Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Rite of Passage: Girls and Teen Magazines

There is a scene in the movie Aquamarine where two teen-age best friends are trying to teach a mermaid how to interact with boys.

“Here is our Bible,” they proclaim, laying a stack of magazines on her lap.

“Yes,” says the other girl, in a hushed reverent tone. “Seventeen magazine.”

The girls explain that this glossy packet of paper will tell the other-worldly creature everything she needs to know about how to dress, how to do her make-up and (most importantly) how to get a boy.

The top teen magazines now are Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, and Teen Vogue. A recent online issue of Seventeen teases with the following provocative topics:

• How Should You Do Your Makeup for School?

• Is Your Summer Love Just a Fling?

• How Should You Update Your Fashion Look for Fall?

• What Will You Be Known for in High School?

I have heard many critics of these magazines, myself included, say that the publications put too much of an emphasis on things like outward appearances and boys. I agree. Yet, a quick scan of women’s magazines yields a very similar result. Perhaps the magazines merely reflect what we worry about or like to read about: decorating, relationships, losing weight, or dressing fashionably.

We can read about serious topics, yes, but when we flip through a magazine we may just want frivolous topics that aren’t too demanding. We want to be inspired. We want ideas. We want to see what how the latest style or haircut could transform us. It is fantasy. Escapism.

More troubling to me about teen magazines is the way the editors choose to insert more grown up topics in amidst girlish concerns. They make it seem like all teens are worrying about sex or how to please their boyfriends. Frankly, a great portion of their readership may not be ready for those topics. I remember the age 16 coming and going without a boyfriend in sight.

Even so, most girls like to read above what would be recommended for their age level. So the readers of Seventeen are probably more like 13. Thirteen year olds do not have the same issues as 17-year-olds, and they may not be ready for those topics. Do the editors know their actual reading audience?

The middle-school years are really caught in the middle. These young women are too old for Disney and American Girl and probably still a bit too young for Teen Vogue and Seventeen. They are getting braces and pimples and just starting to think that boys might not be so dorky.

Last Christmas, I picked up a copy of Seventeen to possibly purchase for my daughter. I am thankful I stopped to read the table of contents. Just between an interview with Miley Cyrus and a quiz on best friends, was a fairly frank article on sex. Parts of the magazine would have been fine for her. Other parts, certainly not.

Are teen magazines harmful or a right of passage for young girls? Both, I’d say. They can introduce topics before girls are ready. They can give a limited point of view.

But they can also help girls wade through the confusing culture of girlfriends and fashion and self awareness. They can help them begin to see themselves as a young woman.

** I must note also that there are alternative choices out there for young girls, but they are harder to find, usually more expensive, and less accessible. Brio, a former favorite, is in transition between publishers.
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