Along with death and taxes, one of life's certainties is that your teenage years are brutal. As a thirty-something whose tween and teen traumas are nearly two decades behind me, I can confidently say that there is no amount of money on Earth you could pay me to relive them; I only recently have the perspective to look back on some of those mortifying moments and laugh. If the current pop cultural onslaught of excruciating (yet hilarious) works surrounding the horrors of middle and high school — "Big Mouth" and "Sex Education" on Netflix, "Pen15" on Hulu and Bo Burnham's critically acclaimed film "Eighth Grade" — is any indication, I am not alone in this, and while those formative years are certainly worlds different for kids growing up today than when I hit adolescence at the turn of the millennium, there's no way they've gotten any easier.
One of the most significant ways in which life has changed for teens is how youth-focused media reaches and speaks to them. Before I purchased my first laptop with my bat mitzvah money and could search the shiny, new World Wide Web on our dial-up modem, I would ask my parents for magazine subscriptions — Seventeen, Teen Vogue, CosmoGirl, YM, Elle Girl, Nylon, Jane — or pester them to purchase issues for me while we waited in line at the grocery store. Those aspirational, all-American glossies that targeted curious, confused young women desperately seeking advice and community are all but extinct; aside from the occasional "special issue," all of the aforementioned titles are out of print, instead living online and through various social media platforms if at all.
The ideas the teen magazines of the past sold are also obsolete: the heteronormative boy craziness, the decidedly non-body positive calorie counting and a one-track life in which achieving so-called "perfection" is the only suitable path. Unsurprisingly, much of what was printed in the '90s and '00s aged extremely poorly, or has turned out to be shockingly prescient. (For example, Scarlett Johansson observing that "Ben Affleck looks like someone who would whistle at [her] from a construction site" all the way back in 2001; fawning features centered around noted Rich White Teen Ivanka Trump; and full-page stories singing the praises of "heartthrobs" including Johnny Depp, Aaron Carter and Charlie Sheen. Yikes.)
Casey Lewis, co-founder of the feminist media platform and community for girls called Clover Letter, is part of the newest generation of teen-focused media, creating daily content that speaks to young women on every conceivable topic from politics to style to sexuality. After revisiting her impressive collection of magazines while on a recent trip home for the holidays, she decided to catalog some of the more humorous pages on Instagram under the handle @thankyouatoosa — named for Atoosa Rubenstein, the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen and the founding editor of CosmoGirl. "I just sort of started this, and then named it for Atoosa; to me, she was the ultimate," Lewis explained of her social media project. "It wasn't even that I loved her magazines so much as [I loved] her as a person. At Seventeen, she was vilified by Gawker editors, to the point where she quit after a few years and then sort of disappeared. It's crazy to think of the internet then versus the internet now. You can be trolled now in a different way ... they were making fun of her every move."
Though everything from Clover Letter's subject matter to its voice are vastly dissimilar to the titles Lewis pored over as a teen, she doesn't necessarily believe kids these days — equipped with smartphones and the internet at their fingertips — have it better now than they did in decades past. "The teenage years are always just so awkward and awful, and I think that having a surplus of information now is no better than not having enough back then," she says. "I do think teens aren't fed such a specific point of view, and I think that will be ultimately for the better."
I caught up with Lewis ahead of fashion week to discuss how drastically teen media has changed in the years since we were its target audience — a time that at once feels like it was just yesterday and another lifetime ago. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
What's your magazine collection like at home?
I have truly hundreds of magazines. I go home, like, twice a year; I'm from a small town in Missouri. My clothing closet there doesn't have that many clothes anymore, it's all old teen mags. Whenever I go back, I flip through them, especially when we were starting Clover. I was like, 'Oh, inspiration!' I was home for a week at Christmas — it was too much time — and I was looking at how much some of them have aged, in a way that I haven't really thought about before. And how in the last couple of years, Teen Vogue got very woke, Rookie was very progressive, and magazines were not like that growing up. I just started thinking, oh my God, this is so fucking hilarious. I'm going to start recording some of [them], taking pictures or scanning, just because it's funny.
I remember how much of the teen media that we were fed back then was about boys.
Oh my God, it's absolutely crazy. There's a quiz that's like, 'Are you a cool girlfriend, or are you a lame girlfriend?' Are you the cool girl? Will you eat wings and watch wrestling with your boyfriend and play video games, or are you too uptight to do that? But it's genuine. They mean that straightforward. Also a big thing: How straight-minded and heteronormative being a "cool girl" was. There was no mention of any sort of possibility of feeling differently.
Also, the idea of "perfection."
It's crazy. Have a perfect body, get a perfect beach body, look thin for back to school. And this is, like, not old. This is when we were growing up. It's a lot of calorie counting. Eat this, not that. It makes me feel a little sick because I remember being like, 'Oh, if I don't put mayo on my sandwich then I'll save 20 calories.' And at 12, learning that is crazy.
As someone who creates content for young women now, looking back on this, could you imagine telling a teenage girl this stuff?
It's more that I can't believe that our generation was told that. It was just accepted, it wasn't weird. And now teens are like, 'Be you, whoever you are is great. Follow your passion!' I wonder the deep psychological differences growing up thinking so much about perfectionism — that is a big one that these magazines taught us. Get the best grades you can, and wear the best clothes, make sure your complexion is perfect. If you have any pimples, here's how to treat it. If you have cellulite, you can get this cellulite removing cream. And just this sort of idea, from head to toe, literally how to improve yourself, versus now, when there are no magazines for girls. There's nothing for teens now. But maybe that's not a bad thing, they get their information differently. When I was growing up, I lived in a small town, and this was my only way to learn about things like cool clothing brands.
Do you feel like as a teen it was good or helpful to you to have a role model like Atoosa that maybe doesn't exist now in the same way?
I would say for sure — looking at someone like Atoosa who did not look like a model. Amy Astley was very polished; she had emerged from Vogue before heading up Teen Vogue. But [Atoosa] was unpolished, had curly hair, was very forthcoming about her awkwardness. And that was sort of her 'thing,' but that was charming. More than anything, I felt alone in my small town — I wanted to move to New York, but literally no one [I knew] had lived in New York. I had a lot of teen angst, and reading these magazines, I was like, okay, I see elements of myself in these people even though I don't feel close to my classmates. I'm not alone in the world. I think, in a lot of ways, the internet fixes that, but maybe, I think teens still feel just as lonely as they did back then.
Do you think teens are better off today in terms of media options, or are you nostalgic for the types of magazines you have preserved in your closet?
I do think teens aren't fed such a specific point of view, and I think that will be ultimately for the better. Now you can be whoever you want to be. If you don't like a boy, that's fine. Or if you like a boy and a girl that's fine. Or if you feel weird about body stuff, or if you want to experiment with your style. This is so nerdy, but I remember Mischa Barton would always wear kitten heels with her jeans, and I went shopping and I found a really good pair of pointy kitten heels, but no one at my school dressed up. I wore them to school with my jeans, and people made fun of me. I am a very easily embarrassed person, but I remember thinking, you guys just don't understand. People tear you down for that, because that's not what other people are doing, and you're putting yourself out on a limb, in a way. And I don't think that the world is like that now.
I think it's probably the same amount of loneliness now, with social media added to the mix. Versus back then, when you didn't know anybody you related to. I think that being a teenager sucks, regardless. I wouldn't want to do it again. I do think it's a shame that there's not a place for teenage girls to turn to, to find a community, because Instagram is not it. I mean, sure there's like pockets of it, but largely it's not. I think Gurl.com got the closest to making a safe space for teenage girls — it's a very special skill to build a community around people who aren't actually putting their identities out there.