This is where you and I might differ. Perhaps your only reaction to Cosmo has occurred at the checkout line, where you (silently) chuckled at the ridiculous headlines (the "Sex Olympics," really?) or shook your head at the airbrushing (C'mon, even Nina Dobrev has to have pores). Maybe your only experience with Seventeen was at summer camp when you and your bunkmates sat around reading "Traumarama!" out loud for an LOL. Maybe your magazine motto is: Rookie or Bust! If so, I applaud you. That's never been me.
My obsession with magazines started when I was about seven and received a subscription to American Girl. I enjoyed reading the articles, but mostly I became hooked on the bimonthly ritual. I anticipated the next issue arriving in the mail and wondered what the cover would look like. Like most first relationships, American Girl and I didn't stay together long. I had a fling with the tween tabloids like J-14 (The celebrities! The stickers!) before settling on Seventeen.
"The growing knot in my stomach told me that I agreed with these writers, at least partially, but I didn't know what to do. Cancel my subscriptions? I couldn't, and I didn't know why."
Embarrassing confession time: It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that from middle school through much of high school, I was closer with Seventeen magazine than I was with anyone else. In a technical sense, I had a handful of friends, a few "besties" included. Still, even around them I felt unknown. I had unintentionally trapped myself in that stereotypical low point of teendom where you think no one has ever felt and thought like you. Sitting at rock bottom, Seventeen spoke in the voice I was aching to hear. It was unabashedly, unrelentingly hopeful. Why yes, I could be Pretty, and the April issue alone would show me 834 Ways to be so! I wanted all of these subjective things - beauty, which would lead to popularity, and then love and happiness - but I wanted an objective, step-by-step plan for getting them. That's what Seventeen promised. It was my fantasy world and how-to manual all in one.
At some point, my mad love for Seventeen became clouded by doubt. On the one hand, I was starting to realize that maybe my happiness wasn't dependent upon my weight, appearance, or popularity -- that in fact, maybe I didn't have to wait to be happy at all. In tandem with this realization, I began consuming body-positive, girl-empowering books (alongside my Seventeen). Most weren't peachy-keen on the media's messages to females, in particular those in teen and women's magazines. Self-proclaimed "actionist" Jess Weiner wrote in her book Do I Look Fat in This?, "The media reflects how you feel about your body (ashamed, always dissatisfied)." In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher argued that "Teen magazines are a good example of the training in lookism that girls receive." The growing knot in my stomach told me that I agreed with these writers, at least partially, but I didn't know what to do. Cancel my subscriptions? I couldn't, and I didn't know why.
Instead, I made a very grown-up decision: to ignore the feeling and hope it would go away. Magazines continued to be a part of my life, in big and small ways. When I redecorated my room senior year, I splurged on a PBTeen magazine rack to display my issues. Two years later, I became a Blog Moderator for a popular tween magazine. Simultaneously, I found ways to express my support for girls' and women's issues. I joined my school's Eating Disorders Education and Prevention club and started a blog for tweens encouraging positive body image and self-esteem. On a minor level, I was leading a double life.
I continued to ignore the discrepancy... until about a month ago. For school, I was given the opportunity to write a research paper about anything that would make me a better writer. I thought, What could be more helpful than addressing the conflict that led me to writing in the first place? To do this, I decided to dive into the famous texts from each "wave" of feminism, because my question has always been, Can I be girl- and woman-positive (feminist) and read Seventeen? I guess I always assumed the answer was "no." In a matter of weeks, I read The Beauty Myth and The Feminine Mystique, as well as writings by Mary Wollstonecraft and Rebecca Walker. And more. The texts varied so much in their language and points of focus, but one theme appeared across the board: freedom of choice. Women should be allowed to be the designers of their own lives, in every aspect.
"Ultimately, what I learned from my exploration is that the answer to my question -- Can you be a feminist and read magazines? -- is 'Yes, but'."
Evaluating my magazines with this notion in mind, I was both surprised and disappointed. On the one hand, the Lean In effect has been positive -- a recent article in Glamour reassured women that it's not only acceptable but necessary to be assertive in getting the salary they deserve, and multiple issues of Seventeen encouraged girls to begin working toward their goals now. On the other hand, limited (and impossible) standards of beauty were rampant, in advertisements and articles, images and copy. Beauty "problems" -- like a "crazy hairline" -- were invented, and solutions were provided. Mixed messages ran right into each other; one issue of Seventeen promised to show readers how to "score flat abs" and two lines later encouraged them to "feel totally confident" in their bodies. How can a reader feel "totally confident" when her (cough, cough, my, cough) body wasn't designed to have the flat abs every fitness section and swimsuit ad celebrates?
Ultimately, what I learned from my exploration is that the answer to my question -- Can you be a feminist and read magazines? -- is 'Yes, but'. The truth is, you can be a feminist and do lots of things; that principle has always been at the heart of the movement. You can be a feminist and run your own business (or not). You can be a feminist and wear pink nail polish (or not). What you are obligated to do is be conscious of your decisions. Are you doing (or wearing, or saying, or not saying) something because it's what you want, or because it's what girls are "supposed" to do? So that's what I'm choosing: to be conscious. I know what I love about magazines: the entire package of sparkles, sass, and "you got this" attitude. I also know what I would change about them. I would want to see less airbrushing and beauty "solutions," a wider variety of body types represented, and more information for sexual minority girls and women - to name just a few ideas.
In my highest hopes, the editors of Seventeen (or Cosmo, or Glamour) see this article, are inspired, and want to consult me on a new direction for the mag. (I'm happy to help! Call me!) In my humblest realities, I will continue my subscriptions, but read with more awareness, taking in what I like and leaving what I don't. Magazines, for me, are like that childhood best friend: you took it for granted that you'd be together forever, until you started to grow apart. You'll forever love them, and always welcome them to the dinner (er, coffee) table. You just won't always take their advice.
I will continue to be a feminist and a reader of Seventeen, Cosmo, and company -- not because it's perfect, but because it's me.