European women sleep around, if they wish. Some get married, and some get a divorce too. In brief; they are free to define their own sexuality. But does the sex and love advice in women’s magazines reflect this?
I’m not really a cosmo girl
Shanthi M. Blanchard
My first encounter with the magazine happened at 12 years of age, when I saw the movie ‘Legally Blonde’. The heroine, Elle Woods, informed my adolescent self that the magazine was ‘like, the bible,’ for women. But between the cornucopias of candy-coloured pink, that bible was lacking some serious verses for me. Consequentally, I’ve often felt a bit left out of what it meant to be a modern woman.
This unsettled feeling was only made worse when my boy of the month, let’s call him August, started listing all the reasons why Cosmo could be a really great, empowering magazine for women. He cited the magazine’s emphasis on self-help for women’s relationship issues, its tackling of tough topics like drug addiction, and how it exemplified ways for women to express themselves through fashion. I immediately countered this with examples of how the proper application of eyeliner did not equate to empowerment. Nor did images of women, photo-shopped down to sexually pleasing ideals, make me like my body more. Then he casually shrugged his shoulders and committed his final mistake by saying: “My ex-girlfriend is doing her PhD in gender this fall and she loves these magazines.”
And there was my underlying fear exposed in the most pathetic way: the verification of my abnormality as a woman by the man I was dating through the use of his Elle Woods-like-but-feminist-ex-girlfriend representing the subset of normal.
Lets just say, August (the boy, not the month) ended early this year.
However, this didn’t deter me from embracing the challenge. So, the next day I went to my trusted newspaper kiosk and bought stacks of popular glossies. Read on and find out what I and my two co-authors have to say about how magazines across Europe approach modern women…
Eastern-europe: how to avoid becoming a spinster
The range of topics in Eastern European glossy media varies, of course, but probably the most persistent theme is how to get a relationship. Mostly directed at women, articles perpetuate female insecurity by showering them with endless ‘tips’: while women are urged to follow someone’s advice on how to dress up, what perfumes to choose, what make-up to use and, logically, how to behave in all this fancy appearance in order to attract the right person, there is not a single suggestion addressing the male readership. Then, once you got the relationship, the next most important issue is how to keep it. Funny as it is, the problems probed usually don’t even remotely involve the partner, but rather his mother/sister/ secretary, etc. Perhaps, the infamous myth of Eastern women fiercely protecting their men is not only a common joke?!
Reading a few articles in Eastern European magazines would leave anyone under the impression that being in a relationship is very much like defending your territory.
And really, when flipping through the pages of a Serbian, Macedonian or a Bulgarian glossy magazine, you are bound to come across the eternal test: “How to catch the liar” (note that the word ‘liar’ is always used in its masculine form). More popular articles include: “How to find out whether he plans to marry you”- usually followed by a couple of pages of generous editorial encouragement to be confident and enjoy yourself. Reading a few articles in Eastern European magazines would leave anyone under the impression that being in a relationship is very much like defending your territory ( i.e. partner/husband/boyfriend) from the enemy ( i.e. any other women around).
Let’s whisper about sex
After a few pages every reader starts to wonder why sex is not addressed in women’s magazines, and magazines in general, in Southeastern Europe. Every 3 or 4 pages of passionate discussions on the concept of a ‘spinster’ are followed by a page entitled: ‘Sex and Romance Advice.’ These chapters, however, are usually limited to encouraging men to be more romantic. The fact that two of the most popular women magazines in Bulgaria don’t even havea sex advice and discussion column is rather disturbing! It seems that cleaning the persistent stains in the kitchen and making the most of an old pair of jeans are more important than an active sex life for the modern woman. I could imagine even Renaissance ladies would have serious objections to that assumption.
The male body: Forbidden territory
The rare photos of nude body parts are accompanied by scientific descriptions of human anatomy, which would make the technical explanation of a space rocket appear a piece of cake.
If, however, a magazine finally dares to touch upon the ‘s’-topic, you have to admire how creatively they avoid any direct discussion: A Serbian article, for example, explores the vital connection between the colour of the wallpaper in a bedroom and a couple’s sex life. And sex tips are not only vague in words, but also in pictures. One or two more progressive magazines dare include photos of couples kissing, a girl’s bra, or her behind. This prudish mood is rather interesting, since most major newspapers invariably include a bare-breasted female model on one of the last pages. The same illogical photos (you’d expect some women would want to look at a man’s sculpted body in a women’s magazine?) are accompanied by scientific descriptions of human anatomy, which would make the technical explanation of a space-rocket appear a piece of cake.
Yet, in contrast to the sophisticated photo captions, the sex and love advice columns in Eastern European magazines never miss a chance to point out the obvious. A rare jewel of oral sex advice in a Bulgarian magazine includes staggering propositions such as ‘Don’t stare,’ and ‘Don’t shout out: “I have never seen anything like that before!” ‘.
Time to change priorities?
By combining scientific research and plain observations, Eastern European magazines effortlessly achieve the seemingly impossible: To publish sex advice you could read aloud at the dinner table. The result: sex appears as a chore, an unnatural activity or a difficult chemistry exam. Perhaps it’s time to change the attitude and move sex advice and discussion higher up the list of priorities?
Germany: poland is the enemy
When I allowed myself the long forbidden pleasure of indulging in women’s magazines, doing my ‘research’, it was not so much the dullness of the always-identical beauty tips that I found disturbing. Instead, what shocked me was the blatant racism in German magazines against Eastern European women.
It seems to be a topic that bothers German women a lot: more and more German men opt for Eastern European women instead of them. The number of German men marrying a foreign woman has risen (from 16 000 in 1989 to 25 000 in 2007), the largest national groups being Polish, Thai, and Ukrainian women. This makes them serious competitors in the eyes of many German women and, accordingly, the articles I read are bursting with jealousy and bitchiness.
One stupid idea, two ways of putting it
For instance, the German InStyle has published a “SOS-Guide for vengeful women” asking: “What do these girls have, that we German women don’t have?” The answer the glossy magazine offers is simple: Eastern European women are shrewd, greedy and – most importantly – sexually eager. InStyle even gets a psychologist to testify to these prejudices. “These women know how to exploit the vanity of an aging, sexually undersupplied man,” the expert says. They have been brought up learning how to play on their femininity for their material benefit. Some of them have been professionally trained at flirting-schools like the one in Perm, Siberia, where Russian girls learn “the high art of being a bad girl” at the age of 16, the magazine explains.
Had it only been these silly magazines, with their snappish tone, it might not have been worthwhile reporting. However, serious German newspapers repeat these reproaches against East European women, even though they do it more subtly. For instance, the Süddeutsche Zeitung has published an article, in which the author claims that German women have an image problem: They are “too demanding and ambitious, too bad-tempered, too complicated, too sloppily dressed, they set too many conditions, and offer too little sex in return.” In contrast, the author paints the image of a submissive, tender, loving, attractively dressed woman, prepared “to work as a cleaner” despite her university education in order to do her bit. Although the article generally pretends to be more serious by quoting a number of sources, the ultimate explanation of why German men increasingly turn to Eastern European women remains the same dull stereotype: that these women are prepared to have sex on demand, whenever and however their men want them to.
Who said German men are meant to be with German women? Love isn’t a patriotic act that should take place within certain borders.
All this reminds me of the classic (Western European) prejudice about Eastern European workers taking “our jobs” away. In this version it’s their women taking “our men”. Just as the workers allegedly became competitors for our jobs because they were prepared to work for a pitiful salary, it is supposed that Eastern European women are only able to compete for “our men” by selling their sexual autonomy. Surely most of us have at some point indulged in this kind of inverted self-pity when we got hurt. However, that does not explain away the fact that this kind of thinking becomes sexist and racist as soon as it is supposed to explain the alleged difference between women from different countries.
Who said German men are meant to be with German women? Love isn’t a patriotic act that should take place within certain borders. There is nothing wrong with German men marrying foreign women. Moreover, isn’t it more realistic that the number of German men marrying foreign women has risen mainly because there just are more foreign women around after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the increasing Europeanisation? It is sad to see how women still see each other as competitors and how easily personal frustration is still able to stir up racial resentments.
Fitting the sexual stereotype
Shanthi M. Blanchard
Somewhere on the road to sexual emancipation, we have ended up with a skewed correlation between what sexual empowerment and self-empowerment means for women. In women’s magazines, sexuality becomes the focal point of a woman’s identity. Everything from how a woman’s body appears, to the aesthetic features of her makeup to the grand act of sex itself, all boil down to one and the same idea of sexuality.
What’s problematic about this is how very narrow that given definition of sexual identity is.
Magazines like Cosmo and Glamour claim to empower young women. But where is the empowerment in a “secrete rendezvous requiring a heady mix of sumptuous lace and rich brocades, with a little risqué lingerie thrown in, to set the mix for a perfect sexy seduction”? Don’t get me wrong. Seduction is fun. So is lace. And for someone who likes both, sumptuous lace lingerie is a great way to go about combining both into one festively decorated little romp. These encounters can feel empowering. They can be fun. But the lace I wear, or the sexual acts I choose cannot constitute my empowerment as a woman.
That’s because empowerment can’t be understood as simply one thing. It stretches across vast dimensions of a woman’s experience and much, much farther than any accomplishments that take place in the bedroom. Empowerment comes from things like using your body to run your first 5k or using your mind to muddle through your arguments during all those nightly writing sessions at uni.
Empowerment comes from not depending on Mr. Right to give you an identity but by finding an identity in the activities, friendships, and exploration of the world you choose to take part in. Empowerment doesn’t necessarily come from the clothes you put on in the morning, but from the understanding that regardless of what clothes you wear, your sense of self, your confidence, and your ability to achieve, enjoy, and have agency in your daily interactions will not be compromised for someone else’s notions of who you should be.
Teaser photo: vonderauvisuals (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0