Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex and Starting Over
By Cathy Alter
Atria Books, 336 pages, $24
"How to lose 10 pounds in a week.” “Six ways to simplify your life.” “Never feel guilty about saying ‘No’ again.”
Every independent, educated, well-adjusted, dare I say even feminist-leaning female has a side of her that can’t resist reading women’s magazines, which promise to enhance the reader’s sex life, earn a raise, find inner happiness, get rid of cellulite. We know we won’t find salvation and confidence, let alone acceptance, stuffed inside 300 slick pages tightly bound between a gorgeous face and an ad for wrinkle-filling foundation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t fork over $20 a year for 12 monthly installments, or guiltily stock up on the magazines at neighborhood bodegas or Hudson News before a trip. Imagine doctors’ offices or salons without them!
At the age of 37, Cathy Alter’s personal life had gone off track. Suffering from low self-esteem thanks to a failed marriage, she resorted to typical self-destructive single female behavior: meaningless sex with an emotionally unavailable co-worker. After a Bridget Jones moment of resolution (post-hangover and tears), she turned to self-improvement.
“I don’t know how long I remained parked in front of that wall of women’s magazines,” she writes, “motionless and mesmerized in an overly lit bookstore, listening to the rhythmic flip-flap of pages being turned. The sensation was similar to being in a Las Vegas casino, where there are no windows or clocks and you could be playing blackjack for either ten minutes or ten years.”
While many of us wonder what would happen if we adhered strictly to those bossy dos and don’ts, Ms. Alter decided to find out. A successful D.C. freelance writer published in several magazines, she was accustomed to writing for women’s magazines’ target audience. Her last book, Virgin Territory: Stories From the Road to Womanhood, was a collection of women’s firsts—and this memoir, Up for Renewal, is her first attempt at using her own voice.
Ms. Alter chose Elle, Marie Claire, O, Allure, Self, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, InStyle and Real Simple as her bibles of choice, though later she added Jane and Harper’s BAZAAR to the mix. Each month for a year, she tackled the female nightmares: body issues, social anxiety, wardrobe updating, relationship advice, cooking, home improvement and sex.
Her real-life friends and family were a menagerie of novel-worthy characters: the co-worker hook-up; the unattainable yet admired neighbor; the stable older female friend; the gay friend who encourages infidelity; the not-so-helpful psychiatrist;and the perfectionist mother. Add to this a husband-worthy younger boyfriend, their subsequent moving-in and impending marriage (with the obligatory mother-in-law challenge), and it’s clear Ms. Alter had perfect fodder for her experiment, and could use a little advice.
At one point, Ms. Alter’s boyfriend complained. “These magazines are ruining my life,” he huffed. “And it’s all Oprah’s fault.”
“But this came from Glamour.”
“Well, screw her anyway. She’s evil.”
“I’m the evil one.”
After a while, it does start to feel like that. Amazon was right to recommend Liz Tuccillo’s How to Be Single and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake. And Up for Renewal has the same feel as those chick-lit, easy beach reads. But while Ms. Alter’s writing style is funny, bordering on snarky, her intimate language can be unsettling—while you might have the same paranoid, quasi-psychotic thoughts in your head, you aren’t used to reading them in print. As someone who’s agonized over “What Kind of Girl Are You” quizzes and torn out touched-up shots of products, I commend Ms. Alter for subscribing to the fastest and least expensive legal route to insanity.
On Glamour’s Web site, they feature a collection of quizzes: “Are you normal? How do your sex habits, sleep patterns and breakup strategies stack up against other women’s? Take these quizzes to find out.” The problem is that sizing yourself up against anyone, let alone a “norm” of 12 million female readers, is always a bad idea.
WHEN THE SUBSCRIPTIONS ran out, Ms. Alter declined to renew. “Partly because the thrill was gone. What had once been a guilty pleasure, taken at nail and hair salons, had since become a full-time job. I was not only reading fourteen magazines a month, I was actively participating in their content, checking in with faceless writers and editors at all times, and constantly analyzing the results. It was an exhausting way to live out a life, however successful the end result.”
I’ll subscribe to Ms. Alter’s writing in the future—but I have to confess that I find Up for Renewal only degrees less disposable than the magazines she’s given up.
Louise McCready is a New Yorkbased writer and a contributor toThe New York Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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