The strange world of '90s teen magazines [Commentary]

A sample article in a '90s teen magazine.
A sample article in a '90s teen magazine.(Bryna Zumer | Aegis staff)

I recently started the long, arduous and possibly pointless process of taking down a massive collage of quotes and pictures that has covered the door of my bedroom in my parents' house since I was a teenager.

I had spent years clipping them out and arranging them on the door. At the time, they seemed bold, daring and inspiring.


But now they just seem like a tribute to advertising, so I decided to get this shrine to ads off my door.

Most of these quotes and pictures came from "teen magazines." I'm not sure if the teenagers of today even know what these are, but if you were a teenage girl in the 1990s, you basically couldn't avoid them.


Even if you didn't read YM or Teen People or (God help you) things like J-14 and Bop, everyone else at school did, which meant you would somehow find one in your lap or in a locker room at some point.

These magazines told you how to do your hair, wear the latest fashions (in a school-appropriate way!) and date guys even though they were supposedly crazy.

In middle school, for example, I subscribed to (now-defunct) 'Teen magazine, which seemed to be the main thing people were reading.

'Teen regularly had quizzes that answered burning questions like whether your boyfriend was "a sweetie or a slimeball."

If the results of these quizzes were a revelation to you, you were probably recovering from a lobotomy, because they were not terribly brilliant.

The quizzes were mostly used as a way to pass time before the start of math or chorus class, kind of like crossword puzzles (except I guess you could actually learn something from a crossword).

I was especially confused by the magazines' view of the opposite sex, which seemed to be: "Guys are like aliens from another planet and totally incomprehensible, but you'd better get a boyfriend!"

I had thought boys were still basically human - entertaining at best, irritating at worst - but the teen magazines proved me wrong.

With their "guys-are-space-aliens" attitude, the magazines never really made it clear why you might want a boyfriend, except as a kind of accessory (to go with your flannel jacket?).

Every 'Teen issue was also apparently required to have one "serious" article, about rape or OCD or teen runaways.

Once 'Teen printed some readers' poems on the topic of going back to school. The poems were about things like math class, basketball, friends and trying to stand out from "the popular crowd." One girl wrote about how much she liked school. Only one poem was about guys, and nobody wrote about clothes.

You might think 'Teen would have picked up on the fact that many of its readers cared about things like education, sports and standing out from the crowd. But I guess 'Teen knew better.


Once a year 'Teen profiled teenagers who got some kind of community service award. Those stories were interesting, as the teens were really involved in different volunteer activities and were legitimately "saving the world" instead of just obsessing over what shoes to buy.

Halfway through my time in high school, a new magazine appeared called Jump, which a lot of people signed on to.

Jump considered itself revolutionary for focusing a tiny bit more on sports and positive body image. It featured slightly more feminist celebrities, like Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Jump abruptly folded almost as soon as it began. I think it was only around for a year or two. I remember one of my friends was really mad because she couldn't get her money back for the subscription.

For the most part, though, high-school freshmen and sophomores had moved on to Seventeen.

I didn't see anyone who was actually 17 reading Seventeen. Older teens were supposed to move on to "Cosmo" - basically, adult magazines.

It seemed like the years spent reading teen magazines took its toll on people in college, too. In my journalism classes, for example, most girls ultimately wanted to write for magazines while most guys seemed to act like they were already at The Washington Post.

As college wound down and we moved into the adult world, my roommate and I both subscribed to Esquire, technically a men's magazine even though at least a third of its readership is female.

The world of teen magazines and, well, high-school peer pressure seemed safely behind us.

Until, that is, I happen to come across a 1994 issue of 'Teen at my parents' house or see the quotes on my bedroom door. Then I'm reminded that this strange aspect of teenage life is never really gone forever.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun