My Trip Through Seventeen

-By Paul Robertson
©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

As the father of four boys, reading teen girl magazines was never really high on my list of priorities. But as a student of contemporary youth culture, I must. I was recently sitting in a restaurant scrutinizing the May 2002 edition of Seventeen when my curious waitress stopped and asked if I was in advertising. I told her I wasn’t but that I studied youth culture and this was part of my research. She said “they” (probably the entire restaurant staff) just found it strange to see an “older” man reading Seventeen. For the sake of my reputation, I hope she believed me!

I’ve spent numerous hours sifting through that issue of Seventeen, leaving no ad or article unexamined. What I found convinced me that all of us older folk should make it a habit to find out what our kids are reading and then read it ourselves.

In a general sense, what I found was eye – opening. Given the fact that most articles only consist of one page followed by another page or two of advertising, these “bites” of print information seem so disconnected and random. However, I realize that this is the exact format young people like. After all, this is the generation where waiting 10 seconds for a page to download on the Internet is too long. Even the 6 page lead article (“Stars and Their Moms”) can be reduced to less than one page of copy when all the photos are removed.

Further analysis of the total content reveals there are 102 full – page ads. The majority of ads sell cosmetics (Clean & Clear, Maybelline, Redken, etc.) and clothing (Ralph Lauren, Nike, JC Penney, Sears, etc.). Ad space is also given to videos, shoes, hairdryers, etc.  If you add to this all of the “articles” which include or feature product names, prices, and store locations – ads in disguise! – you need to add another 46 pages. It quickly becomes obvious that every page includes some product or some idea to sell to our kids. Even a cursory look at the table of contents reveals the essence of the magazine: 10 articles on beauty, 9 on fashion, 9 focusing on the latest world of pop icons, 6 on real life, and 3 on boys.

Let me share some of my more specific observations as an “older” man and how I think our young girls are impacted by what they see.

First, it is hard to escape the obvious marketing component – even on pages that don’t appear to be ads. As is common in this form of print media, it is hard to tell where the advertising ends and articles begin. One piece entitled “17 Hottest” features seventeen terry cloth clothes items a girl needs for the summer. All include a price and website or store location for purchase. A few pages later, a similar looking “advertisement” called “Major Must – Haves” outlines twelve things you need for the month of May.  Practically every product mentioned included a price, website, or toll free number. To distinguish it from an article it was marked with the tiny word “advertisement” in the top right corner. The line between “selling” and “telling” is radically blurred. In fact, as I read through the magazine for the first time, I had to check the table of contents to differentiate between articles and ads. Nearly every page trumpets an agenda for life, most of which are guaranteed to make readers better looking and their lives more pleasurable. Crest Whitestrips promises to make your prom a real success if you make whitening you teeth part of your personal prom preparation. Secret Sheer Dry under – arm deodorant assures you that you won’t be embarrassed as “the only thing that shines through is you” because it is “strong enough for a man.  Made for you.” Starburst candy – showing two teens kissing – will make your “life juicy”. The new Corolla 2003 “just wants to have fun”. Don’t we all? Every page conveys the message that you will never arrive and you will never have enough beauty products, hair conditioners, running shoes or clothes to be all that you can be.  We should remember that advertisers are in the business of telling us that we are disappointing and inadequate. Unless they can make you disenchanted with what you have, they can never convince you to buy their product.

Second, the magazine portrays an unhealthy body image for our girls. Thin is still in.

It really doesn’t seem to matter what the product is as long as the model is thin. Volatile shoe wear features three models with nice sandals and very long legs. The picture is shot from a lower angle to enhance their slenderness. Gadzooks features three beautiful waifs in bikinis. Acuvue contact lenses features the picture of a girl attached to a bungee – cord coming down toward you. The ad copy talks about “taking the plunge” into contact lenses. The camera angle practically makes the girl’s body disappear behind her head and beautiful eyes. This is exactly what most girls wish would happen with their bodies.  Steve Madden shoes uses trick photography to make the models head much larger than everything else in the picture while emphasizing long slim legs and rounded cleavage.  Marketers in many ways have deepened the shame girls feel about bodies that don’t measure up to corporately – set cultural standards.

About three years ago, one of the editors of Seventeen appeared on CNN’s Sunday Morning to talk about their latest issue, which featured “plus size” models in a prom dress special. The editor went to great length to talk about taking more responsibility for the body images they portrayed and that Seventeen was for all girls. In fact, Seventeen was going to use plus size models regularly in upcoming issues. I tracked Seventeen for several months following that announcement and nothing changed. I didn’t find any plus size models in this issue. Thin is still in and our girls are still buying the message.

I recently surveyed some teen girls on a flight to the east coast. Noticing all seven were reading teen magazines, I wrote this question on a notepad and asked them to comment:  “Do you believe that teen girls are influenced by magazines such as Seventeen, YM, Teen Vogue, etc.?” All seven girls said “yes” and then offered written explanations of how they felt girls were influenced. One girl, age 15, wrote, “I think all girls are influenced by magazines.  All girls want to be pretty, skinny and in style.  I think some magazines will soon make teen girls have eating disorders.” Another girl added, “Teen girls are influenced by teen magazines to buy beauty products and to try to achieve the ‘perfect’ image.”

Pediatrics reported in 1999 that about seven in ten girls say magazines influence their ideas about the perfect body shape, and nearly half reported wanting to lose weight because of a magazine picture. However, only about 29% of the girls interviewed were actually overweight. The survey also showed that the more frequently girls read magazines, the more likely they are to say they had dieted and exercised because of a magazine article (USA Today, 3/2/99). This in part explains the cause of so many eating disorders in young girls.

An 18 – year – old female friend of the family told me, “I think that girls are disappointed in everything they see that they don’t have. This could be the chest, stomach, long legs, long hair, and arms… ANYTHING! This could definitely lead to depression, especially if the girl is already disappointed in herself, or feels like she doesn’t love herself (insecurities). Magazines have a large effect because girls feel as though they should be the ‘norm’, which is, what is perceived through teenage magazines.”

Third, in all of the articles that featured mothers and daughters, it is very hard to tell who is who. The front cover featured TV’s Gilmore Girls mom, Lauren Graham, and daughter Alexis Bledel. The article shows several pictures of the “TV” twosome and it is practically impossible to tell them apart. The same is true for the majority of couples in “Stars and Their Moms.” Celebs Beyonce Knowles, Elizabeth Jagger, Jessica Capshaw, and Angelina Jolie look more like sisters than daughters. We live in a culture where those who are getting older will do almost anything to look younger. Aging has become a sin. Seventeen sends that message out loud and clear to our girls.

Fourth, celebrity icons set the standard for beauty and popularity. The “All Access” articles give “access” to the celebrities and their lifestyles. James Marsters stars on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Spike. James talks about real love, his first kiss, and the fact that at 17 he was a complete social outcast. He’s now a very wealthy heartthrob to thousands of young girls who idolize him. The boys from the music group Midtown let us know that eating red meat is tantamount to murder and that these vegans really do rock. R&B singer Mary J. Blige talks about her love for losers during her high school years and how she now wishes she had finished high school. Gilmore Girls stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel talk about “normal” on – screen relationships while plugging their latest attire for girls.

A regular feature on beauty called “The Buzz” includes several small articles about cosmetics and celebs. Average teenage reader “Maria” is pictured alongside movie producer Sophia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola). This is the person Maria should emulate because they look alike. The copy goes on to say “Maria’s full lips look great with sheer red gloss (it’s the kind Sophia wears)¼”

You can also have the same beautiful eyes as Tamara Mello from Popular or the Doritos commercial girl, Ali Landry, by wearing Freshlook colored contact lenses ($72 for six pairs). The ad for Paul Mitchell hair products titled “Be A Star” offers the chance to win a trip to a Paul Mitchell photo shoot and an appearance in Seventeen magazine – just like your favorite superstar.

The power media has to dictate values and standards continues to grow. Our kids spend hundreds of hours every year with their media heroes and spend billions of dollars trying to look like them. Young girls are influenced by unattainable, airbrushed standards of beauty that even the cover girls themselves never achieve. Failure to arrive has driven more and more girls to eating disorders and depression, and other risky behaviors

Fifth, the self – described “The All – American Magazine” continues to promote materialism.  In and of itself, prosperity is neither good nor bad. However, we have elevated the accumulation of material things to new heights. This issue of Seventeen alone featured nearly 300 different products that teens can buy. The magazine included at least eight giveaways/sweepstake contests that not only pushed more products, but also added thousands of young girls’ names to corporate mailing lists. If material things really made our kids happy, they would be the most fulfilled of all generations. Marc Gobe, author of Emotional Branding, states that by 2025 our teenagers will be spending $180 billion annually.  Chances are they won’t be any happier.  Kids are really longing for relationships, not Revlon.

In many ways we have replaced much needed relationships with products that take on human qualities to make us feel fulfilled. “Trust Your Hair Color To An Expert” claims Garnier,  “Get Inspired” encourages Redken.  L’Oreal “Because You’re Worth It” determines your value as a person. Having trouble making friends?  Let St. Ives skin cleaners, Apricot Scrub and Apricot Cleanser, show you how – “Longtime Friend Pairs Up With Radiant New Companion”.

Finally, it is interesting to note what the magazine leaves out. Seventeen and other similar magazines, quickly reduce our girls to the sum total of what they wear, how they smell, and what makeup they use. Little or no time is spent talking about the gifts and abilities of our girls. No talk about how they are capable of being scientists, doctors, and teachers. No talk about musical abilities, volunteerism, and athleticism. No talk about character and citizenship. No talk about the things that really make us who we are or about our potential for greatness. To be honest it’s all so shallow. This generation of adult entrepreneurs is short – changing a generation of youth as they encourage them to embrace what Dr. Mary Pipher calls “the junk values of mass culture”.

As parents and adults, it can be difficult for us to understand how something as superficial as a magazine can be such a draw for our kids. But the messages and themes are having a significant impact on our girls. CPYU offers these practical suggestions on countering the manipulative effects of magazines.

First, if your daughter is reading magazines, seize the teachable moment. Take the time to do your own analysis and then ask your daughter to help you better understand what she enjoys most about the magazine. Go through it together examining the ads, editorials, and articles. Look for and discuss the real messages behind words and images. Your efforts will lead to some wonderful discussions on self – worth, peer pressure, and materialism. She might be looking to these magazines for answers and directions that should be coming from Dad and mom – not a media mentor.

Second, in a pop culture preoccupied with beauty, wise parents will continue to encourage and love their children for who they are.  Fathers are encouraged to spend time with their daughters and show their love for them.  Girls generally want to know that they are loved and admired for who they are in spite of what the culture has to tell them.  Remember, they need to know that they are created with value and worth by a God who has made them in His image. Security begins in the home.

Third, let’s remember that our kids want our time more than our money. Too many busy parents are replacing the time their children need with products and “things” that can never really make them happy. If that’s the case, we’ve all bought the lie. In a culture that teaches our children that you are nothing more than what you consume, we must take the time – and lots of it – to be with our kids.

Fourth, we need keep our eyes on pop culture. I’ve focused solely on magazines. But what about the thousands of hours our kids spend with television, movies and music where the images are combined with sound for even more powerful messages? We need to be aware that our children are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of advertisements and media messages every year. We must talk with our children about their media and how they might be influenced by it.

Fifth, we need to model a life of contentment to our children. Our children should be able to see us as people who have learned to be content with what we look like and what we have. If they see us as parents who are always striving to always have more or to always look younger, we shouldn’t be surprised if they follow our lead. We need to teach our kids a proper Biblical perspective on material possessions, money, stewardship, and generosity.

Next time you walk by the magazine rack at the corner store, remember that those teen magazines are much more than just paper and ink. They are a powerful communicator of pop culture values for an emerging generation that’s all eyes and all ears.


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.