Wednesday night, upstate New York, zooming through a supermarket aisle. I'm looking for some kind of vegetable, but a magazine rack catches my eye. New issue of Seventeen on sale: The cover is a teenie-looking chick in a red strappy skirt, a blazing "BACK TO SCHOOL ISSUE!" banner, and then this teaser near the bottom of the page:
Shoes, shoes, & more SHOES PLUS: Win a closet full of shoes Page 188
I grabbed the magazine and flipped greedily to page 188, my shopping cart drifting away on its own momentum. The sight of the giant four-page spread, lecherously overflowing with giant piles of shitty mall shoes, instantly set my manhood astir. Once you've been exposed to enough media in modern America, even your erotic responses become sarcastic. I snatched the magazine, plus a copy of the more or less identical ym, and raced home to devour them in private.
I have a thing for the teenie-girl mags. It's not what you think. There's nothing in the world less sexual than Seventeen or ym. They're straight terror trips, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The protagonist, the girl-reader, is a Frankenstein-like creature who starts out with no body or face of her own, but gradually acquires the dead parts of others as she goes along-legs, nails, "sexy eyes in ten minutes," ankles, a neck even a stomach (that has a "huge knot" on dye-your-hair day). Her experience from birth (the cover) to death (the back page) is a symphony of anxiety and self-loathing, with some new nightmare on every page. She raises her hand in class, and the boy-soccer-player next to her smells her gamey underarms. Dancing on stage, her leotard rips and her "boobs [are] visible to everyone," which of course makes everyone laugh. All of this is very consciously emphasized (both Seventeen and ym have "trauma" sections).
In between it all, the pages are filled with perfect celluloid celebrities who stare with blistering, permanent indictment. They are terrifying faces. I'm a grown man and can defend myself, but I've had nightmares about the Olsen twins.
And I get off on it. If you use these mags right, they shock your senses back to health, and for days afterward you feel a warm rush all over as the blood cautiously returns to your limbs. It's a lot like jumping into the freezing ocean in the dead of winter, which is another thing I do once a year. In both cases, though, you have to do it right or it can be dangerous.
One of the first rules of engagement is to be thorough. Time, Newsweek, even Foreign Policy can be skimmed for the occasional article of interest. Not the teen-girl mags. You have to read every line of every page in order to get the full experience. That includes the ads. If you do this right, it will take you at least an hour just to reach the table of contents (it took me 90 minutes with ym this week). As you read, make lists of like images and phrases from the various ads and articles, then occasionally draw lines connecting themes. Inevitably, you will notice some amazing things-like the chilling "Shakespeare" motif.
This month, Seventeen featured an instructional piece about college interviews, which included this bit under the headline "Dare to Disagree":
Tiffany's Story: "At my interview we started talking about books, and the guy said he thought Hamlet was the greatest work ever. I told him, 'I hated it!'? He was impressed by my honesty-and I got in!"
Meanwhile, in ym, readers are invited to write in to the letters section "After you finish your Romeo & Juliet essay." And later on, there's a diagnostic quiz that asks if you're the kind to use SparkNotes to write that bummer essay on The Tempest.
A few pages later, there's an ad that tells you that real drama (that is, "dramatic") is the difference in the color of your teeth after just two weeks of using Colgate Simply White. And then, a few pages after that, there's a ten-page fashion spread on two mismatched college roommates-advertising dozens of outfits and dorm accessories-that the magazine calls "a play in five parts." As for Hamlet, he's actually advertised in both magazines-he's the name of a shoe put out by Soda Shoes. In Seventeen, the Soda ad is the face page across from Tiffany's story.
There's stuff like this to be found all over the place in the girl mags, if you pay attention. The "Are You A Big Fat Cheater?" quiz probes you on your honesty and your willingness to cut corners. A few pages later, there's a feature on "5 ways to fake totally flawless skin" (another stop for Franken-teen), and after that, there's another suggestive Colgate ad that features a "cheat sheet" on keeping teeth white. Or there's the letter in the letters section that complains about "those three little words that are too easily thrown around: 'I love you'"-and that very letter is just centimeters away from an ad for the Care Bears Love Bug Sweepstakes. There will be at least thirty ads that use the word "love" in every teen-girl mag, to go along with the other, lesser standbys: "miracle," "happy," "heaven," "magic," and, weirdly, "punky."
I make it a point to enter every contest giveaway, to put myself in the running for every conceivable product offered: Caboodles organizers, Clearly Cool tote bags, Smackers Splash n' Shine lip gloss, a chance for a private shopping spree with the Warner Bros. recording artists Cherish-everything for my home and hallway make-out needs. This is time-consuming; there are dozens of contests in each magazine, and it can take two full hours to fill out all the forms. But it has to be done.
I also write in to all the advice columnists and send in my own "trauma stories" (ski accident on field trip; legs wrapped around big, long tree; photo appears in yearbook). You will be tempted to take liberties with the format, as I did a while back:
Sometimes I feel so icky at school, I want to shoot everyone in sight with my father's Chinese-made SKS type 56 rifle! Is there a base/concealer combination I can use that won't make my eyes feel so cakey?
Jennie, 13, Basking Ridge, NJ
This is wrong and should be discouraged. Remember, this is their turf.
That doesn't mean you can't ask the occasional question. I called Margo Donohue, publicist for Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing, which publishes ym.
"Do you think," I asked, "that there's a place in the world for physically unattractive girls, or girls without enough money to buy nice clothes or cosmetics?"
Is there any conceivable answer to that question but "yes"?
But she laughed. "Uh, that sounds like a loaded question? You're going to have to send that to me, and I'll direct it to the proper person?"
We discussed the whole e-mail protocol until I interrupted her.
"I guess the question should have been: If you think there is a place in the world for people like that, why aren't they in your magazine?"
"I can't answer that," she said. "I'm just the publicist."
"Right," I said. "Which means it's exactly your job to answer that."
"You're just going to have to send me that request."
"Look," I said. "I'm on a deadline. You're a human being, right?"
Long pause, then: "Right."
"Then don't you have a personal opinion?"
"No," she said.
Right. Of course she doesn't. We sure let some sick people near our kids.