Teens, Body Image and Feminism: Reflections of a Former Women's Magazine Reader

7 years ago
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 08:  Editor in chief of Seventeen magazine Ann Shoket attends the second season premiere of MTV's 'The City' at Hearst Tower on September 8, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

When I was twelve-years-old, I had a subscription to Seventeen magazine. I had Tiger Beat posters of C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon and Rob Lowe all over my bedroom walls. This was back in the day when The Outsiders was the popular movie (and book -- I must have read it five times). It was the time of drop-waisted mini-skirts and Sarah Jessica Parker was just a teeny-bopper on Square Pegs --my then-FAVORITE show!

All I wanted was to be a typical American teenager. But somewhere in the back of my pre-teen brain, I knew there was never a chance for me. I was too fat. I was not pretty enough. I wasn't able to make my hair look right. I would steal my mother's Dexatrim. I stole it from my older sister, too, but all I got for my sticky fingers was a hollow, gnawing pit in my stomach and a dizzy feeling as I walked down the hallway of the middle school.

I wasn't thin enough, and the evidence wasn't just between the covers of the magazine. It was printed on the label on the back of my jeans -- that label that told you the waist size and inseam length right there on the waistband -- behind you, where you couldn't see when people were reading it. But they were ... I knew that they were. My friends' waists were in the 20-24 inch range. I bulged out at 28 inches. I was fat. Seventeen confirmed it.

I would be so excited when my Seventeen magazine would arrive in the mail. Those girls were beautiful. And skinny. I would read each issue cover-to-cover, with the hope that if I just followed the right trends, and bought the right Cover Girl eyeliner, and applied it exactly as instructed, that I might be pretty too.

I wanted to be a model. I wanted people to pay attention to me. All I had to do was to get beautiful. After all, isn't that what Lisa Greene (the most popular girl in my school) had? Boys thought she was cute (we didn't say "hot" then), and girls alternated between hoping to be her friend, and despising her for being the object of the boys' attention.

When I'd get to the back of the issue, there would be those classified ads, which gave me hope that, one day, I too could be beautiful. Enter Barbizon and the John Robert Powers School of Modeling. All I needed was to be discovered, and I could be a model! I fantasized about photo shoots, and getting to wear fashionable, cool outfits, anything other than hand-me-down clothes from my sisters. I imagined what it would be like to have someone behind the camera, snapping shots of me, telling me how gorgeous I was -- so very perfect -- and how easy I made the photographer's job because of it.

So I sent in to Barbizon and JRP, and got "more information" from them. They sent me packets with shiny brochures, showing me how for a few hundred dollars, I could take classes to be a model. I could have them help me to develop a portfolio (more money). Everyone knows that a good portfolio is the key to getting the modeling gigs. I needed a portfolio.

My mother humored me at first, and then flat-out told me that these companies were a scam. That what I looked like didn't matter to them if they thought they could part me from cash while dangling me along with the ever-elusive modeling dream. I didn't believe her -- she just couldn't see my modeling potential. After all, she wasn't a fashion or advertising professional. She was just a mom who read grown-up versions of Seventeen, was forever on a diet, and purchased special concoctions to smear on her face to reduce wrinkles, give a smoother appearance and minimize pores.

She was just doing what her mags said to do, and effectively, I wanted to do the same. Barbizon and JRP were advertising in Seventeen! Every month! I didn't think this shiny book dedicated to Teenage Culture would lead me astray. I trusted them -- they offered a sneak peek into my future as an American Teen. They told me what I should be wearing, thinking, doing.

All hopes for my modeling career were dashed once my scoliosis kicked into overdrive, and my dowager's-hump became noticeable to random passers-by. Surgery awaited me the summer after 8th grade. I would be taller (a must for aspiring models!) but I would still be crooked. And scarred. Not perfect. Not model material. Not me.

I moved after my freshman year in high school. Sophomore year, I was plunged into an entirely new sea of people, against whom I simply did not measure up. The self-criticism continued. Too fat. Not pretty enough. Loser. Comparing myself to images in my mother's magazines. (I was done with Seventeen long before I actually turned that magical age.) I simply didn't cut it.

But I kept trying. Mom's mags were filled with articles about how to look thinner, how to look prettier, how to attract a man or retain the attraction of the man you already have. How to apply make-up, to style hair, to dress, to diet. I -- the American Teenage Fail -- walked around my high school with my stomach perpetually sucked in, my hair shellacked, and my face carefully painted on. But never was I thin enough; never was I pretty enough.

Those days are, thankfully, long behind me. Years of feeling inadequate, of feeling ugly, of hoping that I looked "good enough" to catch a second glance have slipped by and given way to a confidence I never imagined at twelve. I thought when women grew up, they dieted and primped and fretted over what other people thought about how they look. I know now that comfort in one's own skin is far more beautiful than well-placed eyes, high cheekbones and shiny blond hair.

Now, I look at the magazines and I shudder. Who are these women? Even before the days of photoshopping, I didn't always know who was on the cover of Mom's magazines, for the airbrushing seemed to change them just enough to render them unrecognizable. Today? Fuggedaboutit. Today's covers are nothing more than artists' renditions of a celebrity or model. Calling them photos is, at best, misleading.

I don't keep magazines like this in my house as my mother did. I outgrew Cosmo a decade-and-a-half ago. Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and the like, really don't apply to me or my life. Oh, on the surface I suppose they do. But I am sick to death of hearing how my wrinkles age me. How the sprinkle of grey in my otherwise mink shaded locks tack years onto my appearance. How I must spend money to look the way they say a successful woman of my age should look. That, Yes! You CAN have it all!

I have a daughter of my own now. And the messages the media gives her are the same as the ones I got as a kid. Well, the same, times one hundred. Steph and I have talked about Botox and plastic surgery. We've discussed the societal expectations that women be attractive, and men be strong. We've covered the patriarchy and discrimination, and that being yourself is the most important thing to focus on -- much more important than hearing that you are "pretty." These are conversations that never occurred between me and my own mother. I know that as her mom, I've really only got a couple of more years before she decides that I know nothing, and that I have no clue what pressures, issues and challenges she faces each day.

As I mentioned recently, she and I do talk about the media, and healthy choices, and appreciating oneself (and others) for what one does rather than how one looks. But, the time will come when peers will influence her choices much more than I can. And when it does, I will direct her to bloggers like Jamie Keils, Danielle Burch, Julie Zeilinger, and Nikki Allair. They are blazing a different trail than that which is illustrated in the lady mags of today. Jamie Keils' The Seventeen Project chronicles her attempt to Seventeen-ify herself, following the tips and trends illustrated in an issue of Seventeen magazine. Her take on teen-oriented media is quite different from what Madison Avenue would have you believe about the demographic. As her project drew to a close, I was feeling sad that I wouldn't get to read her writing for much longer. Fortunately, there's now Teenagerie, Jamie's new blog. She outlines her goals for Teenagerie in her opening post:

This blog, which will update on weekdays, will offer analysis of advertisements, film, and other media -- past and present -- along with essays on important topics surrounding "the teenage condition," which often has far more in common with the human condition than we are led to believe. My hopes for this blog are that it will be productive in promoting discussions surrounding the important questions about adolescence, which range from What are today's teens really like? to How accurate is the media in portraying these representations? Through promoting critical analysis, I hope this blog can serve as a place for celebrating teens and humanity in general, as well as for breaking down the generational barriers that keep us apart.

Also new to the teen feminist scene is Danielle Burch, author of Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist. She kicked off her blog with the statement, "I'm a feminist. Man, that feels good." Danielle's post was picked up by The F-Bomb, a collective blog for teen feminists, established by Julie Zeilinger, who tells us that she is "one of the proudest teenage feminists of all." Nikki Allair, 22, writes The Ankh Feminist. She grapples with similar issues as some of us older feminists.

If I'm ever going to get married, it's going to be a partnership, something where me and my significant other are balanced (ideal, right?). But through all of the trial and error relationships I'm going to have to go through in order to find that "one" ... makes it seem like the "til death do us part" commitment is but a foggy mirage in the very, very distant future.

All of the bureaucracy that comes with marriage really turns me off to it. Granted I know there are benefits and I know that according to some people it is a privilege to be married (I voted no on Prop 8 and went to the rallies, trust me). Maybe I’m thinking too much about, but it is something that will be asked of me in the future I’m sure (“Why aren’t you married yet?”), but again considering the nation we live in and how marriage is a “sacred union” it’s not uncommon that someone my age is debating over the whole issue now. I have several friends who have been or are getting married so to tell me that I’m too young to even contemplate the concept isn’t going to make the reminders go away.

I take heart realizing that there are some really savvy teens and twenty-somethings out there sharing their perspectives with the blogosphere at large. These young women are so well-spoken, so on-point. I may not be part of their demographic, but I'm filling my blogreader with RSS feeds of these and other amazing young feminist writers.

I grew up in a different world. When I read Seventeen, I wanted to be one of the girls in the magazine. It didn't occur to me then that I was being pointedly groomed in a specific way that is detrimental to a positive self-image. That I was being cultivated to be a consumer, and to feel inadequate in my own skin, so that I would consume more. These writers are helping me to frame my conversations with my daughter. And I hope that one day, these young women, and others like them, help her to frame her feminist views with more clarity than I ever had as a teen.

Margaret Maurhoff Barney is a writer who lives in New Hampshire with her family. She can be found blogging over at Just Margaret.

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