by Dana Edell, SPARK Executive Director
1988: the year Paula Abdul was known for being “Forever Your Girl,” Molly Ringwald played a pregnant high school student in For Keeps? and Lisa Bonet took her oversized blazers and funky hats to A Different World. And in 1988, I turned 13. In a nostalgically Back to the Future-like voyage, I memory-travelled back in time to the late eighties through the sort-of-shiny-but-definitely-not-super-glossy pages of old Seventeen magazines. Last month, my sister got married and I spent a weekend in my childhood bedroom. Though the yellow and white striped wallpaper has been replaced with beige paint and the Laura Ashley purple flowered bedspread is long gone, the desk drawers and closet remain frozen in time and filled with the diaries, letters (yes, dear readers, when I was a teen I had drawers of paper letters covered in stickers from summer camp friends, postage stamps upside down as a symbol of love) of my 15 year old self. I wade through the dusty theater props in my old closet and find a torn shopping bag filled with dozens of teen magazines.
As I had recently spent the past month working on SPARK’s campaign to demand that Seventeen offer one un-photoshopped model spread per issue, I am deeply curious what I might find in the pages of these magazines from an era before you could achieve clear skin with the click of a blinking cursor across a screen. I immediately dump the bag on my bedroom floor and begin devouring these relics of my past. I look into the eyes of Jennifer Connelly on the December 1988 cover. I see things I feel I haven’t seen in decades: pores, stray hairs, unplucked eyebrows, a hint of a blemish. On the cover!! And inside, oh inside! I notice wrinkles, cellulite, freckles, frizz, and stained teeth. I grab the tattered Seventeen from 2012 in my backpack and compare the two with jaw dropping awe. Things have changed.
The girls look different. For real. In the 80’s, and yes, I remember that the fashion police (aka: the cool, popular girls in the cafeteria) demanded that you wear oversized tshirts, leggings and (if you were seriously rad – three different colored, layered pairs of) scrunchy socks. In 2012, I see flesh, skin, legs, bellies, red lips, smoky eyes, over-shadowed cleavage. I barely notice any make-up on the faces of the girls on the 80’s covers, yet Sarah Hyland’s face on the July 2012 cover looks pore-less, plucked, rouged, and glossed. Yes, there are some things from Seventeen in 1988 that I had to gulp real hard to swallow. I’m glad they don’t have the Seventeen Wedding Guide anymore. Seriously. And I could do without the weight loss camp ads and Debbie Gibson perfume, but in general the 80’s seemed to celebrate active, fun and smart girls. I notice that the prom dresses in the 80’s were poofy, ruffly, pleaty, flowering with big sashes, ribbons, and flowers. Ugly? absolutely. Sexy, revealing, interchangeable with women’s clubbing dresses? Nope. Prom dresses today are mini, micro, low-cut, high-slit, tight, shiny and sparkly.
So what do theses changes actually tell us? Girls and girls’ bodies have not actually changed much in 20 years, though flipping through these magazines, I notice that they really do look different. The obsession with being “hot” and “sexy” has seeped from women’s fashion magazines to girls’ magazines. Sure, in the 80’s girls wanted to learn “make up magic” and “how to get a safe tan,” but the clothing looked more like outfits you would wear roller skating than tight dresses with cut-outs. When I was a 13 year old, I remember waiting for my Seventeen to come each month and I would devour the advice columns hoping PLEASE they could tell me what to do with my frizzy hair victimized by overzealous sun-in misfortunes. I was not immune to the pressures of looking like the models in the pages. And I still had moments when I hated my body and wished my calf muscles were bigger, my eyes bluer and my nose smaller. But at least I trusted that these girls with vertical bangs and bushy eyebrows actually looked like their photos.
I want teen magazines today to be filled with girls’ smiles where you can see the wrinkles and creases of their skin. I want to see bodies that look like real bodies with all the dimply, pimply beauty that implies. I want girls to see themselves reflected back in magazines that are supposed to be for them. But the truly amazing thing that I see today that I didn’t notice 20 years ago is that girls are standing up and fighting to change things. I am so proud to be a part of SPARK Movement and to work with such amazing young activists who are inspiring me every day with their fierce demands and their tireless passion. They are demanding that magazines like Seventeen stop photoshopping models’ bodies and Keep It Real. Let’s join them and SPARK some change!