Critical Response Teen Magazines A Critical Analysis English Language Essay

Magazines aimed at the young teenage women market may give the impression of being a ‘girl’s best friend’. Of course, like everything, they have their strengths and weaknesses but do the strengths outweigh the weaknesses? It seems more likely for the negative effects of teenage magazines to be more prominent than the positive effects but is this really the case?

This response reviews the way teenage magazines address issues relevant to young women today, especially from the point of view of promoting healthy body image, safe sex and leading social justice issues. All these aspects are emphasised by techniques used in the composition of these magazines with article structure, visual collages and informal language being the most common. Are the issues they cover and the extent to which they cover them appropriate for their readers? Teenage magazines, such as Dolly and Girlfriend, are often the first place teenagers turn when they have a problem and that is when segments like Dolly Doctor [1] are most commonly used. This reinforces the need for the magazine’s content to be appropriate for their readers; however, this is not always possible. Magazines, such as Cleo and Cosmopolitan, are in a difficult position; whilst they are aimed at the young adult market, 18 to 35-year-old women, a large proportion of their readers are between the age of 14 and 17. As reported in the respective magazines’ readership profiles, 35.16 per cent of Cosmopolitan readers [2] are aged between 14 and 17 and 29.11 per cent of Cleo readers. [3] How does this effect the teens who read these magazines? It appears that these effects are positive, such as encouraging their readers to exercise, as well as negative, for instance lowering their self-esteem. Why are teenage magazines so popular?

Issues facing teenagers

Teenage magazines play an important role in the average female teenager’s life. They provide a wide range of information, from social issues such as smoking and drinking, to issues of a less important nature, such as what to wear to the formal, or how to talk to boys. [4] It is, therefore, important that they address the relevant issues teenagers face in society today.

One of the biggest issues addressed in teenage magazines is sex, and more importantly, safe sex. The impression you acquire when you pick up a teenage magazine is that they “assume that if girls are not sex savvy then they want to be.” [5] 

One teenage reader asked the question concerning Chik [6] magazine: “where’s all the sex stories?” [7] This simple question supports the theory that teenage magazines are not necessarily successful for the correct reasons.

Amongst some groups in society, such as the Christian churches, such articles are often perceived as immoral. It also makes these acts seem more common in society, which is not necessarily true. In fact, 80 percent of 16 year-olds have not had sexual intercourse but by the age of 18 there’s a 50 per cent probability that they have. [8] Being a virgin is generally criticised by other teenagers. Despite the fact that magazines promote safe sex, research has shown that safe sex does not exist unless two virgins are having sex for the first time and remain with each other for life. [9] 

On the other hand, these magazines run articles on what their readers want to know. If Dolly magazine receive a letter asking for help about not wanting to have sex, they will run an article about abstinence. Or if they receive a letter about date rape, they will run an article about date rape and what to do about it. In the same respect, if a reader asks Dolly, ‘what is masturbation?’ they will respond with an appropriate article. [10] 

There seems to be a common perception that reading teenage magazines has contributed heavily to readers’ low self-esteem. As a result of this perception, today teenage magazines seek to promote a health body image. Dolly magazine has a specific section in every issue called the Body Confidence Club [11] that is dedicated to motivating teenagers to be content with their body. This ranges from advice on exercising and meditation to healthy eating. Often it will include real-life stories to help teenagers to believe ‘if it worked for them, it can work for me!’ The deputy editor of Dolly magazine said:

“We never publish diets or ever say that a girl should lose weight, it’s only ever about toning up if that’s what you want to feel better about yourself.” [12] 

The Body Confidence Club is a reader forum where Dolly talks about a body issue and does it in a way that is inspirational. Stories will reflect the problem and show solutions, stimulating teenagers to think that they can change too. Publishing articles on healthy body image next to fashion spreads “glorifying all that is tall and skinny” [13] can have a negative effect. What girls need to remember is that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14 and she was still considered beautiful. [14] 

Even Cosmopolitan has dealt with the issue of body image, introducing the ‘Body Love Initiative’ in October 2001. This policy states that Cosmopolitan will use models from size 6 to size 16 in every issue, as well as all races. Alongside the models, Cosmopolitan will not publish a diet and has not done so for around seven years. They also ensure that their advertisers do not place unnecessary emphasis on the need to be skinny and consistently publish articles to help readers feel more confident and love the skin they are in. These guidelines were put into place after readers became outraged over a photo shoot, ‘Lingerie Gets Real’, featuring women in their underwear. [15] Cosmopolitan’s philosophy is:

“Healthy eating, healthy body image but being within your healthy body weight range … all about feeling good in your own skin.” [16] 

Another issue addressed by these magazines concerns popularity amongst peers. This is an important issue in the minds of teenagers, especially in the school environment. The common perception that you have to be ‘cool’ to obtain the attention of a boy increases the pressure of becoming popular. To quash this assumption Dolly magazine focuses on the fact that popularity is not as important as being confident. Therefore they run stories about how to talk to people, both boys and girls, and how to be more confident in different situations. [17] However, confidence is just one part of it. If a teenager does not feel ‘popular’ she is less likely to be confident. So it is important to address popularity as an issue of concern.

Mental health and wellbeing are important issues to address for teenagers. They need to gain understanding of the causes, occurrences and management of these disorders. Without this knowledge there are often misconceptions about disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. Suicide, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and self-harm are all common topics of discussion in Dolly magazine because of the many letters received requesting information about certain mental illnesses. The deputy editor of Dolly states that:

“In all of those stories we do talk to experts about the issue and get information that the girls can use.” [18] 

Cosmopolitan, on the other hand, always runs ‘feel-good’ articles in the magazine each month to help their readers overcome their own anxiety and stress [19] but they do not run articles to increase the awareness of mental illnesses. Illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are rarely mentioned in Cosmopolitan.

Physical impairment is another issue that needs to be dealt with. This is to ensure that teenagers acknowledge that people with physical impairments are not different. Dolly often publishes articles on the life story of someone with a physical impairment to show the readers that despite this impairment and the obstacles in their life they still live normally and they are like any other person. However, Cosmopolitan and Cleo fail to cover issues about physical impairment.

How magazines are composed

How do magazines persuade people to read so many articles and view the visual images constructed in each monthly issue? This is achieved through the language and visual techniques that are used and accentuated to capture the attention of the reader. These include structure, interviews, language features, pull-quotes, rhetorical questions and visual texts.

Firstly, the structure of most feature articles is changing. They are beginning to be separated by many sub-headings. By using sub-headings it allows the reader to go straight to the part of the article they are particularly interested in. For example in the Dolly article, “The Rise of the Straight Edgers,” [20] if a person knew what a “Straight Edger” is, but was wondering where the name came from they can go to the sub-section, “What’s with the name?” [21] Or if they wanted to find out more, they are directed to the section, “Wanna know more?” [22] This means that a person can get what they want out of the article quickly without having to read the entire article.

The types of articles also vary from stories, interviews and notes. Stories are effective in entertaining as well as informing. The investigation into the statistic that ‘1 in 5 women will experience violence during pregnancy’ [23] is informing the reader about the risks of violence during pregnancy as well as telling the stories of women who lost their lives at the hand of the father of their unborn child.

The use of interviews creates the impression that the reader is communicating with the interviewee, and not reading it second hand. An interview, such as Tammin Sursok’s subtitled, ‘The first time I …,’ [24] gives the reader the feeling of having a conversation with your best friend about the first time you “kissed a boy … had sex … fell in love …” [25] This creates the effect that the reader is getting to know the celebrity personally, instead of just reading a magazine interview. The use of first person also emphasizes this in the mind of the reader. This approach is taken in most interviews in magazines in an attempt to personalize the article for the reader.

Notes allow the reader to go straight to short bits of information. In “Rags to Riches” [26] the reader can quickly obtain small pieces of fact from the spreadsheet of information. These text formats allow different readers to access the information that is of specific interest to them.

The language used amongst teenage magazines is informal, conversational and full of jargon and slang. This is because these magazines try to speak to the reader, not speak at them. You could imagine that if one of these magazines happened to use formal language it would appear as though the magazine is a text book and very serious. Informal language creates a much more carefree approach to topics of discussion positioning the reader to relate more easily. For example, if this sentence:

“When you look at Jade, she strikes you as just another spunky chick, in miniature” [27] 

was written formally it would say something along the lines of:

“Upon viewing Jade, your first impression of her would be, a short but fashionable woman.”

Instead, using informal language helps to keep the teenagers interested and they are more likely to read and understand what is being said. It also fits in with each magazine’s philosophy [28] – to be the reader’s friend and adviser.

Jargon and slang reaches the teenagers on their level. In this particular sentence slang is adopted strongly and still manages to communicate its message:

“You probably heard Paris [Hilton] threw a tanti when she saw her porn vid being sold by her local newsstand owner” [29] 

Words such as “tanti” and “vid” are slang for “tantrum” and “video”. The purpose of this language is to relate to the teens by communicating to them using their own jargon.

Emotive language is used to create a response in the reader and is present in sections like Dolly Doctor [30] and Sex, Body and Friends Advice [31] . Its intention is to convey the message that the writers at each magazine truly care about the issues people are asking about and they offer genuine advice to help their reader. When Girlfriend Advice was questioned about bullying, their response was:

“All of us here at GF [Girlfriend] feel very strongly that you have a right to feel totally safe at school.” [32] 

The expression of concern for the girl being bullied helps the girl to believe that they really care.

Dolly magazine also does the same thing. When Dolly counsellor, Louise Redmond, was asked about whether there is something wrong with a girl who keeps being excluded from her friendship group’s plans she responds:

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you! Hard as it is, don’t take it personally.” [33] 

As a result of this expression of kindness and concern the person asking the question then feels compelled to follow the advice handed out to them by the magazine. The use of second person addresses the reader. Its inclusiveness embraces each reader’s concerns.

Pull-quotes are used within articles to compel you to read an article. A pull-quote is a quote from the article that is selected and highlighted amongst the text in a different coloured and larger sized font. This device is used to draw the reader’s eye to the page. The quote is chosen on its strength and whether or not it is interesting, funny, exciting or riveting. [34] For example, in the article titled, ‘I’m a teenage mum of three,’ [35] the pull-quote,

“All of my friends lost their virginity before me, but I

wanted to wait until I felt ready to have a baby” [36] 

interests the reader into reading the article to find out why this teenager has three

children by the age of seventeen. This is effective in attracting interest and attention to the article. However, other pull-quotes can seem completely irrelevant to the story. For example, an article titled ‘My parents are both blind’ [37] with a pull quote:

“If someone’s playing kickball I run off coz I’m scared about it hitting me” [38] 

This pull-quote seems completely out of context, however, by causing confusion about the article teenagers are more likely to read the article. If only to find out how that pull-quote relates to an article about something perceivably different.

Rhetorical questions invoke thought about the issue being addressed. If the issue is not a well-known topic questions such as:

“Does he love it? Hate it?” [39] 

strategically placed at the beginning of the article encourages readers to engage in reading and contemplating the article. The composers of the magazines have, therefore, reached its purpose – to persuade people to read their publications.

Emphasised questions help to make the reader focus on what an article is addressing. The majority of the questions asked are answered within the body of the article.

“What can you do to stop the symptoms?” [40] 

is answered,

“Learn new and better ways to deal with stress. Eat a varied diet and avoid foods that have a high fat content…” [41] 

This allows the reader to gain closure on the topic of discussion.

If you were to pick up the latest Dolly magazine to find that there were no pictures at all, what would you think? Without images these magazines would have no appeal, people would just walk straight past them in a shop. The problem begins at the appropriateness of these visual images. Often an article would not survive without images or be overlooked if it was not for the suggestive images surrounding the text.

The most prominent visual technique is a collage, especially on the front cover. It is the most effective way of putting a lot of information into a small space. A collage is used in Dolly’s Style section [42] and presents to the reader four celebrities, their fashion style, and the clothing articles and accessories they can obtain to achieve the same fashion style.

Some articles, such as ‘How Old Is She?’ [43] , could not exist without pictures. How do you demonstrate that a person looks young or old for their actual age without images? These pictures, however, seize the readers’ attention and intrigue them to find out how old these girls really are. Other pictures are used to tease the reader into reading the article. Images such as the one in “Great Places To Kiss” [44] catches the readers’ eye and provokes them to read the article. Even the image for the article “Stop Texting Me!” [45] provokes the reader. They see a girl with a mobile phone and quickly examine the article to see if it is of any interest to them.

In Cosmopolitan’s fashion workshop [46] visual images are essential to explain why you should not wear certain types of underwear for different body shapes. However, Cosmopolitan has taken some ‘poetic licence’. In the images showing the reader what not to wear they place the model in an unflattering pose and appearing self-conscious. This creates the effect that it is not something the reader would want to wear. Of course, when the model is wearing what ultimately looks better she appears to be happy and confident, posing with a smile.

A recurring way of presenting photos is in the notice board style. Each photo has a thick white border and a paper clip or thumb-tack in the corner, giving the effect that the photos are up on a notice board, attached to a personal profile or even part of a personal notebook. [47] Personalising these photos involves the reader in the magazine and creates a carefree atmosphere.

Consequently, the combination of these techniques makes a teenage magazine intriguing to the reader. This results from being positioned by the composer in a location easily accessible to read or view the text. By making these magazines intriguing and easily accessible allows the magazines to sell many copies of each monthly issue.

Magazines and Appropriateness

Many people tend to focus on the negative aspects of what teenagers are reading in magazines. Christopher Bantick, The Age journalist, wrote:

Besides the heavy emphasis on sex – and problematic sex at that – teenage girls’ magazines capitalize on adolescent insecurity. [48] 

Although this is accurate, Bantick could be optimistic and, instead of reinforcing common beliefs about magazines, he could address the fact that these magazines do aim to reach out to teenagers at their level and help them with their insecurities, whether that would be about sexual intercourse or not. Magazines have implemented sections within the magazines where their readers can write in to ask for advice [49] about something they feel uncomfortable asking their parents or even their friends.

Many parents do not like what their daughters are reading in these teenage magazines, as evident by the Your Say section of The Age, [50] but many more are actually dejected that their daughters are growing up too fast and interested in such topics of discussion. Articles regarding “Sex Exotica” [51] would seem inappropriate for a 14-year-old female to be reading. Such an article may be appropriate for Cosmopolitan’s market audience, 18 to 35 year olds. However, the editors should take into account that a large percentage of the readers, 35.16 per cent [52] to be exact, are aged between 14 and 17. However, if Cleo and Cosmopolitan were to change their content to suit the younger readers than they may lose readers and they would not be aimed at the 18 to 35 year old market any longer. It seems, with these two magazines in particular, they are mostly focused on topics such as sexual intercourse.

Parents feel these magazines are not appropriate because of a perceived breach of moral standards. Cosmopolitan’s morals were questioned when a monthly issue was on sale in a Woolworths store. They received many complaints about a headline regarding a guide to “a mind-blowing blow-job.” [53] Cosmopolitan were forced to place stickers over this headline as it was inappropriate for the consumers in a supermarket.

Many critics consider it inappropriate for young teenagers to be reading material such as that in Cosmopolitan and Cleo, and it is just as inappropriate for

pre-teenagers to be reading Dolly or Girlfriend with the content they represent. Magazines have the potential to influence young minds about what is acceptable and unacceptable in society as well as altering their way of thinking about sexual intercourse and gender roles.

There are other reasons why teenage magazines appeal to a young audience. Firstly, there are the striking colours, secondly, the famous boy or girl splashed across the cover page and thirdly, the desire to be “cooler” and mature for their age.

These magazines reveal little about the value of academic achievement and intellectual challenges. It is fair to say that the brain is not the “hot” organ at the centre of the teenage magazine world. This lack of concern about formal education is reflected in Dolly and Girlfriend with less than 20 per cent [54] of articles focused on education and/or intelligence. Only Cosmopolitan and Cleo frequently publish articles about careers. However, of the articles published in each magazine, less than 5 per cent [55] of the articles are based on careers.

The effects of these magazines

Teenage magazines can affect teenagers in many ways, both positively and negatively. However because people tend to focus on the negatives it appears as though most of these effects are, in fact, negative. A study by the British Medical Association [56] has shown that:

“The media are a significant and pervasive influence in modern society, and provide information about gender roles, fashion and acceptable body image which may be particularly influential on those young children and adolescents who are heavily exposed to its content” [57] 


“Young women may compare themselves to extremely thin models … and perceive themselves as ‘fat’ in comparison, rather than healthy and attractive” [58] 

This sort of influence on an already insecure teenager could result in social and psychological problems. These include eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, anxiety problems, depression and low self-esteem in susceptible personalities. Such problems are not healthy for the individual and restrict their quality of life.

These problems, especially anxiety and low self-esteem, may arise from viewing the cover of any teenage magazine. This visual imagery may cause teenagers to feel insecure about their own body image, out of touch with the latest trends and even confused. Positioned on the cover of Dolly [59] magazine, April 2005, is an image of singer, Jessica Simpson, who is thin, toned, tanned, blonde, beautiful and in public view is her tight stomach and ample bust. For any girl who is not one hundred per cent comfortable with her outward appearance that image can be disheartening and depressing. Those who do not recognise the name or face of the latest “guys you’d sell your best friend for” [60] can feel as though they are not up with the latest gossip or workings of, so to speak, “girl-world”. Those who do not understand the headline ‘Stuck in Bloat Town?’ [61] can become confused even before opening the magazine. All of these thoughts and feelings occur before the person has even opened the magazine.

Once the magazine is opened, however, the feelings may continue or cease, it all depends on what part of the magazine the reader focuses on. The advertisements tend to send a completely different message than the articles they are placed next to and results in vulnerable teenage girls feeling uncertain about what message the magazine is trying to send. This mainly occurs when an article about healthy body image is placed next to image displaying a perceivably flawless, thin model. [62] 

Another impact on teenagers is caused by the fashions that models are seen wearing in magazines. These fashions influence the readers’ preferences. Teenagers will believe that if they wear that brand of clothing and that style of clothing they will look better and impress. This is not always the case, the clothes in magazines are often suggestive and send the wrong message. It could be interpreted that she’s “asking for trouble” and “a rebel” when she is only following trends being fed by the magazines.

Males can also be affected by these magazines, as well as females. It is a widely known fact that these images misrepresent the ideal body image for

females but:

“There is growing awareness regarding the pressure men and boys are under to appear muscular.” 

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