Focus: So we wear lip gloss. So we talk about sex. So what?

Teenage girls are under attack again for what they read, say and do. Laura Tennant finds out what it's like to be young and misunderstood
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The Independent Online

Sorry, mums and dads, but it's true. Teenage girls - your little princesses - fancy boys, think about sex, love buying clothes and pile on the make-up. "Be irresistible!" screams a cover line on Cosmo Girl magazine. "Unlock your pulling power!" Just along the shelf, Bliss is offering "Sexy secrets! 21 pages of hot lads and dating tips". And it's also giving makeovers to girls who want to look older, like Naomi. Out with the bright clothes and girly hair cut, in with sophisticated tones, two foundations and a seductive flick. "Laugh, not giggle" when you're around older boys, says a confidence coach. And five minutes later she looks five years older, as promised. Naomi is 14. She looks 19. Looking like a man-eater, but still a child.

Sorry, mums and dads, but it's true. Teenage girls - your little princesses - fancy boys, think about sex, love buying clothes and pile on the make-up. "Be irresistible!" screams a cover line on Cosmo Girl magazine. "Unlock your pulling power!" Just along the shelf, Bliss is offering "Sexy secrets! 21 pages of hot lads and dating tips". And it's also giving makeovers to girls who want to look older, like Naomi. Out with the bright clothes and girly hair cut, in with sophisticated tones, two foundations and a seductive flick. "Laugh, not giggle" when you're around older boys, says a confidence coach. And five minutes later she looks five years older, as promised. Naomi is 14. She looks 19. Looking like a man-eater, but still a child.

That's exactly the sort of thing that makes rest of the population put their hands up in horror. A survey conducted for the BBC discovered that 86 per cent of adults think the Government should impose stricter controls on the sexual images in children's television and magazines. Mintel added fuel to the fire with a survey revealing that 63 per cent of seven- to 10-year-olds wear lipstick, double the number that used to.

Pressure groups argue that the experience of teens and pre-teens is prematurely "sexualised and commercialised". Arthur Cornell of Family and Youth Concern, and a former headteacher, believes teen magazines "impose an adult agenda" on young children. "The impression I get is that sex has been separated from the context of a serious relationship. In my experience most teenage girls breathe a sigh of relief when you tell them it's perfectly normal to want to wait."

Victoria Shotbolt of the National Family and Parenting Institute has every sympathy with parents who worry about "clothing that is too skimpy and sexualised for that age group and a throwaway attitude to clothes and make-up which encourages teenagers to get into debt". Teen mags, she says, foster the belief that "if you don't conform and look skinny and gorgeous you're not a good person".

The editors of Bliss, Mizz, Elle Girl, Cosmo Girl and Sugar, to take five of the most popular titles with an ostensible age range of 10 to 19, vehemently disagree, as you would expect. A cursory reading of their products reveals that the contents are tamer by far than the cover lines might suggest. Their agony aunts scrupulously point out the illegality of underage sex, and advise girls to dump any boy who is "using them for sex", as a Cosmo Girl feature put it. They are full of campaigns like "Be Sexy Be Sussed" in Bliss which aims to make sure "girls know how to protect themselves both emotionally and physically".

"We're trying to teach teenagers to feel good about themselves," insists Bliss's Helen Johnston. 'It's patronising to assume that just because we've restyled teenagers to look over the age of consent, they're going to automatically go out and have sex."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is campaigning to have teen mags "age stamped" so that parents can be sure their content is appropriate. But the Government seems unlikely to comply. Dr Fleur Fisher, chair of the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, says the Home Office recognises that "teenage magazines continue to have an important niche role in meeting the information needs of young people whose questions on sexual matters often go unanswered by school or parents, both of whom often fail to deal honestly with sexual queries".

One thing is sure: little has changed since I sat in the playground earnestly discussing with my best friend, 14, whether she should consummate her relationship with her boyfriend, 16. (She did.) It's just that, back in the 1980s, all we had to go on was advice on sanitary towels and deodorant from the head of sport.

Miss Mizz

'I don't mind looking at pictures, but I prefer boys you can actually talk to'

Rosa Kirkham-Leahy, 13, lives with her mother and father, who are both doctors. She has three younger sisters and a baby brother, goes to a mixed secondary school and reads Mizz.

Why should it be that if a boy has a one-night stand all his mates congratulate him, and that if a girl has a one-night stand everyone says that she's a slag? That's not a good thing.

I don't look at magazines for advice about boys; I'd go to my mum or my friends for that. Magazine advice doesn't count for everyone - it's too one size fits all.

I don't mind the pictures of boys with their shirts off, but I'm not particularly interested.

I'm ready for a boyfriend but I think it's nicer to see boys who are good-looking at school, where you've got a chance of actually talking to them, rather than boys on a bit of paper.

People think that magazines like Mizz are all about how you should have sex, but it's more about the dangers of it, and how to have safe sex.

I like real-life stories about shocking things that have happened to girls my age, although they can be upsetting.

Reading about traumatic experiences like rape forces you to face the fact that it could happen to you.

I live in a city and there are a lot of dodgy people around in the middle of Winchester. Sometimes I get scared walking home from school in the winter.

But I also read about rape alarms in Mizz, which I didn't know existed, so the magazine also helps you with ways to protect yourself.

I also like the information about music and reviews of movies, because it's good to listen to new stuff.

When I was about nine I began to read Girl Talk, but when I got to secondary school I moved on to Mizz, because most of my friends were reading it and it seemed more mature.

I also like the make-up and fashion and the ideas about things you can buy.

Miss Bliss

'Girls of 12 already worry about looks'

Jo Rowley, 14, lives with her parents, who are teachers, and an older brother. She goes to a mixed secondary school and reads Bliss.

The "five years older in five minutes" makeover they did on the 14-year-old girl was a bit extreme. I wouldn't want to look that much older.

All the mags do stuff about self-harming and anorexia, and I think it helps people understand. There's a girl in my year who's anorexic and I think people tease her less because of what we've read.

Bliss doesn't make me feel I should have a boyfriend. The message is more, "If you do have a boyfriend, here's what to do." And it's good that they publish questions about contraception, because at least you understand the facts.

I started reading Bliss when I was 12; my parents were very relaxed about it. By the time you're that age you're already worrying about the way you look, so it's not as if the magazine starts you off. It also has information you wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. I like all the stuff about make-up and fashion and where to get deals on shoes, and I like the celebrity spotter pages.

I suppose Bliss does encourage you to feel you should look attractive to boys, and because they are so casual about wearing make-up daily, some people who don't wear it might start feeling they should. But girls would wear make-up anyway.

Miss Sugar

'Parents who cling produce girls who wear micro-minis'

Grace Welch, 15, lives with her mother, a university lecturer, 18-year-old sister, 11-year-old brother, a stepsister of 13 and two stepbrothers of 19 and 21. Her father works in advertising. She goes to a mixed private day school and reads Sugar.

Kids don't believe everything they read; we do have minds of our own. There are a lot of articles about STDs and pregnancy in Sugar, but most of my information comes from what's happened to friends. I know two girls in my class who are having sex with their boyfriends, and I also know of girls who've been pressured into not using contraception.

But we also have strict dating rules at school. You shouldn't date an ex-boyfriend of a friend if he has treated her meanly; it's not a good idea to go out with a best friend, and you shouldn't be a complete slag because it gets you unpopular.

If you talk about feminism people think you're a bit of a lesbian. But of course we think that women are amazing and that we need to stand up for ourselves. I was 10 or 11 when I started buying Sugar, mainly because my older sister did and I thought it was cool.

At the beginning I just skipped over the stuff about boys and bra shopping because I didn't have any use for it. My parents didn't seem at all concerned about me reading it, but when my little sister started at seven or eight, I worried that she was a bit too young.

The clothes are always really nice and I like the problem pages. If you have a problem that you don't want talk about because it seems too petty and stupid - like I'm ugly, or I'm too tall, or my feet are too big - it can be really useful to read about it and realise you're not the only one. And I like the real-life stories - not because I'm personally addicted to heroin or whatever, but because I can read them with friends and discuss how awful or sad they are. And I suppose it can be helpful to see that that person got over whatever their problem was.

The magazines that make me feel I should be thinner are ones for older girls, like Marie Claire. Weight is a big worry for me and my friends but Sugar features health food stuff and exercise regimes rather than diets. Often their models have braces, because so many teenage girls do.

I have my own opinions about clothes and wouldn't wear something that looked stupid just because a magazine told me to. I think my mum would prefer me to go out in ankle-length skirts, but both my parents are pretty free with me. I think it's the parents who are clingy and put their children in cages who produce girls who want to go out in micro-minis and love the attention they get.

Miss Elle Girl

'I don't know any teenager who is entirely happy with herself'

Kirsty Alexander, 14, lives with her mother, a communications director, her father, a chartered accountant, and her 11-year-old sister. She goes to a mixed secondary school and reads Elle Girl.

Before Elle Girl I read Girl Talk, Shout and Mizz. My parents were never concerned about me reading Mizz because they believe in being open about boys and relationships.

I graduated to Elle Girl when I was 13 because it seemed more grown up. Mizz had loads of real-life stories but Elle Girl is mainly fashion. I get an allowance of £75 a month to cover my mobile phone and other expenses, and there's usually about £40 left over to spend on clothes. I wouldn't be able to afford most of the clothes in Elle Girl - it's more for copying the style.

Their problem page is quite a recent addition but I don't think it improves the magazine. If I wanted that kind of thing I would buy another magazine. Also, most of the problems don't affect me, but I can see that it does help others.

I don't know any teenager who's entirely happy with themselves, but personally I don't have a huge issue with my appearance.

Elle Girl encourages you quite strongly to develop your own style. It's not a magazine that makes you feel self-conscious about your image - it's more like a reassuring handbook.

The part I'm not sure about is the column by Peaches Geldof. She seems to have the perfect lifestyle and unlimited money, so I'm not sure how much she really knows about what it's like for ordinary teenagers.

Miss Cosmo Girl

'Boys wait for us after school. We compete to see who looks best'

Amy Ennis, 15, lives with her parents and her three younger sisters. She goes to a girls' grammar school and reads Cosmo Girl.

We have sex education at school but the magazine has helpful advice about boys - although I don't listen to all of it. Going up to my bedroom and reading my magazines is also a way of getting away from it all.

I think girls would wear make-up to school whether it was featured in magazines or not. I don't think magazines encourage you to go out and spend money you haven't got, although I suppose they do tell you what other teenagers are buying and wearing, so some people might find that a pressure. My school isn't mixed but there are always boys waiting outside, and it's almost a competition to see who can look the best. In year seven (11- and 12-year-olds) the school starts to turn a blind eye to make-up, although I don't think they really approve.

Cosmo Girl does talk quite a lot about sex, but you don't necessarily have to read it or do it. A classic problem page question is "My boyfriend wants me to go down on him but I don't want to". The magazine always says something like "Don't do anything you don't feel comfortable with", but when my mum picks up it up and reads it, she is pretty appalled, because she thinks I shouldn't need to know about that sort of thing at my age. But it's not as if the magazine is introducing the idea of oral sex, because we do that in year eight sex education. It's more that if it comes up and it's making you feel insecure, the magazine helps you deal with it. For me Cosmo Girl isn't about trying to get people to buy things. It's more about helping teenagers.

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