Thursday, September 9, 2010

Seventeen Again, And Again

I know I'm a few months late on this particular bandwagon, but I just stumbled across the brilliance of The Seventeen Magazine Project and have fallen in love with it. Jamie Keiles, a sassy and skeptical recent high school grad, took a single issue of the ubiquitous Seventeen magazine and lived with it for a full month. She used the hair and makeup tips, aped the fashion spreads, tried out all the activities ("add pretzels to cookie dough! Bake it"), posted the hot guys on her wall, and attempted the flirting techniques. It's a great idea for a project, and her accessible and totally readable voice is a brilliant counterpoint to the often-breathless tone of Seventeen and its brethren, where makeup advice is frequently followed by a train of exclamation points designed to turn waterproof mascara into, like, the second coming of the Christ child.

She smartly points out where Seventeen falls down on the job. Apparently, eating Indian food is for "fearless" girls, as if mutter paneer is something that's going to grab at you from under your bed, and her take on the "exotic/global" prints on fabric rightly looks at some of the weirdness around cultural appropriation. Also addressed are the obvious gaps in the magazine's scope. As a fashion rag, Seventeen does okay, but as far as addressing IRL issues like sexuality? They have some flirting tips for picking up guys (and they are all guys), but don't address the queer community unless you search for it online, and the results aren't inspiring. The models are fairly diverse, but Hispanic faces are severely underrepresented. And she gently chides the editors for the inanity of the lifestyle suggestions, pointing out that shopping and styling one's hair shouldn't take up the majority of someone's waking hours.

She gives props to where Seventeen succeeds, as in the fashion-heavy special prom issue, and her tone is tolerant. She's not mad at the magazine, but I am glad that she culminated the project with a call for suggestions for other reading material for girls and young women.

I read Seventeen when I was in the eighth grade, having been given a subscription by my grandmother. I was totally fascinated and more than a little daunted. I was shy, frizzy, short, and my body was decidedly not "bikini-ready." These worlds, these girls, which were glossy and perfect and smiley, were like some alien tribe that was sent to both inspire and intimidate me. The magazine has stayed exactly the same: flirting tips, gross-out period stories, and impractical fashion suggestions. The majority of the girls I went to school with wore oversized hoodies and flared jeans. Showing up for History class in wedge heels and a Liberty-print minidress wouldn't have been fashionable or even fashion-forward; it would have been a non-sequitur.

Magazines, especially the rags like Cosmopolitan or Seventeen that aim to be all-encompassing reads, are fascinating to me. It's a tired joke that Cosmo recycles sex tips, but I really don't envy the glossies their endless need for new, approved materials. Cosmo, especially, has the added disadvantage of trying to cater to a readership that is actually fairly conservative. Blow-jobs tips aside, Cosmo readers (and the girls who are still on training wheels with Seventeen) have come to rely on the magazine for a careful monthly regurgitation of same-old-same-old. The sex is heteronormative (how often do you see tips on, say, going down on a woman?), the clothes are uniformly tarty, the women are all tanned and shiny, and the dudes are all ripped.

Keiles is far too young to remember Sassy - I doubt that she would even be old enough to have read Jane - but she does highlight Bust, Bitch, and New Moon (nothing to do with Stephanie Meyer, I promise) as alternatives that might appeal to Seventeen's oddly wide target demographic of 12-19 year olds. Bust, specifically, is a good choice, because it combines an irreverent editorial voice with a sincere interest in fashion, beauty, the entertainment industry, and celebrity. It's exactly the right tone for a girl who's realized that Seventeen isn't going to be her handbag much longer. And the guys they feature are more likely to be my own personal cup of tea: Justin Theroux, anyone? Mmm. Diversity is the spice of life, and Cosmopolitan and Seventeen actually become less appealing when they only showcase a tiny slice of (young) womanhood in their viewpoint.

I love projects like TSMP, because it highlights how much energy women have to spend to become "normal." None of us rolls out of bed, coiffed, tweezed, dyed, made up and dressed. I'm no natural beauty, and I certainly benefit from, as my mom put it, "combing [my] hair and, uh, trying," but I find it exhausting and demoralizing to try to squeeze myself into this fashionable, straight-haired, skinny-person mold. For a high school student to realize that fashion and beauty are fun, but can come at a high price, is so valuable. It takes some of us years to realize what Keiles demonstrated in a month: marching in 17-17 time is really hard to do.

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