Providing a Catholic framework on the truth and meaning of sexuality, love, and family

Selling Identity

by Vicki ThornWhile on a field trip today to a bookstore, I got lost in the magazine section. I must admit it was an eye-opening experience as I took the time to look through three teen magazines.All three magazines were publications that have been around for some time. Seventeen caught my eye, its cover promising “823 Fashion & Beauty Ideas” and “The Best Fall Clothes for your Body.” I was stuck by the huge number of ads: Out of the 222 pages, close to 100 were paid advertizing, not counting the sections devoted to fashion items and where to buy them. What a tsunami of stuff that will make you more beautiful, better dressed, more attractive! Teen Vogue also oozed fashions —“386 looks you’ll love,” to be specific. Even Girl’s Life, which aims for a slightly younger audience, had “382 ways to look fab for fall.”According to a 1999 study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, teens aged 15 to 18 spend an average of 13 minutes per day reading magazines. Media studies show that readers of teen magazines turn to them as a “valued source of advice about their personal lives.” Perhaps most disturbing were the in-depth interviews with 12 and 13-year-old girls who regularly read teen magazines. The interviews revealed that the girls “used the magazines to formulate their concepts of femininity and relied heavily on articles that featured boys’ opinions about how to gain male approval and act in relationships with males.”A few years ago, the American Psychological Association published an insightful article entitled “Driving teen egos—and buying—through ‘branding.’” It was on how “a glut of marketing messages encourages teens to tie brand choices to their personal identity.”According to the APA article, teen girls spend over $9 million on makeup and skin products alone. In 2004, companies marketing to adolescents and kids spent $15 billion to influence over $600 billion’s worth of spending. One can only wonder how much more is being spent now.“Comparing the marketing of today with the marketing of yesteryear is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb,” said Susan Linn, Ed.D., of Harvard  Medical School. “It’s enhanced by technology, honed by child psychologists and brought to us by billion(s) of dollars.”She continued, “In the new millennium, marketing executives are insinuating their brands into the fabric of children’s lives. They want – to use industry terms – ‘cradle to grave’ brand loyalty and to ‘own’ children.”Then there are the articles on sex and relationships.One piece grabbed attention with the headlines “Scary Sex Rumors! Deadly shots! Pills that can hurt you! Is everything you’re hearing true? Get the facts right here.” The questions deal with Gardasil, the HPV vaccine; and whether the Plan B “morning after” pill is comparable to having an abortion. (The authors say it isn’t, and go on to tell girls how to get the pill over the counter if they are over 17, or at a Planned Parenthood clinic or doctor’s office if they are younger – all confidentially.) Talking about Pap smears, the article states that girls don’t need the check until age 21, as cervical cancer is extremely rare among teen girls – despite the Center for Disease Control’s advice that Pap smears begin at 21 or within three years of the onset of sexual activity.  If a girl begins to have sex at 16 or 17, 21 does not coincide with the CDC recommendation.The article does suggest going to the gynecologist for STD tests or prescriptions for birth control in order to prevent pregnancy or help with painful periods. However, what I found most troublesome is that the piece went on to advise girls how to get around their shyness of being open to their mothers about sex.“If you are afraid your mom will think you’re having sex, if you ask to go the gyno, just say you have questions about your period or want help for your cramps,” the article suggests. As a mother, I resent a magazine telling my daughter how to get around me.The article continues: “If you’re having sex, you should be on birth control pills (they’re more effective) and use a condom to protect against STDs.” Nowhere does it suggest that girls should be tested by their doctor to see if they have a blood clotting factor that would indicate they should not use the Pill. Nor does it tell girls that if they shouldn’t be on the Pill if they smoke – and according to the CDC, nearly a quarter of teens do smoke.Another article in the “Real Love” section recounted how “I fell in love with my best friend” – a 17 year old’s story of suddenly becoming attracted to her female friend after sneaking a drink from a parent’s supply. Though they kissed, the young woman said, the “love didn’t last.” And yet: “It helped me reveal a part of myself I’d tried to hide. Realizing that I’m bi(sexual) was like opening a door to a new side of me …”And we wonder why there is such confusion amongst our teens.(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Headline Bistro or the Knights of Columbus.)

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