If there was anyone in need of clear information about the process of developing into a woman, it was my teenage self – raised by brothers and attending a faith-based school where discussions of sexual health were severely limited. Before social media the places where young people curious about their bodies and puberty could find information were few and far between. For peoPle like me, teen magazines were the logical place to look for answers.
Magazines for teenagers existed long before the 1990s and 2000s, but there was a boom in titles during those two decades. Mizz was first published in 1985; Bliss followed 10 years later, and CosmoGirl arrived in 1999. Young people had more expendable income, and groups like the Spice Girls rose to prominence in an era that prized the idea of female empowerment. Young women had a plethora of titles we could purchase ourselves. Hidden behind covers displaying members of Blue and free samples of Impulse were headlines about periods, body hair and relationships, all promising honest information derived from real-life experience.
In reality, much of the content on offer was a mirage. Airbrushed cover girls with tiny waists, clear skin and glossy hair promoted a narrow and unrealistic version of teen beauty. Dating advice was largely restricted to heterosexual relationships. There seemed to be an outright refusal to write honestly about teenage bodies; painful periods were described as ordinary, and young women were encouraged to remedy discomfort with a hot bath or chocolate ice cream. Little mention was made about the severity of pain or the potentially serious side-effects of hormonal contraception. If these were mentioned, they were presented as horror stories: “I got pregnant on the pill and didn’t know”, or “I went through menopause at 16”. Even gender-neutral issues like acne and stretch marks were handled tentatively, the latter going mostly unmentioned.
These omissions betrayed an unease with addressing the subject of women’s bodies. By skirting over hormones, uteruses and all that can go wrong with them, teen magazines created a void that we filled with alternative answers. My generation was variously told that it’s normal to be in agony one week a month or for your contraception to destroy your mental health. I was left grossly unprepared for the fairly common realities of being a woman. Recently I asked friends if they had similar experiences: “Did anyone else hear of endometriosis, PCOS or cystitis in your teenage years and from teen magazines?” The responses were telling. “I learned about endometriosis when someone actually listened to me about how painful my periods were,” said one friend.
The advice in these magazines has since been mocked and parodied. But if we can now recognise that the guidance was ridiculous, where were the initiatives to replace it with good information? Now, as then, it may simply be that too few people take teenage girls seriously, or care enough about women’s pain.
Teen magazines did not survive the digital revolution, and by the 2010s most had become online-only or disappeared altogether. But their collapse didn’t put an end to misinformation, which has rippled across the internet and flourished on platforms that resonate with women – particularly Instagram, where a number of thread pages and accounts have become go-to bibles for young women. Trends such as clean eating, self-care and flat-tummy teas are mutations of the spurious information once available in teen magazines.
In my work as a journalist and fact checker, I’ve seen teenagers tell each other that corrosive apple cider vinegar is good for the skin and that eating coconut oil can shorten your period and reduce bleeding. A deficit of accessible healthcare advice has resulted in a generation muddling together bad advice of the sort found in old teen magazines with expensive modern-day “fixes”. Shaped by the latest wellness fads, young women searching for reliable advice are fed a hodgepodge of digitised playground rumours, jade-egg mysticism and almond milk food vogues. Authority is less dependant on expertise or qualifications than follower count. Many of these accounts are nothing more than crowdsourced puberty manuals with a VSCO filter.
There’s a tendency to eulogise teen magazines and demonise their digital successors. But this ignores the continuity between the poor guidance printed in these publications and the misleading advice available online today. One of the most pernicious effects of misinformation is everyday physical harm, the small mistakes made by young women resorting to bogus health tips in the absence of legitimate guidance. Today, despite an abundance of online sources, we seem no more willing to have frank and truthful discussions about women’s bodies – or women’s pain.
• Rachael Krishna is a journalist at Full Fact