Outdated Beauty Advice From Helen Gurley Brown

by Bonnie Downing

Bob Guccione once said of Helen Gurley Brown, “She writes the way girls exclaim in the toilet.” That was a compliment, and he was probably referring to those sexed-up Cosmo headlines. But her voice still stood out when she wrote about other pet topics — diet, beauty, money — and it was Helen who mainstreamed the confessional, neurotic tone now prevalent in women’s magazines and websites.

Back before H.G.B. let the (lovable) crazy out, mass-market advice to women was overwhelmingly written in a ladylike tone of polite restraint. Inundated as we are now with overshares, that’s hard to imagine. Frank, personal writing, even on fluffy topics like face-washing, can be so compelling when it comes from smart, honest writers, and so loathsome when affected purely for attention. Helen did run grabby headlines to move magazines, but she also truly intended to help, and her voice strikes me as sincere, not manipulative, even as she suggests young women seduce their married bosses while subsisting on little more than frozen grapes.

A lot is being said about H.G.B.’s role in feminism, and the morality of her sex advice. Today, I just feel like rolling around in a pile of her hilarious and disturbing tips. Join me?

“Put on a shower cap; grease your face with Vaseline, cold cream, or something goopy. Fill the bathroom basin with cold water. Dump in two trays of ice cubes. Using a snorkel (a little rubber tube, one end of which you clamp between your teeth; the other end — open — sticks up put of the water so you can breathe. Any sporting-goods store has these), stick your face down just below the water surface and stay as long as you can. Twenty minutes is ideal. You never saw such skin … poreless, glowing.” Having it All: Love-Success-Sex-Money: Even If You’re Starting With Nothing (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982)

As editor-in-chief of a major women’s magazine, Helen received endless, high-end beauty schwag, and would have been comped at the best spas. Yet our heroine often preferred to stay home and devote herself to deeply nutty, self-administered rituals:

“Wear bikini pants or nothing and slather Andrea Extra Strength Creme Bleach — a nice thick paste — over thighs, calves, arms, your whole body if you like. Leave on ten minutes and don’t mess with it. Now start rubbing with your hands… stroke stroke stroke. Dead skin will come off with the bleach — a most gratifying experience.” The Late Show: A Practical, Semiwild Survival Guide for Every Woman in Her Prime or Approaching It (Avon, 1994)

Ms. Brown’s early guides to life are textbook examples of a literary genre I call autobeautyography: how-to books on beauty and style that reveal very private habits of the author. When Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor of Cosmopolitan, she popularized the idea of exposing obsessions and telling beauty secrets.

“You probably wear lipstick, powder base and a little eye make-up every day. But have you ever considered drawing in completely new eyebrows, wearing false eyelashes, putting hollows in your cheeks with darker foundation, a cleft in your chin with brown eyebrow pencil or enlarging your mouth by a third? These are just a few sorcerer’s tricks available.” Sex and the Single Girl (Random House, 1962)

I have a cleft in my own chin, and have never known anyone to envy or mimic this feature.

Ms. Brown had no patience for women who lacked dedication to self-improvement from the outside in, and she preached from a standpoint of fact-facing practicality and measurable results. Mantras were too ephemeral to have a place in her method of self-love.

“… You must at least create the illusion of beauty by acting beautiful.

You don’t have to lie your head off and say I am, I am, I am when you know damn well you aren’t — a stunner. But you must love yourself enough to employ every device … voice, words, clothes, figure, make-up … to become one…

Nearly every woman is part-beauty. She has one good feature even if it’s just smooth elbows. You play up that feature. You draw a face on the elbow with little eyes and a mouth. (I’m kidding!)” Sex and the Single Girl

Her diary-level honesty charmed, and her humor held a generous warmth. Unless you tried to make her fat.

“One aggravated hostess put chocolate chips in my Sanka out in the kitchen one day, then gleefully told me what she had done after I drank. Bitch!” Having it All: Love-Success-Sex-Money: Even If You’re Starting With Nothing (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982)

Helen was obsessed with weight and food. I never get tired of reading giddy descriptions of dishes she kept in rotation.

“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: Snippets from My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts (MacMillan 2000)

“It is better to get hollandaise all over your negligee sleeves than to wear something appropriate to cook in if you are entertaining a man.” Single Girl’s Cook Book (Bernard Geis Associates, 1969)

If you get more exasperated than than delighted by the image of a bony media queen working her way through a punch bowl of brightly colored gelatin, know you’re not alone.

In “The Queen of the Mouseburgers,” a 1982 profile that appeared in New York magazine, Jesse Cornbluth wrote of watching a frustrated Gloria Steinem interview Helen: “… Without much of a preamble, she saved me the trouble of asking Helen Brown just what kind of a hairpin she really is.”

What kind of hairpin? I don’t think this one was a compliment.

There’s such Mad Men-esque pleasure in re-reading Helen’s early work. People, it was a different time.

“You may work in an office where consumption of an alcoholic beverage is strictly forbidden, at least on premises. (No telling how many Manhattans and Gibsons are brought into the office in people containers after lunch.) Rather than make any shock waves by pouring wine from your thermos into a long-stemmed Baccarat glass, pour it instead into a china cup. This can serve as your coffee mug during the rest of the day.

Should any of your co-workers discover your fine, boozy secret and giggle it up, smile sweetly and say, “I like a glass of wine with my lunch. It is a very civilized custom.” Sex and the Office (Random House, 1964)

Perhaps that sly trick helps explain the deviant behavior in this next snippet, which flits into my mind more often than is reasonable.

“One night, I was working late, and around eleven I had a food fit. I couldn’t find anything in the refrigerator where we all store food, and this particular night I started going through people’s desks. Shameless, but hungry is hungry, and I planned to make full confession and restitution the next morning. In Lydia’s desk I found the last of a box of raisins and ate the whole thing — twenty-six raisins, stale and dry, and nothing ever tasted so good! The next morning, Lydia was waiting for me as I came through the reception room. ‘Mrs. Brown,’ she said, ‘did you eat my raisins?’ ‘Oh my God, Lydia,’ I said, ‘I did and I meant to bring some in with me on the way to work. I’ll get them at lunchtime.’ She skulked away. Later, when I saw her again, she still looked angry.” I’m Wild Again

I find that number (twenty-six!) so telling. If this were someone else’s story, I would assume the detail was hyperbolic and that the narrator hadn’t really counted. Helen counted, and she seemed to think that twenty-six raisins made a feast. Such an exacting personality might be expected to have more sympathy for a fellow dieter, but the lesson in this particular anecdote isn’t about calorie counting, it’s about attitude. Choose your battles wisely at work, or in other words, get over it, Lydia.

So often in her outspoken commands, a character like Lydia pops up, fully formed.

“If you would look sexy, wear more hair. Not shoulder-length necessarily, but not that Joan of Arc little-pointy-snips business either. She was a soldier!” Sex and the Single Girl

“Have a ‘joy dress’ in your wardrobe but remember, you can only get away with it if you’ve been a lady for about 150 days running.” Sex and the Single Girl

Co-workers must have recognized themselves in her dos and don’ts. Mostly in the don’ts.

“Being able to sit very still is sexy. Smiles are sexy. It is unsexy to talk about members of your family and how cute or how awful they are.”

On that note, we’ll end with a goodbye written by Helen herself, in “Letter to My Daughter,” the final chapter of I’m Wild Again. Helen chose not to become a mother, but she had no shortage of subjects to advise. You’ll notice her priorities remained clear.

“Last thing I want you to know, pussycat. Calories count … every baby one of the bastards, in chicken salad and carrot juice, a in creme brulee and dark chocolate mints. Don’t ever rationalize that any of them missed the boat!

Sleepy? You’ve been a great listener. I love you.”

Previously: Outdated Beauty Advice From Everywhere.

Bonnie Downing forgot to ever go to bed last night.