Curvaceous, suspiciously symmetrical cleavage bursting out of a tight bodice, heavy eye makeup, long lush hair...a bod and a come-hither look that begged for ravishment…Those Cosmo cover girls once represented, for me, the epitome of female sexuality.
At the time, I also found it flattering when my boyfriend forbid me to wear a bikini. So take my view with a large grain of post-feminist cynicism. But even so – as a young girl just beginning to understand my sexuality, I was captivated by Cosmo girls for good reason.
A new book explains exactly why.
Bad Girls Go Everywhere  traces the life of Helen Gurley Brown, creator of those uber-sexy covers as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Author Jennifer Scanlon, a women’s studies professor at Bowdoin College, describes how Brown, a poor Ozarks girl, hit the New York City magazine scene just as birth control and legalized abortion freed women to enjoy sex without constant pregnancy risks. In every issue of Cosmo and her landmark book, Sex and The Single Girl , Helen Gurley Brown extolled the power of women’s sexuality unencumbered by maternity (Brown never had children, so she knew).
Birth control = freedom sounds like a simple equation. However, access to the Pill, abortion and other forms of pregnancy prevention resulted in critical and complicated freedoms that allowed women to educate ourselves, pursue longterm careers and time the births (and amounts) of children in our lives.
To appreciate the importance of Brown’s message, think for a minute about your life without birth control.
What kind of balance can anyone have if you had a baby every two years since you became sexually active?
Being candid here, for me that would mean at age 43 I’d have close to 15 children instead of three.
Goodbye, English degree from Harvard. Ditto for my MBA from Wharton and 10 years of work experience at Johnson & Johnson and the Washington Post. Doubtful I’d have written two books or this column. And perhaps most important, during my four years with my physically abusive ex-husband, I probably would have had at least two babies instead of zero, dooming me and my children to a lifetime of physical and psychological torture. Goodbye, second chances. Goodbye, happy endings.
On the surface, Helen Gurley Brown celebrated women’s bodies. But the sexy Cosmo girl was as much a metaphor as New York’s Statue of Liberty. She represented women’s choices, our freedom in finances, careers, relationships, lives. Move over, Thomas Jefferson – Helen Gurley Brown’s signature should be on the Declaration of Independence.
Instead, life being what it is, she had to settle for her signature being in every issue of Cosmo, another declaration of independence.
More good analysis of Bad Girls Go Everywhere:
Miniskirt Lib  in the New York Times
The Original Carrie Bradshaw  also in the Times