How Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown taught women to prize skinniness above all else

Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, poses in her office at 224 W. 57th St. in New York Sept. 19, 1985.
Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, poses in her office at 224 W. 57th St. in New York Sept. 19, 1985.
Image: AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett
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If my weight’s okay, dinner for me might be muesli with chopped prunes, dried apricot, six unsalted almonds, dusting of Equal, and a cup of whole milk. Delicious! If weight-fighting, it’s back to tuna salad with one slice seven-grain toast and half a tablespoon of diet margarine. Dessert every night is that whole package of sugar-free diet Jell-O in one dish just for me—one envelope couldn’t possibly serve four as directions suggest—with a dollop of peach, lemon, strawberry or whatever Dannon light yogurt on top. Fifty cals—heaven! —I’m Wild Again

For Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and author of the wildly successful book Sex and the Single Girl, dieting was a mission that went well beyond weight loss. It was a crusade against every enemy she had ever imagined lurking in her future, from poverty to spinsterhood to a pitiable old age. Fat—measured by a tiny increase in the number on the scale, a tiny change in the fit of a skirt—was the enemy that stood in for all the rest.

Yet the skinnier she was, the more persistently she proclaimed her passion for food, whether she happened to be analyzing cottage cheese as a delicious staple of her diet or black-bottom pie as a delicious temptation to be shunned. Maybe she was always hungry. Or maybe her real passion was for the act of eating, a ritual she carried out with the care and precision that the faithful bring to the telling of the rosary. “Heaven!” she called that heap of rubbery Jell-O. Food and comfort, food and safety, food and emotional support—it’s the oldest relationship there is, and since when did it arrive only in the form of a good chocolate mousse? Every time Helen took a spoon, or possibly she needed a knife and fork, but at any rate, when she came back to her favorite Jell-O night after night, she was tasting perfect calm and sweet security.

The importance of being a girl

Helen was nearing forty as she wrote Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, and she dreaded what she saw coming: she was about to lose her personal claim on the title “girl.” There was nothing about the designation “woman” that commanded respect in the 1950s; popular terminology wouldn’t start shifting for another couple of decades. Girls had the glow and the sex appeal, whereas women were dumpy and forgettable. Helen was determined to fight. “Whatever your age you can stay cute and petite and sexually attractive,” she told an interviewer years later, and it was the core belief of her life. No, she couldn’t control the calendar. But she could control her appearance. She could look young no matter how many years piled up.

Later on, plastic surgery would become an important lifeline, but Helen’s first and most enduring commitment was to the bathroom scale. Be thin forever, she advised readers; be thin at any price. “If you are already mounds of pounds overweight, you must Do Something or you can’t hope to be blissfully single,” she explained in Sex and the Single Girl. Happiness while being overweight was impossible, she decreed, a cruel fantasy. Any woman living in peace with an imperfect body, any woman who couldn’t be bothered to pare away every unjustifiable scrap of flesh, was plummeting to a lonely, sexless old age. “The fact is, you vote for or against being slender,” she told a reporter. “You vote for or against a sex life as you get older … ​It’s a straight decision you make in your forties.”

“Sexy” may well have been the most important adjective in Helen’s vocabulary; she used the term in every possible context from pedicures to stock portfolios, always to bestow an impression of perfect desirability. But the qualities that made a woman sexy were overwhelmingly identified with her being, as Helen put it, “a geisha.” Helen believed in equality between the sexes, but she wanted it to operate silently in the background, like good air-conditioning. Out front she liked to see the natural order of things—girls who were cute and ​appealing and men who were powerful. She was the rare feminist, possibly the only feminist, with an unabashed commitment to male supremacy.

Dieting and discipline

Cosmopolitan’s dieting stories ranged widely, from relatively sensible to far-fetched to wild-eyed. Eat everything, absolutely everything, on Saturday and Sunday, she urged in the first big diet story she chose for the magazine: “The Low WillPower, High-Protein Diet (that allows for binges and slidebacks).” Fudge, cinnamon buns, heaps of vanilla ice cream on apple pie, “English muffins dripping with butter, candy bars at the movies”—pack them in all weekend. Then plunge to some 650 calories’ worth of raw vegetables and lean protein on Monday and practice self-denial nearly as rigorously throughout the rest of the week.

Another story exulted in “the incredible, intoxicating joy of tasting” and encouraged readers to have just a single bite of whatever looked delicious to them. Soon they would reach their daily calorie limit, but without ever feeling deprived. “A sip of your husband’s gin and tonic won’t cost more than 20 calories and a bite of his pizza, 40 . . . ​one French fried potato (2 by 1/2 by 1/2 inches) 19 1/2 . . . . ​It’s not difficult at all, especially carrying one of the new, more complete, calorie counters.”

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Helen celebrated a diet based on the principles of hatha yoga; she celebrated never eating enough (“When you’re full, you know you’ve been naughty”); she celebrated every artificial sweetener on the market, advising readers to ignore the health warnings from “overconscientious food and medical columnists”; and she celebrated weight-loss drugs. (“Ask your doctor about Bamadex Sequels, a prescription pill for appetite control that’s mildly tranquilizing. Sometimes it does seem as if you’ll never lose those final three pounds, and you need something to calm your fears. . . .”)

Real food or diet food, splurging or starving—no matter what was on the table, Helen made it a point of honor to cast her public relationship with food in rapturous terms. Everything she ate had to be “delicious” or “scrumptious” or “luscious,” especially when she was evoking a zero-calorie bouillon cube or a breakfast of protein powder stirred into diet orange soda. Again and again she described to readers and interviewers what she voraciously consumed each workday (tuna fish; cottage cheese with mozzarella chopped into it; one apple) or ate on vacation (“an incredible salad bar I simply rolled around in every night”). A writer from Esquire once asked her for a Christmas recipe, and she said she had invented a new version of hot buttered rum: “I substitute fake ingredients for all of the fattening ones, and it’s delicious.”

Skinny Hot Buttered Rum

Into a mug or cup put:

1 tablespoon “butter” made from Butter Buds

1 packet of Equal

1 oz. rum

Put a teaspoon into the mug. Fill to the brim with boiling water. Add a few cloves on top. Savor.

Back when she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, Helen was forty years old, five feet four inches, and slim, accustomed to a carefully monitored regimen of diet and exercise that kept her at 109 pounds. As soon as she started work at Cosmopolitan, however, it was apparent that she was a middle-aged woman in the land of the young, and vigilance was the price of survival. She decided she could afford fifteen hundred calories a day and not a single extra; if she gained a pound, she imposed a drastic calorie reduction or a total fast for at least a day. Exercise began first thing in the morning—“Thirty minutes on the body and 20 on the face”—and continued later in the day, whenever she had time to do a few leg lifts. “Age to me is a disease to be fought back like cancer, multiple sclerosis and typhoid,” she told a reporter. “I’ll do anything if it works.” Her weight dropped to 105, then 97; when it reached 95 her hair started falling out. “I may have carried it ‘too far,’” she admitted in her second-to-last memoir, The Late Show, and called herself, at the age of seventy, “a grown-up anorectic.” The term “grown-up” would have been harder for her to utter than the word “anorectic.” As she once remarked, “I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight … ​not a heavy case, just a little one!”

Nonetheless, she allowed the scale to creep back up to 102. But eating normally never became a habit. A reporter who treated her to a champagne cocktail one afternoon described what it was like for Helen to confront an article of food that threatened to make her fat. “She carefully fished out the calorie-laden brandy-soaked sugar lump, took a couple of polite sips, praised it extravagantly as the most delicious thing she’d ever had, and went back to Perrier water.”

Equality and liberation

Helen loved the way she looked: her flat stomach and tiny dress size made up for every brownie she didn’t eat. It was impossible for her to believe that she might have been badly served by decades of calorie counting and several rounds of plastic surgery, even when she read harsh remarks about her looks in the press. “Her face is strangely pinkish and immobile, and her sticklike arms make you wonder if she hasn’t rather overdone the dieting,” a reporter observed in 1980. USA Today once published the results of a survey in which respondents named the famous people whose looks they most admired and least admired. On the list of the least admired, the top four were Janet Reno, Roseanne Barr, Tipper Gore, and Helen. She was enraged—couldn’t anyone recognize self-discipline?

When friends begged her to eat more, when doctors urged her to gain a few pounds, when strangers came up to her in the street and told her she looked skeletal, she concluded they were jealous. “I get seriously aggravated by people who hate me because I’m thin,” she complained. “I think I’m an affliction in some people’s lives.” She resented being teased for constantly ordering plain broiled fish in restaurants or refusing to taste the birthday cake at an office party. Helen rarely expressed vituperation in print about anyone; she made a habit of being nice to people under nearly all circumstances. But at the thought of hostesses trying to force her off her diet, she erupted. “Mostly the pushers are your ‘friends,’” she wrote bitterly. “‘For God’s sake, have a roll and butter, have dessert . . . ​you can afford it!’ Listen, if you ‘afforded’ it, you would be fat like they are.”

The news of Helen’s death at the age of 90 in 2012 set off a controversy that would have delighted her. Boomers and millennials, journalists and academics, her critics and her admirers—everyone jumped in to argue about whether or not Helen Gurley Brown had been a feminist. Helen certainly thought she was. She published Cosmopolitan’s first article on the women’s movement in 1970, a piece by Vivian Gornick, who was at the start of her literary and already one of the best-known feminist social critics in New York.

Helen’s editorial philosophy tended to focus on pleasing the male, and feminist attacks on Cosmopolitan kept up for decades. Even so, Helen always spoke positively about the women’s movement. When an interviewer wanted to know her reaction to “militant feminism,” she said she approved of it and was grateful to the rabble-rousers. “I think the militant feminists are the ones who got us this far,” she said. “If they had been Southern belles the whole thing would not have happened. I give them total credit.” Equal pay, equal opportunity, birth control, abortion, affordable child care—there was nothing in the feminist agenda she didn’t support with her whole heart, except what she insisted on seeing as hostility toward men.

“And perhaps that’s where we and Women’s Lib part company,” she wrote in 1970. “We are pleasing men not because they DEMAND it or to get anything material from them but because we adore them, love to sleep with them, want one of our own, and there aren’t enough to go around!” Helen was nearly fifty when she made this declaration—too old to change a belief that had sustained her personally and was giving her a glorious career. She still enjoyed being a girl; in fact, she had no idea how to be a woman, and she didn’t want to find out.

Gloria Steinem, who was always Helen’s favorite feminist, begged her once to say something strong and positive about herself—not coy, not flirtatious, but something that reflected the serious, complicated person who was in there, under the wig and makeup. Gloria had glimpsed that person and wanted her to speak out. Helen tried her best, she really did. “I’m skinny!” she exclaimed. “I’m skinny!”