Friday, May 10, 2002

Seventeen grows up: It's not your mother's teen magazine

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BY NELL MINOW



May 10, 2002



Seventeen magazine's May issue has the perennial pieces about skin breakouts, dating and the latest celebrity "it boy." It also has an article called "How to Tell Your Mom You've Had Sex." Another article has a survey showing that only a third of its readers would tell their mothers they had become sexually active. There are several fashion spreads, including short shorts ("sportier than a mini but just as sexy") and motorcycle helmets ("sexy cyclists"). And the "it boy" explains that he is so comfortable with his sexuality that he had no problem playing a gay man.



This is not your mother's Seventeen.



Like Cosmo Girl, Twist, Teen and other magazines aimed at teenage girls, Seventeen strikes an uneasy balance between being empowering and being trashy. This is the result of another uneasy balance between their two constituencies, readers and advertisers. Girls want to attract boys. Advertisers want to avoid controversy.



Aimed at solving problems



The magazines are filled with tips on dating, fashion, makeup, managing stress, decorating and hair. After all, those of us with two X chromosomes love tips. Women secretly believe that all problems can be solved, usually with the female equivalent of duct tape: twist-ties, scrunchies, nail polish remover and cucumber slices. We love tips that make us feel like we are improving anything.



The magazines have tips on more than good grooming and accessorizing. Cosmo Girl's internship survival guide has first-class information and lots of good advice about finding a job, acing the interview and demonstrating professionalism and commitment in the office.



But there is something of a tip vacuum when it comes to sex. That leaves today's girls with magazines that encourage them to look sexy but do not give them much support for thinking about sexual choices. It's a dangerous combination. The current cover of Cosmo Girl is a good example of the mixed message it conveys. Movie star Tara Reid wears a tight T-shirt that reads, "Be SEXY -- it doesn't mean you have to have sex."



Creating a moral vacuum



I seem to remember from my days as a subscriber to Seventeen an article or two about how to respond to lines boys used when they were trying to persuade girls to have sex ("If he tells you he loves you, tell him that means he will respect your decision to wait!"). The underlying assumption that nice girls never, in the parlance of that era, "went all the way" may have made some girls who were sexually active feel isolated and ashamed, but it may have made others feel safer and more confident. Today's magazines abdicate anything other than a vague "you have a right to do what is right for you" policy, creating a moral vacuum. This is especially distressing when you consider that the target audience reaches girls as young as 12 and Seventeen magazine alone reaches 87 percent of all girls age 12-19 each year.



Debra Haffner, author of Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teenagers, is concerned that the magazines "too often promote the idea that it is in male approval that girls can find themselves." She says, "The magazines skew down several years," and are aimed at young teens who are looking forward to being 17. Cosmo Girl says its target audience age is 12-18, but that "the magazine is edited for a 16-year-old girl going on 25."



Older teens are reading magazines like Jane, directed at 18-34-year-olds (sample articles: "I'm sleeping with my best friend's dad"; "9 ways boozing it up makes you beautiful"; sample advice: it's worth it to "lie, cheat or slut it up" to get to eat top quality caviar).



In our media-saturated culture, girls are more than ever in need of accurate information and support in making decisions about sex. This is just the age when they don't want to discuss it with their parents or even their friends. So, they look to magazines.



Parents should make sure they know what messages their daughters are getting from these magazines and keep in mind, as an editor at Cosmo Girl told me, "A recent study shows that over 50 percent of teenagers say that they get their most reliable sex information from their parents.



Some parents think their teenager isn't listening when they're talking about difficult stuff. But the study I just mentioned and the letters Cosmo Girl gets from teenagers saying that they want to have more open dialogue with their parents prove that she is listening, and she wants to know that her parents care about these important decisions in her life."



What are the alternatives?



Parents of younger teens might also want to look into some alternatives like these:



Teen Ink is written and edited by teens, with fiction, interviews, helpful information about college searches and thoughtful opinion pieces. www.teenink.com



New Moon is geared toward 8-14-year-olds and covers "fun stuff for the thinking girl." It sponsors an annual Turn Beauty Inside Out Day (coming up on May 15) to promote good works, great hearts and activism. www.newmoon.org. Daughters, New Moon's newsletter for parents, has some great ideas about providing support, setting limits and improving communication.



Dream/Girl is an arts magazine for 8-14-year-olds aimed at encouraging girls to express themselves creatively. It has no advertising. www.dgarts.com.



Brio is a magazine for Christian girls published by Focus on the Family to "foster a healthy self-concept and closer relationship with Jesus Christ." www.briomag.com.

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