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Not Quite Human Yet


Washington. -- What do women want?" Freud famously asked, then failed to answer in a slew of books. But suppose he were still with us and asked, "What do teen-age girls want?" That's easy: Brad Pitt and a nice prom.

That conclusion is reached after deep and prolonged immersion in the fat, glossy magazines that cater to that cohort of females. The two most successful magazines are Seventeen and YM (which stands for young and modern).

The New York Times recently reported that those two, each with a circulation of about two million, are in hot competition for the advertisers who are in hot competition for the loose change in the pockets of the baggy jeans of teen-age girls.

It is a tidy sum: $34 billion. It can buy a lot of skin cream ("Every moisturizer is soft on skin. Here's one that's tough on zits"), compact discs, prom dresses and tickets to Brad Pitt movies.

Mr. Pitt played the younger brother in "A River Runs Through It." In it he was a terrific fly fisherman. He is even better as a subject for magazine stories, such as "Heartbreak Hunk Brad Pitt" and "Brad Pitt's Weird Secret" (the secret is that he carries a roll of toilet paper in his car). He even creeps into advice on decoding dreams: "If you dream about Brad Pitt, you want a long-term romance with a guy you're crushing on."

About that last item, two things to remember. First, "long term" is a phrase with elastic meaning. Witness a letter that begins, "My boyfriend and I got into a fight on the night of our one-month anniversary." And if the use of "crush" as a verb in the paragraph above gives you the willies, you will find these magazines hard sledding.

Their texts are blizzards of sentences featuring words like "stressed" and "bummed" and "psyched" and "grossed." And like," as in the title of an article: "Like, Yuk: Don't be a fashion disaster." And "omigod," as in this cover headline: "Omigod! My boyfriend gave me a gross disease."

Which brings us to the subject of sex. It does pop up. About everything: "extra: best bikini (make him sweat)." The New York Times says that YM, somewhat the brassier of the two magazines, features "sex-on-the-surface articles about how to attract young men and then avoid sex with them." Not always.

True, YM reports -- with a breathlessness suggesting astonishment, but with the evident intent to reassure readers that abstinence is not weird -- this: "70 percent of all teen-agers are still virgins by the time they turn 16."

Evidently readers are looking for advice, and some of the advice is useful in dispelling misunderstandings, such as "You can't get pregnant the first time you have sex." Says YM, briskly: "Yes, you can. Sex isn't like the SATs, where the first time doesn't always count."

Much of the advice is not, well, strenuously judgmental: "Get to know what kind of person someone is before you have sex with him." But a lot of the advice concerns rather sweet worries, such as "My boyfriend is really into PDAs." (Those are public displays of affection.) And there is a remarkable amount of analysis of the mechanics and etiquette of kissing, which turns out to be more complicated for novices than you, seasoned reader, may remember.

When you come up for air after a dive into these magazines, you are decidedly not nostalgic for your teen-age years, which obviously are years of high anxiety -- about hair, skin, nails, breath and every other facet of the body. For teen-age girls, even more than for teen-age boys, the body is a comprehensive problem, and a frequent betrayer.

A fundamental philosophic debate is between those who say "I have a body" and those who say "I am a body." There are many more of the former than of the latter, partly -- largely, no doubt -- because humanity's self-esteem is served by the idea that there is more to us than flesh and blood and sinew.

Is there really a "ghost in the machine"? Let's not try to settle that here and now. But regarding teen-agers of all sorts -- and some of my friends, including one of my best friends, my daughter, are in that cohort -- let us note a thought from essayist Joseph Epstein. In his latest book, "With My Trousers Rolled," he faults one author for "anthropomorphizing children." But it is acceptable to do that with teen-agers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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