Open Letter to Seventeen Magazine

To Whom it May Concern:

While I haven’t had a subscription to your magazine since I was in my teens (presently in mid 20’s), a recent Facebook post from a friend has driven me to write this to you.seventeen Angered by a recent article of yours, and after seeing she wasn’t the only one,  she asked us to participate in a letter campaign of sorts to communicate our issues. I write a blog about media and pop culture from a feminist perspective. In the past I’ve worked with pre-teen girls, running mentoring programs, self esteem camps, and workshops. We all know how powerful media is on effecting the way young girls feel about themselves, and how it effects the way they interact with not only the person they see in the mirror, but the way they interact with their world.

While you’re one publication among many who cater to young women, and the messages in your magazine are the norm, that still can’t make it right. It is imperative that in order to build self esteem and a positive self identity that young women see accurate reflections of themselves in the media. Looking in your magazine, you’d never know that most young women aren’t models, imperfections hardly exist, and what qualifies as diversity is absolutely pathetic. That being said, the post that angered my friend was exceptionally annoying. “Dudes wait all winter for the first peek of a tank top. Go on, shed your layers. . .” I still can’t read that without cringing.

Is fitness important? Yes. Does working out and being fit make you feel good about yourself? Hell yes. Why on earth are we saying girls should want to look “hotter” not for themselves, but for the guys just waiting to see their cleavage? That’s insulting to the guys too.

seventeen2  It seems like not much has changed. I remember being in 5th grade when I began getting Seventeen mailed to my door. I’d grab it it out of the mail box and dash upstairs to call my best friend Emily, and we’d take the monthly quiz together over the phone. The question “Does He Like You?”  was asked in so many different forms, and I never questioned how much stuff was in their about guys, and this clearly made it seem like the question was important, something I should be caring about.

The thing is, it’s very clear that these messages carry over. One truly literal time I recall is when a friend of mine in college was crying over a guy she liked who simply didn’t like her back. She was CONVINCED that if she lost 10 or 15 pounds he would finally give her the time of day she so desperately wanted.  This is a girl who wasn’t overweight to begin with, by normal standards, and who was actually masking (not very successfully) an eating disorder. It sounded so crazy and silly! But a walk down the magazine aisle at the grocery store shows that she had really just internalized all these messages magazines were telling her and the rest of us. If you’re skinnier, you’re happier. If you’re skinnier you’re more likely to have men like you. It’s just accepted that spending lots of time on keeping our bodies small is a worthy venture and way to spend our time.

I can’t lie. When I saw my friend Sarah’s post about this I skimmed past it, shared her agitation, “liked” it, and moved on. When she approached me a day or two later asking me to be part of her letter writing campaign, I half-halfheartedly said sure. But I had no idea what to say; I felt like it wouldn’t be effective.  How is this different than any of the other awful things we see in magazines? Will this actually do anything?  Because I have this platform, and because Sarah is an awesome friend and in general one of the coolest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, I agreed to write something, and she was thankful. I asked her what she wanted to get out of this, and if she thought it would make a difference. To this she responded:

“I would love it if Seventeen responded to the backlash from this article, especially if I helped create that backlash. I want my voice–and the voice of SO many who are equally appalled by this article–to be heard. So yes, I want a response from Seventeen. Do I think it will result in paradigm altering changes to the magazine? Of course not. But if we create enough noise to warrant a response from Seventeen magazine, we can be sure that other people have noticed along the way, and THAT is the real goal. To start the conversation and to get the ball rolling.”

I really don’t know what the answer is to really get the ball rolling to help create this paradigm shift, but I do know that it is necessary to try. As a grown woman I look at this issue differently than I did 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. I can’t help but now wonder what I’m doing to make the world a better place for the daughter I will have some day. Regardless of how much self esteem and worth I will try to instill in her, I can hardly compete against the 3,000 or so media images she will see each day. I could try to shelter her from various forms of media, like magazines, since I know that studies show that about 75% of girls feel WORSE about themselves after flipping through magazines made for them. But she will have friends who read these too, and I care about them as well. I would love for these girls to not compare themselves to the incredibly altered images they see and look at their beautiful, able bodies with doubt or shame. I want them to care about cultivating their personalities and selves before worrying about what their male peers think of their bodies. I want them to know that boys are not simply creatures they should relate to by seeking approval and acceptance from them, but are people just like them, and potential friends.

There needs to be an alternative to the norm that exists today as far as media made for adolescent women goes. Imagine being the magazine that actually made young girls feel better about themselves after they picked it up, and not because they know what workout to do to impress guys, or which clothes they should purchase to compete with their female peers. Imagine a publication that teaches women and girls that we can relate to each other as allies, not as competitors. Where the models pictured genuinely reflected the readers. Where REAL articles related to health, education, safety, interpersonal relationships, etc.  fill your pages, not as anomalies but as the real content. A publication that doesn’t let advertisements dictate it’s content at the expense of it’s readers’ self esteem (And to blame all this content ON your advertising is an absolute cop out). Imagine what a difference in the world that would make?

There are smaller niche magazines that try to do the things mentioned above. Imagine what a substantial statement it would be for a magazine with as much clout as Seventeen to elevate its content. I don’t expect a revolution to start anytime soon making all of this possible. But I do hope these letters start something else; whether it be in your editorial meetings or informally with each other; a conversation.