Magazine racks

Do you like boobs a lot? Today's men's magazines and even some of the women's mags have something BIG for you.


James Poniewozik
January 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

BY JAMES PONIEWOZIK
So here's my theory. In a certain corner office at Esquire magazine, if
you swivel the complimentary Propecia note pad on the leather desk set, a
bookcase slides over, revealing a secret door. Behind that door is a
winding passageway, with crackly pinups of Farrah Fawcett and Muhammad Ali
taped to the walls. And the passageway leads to a tiny, humid room with
leaky steam pipes and a bare light bulb swinging from a cord and a glass
fire box on the wall, bearing an inscription that reads something like
this: IF CIRCULATION DROPS BELOW X, BREAK GLASS.

It's just a theory. But if I'm right, that little glass panel is now
shattered, the box emptied and the contents -- a cover of Pamela
Anderson squeezing her bosoms together, the headline "Breasts!" and a salute
to "The Triumph of Cleavage Culture" -- are available today for purchase on
your newsstand. It is at least the best explanation I can come up with for
this seeming self-parody,
save perhaps to eradicate memory of the much-guffawed-over "Cocktail
Culture" cover of 1997 (proving that, pace the old journalistic
maxim, it no longer takes three examples to make a trend, just two Cs).
Welcome to Cleavage Culture; your D-cup is ready.

Advertisement:

Esquire is either America's worst great magazine or its best bad
magazine, swinging harder, whiffing more grandly and occasionally
connecting more dramatically than its peers. And the funny thing is, for
several months running, Esquire's covers have been noteworthy and
risk-taking for precisely the opposite reason of the bodacious current one.
Bravely for a men's magazine, they featured unsexy men. Stack 'em
up: January -- a bloodied Jerry Springer. December -- an ashen Bill Murray.
November -- a creepy Fred Rogers. October -- a cracked bald head on the
"What Did You Do After the Crash, Daddy?" cover. Despite its aging-Lothario
rep, Esquire was looking far edgier than competitors like GQ, fronted by
deadly dull objets
of perfection month after month, or Details with its
Tiger Beat for grown-ups pinups. It's as if Pam's mighty rack erupted
unconsciously in furious reaction, an angry blast of magma and silicone
heaved up by the hornier angels of Esquire's nature.

There is an editorial conceit justifying Esquire's package. Breasts, you
see, are uniquely visible in our culture today ("Everywhere you look:
tits"). In movies, on television, in magazines -- sometimes two to a
customer! As you can imagine, this would be a difficult proposition to
prove at any juncture in history,
but Mim Udovitch -- an excellent writer who deserves the fat check just for
biting her lip for this exercise -- provides the
whatever the female equivalent of a beard is for the issue with an essay
tracing the American breast from the falsies of the '50s ("an all-around
culture of concealment that necessitated a breast that repressed and
returned simultaneously") to the Wonderbras of today ("a falsie culture").
Comedian Sarah Silverman reveals that she has 'em; Thomas Kelly counters
that men like 'em.

Whatever its philosophical pretensions, the Cleavage Culture issue just
happens to come along at the heart of winter, when men's magazines compete
to heat up
their readership with V-for-Valentine's Day dicolletage. And it's a rare
month indeed when Maxim finds itself out-cleft: With Esquire boasting
Anderson, with GQ sporting CAD-designed Sports
Illustrated swimsuit issue
cover girl Heidi Klum and with Gear's Model
Issue hosting Adriana Sklenarikova, eyes wide and blank, lips parted and
hair in a bedroom muss like a just-deployed sex toy, Maxim inexplicably has
Bridget Fonda -- a lovely lady who notoriously needed padding to fill out
her bikini top in "Jackie Brown" -- to tout its
"Lingerie Runway" feature
(and even there it's aced by Details, which dedicates its entire issue to
lingerie).

Winter is a conservative season. You hanker for the same Christmas
turkey or Sunday pot roast; you spend the same 18 hours on the couch
Super Sunday; and you curl up with the same familiar ta-tas on the cover of
your waistcoats 'n' whiskey guide. The men's magazines, in other words, are
basically serving visual comfort food. And these are old-fashioned meatloaves indeed, looking all the more dated when the rest of the industry has
long since moved beyond the two-squeezed-together-glands template that has
more or less been the default since the rise of mammals. We now have, for
instance, Boobs-on-a-Plate, which came strongly into vogue last year (model
leans forward, breasts lie supported by a plane or the front of her dress
like fresh mozzarellas); the Boob Runway (breasts taped to the inside of
the model's top, exposing what is not really cleavage but really more like
a flesh landing strip); the Five-Finger Brassiere (breasts cupped by either
the model's or a third party's hands); even PoMo-Nostalgia Boobs (Anderson,
again, copping a Fawcett pose on the cover of Details last fall).

Indeed, more interesting than the subtle-as-a-mousetrap baits of men's
magazines are the myriad uses of cover cleavage in other magazine genres.
The great mystery of the newsstand, to the male reader, is that women's
magazines make men look like pikers, using caverns and canyons of flesh to
communicate class and demographic differences with a vocabulary nuanced
enough to stump the 17th century French court. For Cosmopolitan, cleavage
has long symbolized its trademark full-bore sexuality, and the January cover is a textbook example:
This is cleavage with shadows inside it, cleavage with an X, Y and Z
axis, cleavage so deep you can practically read the tag on the back of the
model's dress. Whereas Mirabella (January), which aspires to be the women's
mags' intellectual leader (sic), is so good-girl that it puts Angelina Jolie
in a turtleneck. Meanwhile, issue after issue of fashion glossy W
melds the two approaches -- relatively small-breasted models exposed in
Boob-Runway mode down to the navel -- to connote classy edginess. Shoshanna
Lonstein's
noble efforts aside, we still haven't shed our Audrey
Hepburn vs. Marilyn Monroe complex: Full sweater equals naughty girl.

The motif has been picked up, with a twist, by women's sports and
fitness publications; Self, Shape and the like (with the notable
exception, so far, of the outstanding recent startup Women Outside) so
aggressively push Lycra-bolstered pontoonage you wonder if they cover any
exercise below the ribcage. On the Jan./Feb. Condé Nast Women's Sports &
Fitness, Krista Cassidy heavingly "(takes) time out from snowboarding to
soak up some southern exposure" in the balmy waters of Mexico. So why not
just show her, oh, I don't know, snowboarding? Because nothing says,
"I may be athletic but I'm still a heterosexual woman" like cleavage! You
can shoot skeet, these covers tell us, and fry it up in a pan; you can ride
a mountain bike and still land yourself a man. Just mind you don't knock
yourself unconscious with those things, hon.

Advertisement:

And what's breast meat for the goose has quickly been ganderized by the
decade's hottest magazine genre. That's right: Male cleavage is where
it's at in men's fitness, further complicating the sexual
confusion
of the booming pecs-and-sex journals, whose black-and-white
models have developed such gigantic and cleft torsos, flexed and thrust out
on each month's cover, as to rival the lad mags' hood ornaments -- and have
reaped a sizable cut of the traditional men's audience for it.

In the shadow of these buff cover stars, Pam Anderson's robotically
squeezed bounty is a tumbleweed-strewn valley of death. With their mammary
stock-in-trade replicated across the newsstand, men's magazines have no way
to make breasts breastier, and less of a clue than ever how to grab the
attention of a male readership that just wants to move up a cup size. That may
be the reason, in fact, that below-the-waist peekaboos are starting to
steal the breast's thunder: recall Gear's oh-so-classy layout of Peta
Wilson on the can last year; notice GQ's Klum shimmying the straps of her
slight bikini bottom well below her waistline. Cleavage may never go out of
fashion, but as these masculinity bibles remind us, it helps to
accessorize. For men's magazine editors, standing desperate atop their
too-often-summitted peaks, there may be nowhere to go but down.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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