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Subscribing to Success: why I no longer read teen magazines

When my newest issue of Seventeen magazine arrived in the mail accompanied by an expiration notice, I have to say: I was more relieved than disappointed. To me, nothing represents the failings of American culture – particularly those surrounding women – more than teen magazines.

Like many girls my age, I have always been a reader of magazines. It all began with a subscription to American Girl when I was in elementary school; as I aged, I graduated to more “mature" publications, starting with Girls’ Life and ending with my most recent subscription to Glamour – a lifestyle magazine aimed at women rather than girls. Lately, I’ve found that despite the inapplicable career and sex advice, I’d rather buy my issues from the adult section than the teen section.

It seems ironic that even though I’m not yet seventeen years old, the pages of Seventeen interest me less than the pages of Marie Claire or Vogue, but the older I get, the less I can stomach the maximal teen slang with minimal letters (“insta” for Instagram; “adorbs” for adorable) and the inescapable presence of social media (think “Selfie-Worthy Make-up Looks” and hashtags fixed to every other article). My most recent (and final) issue of Seventeen even included a four-page spread composed entirely of generically hot guys with puppies. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting real tired of the idea that all a teenage girl wants in a boyfriend is a brooding expression and perfectly-coiffed hair. I preferred the dogs, although if I had wanted to spend my time cooing over Fido, I probably would have subscribed to Dog Fancy instead.

But maybe I’m overreacting – maybe it’s just my literary heart looking for an excuse to complain about these magazines’ poor diction and overuse of imperative sentences, rather than legitimate social commentary. On the other hand, I’m not the first person to waggle my finger at the magazine industry – there are entire organizations, such as the Massachusetts Media Literacy Consortium and Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, devoted to lobbying print media to send more positive messages to girls my age, and for good reason, too: magazines are major contributors to some of the most prevalent issues facing young women today, such as eating and body image-related disorders and poor self-esteem.

However, my qualms with these so-called teen magazines have less to do with Photoshop and more to do with word count. Some of these publications have over 100 pages, yet whenever I sit down to read one, I always find myself flipping pages faster than a professional chef would flip pancakes. To me, the joy of reading magazines is the same joy that can be found in sitting down to read a guilty-pleasure novel cover-to-cover. Even though I may have slid past its target age range, I have to give it up for Girls’ Life, because its content never failed me - there was always something to read! Although the usual topics ranged from puberty and health to ways to deal with mean girls and tough teachers, the cover stories were always fascinating and controversial, ranging from eating disorders, to drug addiction, to sexual harassment in schools. That isn’t to say I haven’t stumbled across the occasional “hot” story about e-cigarettes or a college rape case in Seventeen or Teen Vogue, too, but I can testify without a doubt that the ratio of words-to-pictures is a lot smaller there than it ever was in Girls’ Life.

As a teenage girl, I’m not sure which assumption I find more insulting: the suggestion that teenage girls would rather look at pictures of clothes than read about them, or that we would rather read about clothes, hair, and makeup than about pressing social issues. Either way, both assumptions are false. The only girls I know who don’t read are the ones who are too busy changing the world – attending student council meetings, applying for scholarships, volunteering in their communities, etc. They would never squander valuable time fretting about their eyeliner or serial-dating boys who dress better than them. Not to mention, I’ve been in class with those same girls for years, and most of them can hold their own in an intellectual conversation about politics, literature, you name it better than half of these magazine editors probably can. Many of us are actually interested in prevalent social issues – just try bringing up the riots in Ferguson or the Occupy Boston movement and watch the thermometer climb – just as much as we are in the newest boy bands and designers.

Magazines for fully-grown women realize that females’ interests are deep and complex, and their content reflects that (for example, the women’s magazine Elle recently published their “Feminist” issue, while Glamour writes about their annual Women of the Year awards at great lengths). For whatever reason, writers of teen magazines are unable to grasp this.

Maybe it’s because – or so they might argue – teenage girls aren’t “women” yet. Why do adults assume that teenagers are fundamentally immature just because we aren’t legal adults? We are constantly undergoing a painful process of maturation. We are just starting to develop our own values and opinions, a process that teen magazines could facilitate immensely by covering serious news stories in a voice that we can relate to. Instead, teen magazines belittle us by using unrealistic language and covering only a narrow range of topics, turning us into something we are not.

Perhaps the biggest source of the problem is that the writers of most teen magazines are fully-grown adults, who haven’t actually been teenagers for some time now. It’s the same reason I find the teenagers on shows like Glee and Teen Wolf so difficult to relate to: most teens don’t even have chest hair yet, let alone crows’ feet!

The version of the teenage girl these writers have created is simply not me. Believe it or not, real girls don’t say things like “insta” or “adorbs” when they’re walking through the halls at school, and most of us would rather do it for the A+ than do it for the Vine. I imagine the types of adults who write teen magazines are the ones who are always trying to be “hip” and “in the times,” perhaps because they never truly came to terms with leaving their own high school days behind.  They are “Super-Teenagers”, and that’s okay – it just takes them a couple extra years to graduate to adulthood is all. Self-discovery is a highly-individual process that can’t be stuffed into an hourglass. The mistake is only made when these adults assume they know these teenagers better than real teenagers do.

That is the mistake I see in teen magazines today: because adults see our generation as superficial, vapid shells simultaneously glued to our cell phones and our boyfriends’ hips, magazines are now perpetrating this image of what a teenage girl not only is, but should be. It is a dangerous mistake. Whether we realize it or not (or whether we admit it or not), all teenagers – all humans, for that matter – are influenced by the media. Magazines are thought of as the vanguard of pop culture, meaning that we are likely to take their word as gospel in order to become the uber-happy, uber-popular humans society demands of us. Social media like Facebook and Instagram only heightens the need to build the perfect life.

The media has taken it upon itself to dictate what is “perfect,” and what is not – and because our brains are still developing, we teenagers are some of the most impressionable. Thus, the writers of magazines like Seventeen wield an enormous amount of power over us, power even they don’t seem to recognize.

The power of the media is unique; it is a rare and special power that puts writers and publishers in an incredible position of influence over society – but they are (unintentionally, I hope) using it for all the wrong reasons. Like any power, the media can be used for good or evil. The more the media continues to portray teenage girls as empty-headed, heavily made-up boy-band worshippers, the faster our generation will decline to meet those low standards. Alternatively, the more they provide us with information about college and career advancement, successful role models, and current events, the quicker we will grow into successful, well-versed adults.

Adults love to complain that our generation is obsessed with our smartphones, that we care more about our dates than our grades, that we are an insult to everything their generation once worked so hard for – yet here I am, a sixteen year old girl, imploring a bunch of adults to stop perpetuating the idea that I am vain, lazy, and illiterate. Because I’m not: I speak in full, complete sentences, not pathetic abbreviations, and although I may like shopping for dresses, wearing make-up, and painting my nails, that does not mean I cannot go head-to-head in a debate about women’s rights or the current political administration.

Being a teenage girl is hard. We are no longer children, yet grown-ups hesitate to accept us for what we are: independent-minded, critical-thinking young adults. Added pressure from the media to look a certain way, act a certain way, even speak a certain way, doesn’t help. So, my parting message to Seventeen magazine is this: if you want us to change, you go first. Until you do, I’m not subscribing.


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