Throwback Thursday…I wrote this piece five years ago, but the conflict of identity I describe here is still very much on my mind. By the way, I now think that a woman of the world should be an omnivore when it comes to media consumption. I also don’t read magazines anymore, because I have a toddler. And because print is dying.
It was a pivotal point, a point at which I had to decide between virtue and vice, and I blew it. Last night after work, I drove right by the gym and parked myself on my couch with a month’s supply of unread trash magazines. By the time my roommate got home, there was a visible dimple in the couch cushion from my ass, and I had learned absolutely nothing of value. It’s all a blur now—Heidi’s mom is furious that she’s eloped with Spencer, whom she calls “manipulative”; ripped jeans are decried by the Fashion Police in one issue and celebrated as a new trend in another; Tom Cruise is babbling about something again; starlets are either denying rumors of anorexia, ruing the weight they’ve gained, proudly proclaiming how much weight they’ve lost, or insisting that they don’t work out as much as everything thinks—it’s the raw vegan macrobiotic diet that keeps them naturally thin. Which pretty rich people cracked up, shacked up, broke up, and got knocked up this week? Inquiring minds want to know!
And so many pretty colors. Shiny dresses and sparkly eyeshadows that I can purchase myself, should I wish to imitate Scarlett Johanssen’s look for only $65 per palette. Or, for those whose budgets prohibit spending $65 on eyeshadow, instructions on how to get Johanssen’s look by shopping for knockoffs. You can buy the same dress at a discount store—and by “same,” I mean a dress that looks vaguely like the one Scarlett is wearing, but was made in sweatshop in Cambodia and falls apart after one washing.
It saddens me that American women are so easily sucked into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, so much that they’d spend hours of their lives reading about it.
What saddens me more is that I’m one of those women.
When I said last night’s decision between the gym and trash magazines was a pivotal one, I meant that in more ways than one. It’s a decision between the woman I think I’m destined to become and the woman I want so, so badly to become instead. In her old house, before she went to live in a nursing home, my grandmother kept a stack of what she called “the papers”—the National Enquirer and its ilk. She was a sheltered woman, a woman who was too afraid to drive a car, who never left her home state, who kept her sense of order by sticking to a rigid cleaning schedule. She shopped for groceries on a specific day at a specific time and in a specific order, requiring the buns to pass a “squeeze test” for softness before allowing them in the cart. She was hypervigilant, a hand-wringer, a tissue-twister, hiding in the closet during storms.
She is still that same woman, only now, instead of maintaining her routine of errands and chores, she’s confined to a wheelchair outfitted with an alarm. Her brittle bones can’t take another fall, and she’s too stubborn to be trusted to call for help when she needs to use the bathroom.
She is a woman for whom “escapism” means more than I ever realized.
I am more educated and more self-aware than my grandmother, and my anxiety is better-treated. But sometimes I feel that I’m just treading water, that it won’t be long before the current pulls me down into my deepest self, my genetic heritage, and I, like her, will be living an insular life. Because of that fear, I’ve made conscious choices to distance myself from her, to distinguish myself as smart, capable, fearless—a woman of the world. For my thirtieth birthday, two of my friends collected a box of magazines they thought I might like and offered to buy me a subscription to the ones I chose. I admit, OK! gave me pause, but I decided on Harper’s and the New Yorker. Those were magazines that the woman I want to be would read.
I never read the New Yorker—not even the cartoons—and the issues piled up all over the apartment. Every week when the new one arrived, I’d feel more and more intimidated by them, more and more ashamed of who I was. I knew it was all over the day that my roommate’s cat started heaving and I grabbed one of the nearby New Yorkers and shoved it under his mouth so he could puke on it instead of on the carpet. Ever since then, the primary function of New Yorkers in our household was to be slid as quickly as possible underneath the mouth of a heaving cat.
For my next birthday, the same friend who helped fund the original New Yorker subscription sent me a surprise subscription to a different weekly magazine—Us. I had to smile at her implied message: I love you for all that you are, fellow trash-magazine-reading woman of the world. Enjoy!
Last Christmas I passed on the same gift to my grandmother. People magazine is her treasured Friday update (“They tell you everything!” she gushes). I’ve accepted that a year’s worth of People may be the only way I can offer my grandmother my greater gifts of understanding and acceptance. Behind the image of every cover’s svelte starlet, I am there whispering, I know why you read these, Nanny. I love you for all that you are. Enjoy.