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Fuller, sexier brain cells in just two clicks
Declaring women's magazines 'utterly and truly stupid,'
Toronto native Sharon Grehan has founded an Internet anti-Cosmo

REBECCA CALDWELL

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

TORONTO -- Not many publications have the blank gravitas needed to suggest that "fat people sweat a lot and steal things," and therefore really should be humiliated into losing weight.

Such a shame.

With its slogan, "We think, so you don't have to," prominently on display, the satirical Web site happywomanmagazine.com delivers a much-needed blow to the bloated, sometimes surreal world of women's magazines. In an era when the skinny is that thin is in, and pop culture is, in fact, culture, the Web site is a welcome oasis for surfers tired of endless tips on how to get fuller lips or a first glimpse of the latest glossy, celebrity home-decor spread.

And it's all the brainchild of Toronto native Sharon Grehan. A studio photographer who a decade ago chucked that career to pursue a life in comedy, she is the first to acknowledge that she didn't start out as a wired Gloria Steinem cum Bill Maher. In fact, for the past 10 years, Grehan had been on the improv circuit, until one day, flipping through a copy of Glamour magazine, she came across a feature called, "What your eyebrows say about you." It was at precisely that moment, she recalls, that she realized such magazines were "utterly and truly stupid."

So Grehan decided to create a Web site that would reflect what magazines said about themselves, and happywomanmagazine.com was born. Grehan hesitates a millisecond before calling herself a feminist, but she is unabashedly earnest in her attempts to create a more interesting dialogue for women to participate in.

"I'm tired of the ridiculousness of it all. You have women adopting these roles, thinking about nothing but weddings and babies," says Grehan. "I just wish people would think about things a bit more. It would just be nicer to hear people talk about ideas and what ifs."

Grehan's main worry is that while Western women today are enjoying more liberation than ever, they are still often their own worst enemies, and quick to fall back to old tropes, encouraged by stereotypes that are the bread and butter of women's magazines.

"Women are sabotaging other women so much these days. You hear someone's been flirting with your friend's boyfriend, and she confides in you, 'Yeah, but I saw her and she was fat!' You were a feminist 22 seconds ago till you spat that out," she says, looking discouraged and faintly disgusted.

Within a week of its first posting, happywomanmagazine.com was noticed by Netscape, which crowned it a site of the week. Yahoo! soon picked it up, followed by USA Today on-line, which praised its "devilish wit."

Its focus is women and their foibles, as embraced by those who think The Beauty Myth is some kind of fairy tale. With half a dozen new articles submitted each week by budding humorists across North America, deadpan topics range from advice on how to raise your ungifted child to the heart-wrenching tales of aging supermodels coping with their first laugh lines.

The omnipresent feature of women's magazines, the quiz, also provides fertile ground for Grehan to parody, and she includes a number of them on her site. A recent one, Is He Cheating?, asks a series of yes-or-no questions to help determine if your loved one is straying. At first, the painfully funny questions, such as, "Does he say things like 'I want a divorce?' " and, "Has he replaced all his boxers with thongs?" sound like a good friend's attempts to make you smile through a bad relationship. But they're also slyly setting you up for a one-two punch aimed squarely at readers who've let themselves believe what traditional women's mags have preached. The quiz's "analysis" advises that if you answered yes to three or more questions, "Your best course of action is to get a facial, a full-body wax, lose 10 pounds and become a better person. If these things don't work, try begging and pleading."

Celebrity "interviews" conducted by Grehan's alter ego, Libby, seem to rate highly with surfers. The terminally dazed interviewer chats (at least in her imagination) with ultrabeautiful and uber-thin stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the like, only for Libby to unconsciously hijack the conversation with pointed questions about Paltrow's weight, or Zeta-Jones's famous husband. The result is that Libby looks foolish, and so do we, for our obsession with celebrity and the whole culture behind that sort of interview.

"Celebrity interviews are out of control -- the worship of celebrity has just become intense. All these interviews are the same, and the interviewers are more cloying than the people being interviewed," says Grehan. "I love being Libby; she's everything I'm not. She gets to say things you'd never say in real life. She's rude."

With the demands of the Web site occupying all her time, Grehan's given up comedy for now, at least on-stage. It's a career change that's paying off. Since going on-line last June, the site has received over half a million hits and happywomanmagazine.com has received almost 30 nods of approval from print and on-line sources that appreciate its wit.

With the trappings of success, though, the Web site at times seems to come a little close to the magazines Grehan is parodying. Ads for self-help books on such socially conscious topics as how to overcome eating disorders now adorn the site, as does, ironically, a seen-on-TV hair-removal product. And the Web site is such a hit that Grehan's even started merchandising T-shirts and mugs with the happy-woman logo.

And just to make the line between reality and fiction a little blurrier, Grehan has come full circle, recently posting a "What your eyebrows say about you" self-assessment on the site -- just like the article that first inspired her to start the Web service. According to the original Glamour quiz, Grehan's brows mean that she's organized -- "a fact that perked me up so much!" she says. Leave it to happywomanmagazine.com, however, to predict that she might have much more going on as well. "You have a secret talent for decoupage," it reads, "and a ham-and-cheese sandwich rotting in your filing cabinet."




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Morning Smile
The Lamaze instructor was teaching the women how to breathe properly, along with informing the men how to give the necessary assurances at this stage of the plan. The teacher then announced, "Ladies, exercise is good for you. Walking is especially beneficial. And, gentlemen, it wouldn't hurt you to take the time to go walking with your partner!" A man raised his hand and asked, "Is it all right if she carries a golf bag while we walk?"
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