As a teen, you could have read the wholesome Seventeen magazine for a lot of reasons. Maybe it was the tasteful fashion spreads pulled from mall outlets that were actual affordable. Or perhaps you memorized the stories from clean-cut boys on what they look for in a dream date. But for the more deranged among us, there was always the seductive pull of “Traumarama.”
“Traumarama,” for the uninitiated, is a collection of quippy short stories submitted by anonymous teen girls in which they share their most embarrassing moments. It is often located at the back of the magazine. The stories are always three or four lines long, often punctuated with exclamation marks. They can read like demented haikus, with references to bodily fluids and gases aplenty. If you got your period on your desk chair in English class, that’s a traumarama. If you accidentally threw up in front of your crush, that’s a traumarama. If you slipped on a banana peel in the middle of the cafeteria... you get it. Traumarama!
Teen awkwardness in “Traumarama” was terrifying enough that it kept you coming back for more each month and pedestrian enough that you could imagine it happening to you. Each issue provided an easy-to-identify recipe for hyperbolic embarrassment: a never-ending cycle of white jeans worn at the wrong time of the month or chocolate getting stuck to the front of your teeth at lunch.
Editor Melanie Mannarino was given the task of assembling Traumarama after its debut in 1994. She had joined the magazine that year, right after graduating college (“All those mortifying moments were still fresh in my mind,” she says, laughing). At the time, there was a reader mail department which received bins of submissions; Mannarino was responsible for reading through them each month.
“The idea was that it was always embarrassing moments, but we never wanted to be mean or awful,” she says. “Period Traumaramas were prevalent, of course, but you never wanted to put too many in one column. So maybe there was a balance: one had to do with a guy, maybe one had to do with your parents, stuff that happened at school, stuff that happened at your part-time job. Nothing was ever too racy.”
According to frequent teen focus groups the magazine held and the flood of regular submissions, the column was an immediate hit. “People were always freaking out, everything in the column was such an emergency!” says Robert Rorke, who was then Seventeen’s senior features editor. At the time, Rorke says, there was a lot of competition with other teen magazines, most of which are now defunct (Teen People, YM, and Sassy). Similar embarrassing columns popped up across the genre, as in Teen People’s “Why Me?” or YM’s “Say Anything.”
The stories weren’t edited much, Mannarino says, except for some clarity and shortening (“readers tended to go on and on”), and she tried to make it as light as possible. The stories also went through the fact-checking department, though Mannarino got used to spotting fakes. “Always loaded with too many details. And even if they were real you didn’t want to print it because it was just sad or dirty or mean-spirited,” she says. “It just felt so obvious when a girl wanted to get into the magazine.”
“We would get epic, Odyssean novels of crazy stuff, just emails that would go on forever,” says Bernadette Anat, who worked at Seventeen in the early 2010s as an assistant to the Editor-in-Chief and story-edited “Traumarama” submissions so that they’d all have the same cartoonish, sing-song cadence.
“I definitely would get submissions where I’d understand if it was funny to that person but to me it’s like, how did you get into that situation in the first place?,” Anat says. “The set up would be, oh I was cleaning my trombone on a beach, and that wasn’t necessarily relatable. Some were like, I was at Tahitian dance practice in Hawaii and, okay, well, that’s not going to happen to anyone else so we’re going to throw that out.”
Looking back on it, it seems impossible to not associate “Traumarama” with horror stories about menstruation and the intricacies of being a teenager whose body is going through puberty. As a 12-year-old who had not yet gotten my period I remember being terrified by a “Traumarama” story in which a cute boy mistakes a girl’s visible tampon string at a pool party for a loose swimsuit thread and... pulled on it.
But in 2017, the idea that a teen magazine would run a column—that became not one but two books—on how embarrassing a leaky period is seems like a relic of a different era. Today, teen magazines preach body positivity for periods and curves and armpit hair. “Messy” women are celebrated, nipples are frequently “freed,” and grown women choose to bleed into reusable underwear.
Many Seventeen editors say they’ve never purposefully sought out period anecdotes over the years, though they’re well aware of the column’s reputation. Joey Bartolomeo, Seventeen’s current Executive Editor, says that the stories are rarely published these days, especially since the site’s readership has widened (boys actually submit now, too) and technological goofs have opened up a Pandora’s box of new “Traumarama” material (liking a crush’s Instagram post from months ago by accident, for example). “We’re really careful,” she says. “I don’t think that we’ve actually run a period-related one in several years, though I know we’ve gotten them in.” The magazine’s July/August “Traumarama” page included stories about tumbling down a flight of stairs as a youth representative at a UN briefing and a girl who clogged a toilet right before her crush had to use it.
“I read one the other day where a girl had been in math class and had gotten her period on her chair. Her teacher said, what do you want me to do about it and pointed her to this closet with cleaning supplies,” Bartolomeo says. “And I don’t think that’s funny. Things have changed. We don’t want girls to feel like they should be ashamed if they have their period.”
“In no way are we saying you should be embarrassed this is happening, we’re saying girls should share these moments,” Digital Director Kristin Koch says. “I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s feelings, because when you’re a teen some things are a big deal! In ten years it might feel like it never happened.”
The language I found Seventeen’s staff using in 2017—“invalidating anyone’s feelings,” or “we don’t want girls to feel ashamed,” for example—hints at the small philosophical strides publications have made when it comes to commodifying and packaging young girls’ behavior.
“Thinking back on it now though I’m like, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have been [selling] this image that’s like”—here she put on a goofy voice—“your period is embarrassing and your body hair? Embarrassing! Nipples? Embarrassing!” Anat says. “But we weren’t thinking on that level with ‘Traumarama.’ It was just a quick story of what would be unpleasant to happen to you, without thinking, well, what’s the implication of what we’re telling girls?”
The stories in “Traumarama” aren’t so tantalizing anymore to someone my age. I now actually understand the physics of tampons and have vomited in front of my boyfriend several times, thank you very much! But back in 1994, Seventeen’s packaging and publishing of embarrassing stories seemed somewhat ahead of its time. “It was a preview of clickbait,” Rorke says, looking back on “Traumarama” (he further dubbed it the “National Enquirer for teens”). “And now anyone who wants to sustain a job in publishing has to come up with the most embarrassing things possible and write about it so people go and click on it.”
Internet publishing tends to reward personal writing, and personal writing that shows quick returns online leans towards the grotesque, particularly when it comes to women’s bodies. There was xoJane’s infamous “It Happened To Me” series, which gave us stories about getting cat hair stuck in an IUD or almost being killed by your own period, and felt at times like an R-rated, more adult version of “Traumarama.” And then there are the embarrassing personal essays about getting dumped right before your wedding, or Reddit threads about how your boyfriend might be sleeping with his sister. All of it is, against our better instincts, irresistible.
The embarrassment in “Traumarama” might be juvenile, but the column is just one small moment in a long, enduring history of being fascinated with the gross possibilities of female bodies, what comes out them, what gets stuck in them and the desire to then share those stories to a hungry public. It made oversharing pieces of your life, all the gross details and embarrassing parts intact, completely normal for teenage girls.
“Where else were you going to tell people?” Mannarino says. “You could tell your friends of course—listen to what happened to me during 7th period—but otherwise, where else were you just sort of going to get it all out?”