Last month the famous editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown, passed away. She was a pioneer of sorts in the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. During that time, I was an impressionable young preteen with a fascination for fashion magazines, intent on studying my budding womanhood and looking for role models anywhere I could find them.
Don’t get me wrong here – my mother was a wonderful role model for me, and the older I get the more I’m grateful for her and appreciate who she was and what she gave me. She not only was a beautiful woman revered by my father, but was admired by many for her loveliness as a person. Even so, as most teenagers do in the thick of their coming-of-age-individuation-stage, I regarded my mother as “old-fashioned”.
So there was Helen: regularly showing up on the talk show circuit, doling out her brand of feminist thought. She became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, where she challenged the traditional women’s “status quo” values and promoted developing a career independent of a man, encouraging women at the same time to tap into their power to attract and seduce one. She fascinated many men who could only cheer her view that sex before marriage was admirable, and she annoyed the hard-core feminists who accused her of promoting the objectifying of women at the expense of hard-won rights. She once said “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble”.
It’s always interesting to reflect on your early influences and examine how they helped form your attitudes, and Helen’s death made me ponder this once again. For me, her influence fed into my insecurities and caused me to conclude that “looking good” was the most important thing a woman could be. My best friends happened to be the two most attractive and popular young women in my high school, and I always felt a bit like the third wheel. One was elected Homecoming Queen and the other Homecoming Princess; I was elected Student Body Treasurer and official school anthem singer. I never seemed to get the attention from boys they did, and Helen Gurley Brown’s influence had me convinced that it was essential to make sure I could attract them, or I wasn’t really a woman. For me, it began a 15 year-plus struggle with weight, body image and obsession with fashion. (I’m still not over that one – I regularly get my fix with Project Runway episodes).
As I think of it now, insecurity was also part of Helen’s narrative. She was a self-described ugly duckling and “mouseburger”, growing up during the Depression and losing her father at age 10. She was smart and worked hard, eventually becoming an award-winning copywriter at the prestigious Foote Cone and Belding advertising agency in Los Angeles. Her big break came in 1963 with her book Sex and the Single Girl which is widely considered the precursor to the television series Sex in the City.
Call me an armchair psychologist, but it seems like she had to work hard to prove two things, both of which seem to be related to her father being taken from her early in life: One, that by sexual prowess she could always have a man, and two, that she could live without one if she wanted by developing a career of her own. Maybe she succeeded in proving that.
But what if she didn’t?
Insecurity is something that seems to feed on itself, and is never satisfied. Why else do we go from conquest to conquest, procedure to procedure, or diet to diet, always looking for the vindication of perfection that will never come? There has to be something more.
I learned that after marrying young, going through a betrayal and divorce and never quite getting a handle on the whole feminist “liberated woman” thing. I had to face the fact that even though I was a Christian woman, some of my own devices for living were from the Helen Gurley Brown playbook, and they were only leading me to heartbreak. I needed to renew my thinking.
My heartbreak led me to seek God again and I remembered these verses:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2
Liberation had always been there for me, but not the way the world or HGB defined it. In surrendering my devices to Him, I became free of them. It was intrinsic to me now –in Him, I had been created, loved, accepted and planned for. It didn’t matter what man I could attract or what career I would succeed in. He had a purpose, hope and future all mapped out for me (Jeremiah 29:11, Hebrews 12) and that by living in relationship with Him, I would have the joy of seeing that plan unfold. His Word is my essential playbook now – it’s everything I need for life abundant, and a practical guide for living that never fails.
It’s important to remember, now that we’re in what many call the “post-feminist era”, that cultural norms haven’t always been Biblically correct. And maybe that’s why the feminist movement reacted so virulently to an inherent lack of justice administered in this fallen world. In so many cultures, men have sought to dominate women, objectify and relegate them to second class status. In reaction, some elements of the feminist movement sought to gain power over men, and Helen Gurley Brown had her own prescription. But the Biblical principle has been defined for us in Galatians 3:28, where it tells us that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We may have different bodies, roles and responsibilities, but we are all equal recipients and stewards of the life He’s given us.
Unfortunately, we haven’t always heeded that principle, but I think we’re reclaiming Biblical equality more and more. Perhaps the feminist movement had a role in this, I can’t say for sure. But I do know there’s awareness among Christians now that a more balanced approach to marriage, parenthood, ministry, work and outreach is called for. And where we find it being practiced, it’s a good thing.
Now I’m an impressionable Boomer. I still appreciate beauty, and by no means want to age gracefully! But I’ve learned that being in God’s will is preferable to “looking good” and more secure than trying to gain power for the sake of proving something. That set’s me at ease to love and serve others from a place of strength found only in Christ–liberation indeed.
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36