What I Have Been Reading: Outdated Dating Advice That Isn’t As Incompatible With Our Current Cultural Moment As I Wish It Was But Why I Enjoyed It Anyway

Hannah Gamble


The book: 

Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Women’s Guide to Men, Careers, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money, and Men by Helen Gurley Brown

Me, having opinions and telling you stories: 

I found this book on a friend’s shelf, and started reading it hoping for a bit of a laugh-cry as one can often have a bit of a laugh-cry at very outdated things, the mechanics of which one comes to realize are more or less still in effect (for example, the meme I saw posted on Facebook recently that listed bits of marriage advice for women in the 1950s: “Women, be sure to not talk about things that might vex your husband; he wants to eat his dinner, not hear about your day’s trivial frustrations!” and so on).

A bit of background info: Sex and the Single Girl was written by American writer/ businesswoman/ Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief for 32 years Helen Gurley Brown. Though the book’s publishing date (1962) led me to expect a lot of “Don’t ever let him see you in your curlers!” and “10 Tips for Holding in Your Body’s Evacuations Until He’s Left for Work,” I was pleased to find that HGB’s advice is geared towards (among other things) maintaining financial independence (lots of frugality/ DIY tips), experiencing sexual fulfillment before marriage, and being shrewd/ ambitious in the business world. Nevertheless, it was still the case that I was reading a book that was taking for granted the validity of very traditional gender rolls and traditional standards of female beauty (for example, I think “Baby fat only looks good on babies!” is a direct HGB quote).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book so much that I read it all the way through. I came to understand my affinity for it in the context of the following: I’ve said before to friends that I sort of enjoy being talked down to– affectionately patronized….(It’s a recent thing that’s come with actual, agency-filled adulthood. It’s now rare for someone to talk down to me and so, when it’s done tenderly/ hilariously, I enjoy it/ am comforted by it/ get a kick out of it.)

For example, I art-model 6 hours a week for an older-than-me woman who, while painting me, expresses her horror that I wear baggy thrift store dresses on dates and have met men through the online people-you-might-want-to-date catalogue OK Cupid. She also tells me that I am an amazing woman whom she prefers to most of her friends, and she coaches me on how to get a rich jewish husband (she has one) so that I can just write poems for the rest of my life without worrying about money (the way that she can paint all the time without worrying about money).

While reading Sex and the Single Girl, I felt as though I was hanging out with this older-than-me female artist-cum-advisor;

Helen Gurley Brown, like my artist friend, reminds me that you don’t have to be rich to be chic (black, fitted clothes are best), being agreeable and then doing what you want unobserved is a good option, one should be strategic about where/ for whom one works, no one likes a Debbie Downer or a Chatty Cathy, it’s preferable to live without roommates, and boldness is best (have your fun and get yours, etc.)…

Was this book written more than 50 years ago? Sure it was! Do I wish that some of the advice could have been (by virtue of recent social progressions) more defunct/ laugh-cry worthy? Sure I do! But the fact is, we still live in a world where people would rather not hear about your problems, it’s cooler to live without roommates, not having loads of stuffed animals on your bed is a good sign, (many) men enjoy pink panties with lace trim, and keeping a tidy physical appearance communicates that you care enough about yourself (and also are capable of cobbling together the resources) to get a haircut on the regular and get the wrinkles out of your clothes.

I can’t say I felt uplifted by HGB’s advice that if I am to carry on an affair with a married man, I best make sure he buys me lots of good presents; I must say, however, that (overall) the effect of the book was to make me feel (though a little grim) comfortable in the way that I am comfortable when I know that someone’s not lying to me– that someone has been around the block a few times, is thoroughly disillusioned, and (but?) ultimately has a chipper/ sturdy/ pragmatic/ proactive outlook on life.

Final thoughts:

1. As ridiculous/ fantasy-heavy as they are, tv shows like “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story” provide fairly accurate accounts of how the western world treats its women, as well as accounts of the various ways women have learned to survive/ be successful in a (white) male-dominated society.

2. I’ll believe that women have reached a state of true/ actual social equality with men when America has a female Late-Night host (but maybe not even then).