Teenage flicks: the end of an era for girls' teen magazines

Now that 'Bliss' is to close, there will no longer be any magazines for teenage girls on sale. Kate Wills, who began her career in youth titles, mourns the passing of a publishing era

Kate Wills
Tuesday 03 June 2014 21:58
Teen magazines could be a trusted place for girls to go when they were too embarrassed to ask anyone else
Teen magazines could be a trusted place for girls to go when they were too embarrassed to ask anyone else

After 19 years of boys, boobs and body confidence, this month's issue of Bliss, which features teen singer Lorde on the cover, will be the last. Like a teenager dragging out curfew despite knowing that lights-out is inevitable, Bliss has watched all its competitors gradually bow out or move online. It's telling that fans are mourning its passing with the #byebliss hashtag on Twitter because its demise marks a profound shift in what it means to be a teenage girl.

Reading teen magazines, from Jackie to Just Seventeen, is a female rite of passage. I remember sneaking a fevered flick through my older sister's More!, my pre-teen mind boggling at the logistics of "Position of the Fortnight". Buying J17 (as Just Seventeen was later rebranded) before you'd reached the titular age provided an aspirational glimpse of womanhood. This was the mid-Nineties magazine heyday – when every publishing house had a teen title and they sold in their millions. On the whole, their tone was sassy, confident and, despite acknowledging the full-body hormonal assault that is being an adolescent girl, full of positivity about the things that mattered – friendships, fun and life-size Leonardo DiCaprio posters. My reading matter moved on, but the lessons I learned stayed with me for life. Show me a woman who hasn't tried to make a facemask out of avocados, "discovered" herself with a mirror or practised snogging on an orange, and I'll show you a liar (or at least some poor sap who didn't have a subscription to Sugar).

I got my first job in journalism in teen magazines, back when One Direction were still just a glint on Simon Cowell's teeth. At its peak in the early Noughties, the magazine was selling more than 400,000 copies. The Sugar office may have had fuchsia pink walls and beanbags, but its journalists took their responsibilities seriously. Yes, we had silly features such as "The Milky-Bra Kid: I'm 14 and still breastfeeding", but we all remembered what it was like to cherish teen magazines as gospel and so felt a duty to deliver something similar for our readers. One of my tasks was to compile the problem pages, and opening up the crumpled, pastel-coloured envelopes was simultaneously heartening and depressing, so similar were they to my own worries at that age – bullying, exams, periods, parents splitting up. Although one desperate and baffled reader, in heavy-handed ballpoint scrawl, wrote in to ask: "I'm 13 and don't have a vagina – what should I do?" Clearly even in 2007, sex education at school was still lacking.

The amount of emails and letters we got, right up until Sugar slammed its poster-clad doors in 2011, confirmed that teen magazines were still a trusted place for girls to go when they were too embarrassed to ask anyone else. But that didn't stop us from being bashed in the press for being too explicit, despite the fact that our safe-sex stance was so ingrained that every mention of the word sex was immediately followed by advice on contraception and warnings about feeling "ready".

Teen magazines, like the teenager, came into their own in the 1950s and 60s with titles such as Petticoat, Honey and Teen World – whose strapline "How to Flirt With a Boy", from 1960, shows that nothing really changes. And, of course, there was Jackie, which exploded into newsagents in 1964 with Cliff Richard on the cover and "a free twin heart ring!" and which was selling around a million copies by the 1970s. Maybe it's because you discover them at such an impressionable age, but every woman I know has a deep-rooted nostalgia for the magazine of her youth – whether she's a Minx fan or a Sneak girl.

Now all magazines are struggling, not just teen titles, and inevitably teenagers have moved on more than any other readership. Bliss, which boasted sales of 200,000 less than a decade ago, was shifting only 50,000 when it closed.

Music magazines such as We Love Pop are still going, but they don't provide the same emotional support, and tween titles such as GirlTalk are aimed too young to fill the gap.

"It's a real shame to lose the teen magazine," says former Bliss editor Angeli Milburn. "Yes, there are some great informative sites out there, but there's also a wealth of other stuff that may not be accurate. Not many places online will keep on telling teens how brilliant they are, just as they are – but there are plenty of sites that can insidiously bite into their body confidence."

But the spending priorities of the young, she points out, have shifted, so that magazines don't seem to offer such good value as they once did. "Now, a teen girl with £4 in her pocket can get a new top from Primark, apps for her phone, make up, music, the lot. And she's able to find online some, but very definitely not all, of the things that a magazine provided."

Teenage girls are now watching videos of celebrity breakdowns, checking the "Sidebar of Shame" and reading a Vice story about "third-wave feminist wank porn". They're tweeting Harry Styles directly – they don't need the address of his fan club. The safe, nurturing advice in Bliss can't compete. But I bet they're also frantically googling "Is it normal if…?" Because while the trappings of being a teenager might have changed, inside we're all still 13 and snogging an orange.

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