Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hidden Toxins: Dissection of Teen Magazines

As a teenager, and even into my college years, I loved reading magazines. I read J14, YM, Cosmo, Teen Vogue, and of course the big one: Seventeen. Being completely uninterested in fashion and conventional beauty ideals, I typically skipped over the first half of the magazine and only read the health articles, relationship advice, real life stories, sometimes the embarrassing moments, and the horoscopes.

When I was 18 I began reading Cosmopolitan. A year later, I realized how toxic it was and put it down.

Over the recent years, I've realized the hidden dangers of these magazines, especially the ones aimed at adolescent girls. We can point out the skinny models all we want, that's not news. What people don't usually pick up on is the amount of articles on how to look good versus empowering articles on how to be confident, smart, and awesome. People fail to notice that the relationship advice subtly convinces girls that getting a guy means taking on a false self, and that once she has a boyfriend it's better to please him and try to resolve conflicts than to walk away when a relationship doesn't make her happy and hold out for someone who will love her for who she is, not who she is expected to be.

To go into greater detail, here is a breakdown of the messages in a popular teen girl magazine:

Before she sees even a table of contents, she is bombarded with in-your face advertisements for clothing and makeup. There is also a letters to the editor, which used to feature dissent from women unhappy with certain articles, often politically or morally motivated, and that was wonderful because it indirectly encouraged girls to have opinions and think critically about what was presented to them - now, however, all the published responses are those that praise the magazine for articles in past issues.

The first section of the magazine commands the reader to go out and buy new stuff, update her wardrobe, and keep up with the latest trends. Labels are often heavily used to describe different looks (girly, classic, preppy, glam, grunge, sporty, rocker, etc.). From this section, girls may learn to subscribe to a certain label, or to dress to fit whatever style of clothing is in season rather than dress according to her own unique tastes. They also learn that they need to keep buying new clothes, accessories, shoes, etc., and that those are what they should be spending their money on.

This section focuses on makeup, skin, and hair (both how to style it and keep it healthy). Headlines do not begin with "how to" or "ways to" but instead read like commands: "GET CLEAR SKIN NOW," "TAME YOUR HAIR," "LOOK CUTE ALL DAY." As with the fashion section, girls learn that they must keep spending money on cosmetics and hair accesories and products. From the bulk of these sections, which take up almost half the magazine and usually dominate the front page, girls learn that their appearance is extremely important and should take priority in their lives. There's usually an article every year on what makeup to wear to the beach or pool, as if women are merely supposed to appear at those places and look cute rather than actually go swimming.

This section does offer useful articles, such as those on sexual health and how to be safe on the beach. There's often even an article on loving your body. However, before any of that there's a section on how to eat (specifically, what foods to avoid because they'll make you fat), and a two-page pullout on fitness that boasts yet another commanding headline like "TONE UP YOUR THIGHS" or "GET A BIKINI BODY." While it's important to encourage healthy habits, these articles focus on how fitness and eating makes girls look rather than how such habits can make one feel. This introduces the mixed messages of the magazine: work out with the goal of slimming down and toning up and never eat fattening foods (boasted in big letters over multiple pages, reinforced with images of skinny girls throughout the magazine), BUT don't obsess over your weight (something whispered on one page, if at all).

This section may cover all aspects of dating: from trying to get a guy's attention, to how to behave in a relationship, and finally how to get over a breakup. Sometimes there are empowering messages, but most of it is how to please a man. Articles list his turn-ons, what he expects in a relationship, what makes him cheat, and how to avoid a breakup. The message here is that dating rituals and relationships should be done on a guy's terms. Wear what he likes to see on you; act the way he wants you to act; don't say "I love you" first or press for a commitment, let him do that when he's ready; plan dates that he'll like; he only cheats if you're not good enough for him; and finally, getting dumped is a mark of failure, it means you didn't try hard enough. Women are under constant pressure to maintain good relationships with those around them, and in relationships with men, they're often expected to be self-sacrificing caretakers in charge of making the relationship run smoothly.

I always liked this section. Honestly, I don't have many complaints - it brings important issues to girls' attention and educates them about real-world problems they may face. My only issue with this section is when the story is about any kind of sexual issue (rape, sexting, etc.), there's always at least an undertone of victim blaming. Any time women are instructed to refrain from certain activities or take precautions to protect themselves, there's the unwritten reverse notion that if something bad does happen to you, it's because you put yourself in a bad situation where that could happen and therefore shoulder part of the blame.

There are smaller articles as well, that help girls with college, finding jobs, and navigating tough friend situations. The college advice is usually fine, though it does have an awful lot of focus on how to dress and date while in college. Aside from articles about possible summer jobs, the ones about internships and careers typically feature feminine career paths: designing clothes, planning weddings, or working in mainstream entertainment. Rarely does this section try to inspire girls to consider careers in math, science, politics, law, or finance. Articles on how to handle situations with other girls reinforce the deeply entrenched notion that girls should be nice to everyone and do whatever they can to avoid conflict.

This isn't inherently a bad section, I used to read it with great amusement, and there's nothing wrong with being embarrassed by some of the material. However, a lot of these stories have to do with farting, or in some way revealing the fact that you're on your period. The message: passing gas is shameful, and having your period is something gross that should be hidden from view.

These messages are dangerous because the messages girls receive in childhood and adolescence often stick with them for the rest of their lives. The earlier and more often a message is hammered in, the harder it will be to reverse later in life. You cannot expect women to live by one set of societal rules and then automatically become strong, autonomous adults the second they turn 18. In fact, many girls who read magazines like the one dissected above usually go on to read adult versions, which are typically just as bad if not worse.


A quick fix could be to simply ban certain magazines, or regulate their material. I don't believe in censorship. Allow the magazines to exist, but try to drown them out with magazines containing more empowering material. If female empowerment and media literacy become more common among young women, they may be less likely inclined to buy magazines that put a huge amount of focus on appearance and relationships. Such magazines will have to either become more empowering to keep up with the trend, or fade into non-existence.

How do we do this? As of right now, there really aren't any empowering magazines for young women. The only publication that comes close is Bitch, which is not mainstream enough to be sold in drugstores, and is never displayed in the women's section of a newsstand - it's usually found in the special interest section next to the gay/lesbian magazines (I should know, I used to practically manage a bookstore newsstand single-handedly).

Adolescent girls need a magazine that encourages them to dress to express rather than impress. That they only need to be neat and clean, and that wearing makeup and perfectly styled hair need not always be part of that expectation. They need magazines that empower them to take care of their own needs in relationships, it's okay to be assertive (both with friends and boyfriends) and that it's okay to walk away from a relationship if they're not happy. They need to be told to love their bodies first, and only occasionally be reminded that eating fruit and taking a walk once in a while never hurt anyone.

Once such a magazine exists, parents and guardians should buy it for their daughters and encourage them to read it. Until then, parents should introduce other sources of positive influence to their daughters, and express concerns when they are viewing or reading negative influences. They shouldn't be simplistic or preachy - merely saying "this song is bad because it's about sex, and sex is bad!" they could say "this song is degrading because it defines a woman's worth based on her willingness to be sexual."

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