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Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Chloe lay on her front, the newly purchased magazine open in front of her. She’d had to buy it in secret while her mother was out doing the weekly shop, using money she had found around the house. A pound coin from down the back of the sofa, a fifty pence piece lying forgotten on the drive, eventually amassing enough for this clandestine purchase. It wasn’t that her mother had a problem with magazines per se. Sometimes, when Catherine was feeling particularly generous, Chloe and her siblings would be allowed to choose a magazine each. But she did have a problem with this one.

‘I think that one’s a bit old for you.’

That was what Catherine had said the first time she caught Chloe gazing at this particular magazine on the shelves in the local Spar. Now, having smuggled her contraband home inside her fleece, Chloe was beginning to see why.

For a start, it was full of smut. That much was clear just from the cover. With subtly-titled features like How to drive your man wild in bed to Your raunchiest confessions yet, Chloe could see why her mother hadn’t deemed it appropriate reading for her fourteen-year-old daughter. The issue was, those were exactly the kind of articles Chloe did want to read.

At fourteen years old, she was eager to glean as much information as she could about boys and relationships and all that that entailed. Obviously they had lessons about that kind of thing at school, but they weren’t exactly reassuring. All they did was harp on about the risk of pregnancy and all the hideous infections you could get if you dared even look at a boy in that way. As much as Chloe understood their reasoning, she couldn’t help but wish the school would put a more positive spin on things. Did they not realise that all this scaremongering did nothing to douse their curiosity? In fact, it only fuelled it.

Of course, the relationship advice was not the only draw. She loved the celebrity gossip as much as anything else. She loved the fashion tips, the embarrassing stories and the problem pages. While certain articles gave her something to aspire to, others provided reassurance that she was not a colossal weirdo. And like most teenagers, Chloe was desperately in need of the latter.

Not that everything in this magazine was encouraging. For every article that served to bolster her fragile ego, there were three that tore it down. Although she was used to seeing such features by now, Chloe could not claim to be immune to the effects.

It didn’t take long for her to find one. Just five pages in was an advert for designer perfume. A tall, willowy model with dewy skin was pictured lounging on a chaise longue, her slender limbs draped in gold satin. There was not a pore, or a blemish, or a stray hair anywhere. Just unrealistic levels of flawlessness. She had only read a few pages, and already Chloe could feel her inferiority complex gearing up, preparing for the inevitable bout of insecurity that would follow. Just as she was about to turn over to the next article, something caught her eye.

Letters. There were letters appearing on the page that hadn’t been there before. And not printed letters. Swirling, hand-written ones materialising before her eyes. Chloe gaped at them, certain that this was an elaborate trick on the part of the editor-that they had somehow managed to incorporate a special kind of ink that only appeared in certain conditions. Perhaps it was triggered by body heat or exposure to light. Those seemed the most logical explanations. Then Chloe read the words, and her theory that this was the editor’s doing instantly fell apart.

No one looks like this. Even she doesn’t look like this, not really. She’s been Photoshopped to within an inch of her life.

No sooner had Chloe finished reading these words than more appeared underneath.

Seriously though, how many people have you actually seen in real life who look like this?

‘None,’ Chloe mumbled, as if she were talking to a real person and not a magazine.

Precisely, none.

Chloe blinked, stared, and then shot bolt upright. How was this possible? Was she going mad? Was someone watching her? Even if they were, how were they making the words appear? More were appearing now. She could see them streaming across the page, unfurling like karaoke lyrics on a screen. Slowly, she leaned forwards and peered down at the newly scrawled words.

It’s OK, it’s only me.

Only who? Curious, Chloe picked up the magazine and angled the page towards the light. Now that the initial shock was beginning to subside, she was able to study the letters more closely. There was something familiar about the handwriting. She recognised the distinctive shaping, the loop and swirl of certain letters, the circles instead of dots above the lower-case i. She recognised these things because she did them herself every time she picked up a pen. The handwriting wasn’t identical by any means. If anything the letters were larger and more flamboyant than her current hand. Spidery, some might say. But there were enough similarities for Chloe to be certain that this was indeed her own handwriting, albeit a slightly altered version.

Now settle in, and let me tell you some truths about magazines.

Settle in Chloe did, lowering herself back down onto her front with her knees bent at a ninety-degree angle. She flipped over the page, and was met by a double page spread featuring pictures of celebrities on holiday.

Here we go.

Whoever had compiled the feature had been so kind as to split the celebrities into two groups: those who looked good, and those who didn’t and needed to do something about it immediately. On the left was a quintet of incredibly svelte women, frolicking in bikinis that Chloe would never dare consider, never mind actually wear. Actresses, models and pop stars, they all had washboard stomachs and nutcracker thighs, the kind of which she could only dream.

I will never look like that, Chloe thought, heaving a dejected sigh.

It was true. No amount of dieting or exercise could ever make her look like the women in these pictures, and she had tried both, several times. She had done the crash diets and the crazy exercise regimes, as far as her mother would allow anyway. And while she had managed to shrink herself, she had never even approached the level of toned slimness that these women enjoyed. Nor would she.

Meanwhile opposite, there were photos of celebrities who, according to the writer, were failing in their duties simply by not resembling the paragons of physical perfection on the previous page. One soap star, who had recently given birth, was depicted lying on a sun lounger in a bikini that showcased her still-present baby weight, much to the distaste of the writer. The actress in question had supposedly “let herself go” after the birth of her child, and could “benefit from a few Pilates sessions.” This was helpfully contrasted with the lingerie model on the previous page who, just three weeks after delivering her second child, had miraculously pinged back into shape like she was made of elastic.

It was disheartening, seeing pictures of women who had had multiple children, but were still in better physical shape than Chloe would ever be. With her broad hips, chunky thighs and size fourteen clothing, it was rare for her to see a body that resembled her own on the pages of a magazine, and when she did, it was usually accompanied by scathing comments like the ones printed here. So-and-so looked “less than toned while on holiday in the Bahamas.” What’s-her-name needed to “lay off the pies” if she wanted to look good at an upcoming red carpet event. Did these writers not realise they were making women up and down the country feel lousy, inadequate, even unlovable? Perhaps that was their aim. Chloe, insecure and impressionable as she was, had certainly subscribed to their doctrine, having convinced herself that no boy would ever want her unless she shed every last pound of excess weight. By that logic, she’d probably spend her entire life celibate and alone.

It was a few moments before the writing appeared, but appear it did, directly above the picture of the lingerie model:

This is not an achievable body shape for most human women.

It continued underneath.

This lady won the genetic lottery for sure, but you can bet your life she has a team of personal trainers and nutritionists whose job it is to make her look like this.

And beneath that.

You have none of those things, so don’t feel bad for not looking like this lot. Eat your pasta, stop stressing.

This last was accompanied by a drawing of a smiley face. Seeing it, Chloe couldn’t help but smile too, even as her mind sifted and churned trying to figure what on earth was going on. There were more comments on the next page, these ones concerning the soap star who had recently given birth.

This lady has not “let herself go,” she has grown a tiny human inside her body. She deserves cake and a lie down. Unfortunately, women are not great at being nice to or about each other.

This, Chloe knew from experience, was true. Girls at school were constantly slinging disparaging comments at each other. Size, weight, body shape, hairstyle, makeup and clothing choices-all of these things could be weaponised and used to inflict irreparable damage. Chloe herself was not guiltless, having fired off many a round of snide comments in her time.

Why do we do that? Never before had she stopped to ponder this question, but she pondered it now. Was the compulsion to tear each other down inherent in the female psyche? Or were they trained to do it, conditioned from a young age to regard other women as rivals and threats? Flicking through this magazine, it was clear it was the latter.

Next came the fashion section, consisting largely of outlandish, crazily expensive pieces Chloe wouldn’t be seen dead in even if she could afford them. There was a white blouse with what appeared to be origami erupting from the collar, and a garish pair of mustard-coloured culottes. There was also a long-sleeved black leotard with press studs on the crotch like a baby grow.

‘I wouldn’t trust those that in a million years,’ Chloe murmured, pulling a face. ‘Who actually wears this stuff?’

It wasn’t all terrible, however. The next double page spread was filled with pretty floral pieces, some of which were actually affordable. One dress in particular caught Chloe’s eye. White with large blue roses and a cinched in waist, it was exactly the type of thing she wished she could wear. But such pieces were for slimmer girls. At least that was what she told herself.

She was still wistfully admiring the dress when the arrow appeared, and next to it, more writing.

This would look lovely on you.

No, it wouldn’t.’

You should try it on.

She could try it on. It was her birthday next week, which usually meant a shopping trip with her best friends from school. She could easily pop into Dorothy Perkins, and if the dress did indeed suit her, her birthday money would more than cover it.

‘OK, I’ll try it, but it’ll probably look awful.’

It will look beautiful. Trust me.

Trust me. It seemed absurd to trust an unexplained, disembodied writer scrawling notes to her on the pages of a women’s magazine. And yet Chloe did trust them, for she was convinced that the person with whom she was communicating was a future version of herself. She was flummoxed as to how such a thing was possible, but she was in no doubt as to why it was happening.

Onto the beauty section, showcasing makeup that would make most people look like a lunatic clown. One model wore bright orange eyeshadow that stopped just below her brows. Another had one turquoise eyelid and one yellow one.

Do not, under any circumstances, ever contemplate doing your makeup like this.

As if I need telling, Chloe thought. She could well imagine what her mother would say if she tried to leave the house looking like that. No doubt something along the lines of, ‘Get back upstairs and wash that crap off your face.’ As for her father, he’d probably make some good-natured quip like, ‘I ain’t being funny, Chlo, but you look like you’ve had an accident in a paint factory.’

Next came the diet and exercise section. Page after page of exercise tips, from high intensity circuits you could do at home, to fancy pieces of equipment to help shed the excess pounds. There was an article on which gym machines were best for torching calories, and how long you should spend on each one for maximum effect. To Chloe, the implication was clear: if any part of your body jiggled, you should get in the gym immediately and stay there.

It’s just a ploy to sell you stuff. They make us feel terrible about ourselves so that we go out and spend money trying to make ourselves “acceptable.”

Chloe had never thought of it that way. The pressure to conform to society’s beauty standards was enormous. She herself had felt weighed down by it ever since she hit puberty. But she had never stopped to consider just how lucrative women’s insecurities regarding their appearance could be. Never stopped to consider that companies might be deliberately fuelling these insecurities in order to line their own pockets. It seemed obvious now that someone had pointed it out. But as Chloe was not yet trained in the adult arts of being cynical or questioning people’s motives, she needed help to see it.

The next section centred around love and relationships. It was full of the usual drivel like star sign compatibility and personality quizzes that supposedly told you what kind of partner you would end up with. Chloe didn’t bother with these. She was heading straight for the problem pages. A long-time favourite of hers, they provided a curious blend of poignancy, reassurance and hilarity. This edition did not disappoint.

As always, there were letters from socially awkward people desperate for advice on finding a partner. One girl’s boyfriend was terrible in bed and she didn’t know how to tell him without hurting his feelings. That one was a classic. There was a letter from a woman concerned about her partner’s spending habits, one from a teenager too scared to tell her parents she was gay, and down in the bottom right corner, a letter from an insecure university student that was all too familiar.

I’m 21 and have never been in a relationship. I don’t think I’m unattractive, but I’m not what most men would call conventionally attractive either. I’m a size 16 and not very into hair and makeup, and on top of that I’ve always been quite shy. I’ve noticed that most of the girls at uni who have boyfriends are slimmer than me, and much more confident. They’re bubbly and outgoing, and that’s just not me. I’m worried no one will ever be interested in me unless I lose weight and make myself more like them. I don’t want to be single and a virgin all my life. How do I get over my insecurities?

Most problem pages featured a letter like this one, which Chloe found both comforting and sad. That such feelings were fairly common was something of a relief, but it did nothing to lessen her own insecurities. What she needed was someone who could do just that.

This will not happen to you. I promise.

This time, when the writing appeared, Chloe regarded it with suspicion and doubt.

‘How can you possibly know that?’

Trust me. I know.

There were those words again. Trust me.

In the not-too-distant future you will discover just how unfounded your fears are, and you will have tremendous fun in the process.

Chloe felt the beginnings of a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

‘If you say so.’

I do. Now, if you want a real laugh, turn over the page.

Here it was. The jewel in the crown. The comedic highlight. Even with her complete lack of experience, Chloe knew that the Position of the Fortnight feature was ludicrous. Most of them looked bafflingly complex, while others looked downright difficult. This one was both.

It took Chloe a few moments to even figure out what she was looking at. The woman appeared to be doing a kind of headstand while folded up like a concertina, her cartoon limbs bent at uncomfortable- looking angles, while the man stood behind her holding her feet.

‘What the-?’

Sure enough, the writing appeared just seconds later.

I wouldn’t even bother attempting this. Unless you go on to become a world-class gymnast, in which case go for it.

Chloe chuckled at that.

If I could make a few recommendations…

On the landing, the sound of footsteps. Chloe closed the magazine but kept her thumb tucked inside the page she was reading, her eyes fixed on the door as if she could will it to stay closed. She did not want to be caught reading this. She lay there, every muscle tensed, doing her best to look innocent in case her mother burst in. Thankfully she didn’t, and the footsteps receded as Catherine made her way downstairs. When Chloe opened the magazine back up, there were three new pieces of advice scrawled on the page in question.

1) Missionary in underrated. Don’t forget it.

2) Doggy is incredible, but only if you’re with a guy who can make you feel comfortable in what is essentially a very exposed, very undignified position. If not, it’s just awkward.

3) Always pee afterwards. Because cystitis is the absolute worst.

Noted, Chloe thought with a conspiratorial grin.

You know, for when the time comes.

This too was accompanied by a drawing of a smiley face, only this time it was winking. And the advice didn’t stop there. Next came the article advertised on the cover: How to drive your man wild in bed. It was nothing revolutionary. There were all the usual tips about speed and pressure and erogenous zones, but it was nothing Chloe hadn’t read before elsewhere. It was always the same, and that in itself was a problem.

Here’s the thing. These magazines would have you believe all men are the same. They are not. What works on one may have absolutely no effect on another, so don’t assume it will. Different humans like different things, oddly enough.

Also, not all men have turbo-charged libidos. The sooner you get that out of your head, the better. On the flip side, some women do. It’s perfectly natural and not at all strange.

This was a myth commonly perpetuated by magazines and society in general. Many young women, Chloe included, had grown up believing that all men were sex-crazed to the point where they thought of very little else. These same publications also touted the idea that sex was something women didn’t particularly want or enjoy, but tolerated for men’s benefit. It had always struck Chloe as strange-this supposed disparity between men and women-and yet she had never questioned it until now. Why would she?

Now she thought about it, she had never really questioned anything. Not the link between the media and companies looking to sell you stuff. Not society’s ridiculously high beauty standards and the reasons for perpetuating them. Not lazy gender stereotypes. Nothing. She had blindly swallowed all of it just as the media wanted her too. But now, with the help of her future self, she was beginning to see just how harmful some women’s magazines were.

There was only one more message after that. It appeared on the inside of the back cover which, unsurprisingly, was taken up by another perfume advert. This time the model was galloping through a desert on a white horse, her long blond hair streaming out behind her. As you do, thought Chloe, a wry smile on her face. Next to her, in a patch of blue sky, appeared the following message:

Believe it or not, there will come a day when you have enough confidence and emotional resilience to not let publications like this bother you. When you are able to see that most of what is written in women’s magazines is at best nonsensical and at worst, toxic. Hopefully you are starting to see it now, although it will be some years before you stop caring altogether. Ironically, by the time you reach that point, you will no longer have much interest in magazines. Or you will have graduated to more grown-up ones, unlike the tripe you’re currently reading. I have tried to share with you some of the wisdom I have gained over the years, and offer advice that I myself was never given. I hope you find it helpful. I trust that you will. Rest assured, there’s plenty more where that came from 😊

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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