I published a piece on Hello Giggles about binge-reading some old teen magazines from the 90s. It was super fun to write -- I seriously had the best time re-reading these old issues.
I had a bunch of reactions to them that didn't make it into the final essay on Hello Giggles so I thought I'd share them here.
Teen Magazine: June 1990, December 1991, December 1993
If you’re a woman of a certain age, do this experiment: block off an hour in your calendar and Google “vintage Teen magazines.” See how long you last before you, too, end up whipping out a credit card. Because there is something addictive about Teen; with its straight-up neon color palette, the covers don’t just beckon you; they scream. They rap. They are a high-wattage high school musical in print form.
My prime Teen years were 1989 to 1992, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I remember every cover—the pinks, the patterns, the bold lips and bigger earrings. Something about those covers feels like home to me. Even now, I want to wallpaper my apartment with them in an attempt to siphon off the energy coming from their pages, the optimism and cheer. Forget coffee; a glance at a Teen cover is all the pep you need to get you through your day.
The thesis of Teen seemed to be that your teenage years are, above all else, fun. Though I couldn’t formulate this back then, I appreciated that notion when I was a pre-teen; it made me less scared. The magazines were busy, a veritable onslaught of ads and advice columns. The models were thin but mostly of average shape; their faces were downright chubby compared to what we see today. I promise you’ll recognize some models—Denise Richards, for one, who starred in a pull-out “dental health” booklet. (There were supplemental mini magazines about dental health!) The hair was big and the lipstick was pink; the models’ brow game was serious.
The advertisements in Teen matched the magazine’s style—sunny and carefree—and I remember them almost more than I remember the actual content: Love’s Baby Soft and Tribe!; Chill Out and Salon Selectives. There were Super Hair Searches and Sports Girl of the Year searches; multiple calls for girls to submit their photos, and I remember studying them intently as a kid, wondering how I’d match up if I were brave enough to submit my own photo. It was the thick of the supermodel generation, after all, where Kate Moss and Christy Turlington and the Taylor sisters were becoming household names. (In the December 1993 issue, Teen published the results of a reader poll, and girls said the women they most admired were their moms, their sisters, their friends, Hillary Clinton…and Cindy Crawford.)
Like many (most? All?) pre-teen girls, I was obsessed with getting my period. (Thanks, Judy Blume.) My memories had me convinced that Teen, too, was obsessed with it, but in rereading these three issues, I was clearly mistaken. Other than the occasional mention, and the Always-sponsored “advice” column (really an ad) in each issue, there wasn’t a lot of period talk.
Maybe that was Seventeen, I told myself after bingeing on three Teens and half a bottle of wine. (I am a lightweight these days.)
So back to eBay I went, for an old issue of Seventeen.
Seventeen Magazine: February 1993
If you follow fashion magazines at all, you know that the September issues are the best of the year. I fell in love with Seventeen during the summer of 1993, in between blaring the “Reality Bites” soundtrack and working at the local arcade. I couldn’t find that particular back-to-school issue for purposes of this trip down memory lane, but I did find the next best thing, which is the issue featuring Andrew Shue on the cover, because what girl who lived through the nineties didn’t have a crush on that do-gooder?
The thing about Seventeen is that it was so clearly talking to a different audience than Teen—older, cooler, more worldly. I distinctly felt like I had graduated from the bright neons of Teen to the plaid shirts, combat boots, mismatched florals of Seventeen; from a tinny tape deck blaring Whitney Houston to a skip-prone CD player blaring The Cranberries. Even the magazine’s fonts were different; more modern. Some of the clothes and accessories were attributed to what were surely expensive, hip stores in New York City, situated on Village corners that even now intimidate me (and I’ve lived here for years).
This particular issue celebrated Valentine’s Day with lots of romance tips and inspiring quotes from Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (I swooned at those now, but I’m sure they didn’t register with 14-year-old me.) Seventeen seemed to like its actresses; there was a profile of the three Wagner sisters (Katie, Courtney, and Natasha Gregson, the only one I knew), and there was a long interview with Wendy Benson, who starred in the short-lived drama “I’ll Fly Away” (I never saw it). In both pieces, the writers appeared so sure that these girls would be the Next Big Things that I felt mildly guilty for needing to IMDB each of them.
The Seventeen girl was more sophisticated than the Teen reader; that much is clear from this re-read. She understood things; she read between the lines. She didn’t have many more questions about her period, and she didn’t want Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. The Seventeen girl wore real lipstick, preferably something matte and purple-y to go with all those flannels. She wasn’t afraid to have streaked hair or smoky eyes—in fact, it was practically required. Your mother might not have liked the Seventeen girl, and of course, when you’re fourteen, that is part of the appeal.
Apart from fashion, makeup, and boys, Seventeen shared content about real issues. This issue in particular touched on abortion rights and hate crimes; Saddam Hussein had several mentions. And there was a blurb bemoaning the number of women in Congress (54 at the time). Unlike Teen, Seventeen wanted me to give a damn about the state of the world. It just wanted to make sure I was doing it in style.
That said, my memories of this issue were nowhere near as strong as my memories of Teen…and my level of enjoyment was less, too.
Now, listen. I have to bring up the elephant in the room now. And that elephant’s name is YM.
During my eBaying, vintage issues of YM kept popping up like a bad zit. (Or, more appropriate to my age, a stubborn gray hair.) The third magazine in the triumvirate of teen girl magazines (I’m purposely excluding Sassy, which ran for a mere fraction of time that Teen, Seventeen, and YM did, and anyway, Sassy was really in its own category), YM was like the quiet, slightly annoying neighbor that your mom always insisted you invite to your birthday parties just to be nice. It was always there, harmless and nondescript, and no one could quite remember why or how.
I had to be fair. I bought an issue.
YM Magazine: September 1992
I first came across the August 1993 issue featuring Krissy Taylor (and Dan Cortese) on the cover. I felt a pop in my chest at the sight of her; even for casual readers of teen magazines in the nineties, Krissy and Niki Taylor were revered. Not revered enough for me to pay the ridiculous asking price for the magazine, though, so I had to settle for a Luke Perry issue. Considering I used to unironically wear a sweatshirt with Luke’s likeness airbrushed onto it, boardwalk style, in middle school, this was not the great sacrifice you are perhaps imagining.
Flipping through its pages I was struck by how classic, in a way, YM was. It didn’t feel dated the way Seventeen and especially Teen did…but it didn’t feel fresh, either, and certainly not urgent. It actually didn’t feel like much of anything. I just re-read the issue, and even still I can barely remember it.
Style-wise, the blue jeans were baggy and clinched and very blue, and the hair was shellacked and the lipstick was bright, but there was no defined palette, no personality. Page after page, I looked for something that would strike me – a memory, a model I recognized, an advice column I remembered – but not much of it resonated, then or now. Even the ads didn’t speak to me; I hadn’t been an LA Gear or Gitano girl.
This issue had lots of focus on the actual models, like Claudia Schiffer and Tyra Banks and Linda Evangelista, but even those features about the “real” lives of models felt off-tone. In retrospect I realize it’s because I didn’t care about the models necessarily; I cared about feeling like them, looking like them, imagining the kind of life where I’d be famous like them.
Lest you think I’m ripping on YM too much, I will say this: first, this issue had a whole section on getting a part-time job, which was very relatable and positions YM as a more serious, functional sort of teen magazine; and second, as someone who recently purchased some leopard print flats, I fully appreciated the “how to add leopard to your denims without looking dumb” feature, which was timeless and useful.
Ultimately, though, let’s just say I am very, very grateful that wine-soaked me had the smart financial sense to not purchase the Krissy Taylor issue. This Luke Perry one only set me back a few dollars.
In 2014, The Hairpin ran “The Tragic History of Fallen Teen Magazines,” chronicling the rise and fall of these and others. Of Teen, they said, “it never had much of a personality.” I bristled reading that, but it’s probably true.
But maybe that’s why I loved it so much. In its pages, filled with a certain level of inanity but also an accessible camaraderie and a whispered promise that everything was going to be okay, Teen let me find whatever I was seeking at the time. It let me find me.