Why Cookie Crumbled: The rise and fall of the unattainable and irresistible parenting magazine.Amy Wilson
This week, amidst the vocal reactions of disbelief at the abrupt shuttering of Gourmet, another women’s title died a quieter death. Cookie magazine, which hit the newsstands less than five years ago, is gone.
It must be said that Cookie had become a publication out of step with its times. The idylls of Cookie’s pages, featuring toddlers in patent leather and cribs lined with flokati, altered not a whit with the collapse of Wall Street and our entire economy with it. Though Cookie‘s media kit indicated that their readers’ median household incom was $80,616, it would have taken five or ten times that amount to live the life depicted in its pages. And even if readers might once have aspired to that kind of lifestyle, when our gilded age came to an abrupt close, Cookie seemed suddenly – and glaringly – irrelevant. Changing with the times may or may not have spared its life, but Cookie had a vision of modern motherhood, and until the end, it stuck with it.
From its first issue, Cookie magazine made it clear that it would hold its mother-readers to a higher standard than the other parenting titles out there. “All the Best For Your Family,” each issue proclaimed, and indeed Cookie called itself “The Stylish Parenting Magazine for the New Mom.” By “New Mom,” they did not mean a first-time mother of a newborn. They meant an entirely new sort of mother, one interested in parenting fashionably, who was also an up-and-coming celebrity, or at the very least looked like one.
This New Mom, as represented in Cookie‘s drool-inducing photo spreads, did not need to dwell exclusively on the undeniable preciousness of her offspring. Sure, her toddler was right next to her, pouting with disarranged mane, standing knock-kneed in her $3,400 leather miniskirt with sheer organza overlay. But in the Cookie world, that child was willing to just hang out while the New Mom gave her attention to the glamorous adult life she was leading with someone just off-camera.
The Cookie home had artfully scattered through the living area no more than three or four toys, all Danish, fashioned of blonde wood. There was no television in the Cookie household. Who had time for such passivity? After school, these children were too busy tending to their rooftop herb garden, nibbling arugula as they picked, before their New Mom cooked dinner with them, hand-cutting egg noodles and whipping up some salmon with minty pea sauce (the two-year old’s favorite).
The families in Cookie spent their weekends browsing art galleries. They vacationed not at Club Med, but in a beachfront hut in the Galapagos Islands, or in a Shaker village in rural Kentucky. They had elegant parties for the entire neighborhood on the spur of the moment. The New Mom was at the center of all of this, in her “everyday chic” $980 trench coat, always with a certain carelessness, a laid-back, insouciant ease. In Cookie, motherhood was never hard, just fun and glamorous. Cookie suggested that it was possible to have a body, a home, and a life after children that was even better than what you had before.
At first this idea seemed refreshing, even noble, to my mother friends and me. We all subscribed immediately, hailing this new paradigm: not all cuddles and Care Bears, but not put-Little-Mermaid-on-auto-repeat-while-Mommy-takes-a-nap, either. Our children could be at the center of our lives without our having to renounce the lives we once lived. As the years went by, most mothers I talked to still enjoyed Cookie, drawing sustenance from its monthly fantasies that their former, smoother lives could be reattained. However, when my issue of Cookie came each month, and I sat down to read it on my sofa covered with Sharpie scribbles, it mostly just made me feel bad that that life was not already mine, that I was never that fluently glamorous in the first place, and that I couldn’t see ever getting there.
Cookie never really acknowledged that while the mothers it profiled had speedy beauty regimens, they were not typical mothers. Not that Cookie was solely responsible for this message. The standard for New Motherhood is alive and well and promulgated all around us: as a mother, you must look fabulous – as good, in fact, as if you have not in fact had children – and most of all, it must be easy for you to do so. When my mother’s friends were all wearing their one-piece bathing suits shirred through the mid-section at Lake Hideaway circa 1983, I don’t think they felt bad that they didn’t look like movie stars. No mother of three (or more) was expected to rock a two-piece, and so I don’t think my mother spent too much time feeling bad about her abdomen spilling over her waistband. The “muffin top” didn’t have a name back then. I, on the other hand, am aware every day of how Tori Spelling has Hip-Hop Abs and I don’t, even if I don’t have time to do anything about it except feel bad.
The Cookie mother never got a muffin top in the first place, since she “carried small” and started working with a personal trainer as soon as she got home from the hospital. But Cookie did its best to reassure mothers that any imperfections they did have could be easily corrected. “Maximum Beauty, Minimum Effort!” one cover blurb teased, and I eagerly flipped to that story first. If it was easy to look like a New Mom, then surely I could at least approximate it. The story inside the magazine told of one mother’s new and streamlined beauty routine since her triplets had come along: these days, she was getting her hair blown out just once a week, and instead of time-consuming manicures, she was opting for the quick pick-me-up of a polish change.
Are you kidding me? I thought. I never did those things in the first place! But this mother did, because she valued herself that much, and made it her priority (well, that, her new cookbook, and the nonprofit foundation she was launching). Besides, it wasn’t hard for her to look good; for weekend brunch, she could just gather her hair into a loose chignon, slick on some lip gloss, and be out the door! Cookie never really acknowledged that while the mothers it profiled had speedy beauty regimens, they were not typical mothers. Another issue outlined the “three minute beauty tricks” of Helena Christensen, mother of Mingus, while failing to admit that they may not work as well for anyone who is not, you know, a supermodel. When I was in the maelstrom of two under two, I didn’t even have time to brush my teeth on a daily basis. But that was before Cookie came along, and so back then, I could view my bedraggled aspect as a personal badge of pride. If I was going to be freaking exhausted, I figured, I might as well look it. My physical appearance was a manifestation of the rather extreme effort it was taking, at that time, to be Me.
The ladies’ magazines our mothers read were all about making the Effort visible. My mother never subscribed to any of them, but she would often toss one in the grocery cart while waiting in the checkout line. Those magazines made quick work of Fashion (two pages on the eighteen ways you might not yet have considered to wear that print neckerchief you bought on a whim. How it brightens up that old T-shirt dress!) and Fitness (repeating, monthly, the dubious axiom that, really, walking was the very best exercise). Having gotten those tired topics out of the way, the bulk of these magazines’ pages, as well as their covers, were devoted to elaborate cakes a mother could make for any and all occasions, like a Tom Turkey cake for Thanksgiving with jellybean eyes and a wattle fashioned of Red Hot Dollars.
I do not recall too many of these themed desserts on the dinner tables of my childhood, other than one very memorable Easter Bunny cake with Twizzler whiskers. Now, at least, I hold my mother in the higher regard for it. The thing about those cakes, though, is that even though they would be summarily eaten almost as soon as you had finished, the point of them would be to say, look how hard Mom worked! You might get a few oohs and aahs, at least out of the little kids, especially if you stuck a sparkler in it. At least someone might notice you made an effort.
I think that some women were able to feast their eyes on the utopias of Cookie while understanding that they were utterly unsustainable. Cookie recommended themed entertaining for the New Mom as well, but the birthday boy’s cake was in soft focus compared to the no-fuss hand-squeezed passionfruit caipirinhas served to the adult guests. How easy it was for the New Mom to entertain! Forget the Easter Bunny cake: she could whip up an al fresco Brazilian churrasco for sixteen in no time flat, and everyone, including the four-year-old guests of the birthday boy, devoured the pork skewers and coconut rice balls she threw together just that afternoon while the New Mom sat back and ENJOYED HERSELF – and while I, reading it, wanted to scream.
I think that some women were able to feast their eyes on the utopias of Cookie while understanding that they were utterly unsustainable. Each photo takes dozens of people many hours of effort to create. The fantasy is the point. But not me. Every time I read Cookie I would feel less relaxed, and then I felt even worse about myself because if I ever wanted to be a New Mom, nonchalance had to come first. All I really wanted was someone to say either, hey, let’s all slack off, or, God, isn’t it hard to have your act together? Cookie refused to let me off the hook, either way.
And now Cookie has crumbled, a victim of both the failing economy and its utter disconnect from it. But despite everything that happened between us, I will miss Cookie. Like the naughty snack after which it was named, Cookie was as delicious as it was unhealthy. You can know cookies are bad for you, but still you love them. Every time a new issue arrived, I would sit down after the kids were asleep and gorge. I would always feel a little sick afterwards, but God, was it good.