On this crisp autumn Sunday, Rona Maynard is right where I want her—in the kitchen. Her north Toronto house sits on the edge of a tree-gilled ravine, and the bright red, orange and yellow leaves beyond the sliding doors infuse warmth into the modern room. On the wall by the round, wooden kitchen table hangs a large black sign with her signature splashed across in blue neon. It was a gift from her husband, Canadian Business publisher Paul Jones, and, she says, the best Christmas present she’s ever received. Earlier in the day, Maynard, 46, had taken an Iyengar yoga class and she is still dressed for stretching: oversized black sweatshirt, running shoes, black leggings and not a trace of makeup. The petite women with short, boyish hair looks more like a middle-aged gamine than a tough-minded, national magazine editor. As she lowers the heat on the stove to let simmer the hearty pot of country Italian chickpea soup made from a recipe in Chatelaine, I gaze at the cooking utensils and ingredients strewn across the countertops: a strainer full of chickpeas, fresh rosemary leaves, chicken fat, a dried chilli pepper. Her cat, Freya, is perched on the open door of the dishwasher sniffing for scraps of food. The seductive aroma of garlic wafts through the house as Maynard indulges in what she calls the “tactile and sensual” act of cooking.
When Maynard agreed to this interview, she confessed, “When people talk to me while I cook, I usually forget something. I once made tuna casserole and left out the tuna.” On this Sunday afternoon, Maynard didn’t leave anything out. Except me. I kept hoping she’d offer me a taste of soup. She didn’t. Until I asked.
When Maynard put out her first issue of Chatelaine in February 1995, she made a point not to leave anyone out. In her inaugural “Woman to woman” editorial, she evoked the image of a coast-to-coast conversation and invited all Canadian women to be a part of it: “Think of the places where you speak now freely about whatever’s on your mind, and I’ll bet you picture at least one kitchen table… The magazine you hold in your hand is the biggest kitchen table in Canada—the monthly meeting place for on in four English-speaking women…Now, it’s my turn to pour the coffee…Pull up a chair. It’s going to be a rich conversation.”
Maynard uses the metaphor to guide her vision of a Chatelaine for the ’90s. This kitchen table, she says, “isn’t just about cooking. It’s about connection.” Which is why I found myself wondering about her kitchen table and what we would talk about if I were there. I wanted to know more about Maynard and her plans for the magazine. I was also curious about how she plans to reach me—a 26-year-old unmarried, childless, graduate student living in a rented apartment in downtown. Toronto whose kitchen table doubles as a desk.
I hadn’t looked at Chatelaine since I moved out my parents’ house. I always thought of it as my mother’s magazine. Naomi Klein, a 25-year-old writer and past editor of THIS magazine, has a similar view: “There will always be young women who read magazines like Chatelaine, probably because they can’t wait to be mothers and housewives. It’s the same reason that teenage girls read bridal magazine.” Maynard wants to get beyond this stereotype. “It is important to show people that we’re not just the magazine for your mother,” she tells me. “As we change our mix, people will realize there’s a lot more to this magazine than coping with croup.” One reason for that change is to attract the young women on whom the future of Chatelaine rests. As its publisher, Lee Simpson, points out, “Our readers are growing older. I think our average reader now is 45 years old. When I joined the magazine, she was 34, and that’s 11 years ago.”
Chatelaine, the grand-dame of Canadian women’s magazine, was launched the year before women became eligible for appointment to the Senate. Its 68-year-old heritage is one that Maynard has promised to respect. But she is taking more risks to capture the younger audience because she understands that magazines are living, breathing entities: “I want people to be engaged with it emotionally. I want it to make people curious. I want it to make them smile. I know that if it does those things, it will also sometimes make them mad. I want it to make them think and help them learn. I want it to entertain them. And I want it to be essential because there’s no place in people’s frantic lives for any magazine that is not essential. At the end of the day, a lot of people have about 20 minutes to themselves. I want them to choose Chatelaineover the TV, over a book, over a phone call to a friend.”
What was essential to Maynard at an early age was having an unending supply of books. Back then, in her birthplace of Durham, New Hampshire, she contemplated no less a figure than Joan of Arc, whose story, she now says, told her that “a women could find passion and purpose outside the home—a mind-expanding notion to a 4-year-old in the early ’50s.” For weeks, the shy Maynard answered only to Joan. She and her younger sister, Joyce, grew up in what they call a “hot-house atmosphere.” Before either of them could set pen to paper, they were dictating stories. Their mother Fredell, who became a noted author, journalist and broadcaster, quoted poetry at the dinner table; their father, Max, a professor and painter, recited poetry at bedtime. “It wasn’t a normal childhood,” says Rona. “My father didn’t wear a baseball cap and my mother didn’t play bridge. My sister and I were quite awkward in some cases around other children because our frame of reference was just not the same as theirs.”
Every February, their mother urged Rona and Joyce to enter an annual writing competition run by a scholastic magazine. Just before the contest closed, the Maynard house became a “writing factory.” The sisters recall that Fredelle and Max, both Canadian-born, ruthlessly edited their stories, many of which won awards. “It was a source of great pressure because my parents expected us to win,” says Rona. “I would have preferred to have accomplishments in areas that were more respected by my peers, such as having a boyfriend, having straight hair, being better at sports.”
Fredelle Maynard raised her daughters to be feminists before the word was an integral part of our language. Joyce Maynard says that one of the best things their mother gave them was “intense respect for the uncelebrated woman.” When asked what feminism means to her, Rona replies without hesitation, “a belief in equality from the bedroom to the boardroom. And in my case, that belief arises out of firsthand knowledge of what happens to women when their potential is not recognized and is blocked.”
She is referring to the inequities her mother suffered. Fredelle Maynard, a PhD in English from Radcliffe, had every reason to expect a stellar academic career, but when she became pregnant with Rona, she lost her teaching job at a state university to a man with inferior credentials. Not content to sit around, she wrote magazine articles about parenting and children—one about Rona’s toilet training—based largely on her own experiences. By signing her articles Fredelle Maynard, PhD, she created the impression that her doctorate was in psychology. She went on to write about such under-reported subjects as unnecessary hysterectomies. “My mother went out and interviewed people about their lives,” says Rona. “She sat at their [kitchen] tables much as I later did. I could tell even as quite a young kid that the articles she wrote in women’s magazines were affecting the lives of the readers. She got mail from these women saying, “Your article changed my life.”
Rona Maynard began her relationship with women’s magazines in high school, when her short story, Paper Flowers, was published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1965. A few years later, however, while studying English literature at the University of Toronto, she stopped reading these magazines. “I thought they were for older people and women with families. I was footloose and not married, had no plans to have children, and didn’t cook too much,” she says. Then she met Paul Jones in a campus production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. They married in 1970, and she became pregnant two years later. At 22, while she and Jones were still students, Maynard gave birth to her son, Benjamin. “It was after I became a mother that I started reading women’s magazines again,” she says.
After four years spend raising her son and working part-time, Maynard was hired by Mildred Istona as a copy editor at Miss Chatelain, which became Flare. She soon began to write articles for the magazine. In the early ’80s, she became departments editor at Maclean’s. Eleven years of freelance writing came next: Homemaker’s, Flare, Chatelaine and, eventually, cover stories in Report on Business Magazine and Canadian Business. “When I look back on my career, I remember people telling me, ’You’ve got to get out of women’s journalism—it’s a ghetto. You’ll never be taken seriously,’” she says. But her internal compass kept pulling her toward a female audience. In business writing, Maynard wasn’t able to get what truly motivated her—the sense that her articles were impacting on readers. When she wrote for women’s magazines, she says, people responded: “Because of this article I saw my relationship with my mother differently; I saw the Montreal massacre differently; I went back to school; I went into therapy.”
One of the biggest challenges for Rona and sister Joyce, now a fiction writer, magazine columnist, and editor and publisher of the New Hampshire newsletter Domestic Affairs, was to overcome the effects of their parents’ critiques and find their own voices as writers. “It was a great pleasure getting the confidence to say things my way,” says Rona. But that confidence didn’t really come until the early ’90s, when she wrote a column called Lifelines for Pathways, a now defunct magazine fro people whose lives were affected by addition. “By that stage,” she says, “I found that I could write with conviction about myself and my life, and make it meaningful to other people.” In many of these columns, Maynard revealed what it was like growing up in a household shrouded in the secret of her father’s alcoholism: “I didn’t dare attract attention to myself because my father’s drinking came first. I tiptoed through school the way I did at home when he was sleeping one off. Other kids would tell me what a neat story I’d written, and I’d murmur, ’It was nothing.’”
Since Chatelaine was founded in 1928, it has mirrored the changing sensibilities of Canadian women. And for most of the period it—and other women’s magazines—have been too easily dismissed by people who can’t see past the articles on fashion, food and decorating. Regardless, Maynard says, these publications are “forces for social change”—the first in history to speak to a majority of women. She also thinks of these magazines as women’s popular culture. “This is where a lot of new ideas for women start to put down roots and enter the mainstream,” she says. They offer ways for women to gain power. They celebrate female achievers. They impart information about women’s health. They discuss policies affecting women. They provide a wide-reading forum for woman-to-woman debate. As author Naomi Wolf points out in her 1990 book, The Beauty Myth, a women’s magazines “have popularized feminist ideas more widely than any other medium” and they also provide women with “the only serious mass market women’s journalism available.”
But women’s magazines also contain what Wolf calls the “seductive, embarrassing, challenging, and guilt-laden quid pro quo between dazzling covers.” Chatelaine possesses the paradox common to women’s magazines—unattainable images in beauty ads and fashion layout interspersed with stories about women’s advancement. According to Wolf, these magazines “reflect the uneasy truce in which women pay for scope and power with beauty thinking. Like its readers, the magazine must pay for its often serious, prowoman content with beauty backlash trappings; it must do so to reassure its advertisers.” But the paradox is also found in the editorial mix. Regular stories on how to lose weight, how to improve your looks and how to become more attractive to your man further promote the beauty myth. No wonder so many women have a love-hate relationship with Chatelaine and its sisters.
Since a magazine is also a reflection of its editor, Maynard’s two most recent predecessors dealt with the paradox in diametrically opposed ways. Doris Anderson, who topped the masthead from 1948 to 1977, was bold champion of women’s rights who turned Chatelaine—which for most of its history had stuck with a formula of parenting fashion, decor and food articles, as well as advice on “How to Talk to a Man about Football”—into an edgy, progressive publication. “I had a lot of university friends who boasted that they never read women’s magazines,” says Anderson, “and I thought, ’You’re going to be reading mine when I’m through with you.’ There was a real need for a magazine that would tackle the problems my generation of women were coping with.” Her Chatelaine retained the formula, but broadened it to include one or two stories a month that expressed strong, controversial opinions. A 1963 piece on the reform of Canada’s abortion laws, for instance, brought demands that the magazine be closed down and Anderson be fired. She boasts that hers was one of the first in North American to publish articles on child abuse and abortion. Anderson’s editorials made Chatelaine unique among North American women’s magazines. She demanded action and attacked sexist society. One such editorial condemned the apathy prevalent among many women. “We always lead the readers into feminism,” she says, “but then we got so far ahead of them that they thought we were attacking the family. They didn’t really know what I was doing until I’d done it. I think that’s the secret of editing a magazine.”
Where Anderson liked to run ahead of the pack, her successor, Mildred Istona was far more cautious. She chose her shots carefully, usually preferring glamour over hard-nosed journalism, and gave Chatelaine style and packaging. This frustrated many progressive women, but it brought the magazine greater prosperity. Istona’s contribution was geared more to the bottom line than the feminist battlefront. According to publisher Lee Simpson, “Chatelaine is unique in that it has a reach to women that is larger than any other magazine on this continent. We reach 25 percent of the population.” Under Istona, Chatelaine saw an astounding readership growth to 2.7 million, including pass-along reads, and a rise in paid circulation to almost 900,000. What attracted all these readers was what Istona termed her “shiny new journalism” that talked to a “New Woman” who put “personal priorities ahead of a feminist agenda,” and badly needed practical information. That meant more recipes, fashion spreads, and breezy features. To her credit, Istona spoke compelling on such issues as rape and women in politics, and came out against censorship and pornography. In January 1990, she chose to celebrate Chantale Daigle as Newsmaker of the Year: gazing out at readers was the woman who defied the law by crossing the border into the U.S. to have an abortion after the QWuebec Court of Appeal upheld an injunction to prevent her from doing so. But this was an aberration in a regular run of glossy “lite” covers—lots of Royal family shots, lots of lines selling “5 hair makeover,” and “12 sexiest men.”
Despite its financial success, many felt Istona’s Chatelaine was in desperate need of its own makeover. “Was it successful in terms of breaking any ground at a time when the world for women was undergoing incredible change?” asks writer Sheila Kieran. “No, it was totally irrelevant and banal. When the most interesting thing in the magazine is what to do with phyllo pastry, it’s time to stop reading it.”
Now it’s Maynard’s turn to struggle with the paradox. When the award-wining writer was appointed editor in November 1994 (she’d been the magazine’s executive editor of services since 1993), her background stirred up interest in the press. She says she received calls from journalists who recalled her intense articles about domestic abuse and women in the workplace. Perhaps they also recalled her 1992 guest column for Masthead magazine in which she blamed sexism in the magazine industry for the ghettoization of women’s magazines. “I guess we’ll be seeing a lot less in Chatelaine about makeovers and chicken cacciatore,” one reporter commented to her.
“Do I get to taste the soup?”
“Oh, you want to taste it? Why don’t I let you taste it?” says Maynard. “Give me your comments. This is what we do in the test kitchen.”
“Mmmm. It’s very good.”
“Now you know our recipes work. If they didn’t, we’d have a problem.”
Chatelaine readers do love the recipes and the beauty makeovers, as surveys have shown, but the magazine now accompanies them with longer, more provocative features and a focus on hard hitting reporting and broad national coverage. Having spoken with many women across the country, Maynard knows that political issues and cutbacks to social programs—as well as fashion tips and how to turn the contents of the crisper drawer into a soup—are all topics of concern for the readers.
One notable feature explored the touchy subject of violent women. A profile on “The rightness of Roseanne Skoke”—the anti-choice, anti-gay Liberal MP—offered another in-your face look at a controversial subject. Environmental illness, the inclusion of “special needs” children in regular classrooms and single mothers on welfare have also been part of the mix. These stories are worthwhile not only because of the issues they raise, but because they challenge readers to reach their own conclusions instead of telling them what to do. “There seems to be more of a tolerance for grey zones, and I think that sort of sensibility brings it more in line with where the real world is now,” says writer Kim Pittaway (before she became a part-time editor at Chatelaine last month). “Rona is tackling stories I wouldn’t have thought of pitching to Chatelaine before because I wouldn’t have thought it was a Chatelaine story.”
She is referring to the October 1995 issue which was on the newsstands when I began my research, and shattered many of my perceptions of the magazine. Features included: the piece about mainstreaming in education; an insightful story on women and therapy (“Shrink rap”); a look at lesbians in the workplace (“Out of the closet and into the fire?”); and a profile of a sex educator for teens. That edition also offered fiction, a once-popular component of the magazine that Maynard has brought back. The November issue served up equal portions of food for thought: a feature on sick building syndrome and the piece on violent women; profiles of aboriginal singer Susan Aglukark and three women investors; a beauty spread called “Inner strength” on workouts for the body and soul, such as yoga; and an excerpt from Judith Finlayson’s book, Against the Current: Canadian Women Talk About Fifty Years of Life on the Job.
The new Chatelaine is still a work in progress, but in just over a year on the job, Maynard has already put her imprint on the design and display copy. Under Istona, the heads and subheads—Sausage suppers that say pow!—were more exhortatory. Maynard doesn’t come on quite as strong. Val Ross, The Globe and Mail’s publishing reporter, says, “A piece on snoring would have been called ’Coping with a snoring spouse’ or something like that five years ago, but under Rona it’s more playful. Her headline was ’Moonlight sonata.’” In design, Chatelaine has pulled away from its trademark heavy bars and black and red colour scheme. More white space and pastel colours have given the magazine a relaxed look. Doug Bennet, editor of Masthead, says, “Rona’s trying to balance out that sort of more feminine look, which some might say is a step backward, with articles that deal with things like lesbianism. The magazine is trying to be fairly catholic in its view of women in contemporary Canadian society.”
Under Istona, Chatelaine stories tended to have the same tone regardless of whether they were about sex among teens or how to redecorate a bathroom. Maynard ahs run more first-person journalism that explores an issue through a particular writer’s eyes. Perhaps recalling her mother’s experience, she recognizes that experts don’t all have PhDs, and places more value on the voices of ordinary people to tell a story. In the February 1996 feature “Estrogen Forever?”—about the risks and benefits of a lifetime on hormones—writer June Rogers interviewed her sister and friends to gain perspective on the issue, which created Maynard’s kitchen table atmosphere.
Best friends was the theme of a piece that brought Maynard’s vision of a coast-to-coast conversation to life in February 1996. It was the result of responses to a notice published last summer that asked: “Whatever happened to your old girlfriend?” The story dished up readers’ personal stories and quests for long-lost friends. A collage of mementos, letter excerpts and a list of names—women from all over Canada and elsewhere being sought by their old girlfriends—gave the piece an emotional, grassroots feel. Because of these kinds of articles, Maynard’s Chatelaine has become, she says, “a friend to its readers. When they love us, they really let us know. When they’re angry, it’s as if their best friend has let them down in their hour of need.”
Margaret Wente, editor of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, says that Maynard’s ability to connect with people is her gift to Chatelaine. “To form that sort of bond between the product and readers is very important, especially with a magazine like Chatelaine,” she says. “You hate to make gender generalizations, but women respond very much to those sort of connective values. Rona understands the important of that and she can actually put it in the page so it leaps out at the reader. To do that, you have to not only be warm, touchy-feely person, and I wouldn’t say that Rona is that warm and touchy-feely in person, but you have to have enormous skill.”
Readers get a clear sense of Maynard the person from her “Woman to Woman” page where she’s shared stories about her mother and confessed to mistakes she made in childrearing. By revealing herself, Maynard makes it easier for her readers to reveal themselves. For example, in her March 1995 editorial, she invited readers to share memories about their family wartime experiences to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. The invitation elicited a flood of responses, one of which was from Marguerite Oberle Thomas, a public health nurse from the small village of Brussells, Ontario. Instead of sharing a story about the war, she described to Maynard the high-tech ways in which she communicates with her grandchildren. “Bless her heart, she called me back very quickly. She was interested and asked me to send her a story outline,” Thomas says. “Rona’s editorials gave me the courage to contact her. I thought ’This is a real decent human being” appeared in the November 1995 issue.
In an effort to broaden the appeal of the magazine, Chatelaine has increased the number of models with grey hair, thicker waistlines and wrinkles; and has also run a first-person story about ageism by a reader n her seventies. And to attract readers like me, the magazine has offered: a decorating story about a single woman’s home; bright, action-oriented covers featuring young models; and a risqué lipstick spread with photographs of a woman and a bare-chested man in a variety of sexy positions.
On the eighth floor of the Maclean Hunter building, Maynard and I are sitting at the round table in her office. She’s holding up Chatelaine’s October 1995 edition in one hand. On the cover is a woman in a short, tight pink dress and heels sawing a dollhouse, with the caption “Express yourself”—a completely unorthodox image for the magazine. “This is cheeky and saucy,” says Maynard. In her other hand, she waves a copy of Cosmopolitan with the usual blow-dried, come-hither model on the cover. “And this is sultry. Not everybody understands that they’re different, but quite a few id.” Chatelaine’s cover was part of the home decor package in that month’s issue, and the woman sawing the dollhouse was actor and “home do-it-youselfer” Cynthia Belliveau. After that issue hit the stands, many accused Chatelaine of reinforcing stereotypes.
Advertising executive Geoffrey Roche was not surprised by the negative reaction. “That cover was over the top,” he says. “That is not Chatelaine. They’ve got to sit down and figure out who they are. That’s the wrong place for them to be. It looked like the cover of a bad men’s magazine.” Maynard took a chance with it because she wanted to break the Chatelaine stereotype. Besides, she responds, “Look at the glint in her eye. She’s not taking this seriously and we don’t either. Life’s tough enough without being absolutely literal about every image that we portray.”
Another Maynard critic is Judy Rebick, who took the kitchen table metaphor literally. The former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and Face-Off co-host calls the down-home image “a throwback to the 1950s,” and says she hasn’t picked up the magazine since reading the “offensive” kitchen table editorial. Maynard responds that anyone true to the spirit of feminism should be able to understand the metaphor. “The template of woman to woman relationships is the mother-daughter relationship, for good or ill. Most of us, even if we had difficulties with our mothers, had some nice timers in the kitchen with them, or maybe it was with a grandmother or aunt. I was always drawn to kitchens, and so were a lot of other women, because it seems I was not there by myself.”
Chatelaine reads must have been there too because they’ve taken the kitchen table idea to heart. It’s been while since Maynard’s inaugural editorial, but readers still play back the image. Some end their letters with “From my kitchen table to yours.” In other cases, they write, “If we’re going to sit down at the kitchen table, let’s leave this kind of thing out of it” or “This would not come up at my kitchen table.”
“Around our kitchen table,” Maynard says, “women might talk quite freely and frankly about sex and their intimate relationships.” When readers accused the magazine of running pornography in that sexy lipstick spread, she made no excuses. One reader wrote, “You always have articles on women in business and the ’glass ceiling.’ But if you continue to promote women as bimbos, corporate Canada will continue to see us that way.” The sexism of the photographs was a deliberate attempt to broaden the emotional range of the magazine, of which, Maynard says, “sex and sexuality are a part.”
But Liz Primeau, editor of Canadian Gardening and former Chatelaine staffer, is uncomfortable with this approach. “I do have a little reservation. Some of the covers show the alluring young woman and there was that actress in the bathtub. It looks like they’re pandering an trying to get some attention. I don’t like to see Chatelaine going that way.” Kristen Jenkins, who recently resigned as Chatelaine’s executive editor of health and services, told me before she left that “there are young women who want to draw to the magazine and in order to do this we have to start to reflect the issues that interest all women, not just the conservative people who have continued to faithfully subscribe for years.” But, she concludes, “Hindsight being 20/20… I would say the lips piece was too much too soon. We don’t want readers to feel betrayed after years of subscribing, suddenly they’ve got a totally different magazine on their hands.” Geoffrey Roche contends, “You’re sort of desperately hoping for them to break out of this ’let’s be a bit racy, but not too racy.”
Many people are heralding Maynard’s Chatelaine as a return to the Anderson era. “We’ve had some long-time readers write to us and say, ’Chatelaine is going back to where it was in the ’60s and ’70s,’ which to them is a compliment. That’s partly the times because we now need that kind of story to be told,” says Maynard. “Feminism has come to be associated in many people’s minds with campaigns on campuses for things they can’t relate to. We’re getting away from the hard realities of being paid fairly, being physically safe, getting good child car. This was the bedrock of the women’s movement, and we got away from those things, but we’re going to go back to them because the time is right.”
She may laud her return to the Anderson values, says Geoffrey Roche, the country’s leading magazine for women has a long way to go: “Chatelaine is a brand. They need to recognise that. It’s no longer the Canada of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a very different country and a very different consumer, and they better hurry up and figure out who they are and start leading.”
Roche’s comments strike a chord in me. I started this profile antagonistic to Chatelaine, and, once into it, discovered there was much that I liked. But then I started to look closely at the issues following the eye-opening fall 1995 editions. Where did the woman who had told me that she wanted to take risks and be more than my mother’s magazine go? As Chatelaine headed into spring, the clothes got softer and looser; the covers were more pastelly; the recipes got lighter—and the features got harder to find.
In January 1996, Maynard introduced a new feature, the year in review for Canadian women. As part of it, she chose as woman of the year the late Rochelle Pittman, the woman with AIDS who galvanized public support and sympathy for victims of tainted blood. But to the disappointment of many readers and myself, Pittman did not appear on the cover—as had previous women of the year. Maynard explained her reasoning in a later edition: “To billboard turkey and dress-up fashion beside Rochelle’s meditative black-and-white portrait seemed just plain inappropriate.” Instead, a photo of a model graced the cover, with a main line that trumpeted “23 beauty resolutions you’ll keep.” (“Because the magazines are so serious, they must also be so frivolous,” wrote Naomi Wolf. “Because they offer women power, they must also promote masochism.”) One irate reader noted, “How ironic that in an issue that reviews the experiences of women in Canada… I discover the key to happiness lies in 23 beauty resolutions, guaranteed to exfoliate, moisturize, firm, tone or camouflage my imperfections. Any idea where I can trade in my teaching degree for a good loofah?” The only other story that drew me in was “Diary of an adoption labor,” a heart-wrenching personal account of a couple’s attempt to privately adopt a baby. The rest of the issue was filled with holiday food, decor and fashion pieces and Chatelaine’s first-ever editorial health section called “Mind and body,” which paled in comparison to such hard-hitting features such as “Estrogen forever?” and “Shrink rap.”
Two months later, the March edition contained an old-fashioned piece dressed up in a modern format—an e-mail discussion on “Men we love” between Toronto Sun newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford and Vicki Gabereau, host of CBC Radio’s Gabereau. Chatelaine can be commended for jumping headfirst into the computer age, but the story’s substance did not meet its novel form. Although its tone was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, comments like this on actor Brent Carver: “Well-dressed too, which is… a hard thing to find in the Canadian male. Shallow, I know, but so really, really me,” aptly convey the banality of this warmed-over piece. Elsewhere in the issue, a beauty spread on cosmetic surgery flippantly asked: “With improved techniques that let you shower and partly the nest day, why not?” The article reduced a medical procedure to just another beauty choice. According to Wolf, “The magazines’ personalities are split between the beauty myth and feminism in exactly the same way those of readers are split.” Editors are split too. Maynard herself weighed the decision of going under the knife and admitted in her editorial, “I’m not sure which route I’ll take, or for how long.”
And then came the April issue. Looking at the orange cover—a model with frosted makeup who resembled a Charlie’s Angel—I recalled something Maynard told me in her office: “We project a different image on our cover, and we position our coverlines to focus on what we think are the most exciting and different things we’re doing.” So what was exciting and different in this issue? “Great hair days. Advice from Canada’s best stylists”; “Work/family survey 1,000 women share solutions”; “Muffin bake-off: readers’ best recipes”; “One dress, six looks”; “Fab Freebies: How to get something for nothing”; “Bathroom makeovers: 25 smart moves”; and down in the corner, right by the UPC code, “Queen of the health cuts: what her plan means to you.”
Perhaps the most paradoxical thing about women’s magazines is their relationship to food. The ads promote thin, thin, thin. So do the numerous diet stories. But over at Chatelaine, Maynard has shown she’s willing to break away from the standard fare. So is Lee Simpson, who says, “I think there’s more to be gained from the computer and financial categories and car companies than there is by continuing to blow the traditional horns of food and cosmetics.” Although the beauty ads and stories often contradict and undermine the pro-woman message, most women’s magazine editors follow the formula that pays the bills. Many cannot risk providing what readers say they want: “real” images that include them and articles that don’t condescend. These may be the limits that any editor of a mass-market magazine like Chatelaine must come up against. Maynard, however, is trying. A November 1995 beauty spread on aging and self-esteem showed images of “real” women ranging from 29- to 80-years old. But the most telling example of her efforts was a piece called “Fat like me.”
This article was a result of Maynard’s idea to reference old stories, which led her to contract Terry Poulton in Louisville, Kentucky. Back in 1982, Poulton wrote for the magazine a popular six-part series of cheery “I-can-do-it, so-can-you” stories on her struggle to shed 60 pounds. Maynard tracked her down and asked her to write first-person account about how the experience affected her. In the September 1995 issue, Poulton revealed that “it was the toughest and loneliest time of my life.” It ended her prospective marriage and caused her to swear off diets for good. She didn’t come right out and criticize Chatelaine, but it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines. She elaborated in an interview: “Chatelaine muzzled me so badly. They dint’ just edit my words, they edited my life. Rona found me, and I felt I had been rescued.” Poulton’s second story would not have run under Istona—it wouldn’t jive with her image of a Chatelaine reader. “The anti-diet story is very Rona-ish because it’s realistic,” says Wente. “She told me when she took over, ’I’m not going to do any diet stories—how to lose 10 pounds in 10 days—because it’s probably a reader disservice that just makes them feel more insecure. They get it everywhere else anyway and probably don’t believe it.”
Now that’s the kind of risk-taking that attracted me to Chatelaine when I began my research, which is why I was anxious to see what Maynard would do with the February 1996 cover. “We’re going to shoot a cover in which somebody is going to be eating cake. It’s a Valentine’s story and we’ve got wonderful rich desserts,” she told me in October. A woman having her cake and eating it too is not your typical women’s magazine cover. But Maynard told me she wants to “get real” with her Chatelaine. How real! Enough to proclaim in the February 1996 editorial: “It’s time to give food guilt the boot.” But not real enough to boot it from the cover. When I saw the issue on the newsstand, I was disappointed: the slab of decadent, sinful cake that I had imagined had become a dainty, bite-sized, heart-shaped chocolate. Once again, but this time in Maynard’s metaphorical kitchen, I was left hungry for more.