Life

Being Seventeen Magazine’s Teen Columnist Was a Dream Gig

I’m so sad the regular print edition is ending.

Seventeen magazine
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Seventeen magazine.

The second I put on the white T-shirt they’d handed me, I knew there was a problem: my black bra. What the hell was I thinking? I thought, furious with myself. Maybe if I actually read the fashion pages, I would have known not to do that.

I was 16 and at the Manhattan, New York, office of Seventeen magazine, where I had lucked my way into a gig as the publication’s teen columnist. As part of the job, I—a camera-shy low-maintenance nerd who never wore makeup or even pants that weren’t jeans—was now doing a photo shoot. In the preceding weeks, I had been terrified, particularly about how they would handle my frizzy mop and whether they would have clothes that fit me. (At the time, I was a size 8.) I was convinced that I would arrive in the office and they would look at me in horror. And now this. I sheepishly came out of the changing room to announce my problem, waiting for everyone to sigh with irritation.

But it didn’t come. Instead, at every turn of that day—and throughout my two-year stint with the magazine—my editor, the photographer, the stylist, and the makeup artist bombarded me with warmth and assurance.

I thought about the unexpected kindness of that day when I read the news that, after more than 75 years, Seventeen will be ending its regular print edition. Going forward, it will only publish “special stand-alone issues pegged to news events and key moments in readers’ lives.” As a business move, this makes perfect sense. But saying farewell to Seventeen also feels like saying goodbye to a bygone part of my career, and myself.

My monthly column for Seventeen began in 2000. I’d won an essay contest, the prize for which was $500; gotten published; and thus earned the opportunity to discuss the possibility of just maybe getting to write regularly. The prompt, which I had stumbled upon online during spring break of my sophomore year, was to write about the ultimate summer. My 500-word essay waxed lyrical about my job at the movie theater. (I thought I was so clever.) Seventeen kept me around for two years, until I graduated high school. The column, which was first called “Like It Is” and then became “Torie Talks,” allowed me to write about standard teen-magazine stuff like my crush on a jerk and my swimsuit insecurities, but also how no one really loses their virginity after prom (I had zero evidence to support this thesis but stand by it), pirating MP3s (I was pro), feminism (pro!), prayer in school (con!), and how my feelings about patriotism changed after Sept. 11, among other things. (They also had me write about the movie theater again. Twice.)

Looking back now at the prose and the arguments is often excruciating, but the experience itself changed me. During my teendom, commentators often wrung their hands about the ways magazines like Seventeen harmed young girls, particularly their self-esteem. And I get it: There was a reason I was scared that I would be too fat to wear any clothes at the office. The models were consistently thin, consistently white, and clear-skinned. Even seeing a woman with curly hair in the pages sometimes felt radical.

But I also found the magazine inspiring, and not just because I happened to be in it. When people praise Teen Vogue for daring to delve into serious issues, I remember that Seventeen let me write about intellectual property in 2001. Too often, people would look at teen magazines and see the smooth skin and fashion advice, ignoring the fact that they also included thoughtful reporting and useful, candid information. At a time when the internet was itself an awkward adolescent, teen magazines offered girls—who were typically a few years younger than 17—a way to learn about sex and health. (I swear, though, that half of the questions in the sex-advice columns were along the lines of: “My boyfriend and I did X. Am I still a virgin?” Inevitably, the answers stuck to the traditional penis-in-vagina definition of virginity.)

I would have expected the women behind a teen magazine to be mean girls, but I never experienced that. Instead, my editor, Darcy Jacobs, was a saint. She taught me to use tracked changes, to pitch an article, to think through an argument, to understand and learn from edits. As an editor today, I often think back to how she always treated me with respect, even when my ideas were foolish and dashed-off. (I was a teenager, after all.) And when I was a senior in high school and told her that I was late with a column because my mother had attempted suicide, she sent me a care package with beauty products, books, and a Flogging Molly CD. By coincidence, that happened the same month that Seventeen printed the column that I most cherish today: one in which I half-whined, half-bragged about how my mother stole my punk-lite CDs, complete with photos of the two of us. After she committed suicide two years ago, I found in her house—and took with me—a framed copy of that article.

My time at Seventeen also taught me a great deal about the business of publishing, in a very teen-friendly way. After that first glorious $500, my pay became $250 per 500-word column—still pretty good money for a high school student and a fairly respectable young-freelancer rate even today. While I was technically a monthly writer, if the magazine was short on advertising and printing fewer pages, my column would usually get the ax, as it should have. And after Sept. 11, when advertising dollars began to dry up, that happened a fair bit. The editor in chief changed once or twice while I was writing for the magazine, showing me how fickle the industry could be. My self-esteem did take a few blows in that time: There was the time an editor in chief whispered to me about my hair looking “a tiny bit flyaway,” confirming all of my hair insecurities. I did two full photo shoots, but they maybe used two or three of those pictures in the magazine. In a brilliant and thrifty move, a few times, they sent me to a nearby photo booth to take pictures that they would use. (Those pictures of my mother and me came from one such photo-booth session, with me wedged onto her lap.)

And Seventeen gave me my first pair of boots. At my second photo shoot, after watching me tottering around on a pair of tight leather high-heeled boots, the photographer told the editor in chief that I just loved them. Before I could protest and say that I really preferred the jeans, she had bequeathed them to me. I wore them maybe twice in the real world before the right heel snapped off, teaching me that just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s durable.

Thankfully for me, most of those columns never made it to the internet—Seventeen barely had a website at the time. My final column, however, was online only, and I can’t find a trace of it online. (Also, they misspelled my first name.) That seems fitting now, too.