Mag­a­zines That Be­came Only Skin Deep

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

Brows­ing the mag­a­zine rack the other day, I no­ticed that Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine still ex­ists, but I hardly rec­og­nize it: “Sexy Legs Work­out!” “The New Party Drug That Could Kill You,” “How to Get a Nat­u­ral-Look­ing Spray Tan.”

I read Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine re­li­giously in the 1970s and ’80s. Head­lines from old copies that I have saved in­clude: “Five Pol­lu­tion Fight­ers,” “How is Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Do­ing in the High Schools?” “How to Sur­vive Col­lege Re­jec­tion” and “Vol­un­teer Work Does Pay Off.”

The last ar­ti­cle is one I wrote in 1982, when I my­self was 17. The mag­a­zine, es­pe­cially with its an­nual fiction, art and pho­tog­ra­phy con­test, strongly in­flu­enced my de­ci­sion to be­come a writer; it was a per­fect fo­rum in which to ex­press my thoughts. Well into my 20s, I con­tin­ued to con­trib­ute ar­ti­cles and es­says — “Tak­ing a For­eign Lan­guage Could Be Your Ticket to Travel!” “Get Grow­ing,” “Com­puter Friendly” — and tried (un­suc­cess­fully) to get my fiction in as well.

Lately, when I meet other fe­male writ­ers in my age co­hort, it turns out we are all alum­nae of Sev­en­teen and other mag­a­zines of the day, such as YM and Made­moi­selle. A friend re­mem­bers be­ing turned on to Sev­en­teen as a teen by an ar­ti­cle pro­mot­ing bus­ing and in- tegra­tion. She went on to do an ar­ti­cle on the bio­sphere for Sev­en­teen and now is a writer on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Made­moi­selle (now de­funct) pub­lished some of the best fiction in the na­tion, dis­cov­er­ing such tal­ent as Tru­man Capote (who was also pub­lished in Sev­en­teen), Joyce Carol Oates, Flan­nery O’Con­nor and Ten­nessee Wil­liams. Made­moi­selle also ran an an­nual col­lege guest ed­i­tor con­test, one fa­mous win­ner be­ing Sylvia Plath, who im­mor­tal­ized the ex­pe­ri­ence in her novel “The Bell Jar.”

Of course, back then, Sev­en­teen had a bit of an un­seemly fo­cus on ap­pear­ance and boys as well, but it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the slightly neu­rotic “When Your Boyfriend For­gets Your Birth­day” of 1982 elic­it­ing any fris­son com­pared with to­day’s “Do I Have an STD?” There seem to be plenty of ar­ti­cles on what to do about re­jec­tion from a boy but none about re­jec­tion from a col­lege. In fact, as op­posed to thought­ful ar­ti­cles on col­lege, join­ing the Peace Corps or re­lat­ing to par­ents, in the cur­rent Sev­en­teen (Spring Shop­ping Is­sue!), life be­yond in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion seems ut­terly ab­sent.

An­other ar­ti­cle in that 1982 is­sue, “How to Make a Candy Neck­lace,” would to­day be rel­e­gated to the “tween” (8-13) age group maga- zines such as Dis­cov­ery Girl or Girl’s Life. But even the Girl’s Life cov­ers boast “Hot New Spring Looks!” and “Love Se­crets.” Its “Dear Carol” col­umn re­ceives let­ters from writ­ers ob­sessed with padded bras or lament­ing that “I fi­nally found the boy of my dreams . . . The prob­lem is, he uses drugs and al­co­hol.”

And the first-per­son sto­ries that used to ap­pear in Sev­en­teen’s “You Said It!” and “Frankly Speak­ing” col­umns have been re­placed by “Real Life” (“I Sur­vived a School Shoot­ing”), writ­ten not by the sub­ject her­self but by an “as­told-to” jour­nal­ist.

Celebri­ties dom­i­nate th­ese mag­a­zines in a way that they did not 20 years ago. The celebrity-in­dus­trial com­plex al­ready sat­u­rat­ing our cul­ture keeps the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at a dis­tance, with the reader pas­sively di­gest­ing news about an off-lim­its “them” and not re­lat­ing to her con­tem­po­raries — and her­self. The mag­a­zine acts more as a ve­hi­cle for mar­ket­ing than in­sight into what girls to­day are think­ing. Thus, the mag­a­zines are thick with celebrity pro­files and pages of glossy ads, but there is lit­tle fiction (God for­bid, po­etry), reader con­tests are largely mer­chan­dise pro­mo­tions and the only op­por­tu­nity to share thoughts is the woe­fully nar­row: “Your opin­ions about our Jan­uary is­sue.”

I re­cently won a writ­ing prize for creative non­fic­tion, and scan­ning the list of pre­vi­ous win­ners, I saw a name, Adrian Ni­cole LeBlanc, that was very familiar. Not be­cause she was a MacArthur fel­low or had writ­ten a non­fic­tion book that I ad­mired but be­cause she had been my ed­i­tor at Sev­en­teen.

Maybe this is a nat­u­ral gen­er­a­tional evo­lu­tion, the ag­ing baby-boomer rem­i­nisc­ing on how things were so much bet­ter “back then.” But my first novel, be­gun dur­ing the time I was writ­ing for Sev­en­teen, was called “Find­ing My Voice” be­cause I had found my voice as a writer, and it was Sev­en­teen that was the first to pub­lish me, to make me feel that my words were im­por­tant.

Will the bud­ding writ­ers of to­day re­ceive the same en­cour­age­ment? Will the alum­nae and alumni of to­day’s young women’s mag­a­zines in­clude Pulitzer Prize win­ners and MacArthur fel­lows? In 20 years, we shall see. Marie Myung-Ok Lee is writer in res­i­dence at the Cen­ter for the Study of Race & Eth­nic­ity in Amer­ica at Brown Univer­sity. Her most re­cent novel is “Some­body’s Daugh­ter.”

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