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February 24, 2003 18:10 IST


The Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Iowa, was bustling with activity. A winter clearance sale, coupled with special weekend offers, guaranteed a huge turnout at stores like Younkers, Target, Sears and JC Penny.

Barnes & Noble, the huge bookstore, tucked quietly in a corner, effused a strange calmness, though.

My first urge was, of course, to follow the crowd and come out of the showrooms a tad poorer; the serenity of the bookstore, however, captivated me.

I stepped in with an eagerness to explore the newsstand, which I presumed would be quite different from the ones I had perused in India. However, I was in for a surprise.

The men's section was loaded with magazines flaunting pictures of barely clad women oozing sex appeal. Dressed in a low-cut, cleavage-showing white blouse, Salma Hayek displaying her 'fire and passion' on the cover of Vanity Fair looked no different from the sultry beauties adorning the newsstands back at home.

Men, it seems, are drawn toward well-endowed semi-nudes no matter what part of the world they belong to.

The magazines here did not in any way defy that stereotype.

While I was flipping pages of one such pictorial representation of feminine oomph, I heard a young mom shout at her six-year-old who was rapidly approaching me. "You come back here, Andy. You are still not old enough for those."

Little Andy gave me a sad glance and turned hurriedly away. The rapid rush of testosterone seemed suddenly vanquished by maternal angst.

Following the curly-haired kid, I found myself confronting the section labelled 'Women's Interest.' Andy's mommy seemed engrossed in a copy of Cosmopolitan. Not surprising, of course, since I would probably have gone through one myself. But here, there was a plethora of similar magazines and most of them had a glaring similarity.

They focused on health which, if it were about cures for arthritis and varicose veins, would make for informative and knowledgeable reading. Sadly enough, they concentrated on tanned bodies and glowing faces that had never known the pain of a growing red pimple.

It is amazing how much time and attention is devoted to helping women tone their bodies to fit the perfect hourglass mould. I could almost feel Women's Health Today screaming out the '299 Weight Loss Tips That Work' to me. Muscle & Fitness and Shape followed the same strategy of putting sexy, flat-tummied women on their covers to attract men and to inspire women.

In a way it felt like women were being forced to ogle at members of their own sex just as much as men did. Why not have bicep-triceps flaunting Schwarzeneggers pile those racks instead? I, for one, would like to see more of those, even if it is just to maintain that gender balance in the newsstand.

The women's section also had a formidable array of bridal magazines. This was a first for me. I had never come across the likes of Modern Bride, Martha Stewart Weddings -- that, by the way, had great pictures of multi-tiered cakes -- and Bride's. From selecting the bridal gown to deciding on the cutlery -- everything a girl could want advice on was stashed away in those 50-odd pages.

They looked good and, perhaps, had some very informative content too, but I was not one to fall for one of those yet, so I moved over to one of the more interesting sections.

Or so I thought.

The 'Current Events' section, I had hoped, would liven things up a bit. But I was disappointed to see the rack holding magazines like WWII History and America Civil War or like Foreign Affairs that were full of nothing else but Iraq. When did the world of current affairs get reduced to one nation in the Middle East? Either I was missing out on something, or there was nothing else happening in the world that people could write about.

The adjacent 'Travel' section looked more promising. And adventurous too! Apart from the usual equestrian interest magazines, it housed editions of Sky &Telescope and UFO – The Science and Phenomena Magazine.

A little girl was going through an edition of Scientific American disinterestedly while her parents were fishing for "something worthwhile" for her brother. They ended up buying Yu gi-oh -- The unofficial collector's mag from the 'Crafts/Hobbies' section.

I asked their dad if this is what kids here liked to read. He gave me a one-word answer: Unfortunately.

I remember poring over The Reader's Digest as a child. It was just such a neatly bundled package of wit, humour, information and personal journals -- something that's so hard to find these days.

I wistfully gave a last mourning glance to all those colourful magazines, none of which could draw me in, when I noticed Richard Gere smiling at me. The binding looked familiar, and the font too... did I just see an R peek out? I bent slowly to move away the copy of Glimmer Train Stories that hid the mysterious smile.

And there I found, tucked quietly away in the back row of the 'Art' section, the very familiar copy of the magazine I grew up on.

With my copy in hand, I blissfully turned toward JC Penny to see if I could lay my hands on that white Salma Hayek top.

Illustration: Lynette Menezes

Mansi Bhatia