feminism was picking up steam. There is also a headline featuring Virginia Woolf and a book, both are reflective of feminism and the literary history of the magazine.
I haven’t read any magazines from the ‘60s, but thankfully someone has done that for me. According to Caroline Thompson’s article, it wasn’t all feminist content:
Every issue of Seventeen, Cosmo, and Ladies’ Home Journal I flipped through featured two or more ads for douches. Women’s magazine publishers were obsessed with the stuff, apparently. Or addicted to the money the ads brought in. Either way, the message was clear: Vaginas are weird and meant to be treated as problems to be solved. Of course now we know the practice is not recommended by doctors, and can lead to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and, in some cases, ovarian and uterine infections.
-Caroline Thompson, How to Be a Woman, According to 1960s Women’s Magazines
Note: There are more gems about Cosmo in that article if you’re interested in reading further.
There are many more headlines than there were on the 1965 cover and some words are now underlined for emphasis. The editors at Cosmo discovered that sex sells, which is clear by Denise Hopkins’ decolté. It’s good news because it shows women that they can dress how they please.
The Sex Clinic article and the Sensual Quiz also stand out. Women, we love quizzes, don’t we? We love seeing how good we are and comparing ourselves to others, it’s human nature. I think it’s great that women’s sexuality was now a topic that could be discussed on the newsstands. Whether the feminists at the time agreed or not, I believe that openly discussing sexuality helped the feminist movement.
The Avocado Diet surprised me, I guess avocados saw their popularity rise in the ‘70s too. It saddens me that the diet headlines were around then and are still today. The truth about vitamin E is definitely a teaser that would still be used now. The only thing that’s missing from the headline is “the answer will shock you!”
The divorce headline is in keeping with the times. In 1970, the no-fault divorce law was introduced to the United-States. This law allows for divorces “in which the dissolution of a marriage doesn’t require a showing of wrongdoing by either party.” (Wikipedia) Divorce was definitely on the rise and didn’t stop rising until the 1980s.
I’m pleased to see a story on Bernadette Delvin. She was a politician and an Irish civil rights leader. It’s great to see that Cosmo was featuring strong inspiring stories about women. There are also many books listed on the cover—five on this issue only, including three female authors.
The cover is flashier and the print quality has improved. It also features a famous model, Cindy Crawford, but her name isn’t mentioned anywhere.
This issue is almost entirely devoted to the working woman. Women were definitely a bigger part of the workforce in the ‘80s, but they were also expected to take care of their children and their husband. The headlines make it feel like women should be the ones fighting and surviving, instead of the double-standards changing. Yes, capitalism has been grinding us down all this time. Instead of working less, we prefer to learn “how to look busy where we’re not working”, “deal with a monster boss”, “stay fit at our desk”, “beat fatigue” and “survive when we are over our heads”. Society should have taken this Cosmo issue as a sign of the number of women burning out and now try to fix the tiredness but start asking why. Why are we tired?
There are no books mentioned on this cover, just one short story. There also aren’t any sex stories, it’s just work, work, work, work, work. Maybe women were too overworked for sex?
Headlines oriented towards men also started making appearances: “To Understand Men, Learn Their Top Five Fears and What Makes a girl Very Sexy Plus Why Some (Not Beautiful) Women Have No Trouble Finding Husbands. I especially dislike the last headline. What defines beauty?
Once again, an unnamed-skinny-white model (Christy Turlington) is featured on the cover. The content is focused on marriage, when in the ‘70s were all about divorce. Job-related headlines are still around, but less than the previous cover. I like the empowerment behind the headline: “Why Smart Companies Are Crazy About Women Executives”.
This cover focuses on what it means to be a woman and sharing other women’s experiences, which is a good thing. There’s also a featured book, written by a female author.
I don’t know what was written in the “How Men Feel When Women Make the First Move” article, but my guess is that men feel emasculated by women making the first move. I hope the conclusion was, “and that’s okay, you don’t want to be with that guy anyway!”
The print quality has improved once again, but this cover is overwhelming. The font size, styles and format, the colours. It’s very LOUD. The cover models are consistently music of film celebrities, they are also mentioned on the cover along with a story or an interview. The late 1990’s and early 2000’s is really when celebrities started being venerated.
There are many, many headlines about sex and how to please men. Diets and physical appearance are also central topics. There’s a catchy headline about murder, but no mention of books or topics to inspire female readers. There is an article about feeling happier, but it focuses on how to feel in control on crazy days because women are overwhelmed.
The celebrity trend continues with Kim Kardashian. Sadly, the accompanying article is about her “having it all!” This cover’s headlines are less convoluted and therefore easier to read, although everything is still loud and bold. This is thanks to the flood of magazines on the newsstands, each issue needs to catch your eye.
Cosmo’s Career Guide seems like a good tool, it was also in the 1988 issue, and the article about how to score your dream job, featuring Facebook’s COO, is interesting. It’s important to feature strong powerful women.
What other lovely gifts does this cover bring? Sex tips, why guys pull away, how to talk dirty, what sexy things to do on a date, how to look hot with 247 looks (secret message: buy more clothes) and how to look “naturally” gorgeous (with makeup). To me, this is all unhealthy. I don’t want to spend more money, learn how to be sexy or how to look natural with makeup.
The most recent issue is this one, featuring Hailee Steinfeld. The cover is clean and the tagline is “QUICK & HOT SEX TIPS”. The headlines are more about female readers, which is nice. I like the idea of finding what works for you when it comes to your ambitions and reducing stress. Unfortunately, I couldn’t care less about knowing whether or not I have the Markle Sparkle.
Is Cosmo good or bad?
In many ways, the magazine hasn’t changed much since the ‘70s, which is an achievement in itself. Unfortunately, it also means it has stagnated and isn’t pushing boundaries. Helen Gurley Brown’s vision for the magazine was for it to tell the truth. It was a beacon of independence for women when it was really needed; when feminism was rising strong.
“I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that hadn’t been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don’t even know what the other two are.”
-Helen Gurley Brown, How Cosmo Changed the World
Editors are only human and the patriarchy is strong, but I believe the magazine has become less feminist and more damaging to women over time. As a teen, I felt like this magazine was my best friend. It’s only now that I realize that it was the bad kind of BFF, the one that tells you you’re fat, shames you for not buying the latest style of jeans and tells you that you’re uncool if you don’t blow your boyfriend.
The seven covers I analyzed from 1965 to 2018 is a small sample, but it’s still telling. All the women featured on the magazine are white and skinny and they increase in celebrity status over time. We can clearly see the headlines changing according to what’s important to women at the time of print, divorce, work, physical abuse, and so on. Unfortunately, the serious and influential topics disappear from 2004 onwards, it’s all about sex and fluff.
So, here’s my tiny open letter to Cosmo.
Dear Cosmo, You have such a large and powerful platform. All I ask if that you use it for good. Please start featuring more diverse women of all sizes, colour, sexual orientation, gender identities, etc. The lack of representation is detrimental to our mental and physical health. Dare to teach us about sex, fashion and health if it’s done in a constructive way. Empower us. Represent us. Love us.