- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Some people find salvation through religion. Washington author Cathy Alter found hers through women’s magazines.

Yes, those same formulaic glossies that promise more to women than ever realistically can be expected to happen to readers looking for (a) a good man and (b) a good life, often in that order. As it happens, this was exactly what Ms. Alter wanted - but the good man, she discovered after many tribulations, could come to her only after she found out what was good about her own life.

That’s the rub, she admits in an interview, detailing how she proceeded with her social experiment and what she actually achieved at the end, as outlined in her book “Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex and Starting Over.” It was a clever idea that only a clever writer could pull off, a sort of 12-step regime of the kind promised by Alcoholics Anonymous. In her case, however, she was far from anonymous, and her addiction was the socially approved one of reading magazines.

She claims she took seriously her plan to follow the advice found in 12 of the best-known titles in the genre. They included O, the Oprah Magazine, whose motto is “Live Your Best Life” and whose recent cover lines promise “Advice That Can Save Your Life,” “How to See Yourself In a Sexier Light” and “The Way to Eat.”

How much more does a woman need to function? Apparently a lot more because Ms. Alter managed to digest one issue a month of O, Elle, Marie Claire, Real Simple, Cosmopolitan and others.

She confesses she didn’t feel fully functional at the outset; unmarried and unhappy at age 37, she was at the lowest ebb in her life, to the point where her closest female friend, “the one constant in my life,” refused to see her. However, if misery was her companion, a sense of humor became her guide. She describes how detailed instructions from Real Simple on “how to wrap a sandwich” helped steer her back to reality.

Much later, when a magazine editor for whom she sometimes wrote freelance articles asked about the most important thing she had learned, she replied, “That if you’re ever in a pinch, you can use a crumpled-up piece of aluminum foil

as a scouring pad” and “I’ll never find an eye cream that makes me look 10 years younger.”

“You really have to be careful when reading these magazines,” she warns. “I began reading in a very dependent way.”

“Independent reading,” she explains, is knowing the difference in value between the article in Allure that suggests good shades of lipstick to buy and one that warns “about men trading you in for another model.” The latter, she notes, caused her to think such a thing would happen to her.

It isn’t as though she was unaware of what she dubs some of the “schizophrenic attitudes” embodied in some of the publications. Cosmo sets up “two competing ideals - feminism and femininity,” she writes, criticizing the “loop their content seemed to take. How many ways could the editors repackage and sell the same sex tips?”

“Women’s magazines are a reflection of who you are,” she says in conversation, looking back at that fateful year during which she was spared any temptation to indulge in surgical makeover.

“I was always joking about this with my husband,” the man who was her boyfriend at the time and whom she later married, “who said, ‘I will kill you if you try anything like that.’ But who knows, if I had had a bigger advance? I’d definitely hire a personal trainer and try all kinds of stuff on my face.”

The end is a bit of a letdown. By then, she already has found her good man, someone 10 years younger than her. The last chapter is - predictably enough - marriage to a man who was a friend before he became her lover and husband.

“If I had learned anything over the year, it was that the only constant thing in life is change. … Looking back, I realized that I subscribed to these magazines because I was also subscribing to change.”

Going for some professional advice from a clinical psychologist made a difference, too.

The key to self-improvement, she suggests, is “developing a filter - the inner voice and inner barometer that says when this or that advice isn’t right for me.” That filter is a certain sense of detachment and an intuitive sense that allows readers of such successful publications as Glamour to know when their advice is wrong - perhaps wrong for most people, but certainly for her.

“I recall Glamour magazine’s top 10 things that every relationship needs to survive included ‘every successful relationship has a secret.’”

Not so, she says, claiming that she knows such an attitude can backfire and cause harm.

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