How Seventeen Undermines Young Women

By Kimberly Phillips

This article originally appeared in the January/February 1993 edition of Extra!, the bimonthly magazine of media criticism published by the media watch group FAIR and is published at with permission

Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, studying the psychological development of teenage girls in 1988, found that they experience a major drop in self-esteem as they reach adolescence. Only 29 percent of teenage girls said that they “felt happy the way I am,” as opposed to 60 percent of nine-year-old girls. Gilligan suggests that this adolescent crisis in confidence is due to the conflict between the image that a girl has of herself and what society tells her a woman should be like.

Seventeen the most widely read magazine among teenage girls in the United States, claims to “encourage independence” and help each reader “become this wonderful person that she dreams she will be.” But far from encouraging independence, Seventeen only reinforces the cultural expectations that an adolescent woman should be more concerned with her appearance, her relations with other people and her ability to win approval from men than with her own ideas or her expectations for herself.

An average issue of Seventeen contains about eight to 12 fashion and beauty features, taking up two-thirds of the magazine’s editorial content. There is usually one story about a new exercise or fitness regime, one story in which an “average-” looking girl gets a makeover, numerous pages of makeup tricks and techniques, mini-stories on what’s new in the fashion world, and the feature fashion spreads, which are usually four to six pages long.

For a magazine aimed at an audience of teenage girls, Seventeen does a lot of reporting on men. In 1992, 61 of the celebrities profiled in Seventeen’s “Talent” section were men, while only 20 were women. Every issue of Seventeen has a column called “Guy Talk,” in which a columnist named Robert Love expounds upon the male view of relationships and women. One of only two articles in 1992 about eating disorders among teenage girls was written by a man, giving his perceptions of “My Sister’s Battle with Anorexia.” The whole July 1992 issue was devoted to describing “One Hundred Guys We Love.” (Perhaps as a follow-up, the August issue ran an article called “Hello, I Love You: How to Write a Knockout Fan Letter.”)

Even the fashion and beauty stories are centered around men. A fashion spread in the February 1992 issue called “A Little Romance” featured a blonde, blue-eyed model wearing stylish clothing trying to “find Monsieur Right in France,” which, according to the captions that accompany the story, is “all about flair — looking tres cute — and searching like crazy!” In April 1992, a fashion spread featuring young women in short bloomers and cowboy boots was captioned “How to Rustle Up a Ranchero…” The August 1992 issue ran a fashion spread called “Romance 101,” which had photographs of a young woman gazing adoringly at her boyfriend. A caption read, “Making the honor roll can have some hidden perks — like John begging me to cram for the English midterm with him….”

In keeping with this trivialization of intellectual pursuits, an average issue of Seventeen has only two or three full-length articles on non-beauty topics. These articles almost invariably deal with a teenage girl’s relations with other people, rather than ways for her to be happy with her own life. There are articles about how to find the right boyfriend, whether it’s by taking a special Seventeen quiz (“What’s Your Guy Style,” 7/92) or by consulting the horoscopes (“The Love Scope,” 2/92). Then there are articles about how to fit into the social structure at school (“Popularity: What’s the Secret?” 10/92). The fiction stories that Seventeen publishes usually deal with the same kinds of topics.

In 1992, there was not one article about the abortion debate. There were no full-length articles about the “Year of the Woman.” Aside from one full-length article about sexual harassment (9/92), political issues were minimized and crammed into a three-paragraph column, which frequently shared the page with another column about makeup or trendy clothing. Even environmental issues were turned into beauty issues, as in the opening line of an article on ozone depletion (1/92): “The environment’s in trouble — and the more it suffers, the tougher it is on your skin.”

By assuming that skincare is the first thing on their minds, magazines like Seventeen are telling young women that their minds are unimportant. By teaching young women that the most important things in a woman’s life should be her looks and her relationships to men, they only serve to reinforce the drop in self-esteem reported in Gilligan’s study.


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