Teen Magazines’ New Attitude Takes On Alcohol, Sex and More
One Girl’s Battle With Booze. Save The Earth, Girl. Black Kids Who Are Fed Up. Menstrual Customs: A World Tour. Guns Put Fear In Teens’ Hearts.
These are not the teen magazine articles your mother used to read. Even compared to just 10 years ago, periodicals for teen-age girls have grown up.
“Girls still want to know about makeup, but they also want to know about sex, and they probably aren’t going to go to their mothers,” says Debbie Then, a social psychologist with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. “Teen-age girls are expected to deal with more things today than they were even 10 years ago.
“The family is changing, there are a lot more children of divorce, working mothers. Everything in society has changed. Life has changed for their audience, so the magazines have to change with them.”
To some extent, teen magazines always have moved with the times.
The first issue of Seventeen in September, 1944, offered 12 articles about fashion and beauty and feature stories, including “What Are You Doing About the War?” came under the index heading “Your Mind (We Hope!).”
But, by 1953, “Your Mind (We Hope!)” had become “Your Mind” and by 1958 the heading had fallen away completely.
Those magazines have about as much in common with today’s glossies as the Andrews Sisters do with Madonna. Although the four leading teen magazines for girls--Seventeen, YM (for Young & Modern), ‘Teen and Sassy--share some of the same basic topics as their predecessors, they write about them differently.
“From the ‘80s to the ‘90s, I have seen a dramatic change,” says Midge Richardson, editor of Seventeen for 18 years. “You have now a young woman who really has a lot more choices. Her career choices have opened up. Sports are things that she never used to participate in in the way she does now, and she has a sense of wanting to know about what she’s putting in her body and on her body.”
One way to reach ‘90s teen-agers is to speak frankly. Publications are more explicit than a decade ago and regularly feature stories about sex.
“Because of AIDS, I think sex education is crucial at this point,” says Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of Sassy.
YM featured a special 1993 “Love Issue,” that promised “100 pages on love, sex & you.” The cover of ‘Teen’s May, 1993 issue reads, “No More Secrets: Shocking Stories of Sexual Abuse.” And the February, 1993, issue of Seventeen asks, “Sex: how much don’t you know?”
“I think some of the headlines are a little bit sensational, but within the actual articles on sex, on girls’ health, there is some very critical information about a girl’s body,” Then says.
The teen magazines are also running more stories on subjects beyond traditional feminine topics. For three years, Seventeen has published an annual environmental issue and in 1992 it produced a special guide to the election. While YM and ‘Teen do fewer articles on public issues, ‘Teen published a story in April about teen alcoholism and YM ran a May story about a girl’s experience with mental illness.
“If you compare a 14- or 15-year-old today, I would say that they have the same level of maturity as an 18-year-old might have had 10 years ago,” says Roxanne Camron, the editor-in-chief of ‘Teen for 16 years.
“A lot of them are growing up in a family where both parents work and I think that has a lot to do with the level of sophistication of these kids. They are making a lot more independent decisions,” Camron says. “Because of that, the magazine has had to evolve into a publication that presents material that might not have been considered age appropriate in the past.”
Sassy, begun in 1988 and the newest of the major teen girls’ magazines, is often considered to be the boldest for its candid language and articles about previously taboo topics like feminism, atheism and teen homosexuality.
It is the smallest of the big four, with a 1992 circulation of just more than 745,000 (Seventeen’s circulation in the same time period was more than 1.9 million).
Sassy, which features articles written in the first person as if girls were telling the stories to their friends, still has horoscopes, still has advice about clothing trends and still runs a “cute band alert.”
Bonnie Fuller, editor-in-chief of YM, says that while teens have new concerns, adolescence is still much the same experience as it ever was. Her magazine, she says, receives roughly 5,000 letters a day “on everything from ‘how should I cut my bangs’ to ‘what should I do, my mother is an alcoholic?’ ”
“I think that the magazines will continue to have a mix of traditional teen-age issues with the substantive issues that affect their lives personally,” Fuller says. “We need to be reassuring, we need to be friendly and supportive and we have to answer a lot of questions.”
Sassy editor Pratt says her magazine’s mix of stories reflects today’s teen-agers.
“They care about all those things at the same time,” Pratt says. “They care about terrorist threats at the same time that they care about whether their new perm went wrong. They have sort of like all of these things swirling around in their brains at the same time and they all have similar weight--like whether their perm went wrong is as serious a concern as the state of the environment.”