Today, food thrives as a culture in and of itself. Instagram is filled with images of mountainous burgers and perfectly twirled bowls of pasta. Restaurants cater to a Millennial fascination with gastronomic importance. And news of dwindling avocado prices at Whole Foods holds rank on the front page. Food as a status symbol is everywhere. Still, only a select few among the masses talk openly about food for what it truly is in our lives: an emotional stronghold.
As we learn in Laura Shapiro's new book What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, the role of food in anyone's life is deeply individual and complex in what it reveals about a person. It's true for each of us—whether we eat the exact same turkey sandwich for lunch every single day or instead demand variety—and it's true for women such as Helen Gurley Brown, matriarch of Cosmopolitan magazine.
In What She Ate, readers learn about the culinary habits of Eva Braun (mistress to Adolf Hitler), Eleanor Roosevelt (a first lady known for her insufferable palate), and many more. But the most fascinating food diary you'll find is Brown's. She ushered in an attitude about sexuality and womanhood that has only snowballed with time. Her mentality of idolizing sex is pervasive in media today even as people continue (years after her death) to question whether Brown was or was not a feminist at her core. At any rate, Shapiro recalls, Brown unequivocally valued her role as a wife above all else. To achieve that goal, though, Brown insisted a woman must be thin and in control of her food consumption at all times.
Brown is an accomplished woman. She spearheaded Cosmopolitan's transformation from near-obscurity to a top performing magazine in a record-breaking amount of time. She wrote many books and was an example to women everywhere who needed to see successful females in executive positions. As a figurehead, Brown showed that women could have a career and highly value marriage at the same time. It's hard not to wonder whether the impact she has had on the female psyche was all that positive, though.
Her comments about eating, made over time in the pages of Cosmo as well as in Brown's books and press interviews, paint a picture of a woman for whom happiness was an idea that could exist with or without the actual emotion. It's impossible to read about her relationship with food and not lament to yourself that she must have been truly miserable (surviving on tuna salad and vitamin pills). Then again, Brown, herself, took every occasion provided to praise her husband and the life she enjoyed with him. Who's to say what emotions prevailed in her life. Shapiro's smart reporting, to be sure, evokes a disturbing image of a very influential woman whose body image struggle was ever-present. Even as women everywhere gobbled up her life advice with an indulgent appetite Brown, herself, reserved only for diet Jell-O.
"Helen's first and most enduring commitment was to the bathroom scale," Shapiro writes, "Be thin forever, she advised readers; be thin at any price." This was how Brown lived her life, how she approached her idea of womanhood. Shapiro goes on to share that Brown thought, "Happiness while being overweight was impossible...any woman who couldn't be bothered to pare away every unjustifiable scrap of flesh, was plummeting to a lonely, sexless old age." It's easy to read that and gasp. Especially today, amid a deluge of body positive affirmations, her words are so absolute, so limiting. But it's also easy to think the same of a magazine cover line that reads, "Tease Him And Please Him!" Then again, 3 million people subscribe to Cosmo and millions more pluck it off newsstands. And really how different are her words back then from the "thinspo" proliferating among Pinterest boards today promising that, "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels?"
Brown was a person plagued in equal measure by deep conflict and conviction. She clearly struggled with idealism, yet, she displayed will power and resilience in excess. A life ruled by a scale is profoundly limiting, as Shapiro reveals in her account of the inimitable Helen Gurley Brown. When another equally if not more famous female thought leader of the time (you'll have to read to find out who) all but begged Brown to characterize herself in a serious light, free from the male gaze and girlish persona she was known to cherish, Brown's response was telling. Characteristics such as "accomplished editor" or "publishing tycoon" while very true were overlooked by Brown. Instead she opted for the Cosmo sell line that summarized her story with food and self-worth: "I'm skinny!"
At one point, Shapiro describes a time when Brown was probed by a reporter thinking he would stump her with a lightning rod question. Did Cosmopolitan encourage women to think of themselves as sex objects, he asked her. As Shapiro quotes Brown, "I hope so. It's wonderful to be a sex object. I can't think of anything more agreeable." Well, it's hard to imagine any woman today saying such a thing out loud. Just the same, it's hard to imagine a woman thinking her absolute most admirable trait is her thinness. But it's a sure bet that thanks to Brown, even if they don't say it, many, many women still think it.
Laura Shapiro's book What She Ate can be found here.