Just when I think we've done a great job protecting our daughter from the influences of popular culture, there she sits in the orthodontist's office, reading Seventeen magazine.
Is she wondering if she needs a therapist? There's a quick quiz to determine if she's really at risk or just needs to “talk to her parents or a trusted friend.”
Does she want ideas to take a micro-mini skirt from daytime to evening? There are fashion suggestions to go from great to “glam” most of which involve layers of “bling,” although if my daughter ever appeared in one of these outfits, she couldn't leave our house.
Naturally, there are beauty tips to get the best hair ever, the best lips ever, the best eyebrows ever, and even how to hide the bags under your eyes when you pull an all-nighter, presumably studying.
My daughter and I leaf through the publications piled on the coffee table as we wait for her appointment. Turns out, in addition to straight teeth, our orthodontist offers a crash course in pop culture for teens, with subscriptions to YM, Teen People and J-14.
The cover of YM (which used to stand for “young miss” but now means “your magazine”) boasts several interesting features: “The hottest guys on the planet,” “40 [expletive deleted] party looks,” and “I got a boob job two girls share the gross details.” In case readers aren't convinced the details are gross, there's a photo inside taken mid-surgery of a girl's breasts, one side completed, the other waiting for the knife.
Teen People has the perennially smiling Hilary Duff on the cover the favorite star of my 7-year-old. Inside, readers learn Hilary loves to shop, especially at Henry Bendel, where she's photographed spending roughly the same amount of money I might pay to resurface my driveway. This issue also asks the burning question, “Does your ponytail holder fit your personality?”
My favorite is J-14 not because it's good, but because it's so bad it reminds me why we put parental controls on everything in our home except the toaster.
J-14 just for teens offers “Hot stories about the 14 hottest stars” and a cover photo montage of Eminem (“the real reason” he “got naked”), Beyonce (her “shocking baby news”) and Ashlee Simpson (why she “can't find love” though her recent embarrassing foray into late-night television might explain it).
I flip pages on my quest to read the J-14 investigative report, “When gossip hurts” (advertised over a photo of Mary Kate Olsen), but the first thing I notice when I open the cover is the advertising.
Bubble-gum-flavored lipstick? A board game called “Mall Madness”? The holiday edition “Bratz” doll? An ad for Nickelodeon DVDs confirms the truth: I hold in my hand the battle plan for today's culture war.
Clearly, the objective is to indoctrinate children as early as possible into the permissive, materialistic mind-set that permeates these pages.
There in my orthodontist's office, readily available for children and young teens to pass the time while waiting to have their orthodontic hardware adjusted, is all the information they need to be culturally tuned-in. Articles about dating, sex (casually referred to as “hooking up”), and pregnancy fill the pages under headlines like “Boys, boys, boys” and “Could he be the one?”
What's most confusing are the mixed messages these publications send (although the slang is also baffling, and learning it is one reason I read the magazine while my daughter gets new brackets for her rubber bands).
On the one hand, it looks like they want to promote self-confidence, compassion, and examples of real courage. Every issue has some feature that seems to say, “You're more than just your looks.” One magazine highlights a girl's difficult recovery from an accident; another has a story on a teen's philanthropic efforts.
Yet these articles are contrived at best. They're sandwiched between pages of suggestive ads and regular features on “Most embarrassing moments” which almost exclusively have to do with clumsy intimate encounters.
The real reason to read these magazines is to learn how to “get your crush to notice you.” They use the word “hot” on virtually every page because this is the goal to be hot, look hot, and date a hot guy. The sexually-driven objectives of hair, make-up, and fashion are obvious.
In fact, Seventeen's health section carries “the hook-up report,” findings of a sex survey offering insights about teens' attitudes and beliefs, as well as explicit information about their sexual behaviors. Statistics about sexually transmitted diseases are the likely justification for the article.
What's worse, it's all packaged in cool, colorful graphics that appeal to girls as young as 8 and 9. Is this who's reading “the hook-up” report?
Perhaps the scariest proof that these glossy books represent a battle for our daughters' minds and hearts is the editor's letter in which one publication describes itself not as a magazine, but as “your advisers. We work for you. And so we spend every single day trying to figure out, 'What should Our Girl know about now?'”
Unfortunately, there are too many things in this magazine that my 13-year-old daughter doesn't need to know, or even wonder about, yet.
I don't want her to be ignorant on the contrary. I just want her to enjoy her innocence while she learns what it really means to become a woman in today's culture. That, and to have straight teeth.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)