“These are before my time. Like, I don’t know even what this is, Young & Modern.”
I’m sitting in the Jezebel offices with Hannah Kahn, a 19-year-old Tufts University sophomore (and the daughter of my old college professor’s friend), and she’s proving a rule: Without fail, sitting with a teen—anywhere, for any reason—immediately and unfairly ages me. In this moment, I feel old.
Hannah has generously agreed to join me in flipping through past and current issues of YM and Seventeen, which used to serve as very white Bibles for teenagers in my time. (YM’s acronym was switched to Your Magazine in 2000 before the mag folded in 2004. R.I.P.)
Citing Jezebel and Teen Vogue’s site as her top reading sources, Hannah says she was previously obsessed with J14 and Tiger Beat and always loved fashion magazines. “I used to love going to the airport because that meant my mom would let me buy a magazine or two and I would cut out all the posters. My room is covered in them,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I picked up a real magazine—especially a teen magazine—and flipped through it.” Well, we’re about to. Join us on this magical journey.
UPDATE (7/13/17): And here’s an interview I did as a guest on Girly Mags, a cool new podcast where the hosts review old teen magazines. We talked about the evolution of teen mags and I gamely took a quiz titled “Are You a Bimbo?” (Am I?)
Hannah: The first thing I notice is this would appear comical to me now. Just, they’re cheesing so big. The first thing I think is, like, you guys look so white, that classic look. The cover line, “50 guys tell you what they expect about prom night plus how to ask him to go”—I mean, I appreciate that they are saying the girls can ask the guys because still in my high school that was, like, frowned upon. But “50 guys tell you what they expect,” like, oh thanks. I know that still goes on [in magazines], but the fact that it’s the front story kinda says something about how they’re advertising to young women.
Clover: YM and Seventeen were pretty much the quintessential teen magazines, other than, for me, the music mags like Word Up and Right On! You’ve probably never heard of them.
Hannah: I’ve heard of them but never read. I didn’t watch 90210, but I know of it. I’m just taking in all the hairstyles that don’t exist anymore. This is a lot. [Hannah reads the Table of Contents]: “What do Russ Irwin and Billy Joel have in common?” Okay, I don’t know who Russ Irwin is. There’s a lot less, I feel like, meaty content. Most of it is beauty, prom, and then wanting to hear a guy’s perspective.
Hannah: It’s so funny that we were really trusting these very female-dominated magazines to give us the honest guy perspective. It’s like, talk to a guy? But that’s interesting. These are always hilarious, the horror stories.
Clover: This was big for me. This was one of my favorite pages in these magazines and it was a staple and I didn’t know at the time that some of them were probably made up.
Hannah: I remember when I started to figure that out because I would see the same story over and over and I was like, that’s weird, that happened to Jessica, who was 21 from Illinois, and Brittany, who’s 13 from Mississippi. But it is comforting, I guess. They all read so comical to me. I don’t know, I still appreciate this because this is sort of what a lot of people go to these magazines for, just a little bit of commonality between girls, a little bit of comfort, like this happens to all of us sort of feelings. These are all prom ones: “My date got drunk and decided it was too hot so he ripped the sleeves off his silk shirt then he fell on the table laughing.”
Hannah: Well, this is interesting. It’s like a Point/Counterpoint. This is a little more legitimate than some of the other stuff. It’s two girls, one’s in high school, one’s in college, arguing whether or not they should extend the school year. That’s bold to say yes—she goes to South Dakota State University, so she clearly doesn’t remember the pains of waking up that early. I like that, I guess. I don’t know how central of an issue that is, but I like that they put it in a Point/Counterpoint. It makes it a little more substantial.
These are all beauty things, which I never cared about. I still don’t know how to do my makeup, so this never appealed to me that much, but they still have stuff like this, I’m sure. “Body Q&A: Trouble Down below, itchy infections, period problems”—I actually appreciate that it’s a conversation in here. I don’t know how revolutionary that is. But at least they’re talking about things other than looks, not as materialistic. Oh, yeast infection cures, wow.
Hannah: “Do Guys Expect Sex on Prom Night?” Ugh, I hate this because it’s still a conversation that my friends and I have, but I hope they wouldn’t publish something like this now because it’s like, who cares, it’s up to you. Like who cares if they expect it? It takes two to tango. What are the guys saying... This guy says: “Hell yeah, especially if I’m paying for dinner and the tickets and all that stuff. The prom’s supposed to be fun and that’s one of the best ways to make it fun.” Ew! I hate that. [Laughs] Most of them are “no,” but there’s two that are “yes” and then there are some that are conditional. And it’s crazy that they put these guys’ pictures and full names in there. Like, Brian Pepe would get roasted now. You cannot say that.
Clover: Back then you couldn’t turn to, like, Google and have Yahoo Answers come up.
Hannah: Do people really do that? I just feel like putting a spread like this without them giving their own disclaimer: “You can do whatever you want on prom night”—that couldn’t happen now and shouldn’t happen now. Okay, statistics wise, “23% say they expect sex on prom night, 56% say they don’t, 20% didn’t know. Of the guys who said they expected sex, 65% were planning to take their girlfriend to the prom. 24% were planning to go with a crush.” Interesting. Mmm. Still weird.
Hannah: “His Side.” Well, they have this now. I forget the magazine, but there’s a “Jake.” That’s his pseudonym and he answers all of the dating questions [Ed Note: It was Glamour, which severed ties with “Jake” in 2016]. But I think that it’s probably a little more nuanced now and I bet a lot of the answers now are more, “Well, it’s up to you.”
These are sort of harsh. Like: “I’ve started feeling romantic about a guy friend so I asked him to the prom. He laughed and said, ‘Oh sure it’d just be like going with my sister.’ What can I do?” And the answer is: “As you probably guessed, he just might not be interested.” [Laughs]
Hannah: This is interesting ‘cause these are very serious. It’s about smoking, suicide, rape, an ex. This one has super substantial issues tackled in it. It’s still a little bit of a weird tone. Like, this girl says: “My sister killed herself” and then the first line is: “What a devastating blow to lose your best friend and your sister all at once!” Exclamation point. And then they put this photo of this beautiful girl smoking a cigarette and looking amazing. It’s like, definitely mixed signals.
Hannah: “Do you think you’re perfect? Take the quiz and see if you think you’re so perfect you can never flub up or if you blame yourself for everything that goes wrong.” I would always fudge my answers to these [reading J14, etc.]. I would see what the options were, especially when it was the flow chart, and then I would find a way to get there if my thing took me the wrong way. I’d be like, I didn’t really mean that I liked Edward more than Jacob. I was not being honest with it. This is a funny one because it’s a quiz to see how you think you are, like a quiz to see your own perception.
Clover: I remember taking these quizzes very seriously.
Hannah: Oh my god, this ad is ridiculous. The tagline is: “The only anti-perspirant for teens.” I mean, all of them are! [Laughs] But I do think that I would just remember so clearly in middle school the smell of B.O. That’s what characterized my middle school experience, just sitting around sweaty boys that didn’t know they should be wearing deodorant yet. And so, I think that marketing deodorant to teens is not a bad idea. I don’t know why they stopped doing that.
Hannah: “100 Prettiest Girl at the Prom Looks.” These dresses are heinous. Some of these actually aren’t bad. I don’t know, this spread doesn’t seem that outdated to me. It’s a little more diverse, the prices are varied, there are some that are closer to $50 and there are some that are like $200 so it’s a little more accommodating. I do remember reading the fashion magazines and being like, oh, that’s such a cool shirt and it’s like $2,000. So that’s something to appreciate.
This says “I hate ruffly stuff and cheesiness” and it’s this girl hysterically laughing with a flowy dress. So many sequins. This looks insane. Oh my god, there are so many. To be fair, though, people did wear dresses like that to their bat mitzvahs. This reminds me of, like, Saved By the Bell.
Hannah: It’s really heavy makeup looks in these, which is interesting. I feel like the no makeup look is much more appreciated now than it was then. They’re kind of hating on these stars for their no makeup looks and lauding them for these, like, really almost costume-y makeup faces. This is calling this hair “Wimpy-Thin Hair.” And nowadays, you would just characterize it as, like, “thin.” You wouldn’t say “Wimpy Thin Hair” because it would make people with that kind of hair feel bad.
Hannah: “72% of guys like short, sexy dresses.” Shocker. “55% of guys want to go to prom with a girl who’s either fun or nice.” That’s the dumbest fact I’ve ever heard—and it’s only 55%? That scares me. It’s like, they don’t care if you’re fun or nice? Aren’t those the two big things? “88% of guys like your hair long, loose and natural.” Yeah, these are the kind of things where I feel like they would not put this in [a teen magazine] anymore... [Prom] is like one of the biggest nights of your high school career, whatever, and it’s well, you have to wear your hair long and loose because 88% of guys like it long and loose, it’s decided. [Laughs]
“39% of you told us that finding a dress was harder than finding a date.” That’s just funny. Also, the dos and don’ts are a little—maybe I just don’t agree with them. Like, I feel like this is a style that people actually do now, the flower crown. I don’t know if taste has changed. “Don’t wear a scrunchy.” “97% of you would rather go to the prom than stay home.” That’s kind of sad because there’s no way that 97% of the people reading this did go to prom. I feel like a lot of people don’t go and that would make them feel like it’s what’s done.
Clover: Right, like, “you’re a loser.”
Hannah: Oh, this is interesting: “90% of guys said they would love a girl to ask them to the prom.” This page is about real guys telling you how to ask a guy to prom, which is again—guys are gonna tell you how to do it? But it’s at least them telling you how to do this sort of empowering, making her own choice sort of thing? I do think it’s weird that at my high school nine times out of ten it’s the guy asking the girl and often it’s this really elaborate way.
Hannah: The promposals. We have big promposals.
Clover: What’s the deal with those?
Hannah: You mean like, why? I got serenaded my junior year. I mean, it depends on the guy. This date that I had, he’s one of my best friends and he said, “That was more for me than it was for you. I just wanted to put on that show.” And now social media has become a factor, where someone posts it on Facebook and it gets a lot of likes and you can look at people in other grades, like, oh, look what so-and-so did. I think it’s cool that they put this little part in. Nowadays, they would’ve done it differently, but this stat should be highlighted more. You can defy standards and ask.
These are four different scenarios about what you do when basically you don’t want to have sex. It’s just sad to me ’cause it just sounds like boys wanna have sex, girls don’t, and it’s so much more complicated than that. It’s literally—that’s what it says right here: “When he wants sex and you don’t, how to handle four different sexual situations.” Like, what if you want sex and he doesn’t? [Laughs] I get why this is this way because I’ve seen this with guys but it’s not nuanced.
This magazine [YM] is catering to one girl. Like, it’s one way to do something and a guy will tell you or this female expert will tell you, but there’s no choose your own adventure here. It’s sort of, these are all the things that could go wrong and here’s how you avoid them but it’s a very sort of narrow path.
Hannah: This feels like it’s for an older demographic. Or maybe it’s just that girls this age are more educated and into different things and don’t really care about, like, “It was my 14th birthday party and there were some major hotties in attendance.” They want this piece we just flipped to about young girls making the world a better place. That’s what they want to read about, which I think is awesome. That’s the direction we want to go. These [issues] are kind of similar.
Clover: I saw somewhere a cover comparison of Seventeen over the years and so many of the covers are exactly the same.
Hannah: Yeah, this does not look that different. It’s pink font, white background, pink and black, cuts off at the same part of the body. Like, it totally could be from the same era, which is funny. I guess it’s working for ’em.
Hannah: “Who/What/Wear,” I feel like I see that in People magazine now—these are celebrities and this is what you can actually wear. This is funny, it’s literally Barbies. [Gasps] Look how small her waist was! That’s so scary.
Clover: Yeah, that’s insane.
Hannah: They’ve changed it, even since—my Barbies didn’t even look like that. This is hilarious. It’s these real, like, Donna Karan, Rebecca Taylor, Betsey Johnson [designs], which honestly is so fun. I love, love, love Barbies. I had a great time with Barbies. This is so hilarious that they have this piece, though. It’s funny because Barbie kinda represents this white, blonde, tall, skinny—the epitome of what a girl could never be, striving for an ideal. But this magazine’s like, let’s do a whole page on them.
Hannah: “The Never-Ending School Year.” This is so funny because this was the same thing that was debated in the ’92 [YM issue]. “As more public schools adopt extended school calendars, some students fear the loss of summer vacation, but others regard it as a plus. Here in our new op-ed column, two students debate the issue.” It’s a point/counterpoint in the same issue, which I think is hilarious.
Hannah: This [July/August 2017 issue of Seventeen] is a lot of beauty but it feels a little like healthier beauty, like exfoliating your face...
Clover: So much of the newer issue seems more product-driven than the older issue, which seems more like advice and tips.
Hannah: Yeah, and this makes sense with the way you purchase things now. They put a website, a price, make it very easy for you to get. In the old one, it says “Soap, $7.50, candle, $7.” It doesn’t even say where it’s from for some of these. This old one’s about “slimming down” and making your waist smaller, whereas this [new] one is more about being fit and being healthy, which is like, “When Eating Healthy Messes With Your Skin.
“What’s Your STI-Q?” STI-Q, I get it. [Laughs]
“Sex and Body: What is a clitoris?” Aw. Oh my god, this is so funny because this doesn’t sound racy to me now at all, especially ’cause I interned at Refinery29, which is very sex-positive, body-positive. They go: “What is a clitoris? At the risk of sounding racy, the clitoris is a part of your body that you’ll want to get in touch with.” Like, that doesn’t sound racy at all! That’s the least direct way you can put that. You’ll want to get in touch, like you’re gonna call it? I appreciate this sort of dialogue being in a magazine. But this doesn’t feel as—it just feels like they don’t believe these girls are having sex. Whereas [the newer issue] is like, you’re having sex and you need to know about STIs because you’re having sex, which I think is more honest.
Clover: It signals the maturity level maybe changing.
Hannah: Or just… ’Cause I’m sure girls reading this magazine were having sex, but it just wasn’t discussed or was frowned upon or a little bit more like it wasn’t as socially acceptable for teenage girls to be having sex and now it’s, “we know it’s happening, we’re not saying you have to but we know it’s happening so let’s make sure it’s in a safe way.”
So there’s a workout thing, but like I said they aren’t about being skinny per se, even though obviously this girl who’s doing them is very skinny. They’re more about being fit, feeling good, being in shape, not being a certain shape. Ooh, this is weird. One of the questions in Hard Questions is: “Why can’t anything happen between my cousin and me?”
Hannah: [Laughs] I hope they explain that one nicely because you need to know, honey. Again, I don’t see that being put in here [today] because it’s almost, like, laughable. We just know that.
Hannah: “Are you a brave girl?” That seems a little patronizing. It just feels like this is at risk of the answer being no. You should be saying you are a brave girl. In the 2017 issue, the quiz is: “Does Your Squad Size Matter?” That’s so 2017. I do not like the whole squad trend. I’m mad at Taylor Swift about it. I think it’s clique-y and obnoxious.
Clover: Right, how many of those people are you really that close with.
Hannah: Exactly, if you have to advertise that you’re a squad, how genuine can your friendships really be? So this feels fake to me.
Hannah: This [1999 issue] is doing a better job of putting in kind of darker, scarier things. A chart of world populations that are at risk for HIV. Maybe I’m generalizing but you don’t really see that. It feels informative and this [2017 issue] feels inspiring, empowering. The “Change is good” article is a cool piece. I like this.
Clover: Oh, this section is in the back instead.
Hannah: It’s funny because the trauma stuff [in the 2017 issue] is a lot about social media. “Snap decision: I accidentally posted a booty pic on my SnapChat story instead of sending it to the guy I was talking to. I had underwear on and everything, but the photo was on my Story for awhile before I noticed.” [Laughs]
Clover: That sounds real.
Hannah: Yeah, I believe that. I feel like so much of YM was catered to: you should do something for a guy. A girl should dress a certain way because a guy likes it. A girl should act a certain way on a date because a guy likes it. Even by 1999, for the Seventeen issue, that wasn’t a theme, because I think that’s a toxic mentality to be giving to young women. And I think particularly the YM was a lot about, like, looks and looking a certain way and putting a girl into sort of a cookie-cutter and not teaching girls to be strong and be smart and find their own path and follow their own dream. In the new Seventeen, it felt more [about] embracing your body and your fresh face.