Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, was searching for the best way to draw readers' attention to an article in the November 2011 issue about how women could better organize their closets and bank accounts. "12 ways to get your act together" didn't have much punch. "12 ways to get your stuff together" also fell flat. So she decided to substitute "act" with a word unprintable here and waited for the angry letters to pour in. They never came.
"It appeared I was the last person on planet Earth to care about it," Leive said about the decision to put an expletive on a magazine cover. "It has not been an issue."
The long-running debate in women's magazines - how frank can they be? - seems to have shifted as editors throughout the industry are sprinkling more curse words on their covers and weaving expletives into the headlines and the copy between the photos of celebrities with flawless skin. For the September 2012 issue, Leive kept the title of the YouTube series by Graydon Sheppard and Kyle Humphrey about what "Girls Say" on the cover. The full title begins with a four-letter word; Leive used it, with an asterisk in place of one letter.
In the November 2012 issue there was an article, with a headline that included a vulgar word, about workouts to improve the derriere; Leive kept that word off the cover, however, because she felt it was poor taste to place it next to an interview with President Barack Obama.
"The culture has changed, so we've changed," Leive said. "It's how our main staff, many who are under 30, talk. Certain words have gone from being shocking to being neutered."
Other editors say that so far they have not received the complaints they expected from readers, nor have they seen a drop in sales because of language. They suspect that magazines are catching up with other media where women have been using explicit language for years.
"Television is probably more accurate in reflecting how people are actually speaking right now," said Joanna Coles, the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, who has deliberated when to use vulgar words in her current job and before that as editor-in-chief of Marie Claire.
For many years women's magazines simply did not allow any strong language, said Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Cosmopolitan and US Weekly. Now that Fuller edits the gossip website HollywoodLife.com, she is still pretty conservative. She allows certain words if they appear in a direct quotation and often substitutes an asterisk for a vowel. She said curse words didn't attract younger readers.
"It's irrelevant to them," she said, adding that if the subject of a story does curse, readers "don't want their quotes altered."
Coles said that when she edited her first cover for Marie Claire in August 2006, she included a headline about jeans that flattered a particular body part, using an explicit reference; readers quickly voiced their disapproval.
"A couple of people said to me, 'You can't use the word"' on the cover, Coles said. "'Are you planning to cheapen things up?"'
Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that women cursing had long been considered "dangerous," because these words "express anger and act as a substitute for a physical expression of anger." It's now more acceptable for women to curse, she added, and for men to express emotion, as Obama did when he grew tearful when speaking about the Newtown school shootings.
"Women can say bad words, in movies, cable TV and writing," Lakoff wrote in an email. Men cannot only shed tears, she added "but are celebrated for doing so."
Attention-starved celebrities also seem to be latching on to this trend. Linda Wells, the editor-in-chief of Allure, said that she would not use curse words in an editor's letter or on a magazine cover. But she kept Lady Gaga's salty quotations about her new perfume - more precisely, about how she did not particularly care about perfume - in an interview in the December issue. Wells said in the case of Lady Gaga, "it's part of conveying a personality." She said that replacing expletives with asterisks would have drawn more attention to the language.
"What's funny is she's talking about fragrance and they're usually so reverential," Wells said about celebrities and their perfume lines. "You feel like they're picking flowers in Grasse."
Cosmopolitan, long the saucy cousin in the women's magazine family, has always pushed the boundaries of frankness and good taste. The January issue has an interview with the actor James Van Der Beek from the television sitcom "Don't Trust the B_ in Apartment 23," as well as an article with a vulgarity in a headline and a reference to an explicit tweet about Demi Moore's behind. But Coles said that she felt uncomfortable putting certain words on the cover and noted that cursing could look unattractive for women.
"On paper, swearing takes on a different attitude," Coles said. "It can make you sound very angry when you use it a lot."
Stronger language has become so prevalent that it is even trickling into the merchandise that women's magazines are featuring. Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple, said that she would only include a curse word on the magazine's cover "if someone drugged me and I lost all my faculties." But in Real Simple's November issue, she featured a $24 Pinch Provisions Minimergency Kit makeup bag with an obscene abbreviation on the side. She said she received a couple of letters from readers complaining about it. But she said that she also recognized that swearing was now so prevalent that it was difficult to keep its presence out of a magazine.
"When you've got people like Bloomberg cursing in public and Chris Christie cursing in public, we have changed as a culture," van Ogtrop said.
Women's magazines perhaps haven't pushed the boundaries enough yet to see whether readers will push back. Graydon Sheppard said that for a long time, he did not receive any complaints about the name of his website and Twitter feed. Then when he recently issued the fifth video of the series, a viewer named cindybin2001 shared her impassioned disapproval.
"Oh this makes me furious! it is TERRIBLE you use profanity!" she wrote. "How crude and offensive!" Sheppard apologized, but admits the apology was sarcastic. "Complaining about swear words on the Internet is like complaining about sand in the desert," he said.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service