What She Ate

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories” is a fascinating new book by Laura Shapiro. It focuses on the lives of six women from different centuries and continents — all prominent to different degrees. Among them are Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s shy, worshipful sister; Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress and 11th-hour wife; and Helen Gurley Brown, the whippet-thin, legendary editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan.

I read several reviews of the book and they all mentioned the sections on Roosevelt, Wordsworth, the author Barbara Pym and Eva Braun. None of them talked about Brown, and that section, of course, was the one I went right to first. Helen Gurley Brown was one of my dieting mentors.

For Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, fat was disgraceful and calories a diabolical force to be resisted at all costs. Shapiro didn’t have to dig deep to uncover Brown’s pathology as Brown, a self-described “grown-up anorectic,” crowed about it constantly: “I have dumped champagne (which I adore) into other people’s glasses when they weren’t looking or, in a real emergency, into a split-leaf philodendron, wrapped eclairs in a hanky and put them in my purse, once in an emergency, sequestered one behind the cushion of an upholstered chair — in a napkin of course.”

Napkin or no, that was a rotten thing to do to someone’s chair. But for Brown, thinness trumped etiquette. She emerges as both formidably accomplished and, literally, stunted. Shapiro doesn’t delve into the ways that Brown, unlike the other women in the book, inflicted her food obsessions on the culture at large. This might have been worth a few pages. For decades, Cosmo was displayed at supermarket checkout stands to be studied by waiting children and adults alike. Brown’s nearly naked models and lurid coverlines juxtaposing sex and slenderness helped shape — or perhaps the right word is warp — a generation’s attitude toward food and the female body.

And boy did I listen. I believed Helen Gurley Brown when she said that overweight women would never date. I believed her when she said that thin was good but skinny was better – a vital life goal, necessary to achieve, at any cost.

The funny thing is Helen Gurley Brown was a brilliant, accomplished woman. She came from nothing, supported herself through Smith College, and became a revered copywriter when women weren’t really accepted in the field. She wrote a huge bestseller Sex and the Single Girl and single-handedly turned Cosmopolitan from a failing dinosaur into the number one selling woman’s magazine.

Brown liked to call herself a feminist, although her life was devoted to landing and pleasing a man. Her favorite feminist was Gloria Steinem. Steinem, who reoognized HBG’s brains and accomplishments, begged her to say something positive about herself that reflected the real, strong Helen. Brown thought about it and thought about and then proclaimed happily,

“I’m skinny!!!”

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