Under-boob under wraps: Cosmo in the Middle East

What does Cosmopolitan Middle East do when it can’t publish the word ‘sex’? Editor-in-chief Brooke Sever, a long way from Renmark, dishes the hot goss.

When I tell people I edit Cosmo in the Middle East, their first reaction is one of shock. The idea of a magazine – and a brand – infamous for its sex tips and racy cover lines having a market in a region with a reputation for being so prudish is unfathomable. But it does – so much so that we’re the biggest selling monthly in this part of the world. Admittedly though, Cosmo Middle East looks more than a little different from its international counterparts.

Cosmo Middle East editor Brooke Sever, working hard on the set of the Bachelor of the Year photo shoot. Photo courtesy of ITP Photography.

Cosmo Middle East editor Brooke Sever, working hard on the set of the Bachelor of the Year photo shoot. Photo courtesy of ITP Photography.

We can’t publish the word sex, so we get by on euphemisms and getting creative with language. The insinuation that going back to a guy’s place for coffee doesn’t actually mean you’ll sit down to an espresso works. When we run phrases like “Places He Wants You to Touch”, “Bring Him to His Knees” or “Blow Him Away” on the cover, many people’s minds – mine included – probably go to the dirtiest level of what they mean. The reality is far more innocent though. That place he wants you to touch? It’s an acupressure point on his hand.

Because we can’t rely on the shock value of sex, we’re forced to be more creative – and I think that’s a good thing. We’re not relying on sex to sell magazines, which in these times is a risky and pretty outdated strategy anyway.

That being said, it’s important for us to be a bit cheeky – we wouldn’t be Cosmo if we weren’t. Women here might be living in the Middle East, but they are still thinking about sex, they’re still looking for a man and they’re still dating. We just have to wrap it up and present it in a slightly more conservative fashion.

This conservative fashion also extends to images. We can’t publish images of alcohol, a Christian cross on a necklace, for example, or too much skin. My team and I put what we call our “perve hat” on every time we put together a feature. Does she have underboob showing? Under-bum? Is there too much shadow in her cleavage?

I sometimes feel like I spend half my work day with a red pen in hand, circling body parts that we’ll need to get retouched – a bit of boob flattening here, a lengthening of hemline there… When it comes to images of men, though, it’s a different story. A topless man poses no problem (except during the month of Ramadan, when even male nipples need to be covered – often with a strategically placed towel). In fact, our annual Bachelor of the Year special, featuring dozens of topless expats, is regularly our biggest selling issue of the year.

The most frustrating part of these restrictions is the uncertainty surrounding them. There are very few black-and-white rules for us to follow regarding what’s allowed and what’s not. We could never refer to Cosmo as a reader’s Bible, as it’s often referred to in other countries. Writing about homosexuality is also another definite no. But exactly how far we can go in alluding to a relationship between a man and a woman, who aren’t even legally able to live together unless married or related, is much murkier. As is the mention of alcohol. “Wine” is a no. “Vino” is an acceptable substitute, but “bubbly” is a maybe. And how much cleavage is too much cleavage? Well, that changes month to month.

If we get it wrong, it’s not just about being pulled off shelves or losing our publishing licence – I could end up in prison. The standards of slander and libel here are completely different to Australia’s. If someone feels that they’ve been offended by something in the magazine, they just need to prove in court that they felt offended, and that could result in jail time for me, rather than a publisher being slapped with a fine. Every month when we go to press, I cross my fingers and take a few deep breaths and hope that nothing will go wrong. And so far, so good!

The team at Cosmo Middle East's first Fabulous Female awards. Courtesy of ITP Photography.

The team at Cosmo Middle East’s first Fabulous Female awards. Courtesy of ITP Photography.

As risky as it is, I feel strongly about pushing the boundaries. That doesn’t mean not respecting the local culture and that of the many expats here, but it means being ahead of the wave of change that’s happening. When we launched in 2011, our average reader was about 24. We called her Sarah.

Sarah was a Western expat, probably British or Aussie, living in Dubai. Her disposable income was generally higher than the average Cosmo reader worldwide and her outlook in terms of celebs, fashion and beauty was very Western. But over the past few years that’s changed. Today, our readership is becoming more diverse. Dubai, by far the most cosmopolitan city in the region, and with an expat population of about 85 per cent, is our main market. Those people are from all over the world, so it’s no surprise that our readers today are from places like India, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and the Philippines, rather than just Australia, Britain and the US.

Many of these women have had little to no sex education as part of their schooling, so it’s common for them to write in to our Hot & Healthy section with the types of questions I grew up reading on the pages of Dolly Doctor in Australia. How heavy should my period be? Is this kind of discharge normal?

Perhaps due to cultural traditions, many readers haven’t had exposure to this type of information before. But that’s definitely not to say that they’re uneducated or naive. This new wave of Cosmo readers is hugely career-oriented, very ambitious, and is often leading such a full life that men and sex are almost afterthoughts. They embody the tagline Cosmo is famous for: “The Magazine for Fun, Fearless Females.” Not that we can promote the “fearless” part of that line too much – it falls into one of those all-too-common grey areas of censorship.

Brooke Sever completed a Bachelor of Journalism at the University of South Australia and has written for everything from a logistics and shipping magazine to a celebrity gossip site.