MY mother, a never-miss reader of The Sunday Post, hated Woman.
It showed her recipes she'd not the time to make, face powder she couldn't afford, and frocks she couldn't wear to work. The semi-glossy paper it was printed on meant she couldn't even use the bloody thing for kindling. Woman was for women with not enough to do; Woman's Weekly was drab; People's Friend, both drab and old-fashioned; and Woman And Home, obsessed with cleaning, was for people who liked The Archers and had a meat thermometer. Tit-Bits was sleazy, and Vogue was class war for debs. Woman's Realm was OK on the grounds it did free usable patterns. Usable patterns had a function. What she thought of the problem pages she never divulged. My guess was she read them secretly, wondering at the lives of others. Life, at least, was something we all shared.
My mother bought no magazines, but found selections in doctors' waiting rooms, having a quick skim to pass the time. Even at 11, sitting next to her on the waiting room's rock-hard bench, not all magazines looked equal. Glossy pages were surely for would-be glossy people: inky, near-newspapery rags for those whose efforts at silk-pursing would always be a little unconvincing. Your magazine, its advertising, and the face on the front of it told you something about your likely social stratum and expectations. Behind all social divisions lay the apparent fact that readers understood marriage, children and home as the sacred triangle of perfection. Magazines, like a modern gamer's manual, held tips and secrets to help perfection's acquisition. My mother, as a widow, was out of the loop, my auntie Grace explained. She couldn't stand Woman's Weekly because she was bitter. Spring's new colours and delicious home-made cheese straws, after all, could hold no fascination for a woman without a man to care for, while Olay face cream would remind her of loss.
Magazines in doctors' surgeries were unavoidable, however. Any place that hosted FLIES KILL posters with enormous close-ups of musca domestica's disease-ridden mouthparts was clearly suitable for Public Health and Happiness guides of any stripe. The huge social and sexual shifts of the 1960s demanded it. The war was over: having a perfect life after hell itself was the next big challenge.
If advice for grown women was in demand, their inexperienced, unrationed, every-advantaged daughters probably needed it too. Overnight, it seemed, a frenzy of teen mags arrived to render modern girls more confidently fit for purpose. A perfect marriage, children and home were obviously inappropriate lures for purchase, at least for the moment. What better, then, than a trainer-slope of new social etiquette, personal hygiene, make-up on the way to boy-catching - and some hints about sex in case you accidentally caught one and felt underprepared? No-one got the perfect three without a husband, of course, and women's magazines were good at telling you how to keep one once you'd bagged him. What teenage girls needed, therefore, was insider information on boys: pictures; generalised social and sexual data; the etiquette of acquisition; management; and how to up rather than ruin your own market-value in the process. Some magazines promised to be a New Best Friend, with chirpy girl-next-door names like Diana and Jackie; others chose the nod-and-wink legal implications of the birthday jackpot, 16.
Soppy stories about girls with huge hair and too many eyelashes apart, I read everything, sometimes twice, and took notes. What I needed in our manless house devoid of visits from male relatives was a beginner's handbook to male psychology.
Teen magazines provided pictures of pop stars, which were useful for learning facial similarities and differences (eyebrows - boys had great big eyebrows - and hair growing out of their chins as time went on), without the embarrassment of staring at real boys and being caught out. They presented boys in problem pages ("A boy I know asked me to the pictures, but I don't know if he should pay"), in articles (A day in the life of Herman's Hermits), in quizzes ("You see a boy looking at you across the room at a party. Do you a), b) or c) …?") and featurettes (How to Know If He's Keen). Quality of advice varied from the chirpily hilarious to the dark warning. Over weeks, it proved inconsistent, pointing to a lack of solid editorial control. Not knowing what editorial control was, I assumed the inconsistencies were my own inadequate understanding and read harder.
Boys were no cause for worry because, underneath it all, they were just the same as you! At the same time, they experienced definite physical tensions linked with their longings, while girls respond in a more tender way. What's more, male physical tensions might well disturb them violently. Lengthy kissing sessions, lovely for you, are dynamite to him - a warning singing off the piece that was both mystifying and scary.
I should avoid letting him down; take care I did not lead him on by allowing the two of us to be alone too often. Keep occupied during dating hours! Go out in groups! Join a badminton club! The threat-free alternative was stark: You don't ever need to go out with a boy if you don't want to. The choice is yours! But you see, I did want to. I really did. Just not in the anticipation, to use another frightening magazine phrase, that if things got out of hand, I'd be in deep water without a lifeline, a rubber ring, or even the awareness of my companion to my distress.
Smile and thank him often if he says something nice was an exception. Light relief, the smiles were a much-needed clue that acquiring a friend of the opposite sex, however spine-tingling, was surely not always about a Dan Dare level of risk. Some of it had to be fun, right? "Maybe" was as far as such articles would commit. That we could be nice to each other, considerate together, if it featured at all, was a fleeting footnote to the long cribsheet of dating know-how.
Problem Page issues - so many of them! - in particular on the issue of how far to go, took us back to wholesale caveats, some from such innocent and innocuous-seeming beginnings. Agree to share a tent, I read, and however nice the inviter seemed, he would automatically make the assumption you had agreed to more than a pally bunk-up, playing games with torches and shadow-puppets in the middle of the night. And it would be all my own fault.
Even explicit warnings about pre-marital sex were not so much pregnancy-based as the ruin of one's reputation (boys brag about their exploits), or about avoidance of infections. Sex without love can render you a carrier of disease without knowing it. If you suspect your friend has VD, take her to the doctor yourself. Pre-maritally, sex was sex without love. Telling love apart from infatuation, however, was very difficult indeed - and not just for you. Sometimes a man does not know the real cast of his own mind until afterwards, when it is too late.
A wedding band was the only insurance a girl might rely upon. A wedding (or so ran the implication) guaranteed a disease-free, humiliation-free and fireproofed-against-desertion-in the-advent-of-pregnancy dream life, with all the requisite knobs on. Sex without love was an existential hell. Sex without love can build a wall around you. It can leave you more alone than you have ever been. The life of the unmarried mother is truly tragic. Real love reveals mystery and wonder in physical closeness, while sex without love is meaningless.
Isolation and a life of shame in the shadows was the price of curiosity, of too-keen desire, of a misplaced craving for a decent cuddle. Rubbing salt into the wound was that really scary things, things I knew about because they had actually happened, were something about which eagerly sought advice was not available from Your Best Friend. Not once did I read advice as to how to react to the flasher on the late-night bus; how to react to being touched up by a stranger; how to react to being touched up by a stranger when you didn't know which stranger was doing it, and you were packed in tight on a crowded train; how to stop my sister humiliating me in public about my changing shape; or how to deal with my own racing heart as possibly the most troubling factor in the whole shebang. Was my undoubted interest in getting both talkative and tactile with a boy just looking for trouble? Did it mean I would one day find myself more alone than I could imagine? And what, I wondered - I wondered a lot - were boy teens being told about us in Eagle, Rover and Custom Cars?
Taking advantage of the very patient newsagent on the corner of Station Road, I rooted out what chap-mags I could. And found nothing. No advice, no dating tips, no guides to a girl's dangerous muscle tensions. In most, girls and women did not appear at all, certainly not as part of the thrill of adventure (Biggles and Pansy was an unthinkable title), and not even as mothers, friends, girlfriends, teachers or confidantes. All-male environments were de rigueur. In magazines for older boys and men, there were a few, but mostly on the cover with big breasts and big fat lips, their thighs apart on a motorbike and not engaged in conversation with a single bloke. There were no dating tips, no girl psychology warnings, no pages of dilemmas about how far to go, only a shift from the company of Roy Of The Rovers to camshafts and hookers. The anatomy of a WW2 bomber? Sure! But women? Girls? Glaringly obvious by their absence in any talking role, the female sex was something a chap had no need to bother his square-jawed head about.
Our magazines had mountains of the damn stuff, hard to get on top of and often forbidding. And the view from the top was only intermittently clear, if at all. Our mothers had household and beauty tips (try getting out of bed an hour earlier to put on your make-up before making breakfast, it makes all the difference to keeping the magic going). In preparation, ours delivered moral and social guilt.
Look at contemporary magazines and you'll find that although emphasis has been rejigged, fearful obsession with sex and its meaning seems merely repackaged. Women are driven not so much by worries about sexual control and hostess manners as by things much more basic and inescapable: our breasts, our wrinkles, our greying hair, our self-esteem (are you trying hard enough to be worth it?), micro-management of body hair, and knowing enough sexual positions to keep him enthused longer than 10 minutes.
Upmarket women's magazines, in a kind of monetarist-cum-dumbed-down feminist way, seem to shift between ads for absurdly expensive clothes and objects, extremely well-paid power prima donnas of City and TV and, least helpfully of all, an obsession with vaginas, vejazzles, G-spots and coming like a train. This is women's deepest fulfilment notched up a gear, from domestic bliss and hard-won home-making to orgasmic bliss and a fat wallet, which could be used for buying piles of high-status stuff, a super loft space to put it in and some other, less fortunate woman to clean it.
The early training in self-doubt I recall from 1960s teen rags seems not just different but much less damaging to the soul. In-depth articles about Brazilian waxing, the art of pole-dancing and "how to release your inner slut" are not "liberating" they're just sexism gone devious; monetarist drivel working on insecurities even deeper than ignorance of how far to go. Jackie and 16, for all their daftness, were at least cheap and not crammed with airbrushed impossibilities. They did not promote greed as a worthwhile ambition or insist repeatedly, in varying degrees of pseudo-academic language, that a woman's deepest pleasures come from one organ only - and that organ was not, was never, her brain.
The self-defeating, competitive tosh our teens can encounter in the doctor's waiting room today unsettles me far more than the hokum I encountered in mine.
So what's your daughter reading? Your son? These days, is it more a case of watching? What moral imperatives lie behind the words, the pictures, the illusion of neo-consumer "choice"?
If I were you, I'd ask.
© Janice Galloway
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