Media Beat

"TEEN PEOPLE" AND THE SOULS OF YOUNG FOLKS

By Norman Solomon / Creators Syndicate

People magazine now has a clone. The first issue of Teen People -- a slick monthly "from the editors of People" -- just hit newsstands across the country.

It's colorful. Stylish. And disturbing.

Much of the new magazine is focused on female images. Profuse advertising begins on the inside front cover, with fold- out pages of girls in tight Gap jeans. Dozens of big ads follow, offering brand-name clothes, cosmetics, fragrances and skin creams.

"L'Oreal," says the headline under a woman's face at the start of a multi-page spread. "Because I'm worth it." Such pitches may sound affirming. Yet they're insidious -- linking a person's worth to what she buys and how she looks.

That's good for marketers. But what about adolescents?

American girls routinely experience a sharp drop in self- esteem as they become teenagers. Appearance and social approval are apt to loom large. Fitting in -- with a fashionable wardrobe and slim waist -- can seem to be imperative.

Sadly, the emergence of this new magazine is liable to make things worse. Instead of opening the world for adolescent readers, Teen People narrows it. Glossy pages equate excitement with glamorous stars of the entertainment industry. Joys are vicarious. The top story on Teen People's first cover sums it up: "Celeb Couples Share Their Love Secrets."

The premier issue of Teen People does include a few substantive articles. But whatever value they might have is undermined by the rest of the magazine.

A story about the brutal rituals of a college fraternity, "Dying to Belong," warns of binge drinking and "rampant hard-core hazing" on campuses. It's a well-done article that depicts an extreme form of peer pressure. But it appears in a magazine that relies on peer pressure to sell its wares.

Another feature praises virginity among teenagers. "Waiting can be a cool choice," the magazine advises. Yet many of the ads and photos in Teen People are highly sexualized. All the better to hook readers and hawk products.

The debut issue of Teen People also devotes four pages to a major problem -- the alarming rates of eating disorders among American females. The article warns against obsession with weight. "The whole dieting mentality is exactly what leads to severe cases of anorexia and bulimia," says one expert.

Teen People sounds a cautionary note: "It can be all too easy for some girls to get sucked into the warped social scene of competitive dieting or the greater extreme of group bingeing and purging." But the article is totally silent about the fact that much of our society's dangerous emphasis on thinness comes from media outlets.

Unfortunately, media images that glorify thin as beautiful - - sometimes to the point of emaciation -- are well represented in the pages of Teen People. Quite a few of the magazine's ads display skinny young women gazing into the camera.

Readers of Teen People will learn what they need -- or, more precisely, what merchandisers want them to feel they need. The magazine is just the latest addition to the portfolio of Time Warner, the world's largest media corporation. The firm expects Teen People's formula to boost revenues from advertisers.

In a book titled "Ways of Seeing," published a quarter of a century ago, John Berger denounced the shallow mania for publicity that limits so many dreams: "It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase."

Publicity, wrote Berger, "turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society."

Berger made that complaint in 1972. People magazine was founded two years later. Since then, the glamorizing of individual fame has continued to escalate. Today, with 38 million readers every week, People calls itself "the most successful magazine in the world."

Teen People is now being touted as "the first general interest publication for teens that celebrates their diverse lifestyles and wide array of interests." Sounds like progress. But it isn't.