When Focus on the Family launched Brio, a publication aimed at Christian teen girls in 1990, it was destined for success. The magazine—which recently relaunched after a hiatus—published for nearly two decades, benefitting from the renaissance of the teen girl magazine. Sassy had debuted in 1988, and by the time Brio came around, it joined a truly thriving publishing landscape, dotted by glossies like YM, Teen, and Seventeen. For many American girls, it filled a niche that those magazines simply could not, largely because they were banned from the kind of homes where Brio was welcomed.
Where Sassy was overtly feminist, taking on issues like sex and sexism with its signature cool girl tone, and YM gleefully embraced boyfriends and celebrities, Brio offered advice on modest fashion and pointers on what to look for in a future husband. When, in 1992, Sassy had Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain on the cover, Brio had Candace Cameron.
The contrast between the two covers is telling, both in the magazines’ wildly different points of view and their visions of the “teen girl”—an overburdened term if there ever was one—that they offered readers. With Cobain and Love on the cover, Sassy teased a feature about Miss America’s life as an “indentured servant” and encouraged readers to take their sex quiz. If Brio ever ran a cover story on Miss America, it would have been about her enduring Christian faith, a testament to the success of women who lived their lives according to the word of God. When Brio talked about sex, which the magazine regularly did, it was within the context of purity culture, encouraging teens to commit to abstinence; sexuality was something to be expressed solely within the context of marriage. There were no features about whether or not you were ready to have sex or even think about sex with a boyfriend. Girls who read Brio already knew the answer to that quandary.
Sassy envisioned the teen girl as politically aware and culturally savvy, and the magazine was a place where their interests and ideas were articulated. In some respect, Brio did too. But the boundaries of these terms were mapped very differently, rigidly patrolled by evangelical standards of gender and its expression. Politics were implicit to Brio, particularly amid the early ‘90s evangelical effort to resist the lure of secular culture and build a subculture of their own, but never articulated. All magazines for teen girls are didactic, but some less obvious than others. They offer up a narrative of what girls should be, implicitly assuming their interests. What teen magazines share is the assumption that the teen years are particularly difficult for girls, vulnerable as they are during that long stretch towards becoming a woman.
In the heyday of the teen magazine, most girls had many options—they could pick and choose which magazine best suited them, deciding what kind of girl they wanted to be. But for girls like myself, who lived in homes where nearly every secular magazine was banned (Seventeen was allowed in my home, but when my Christian camp counselor, a former Miss Teen Texas, confiscated the copies I had stuffed in my bag one summer and made me apologize to the cabin, I quit reading it because it simply wasn’t worth the public penitence), Brio’s lessons were the only option.
Brio’s version of girlhood was decidedly evangelical. As part of Focus on the Family, Brio reiterated the organization’s point of view, preparing girls for their responsibilities as Christian women, and particular as Christian wives and mothers. The magazine purposefully resisted talk of boyfriends or the boy crazy content that underpinned YM. Dating was a serious endeavor, meant to be undertaken only with a person you were willing to marry. Instead of dating advice, Brio offered teen girls (the magazine was and still is aimed at girls 13 and up) a checklist of qualities to look for in a future husband or a primer on how to live your life as a Proverbs 31 woman, the epilogue of which is a description of a “wife of noble character.” It encouraged girls to write letters to their future spouses and commit themselves to the demands of evangelical life.
In the pages of Brio, faith wasn’t simply words, it demanded action—and in Brio, the lingo and fashion of the Christian subculture were clearly decoded. Fashion was treated as an extension of purity, primers on modest fashion (or, in the lingo of the Cameron cover, “classy”) and barely-there makeup were standards. Being a “woman who fears the Lord,” for example, had a look. In “Dear Susie,” a regular feature, former Brio editor-in-chief Susie Shellenberger answered questions about boys and whether or your unsaved friends were going to hell (spoiler: they were).
The magazine also pored over popular culture, deconstructing popular songs or movies and offering tips on whether or not they were acceptable entertainment for Christian teens (spoiler: they usually were not). There were graphics to indicate what was and wasn’t appropriate pop culture consumption: a pizza in which toppings of peppers and cheese indicated how appropriate a song, television show or movie was for Christian teen girls. There was also a regular feature called “Cafeteria Lady,” a humor column by Martha Bolton that dished out reviews of school lunch food and spiritual tidbits. Every issue included a devotional of sorts that encouraged readers to read the entire Bible (guided by Brio), as well as a column by Dr. Paul, a man who addressed the health questions of teenage girls (spoiler: rarely your period).
Brio was decidedly boring, written more for the parents who paid for a subscription than for the teen girls who might read the magazine. Even though I attended an evangelical junior high and high school, I was baffled by features that spent hundreds of words deconstructing Joan Osbourne’s 1995 hit “What If God Was One of Us.” I had no interest in DIY projects or writing letters to a mythical future husband. I had no need for a student’s bill of rights or advice on how to start a Christian club. I had even less interest in a bunch of old people endlessly lecturing about sex and dating. I was more interested in acquiring contraband like Patti Smith CDs, copies of Sassy or YM, and brightly colored eyeshadow. Writer Lyz Lenz said that she remembers the magazine as “deeply uncool,” adding that even as a “homeschooled evangelical teen,” Brio had “little relevance to my life.”
And yet for many teen girls, Brio was a welcome presence. Writing for Slate, Ruth Graham said that she “loved” the magazine. Graham is certainly not alone; a quick glance at the evangelical internet shows the lasting influence that Brio, as well as the evangelical subculture of which it was a part, had on a generation of women. The magazine aggressively marketed itself as an alternative to secular culture, positioning itself as “outside of the mainstream,” a place where girls who were “different,” or who were made outcasts because of the faith, could find an understanding community. Brio was a salve.
Both the magazine’s covers and content reflected that. As a celebrity outside of Christian pop culture, Candace Cameron was a rarity for Brio. The magazine’s covers almost exclusively featured Christian pop stars like Rebecca St. James and DC Talk. In the insular world of Christian culture, Rebecca St. James and DC Talk were giants but, for a sense of scale, DC Talk once played my high school pep rally (pre-Jesus Freak).
Brio quit publishing in 2009, canceled when Focus on the Family cut nearly all of their youth-focused outreach due to financial difficulties. The magazine ran for nearly 20 years, longer than the influential and oft-mourned Sassy. Like Sassy, Brio achieved a kind of cult status, part of the pop culture detritus of a certain generation of evangelicals. With nearly a decade since it’s initial run, Brio is the grand dame of Buzzfeed-inspired listicles like “15 Signs You Were Raised in the Christian Subculture”—absorbed into the internet culture of nostalgia.
Nostalgia may, in part, be what brought Brio back to life. In May, Focus on the Family announced that it was relaunching the magazine. Its first issue featured Sadie Robertson, the 19-year-0ld star of Duck Dynasty; subsequent issues have featured Christian singer Hollyn and Alena Pitts, star of the high-grossing Christian movie War Room.
The script for Brio’s success remains largely unchanged. “If a person is a person of faith and they want a Judeo-Christian perspective on issues relevant to that audience, they’re not going to find it in the pages of Teen Vogue or Seventeen,” Brio’s EIC Bob DeMoss told Columbia Journalism Review.
The font has changed, but the covers remain familiar: the Robertson cover, with her jaunty hat and long sleeves, bears a striking resemblance to Cameron’s 1992 cover. In many respects, Robertson is an ideal Brio girl. She’s public about her faith and models ideal Christian behavior (in 2014, she even launched a line of “Daddy-approved” prom dresses). The content of the magazine remains largely unchanged, too. “Ask Susie” is gone, but there’s a piece on modest dressing (maxi skirts to cover your legs and tunics to cover your stomach) and an insert called “Finding Mr. Right,” that is essentially a list of qualities Christian women should look for when the time comes to find a husband. There’s also a piece on whether or not Bruno Mars is acceptable listening for Christian teens (spoiler: probably not) and a “Brio Social Media Quiz.” Questions from the quiz include: “Do you ever post pics of your body or say things that are suggestive?” (Brio encourages girls to think of Ephesians 4:29 before sharing on social media.)
The founder of No Shame Movement Lola Prescott points out that there is a feature on depression in the first issue, a marked departure from the Brio of old. But if the headline teases a piece about teens and depression, Brio’s solution is familiar to anyone who grew up in an evangelical home: pray more or call the counselors at Focus on the Family.
If the new Brio looks quite a bit like the old Brio, then that’s likely by design. The magazine has no website, no digital edition, and virtually no social media presence other than a Facebook page. That page is being run for someone, but it’s abundantly clear that it’s not for teen girls. Since Brio has no website, it only shares articles from Focus on the Family’s site. There are no graphics, nothing to click, only occasional questions like “What’s your fave Scripture verse?” DeMoss has defended the decision to produce a print-only magazine in 2017. “We did a ton of research within the target market and found that teen girls overwhelmingly desired a print publication, so we’re responding by providing that,” he told Christianity Today. “There’s a tactile feel to a print magazine that helps the reader get a break from the artificial intimacy of screens, and we think girls will find that both comforting and personal.” Not even Christianity Today was convinced by that answer.
What’s increasingly clear is that, despite a handful of laudatory write-ups about a new entry into the post-Teen Vogue media landscape, Brio is not and has never been for teen girls. Focus on the Family’s marketing material is aimed at parents, not girls; it promises a magazine that “reinforces the values you’ve taught her.”
“Don’t let the culture define her,” Focus on the Family encourages, demarcating old boundaries between “the culture” and Christianity. Brio remains what it always was: a magazine that models Christian behavior for girls determined by the adults who make and define that culture.