LIFE HONESTLY

The joy of rediscovering teen magazines as a grown-up

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As a teenager, Belinda McKeon was obsessed with Just Seventeen. Two decades on, flicking through old issues, she still understands why  

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By Belinda McKeon on

It was my Carousel moment. You might remember that amazing scene from the final episode of Mad Men’s first season: Don, pitching the account for Kodak’s cutting-edge new slide projector, dims the lights in the Sterling Cooper boardroom and clicks through a series of photographs from his own family album. The photos are corny and, in many cases, inadvertently hilarious (Don, cigarette in mouth, pushing his toddler daughter on a swing), but they are also, for everyone watching, an emotional shock, because of the vividness and immediacy with which they bring the sense of a lost time into the room.

My turn with the carousel came a couple of weeks ago in the old caravan in my parents’ back garden, which used to be a teenage hangout for my sister and my cousin and me, but for years now has been a graveyard for junk. I was visiting home, and having a nosey, and I came upon a stash of old issues of Just Seventeen. Oh my God, I thought, this will be hilarious. I felt a wave of pre-emptive mortification at my 14-year-old self (you didn’t, needless to say, read Just Seventeen if you were actually 17), at the things she had believed, the things to which she had given her adoration, and her time. Silly little thing, I thought. How long ago, how far away. 

And then I looked through them, and that time burst open again inside of me. It did not trickle back gradually, in dribs and drabs – it was all there, all at once, a language that had once been my own, a song for which I turned out to have not only the lyrics but the harmonies and the underchords. It was a shock, actually, in its vividness, in its fullness. Proustian, yes; a Proustian daze of Labello and Edward Furlong and Dunlop Green Flash trainers and a young Kate Moss. The clothes, given that we are in the midst of a 90s revival fashion-wise, seemed almost comically current – I’d seen that combination of flannel-shirt-as-skirt and unlaced suede Doc boots on the subway a few days previously, and one model was wearing exactly the kind of heavy Oxford shoes I’ve spent the last year trying to find in the shops – but it wasn’t just their newfound relevance which hit me, but their familiarity. These days, when I shop or browse online, everything is rapid and surface-level – barely even surface-level – skimmed over and clicked through and dismissed in an instant; I look at 50 skirts in a night, 60 pairs of Oxford shoes, and none of them are right and, by the next day, I can’t remember having looked at any of them. There are things in my wardrobe, even, of which I have no visual memory. But these things. These baggy jumpers. These suede A-line skirts. These charity-shop denim shirts, with the perfectly frayed cuffs. I’d looked at their images so long, so intensely, that seeing them again now was almost like touching them, like feeling their texture, their weight. I hadn’t ever owned them, but I’d adored them. They’d been mine, in a way. 

My personal highlight came from the sex columnist, Annabel G, who gave a lot of good advice on masturbation and blowjobs

And other things, too, so familiar that to meet them again was almost unsettling, like a colour not seen for 20 years: the fonts, the layout, the shameless sunniness of how everything looked, the way the headlines were flung at all angles on to the pages; the sense, from that, of something brilliantly frenetic, of this permission to be giddily excited about countless things at once. These images, as real to me as though they were photographs of my own family members. All these sweet-faced girls, smiling at the camera (did models actually smile at the camera once?), all these doe-eyed boys. That red-haired girl on the cover of the February 2nd issue, the one in the mohair jumper and the mini-kilt, with the argyle socks and the penny loafers – didn’t I know her? 

No, I had just stared at her, I suppose – stared at all of them, the girls and the boys. I had wanted to be them. Yes, I had wanted their clothes, but I also, I see now, wanted the way they were, those kids – the way things seemed to be for them, in those photoshoots, in those stock images accompanying articles about how to flirt, and how to date, and how to break up. They looked so unbelievably relaxed with one another; they had their arms around each other, or they were smiling at each other, or they were…they were just near each other. I think that was it. I don’t just mean girls and boys – I mean girls with girls, boys with boys, everyone with everyone. I don’t mean in a sexual way, at least not primarily. I mean just being able to be around each other. We weren’t very good at that, I think, as teenagers in rural Ireland, whether we were friends with each other or whether we fancied each other, or both. We kind of circled each other. We held each other at a keep-an-eye-on-you distance. So these gorgeous English kids, flopped up against each other, or leaning into each other or – utter madness – looking one another in the eye; I think now it must have functioned like a kind of porn. Proximity porn. People-OK-with-people porn. 

These gorgeous English kids flopping up against each other, or leaning into each other or – utter madness – looking one another in the eye

But the articles themselves, which is to say the writing, didn’t trigger that same kind of longing, that same sense of being at a distance from what was normal or what was the done thing. The tone – and this was something about which I had forgotten, but into which I tapped in again instantly once I started going through the issues, again as though reconnecting with a language in which I had once been fluent – the tone was immensely friendly, immensely chatty and cheerful, and also funny, ironic. Looking at it now, I can see the energy of a bunch of twentysomething women – the editorial staff – and also their recognition that younger women – girls – were not very different to them at all, and did not need to be talked down to, and yes, needed some advice on sex and self-confidence and exams and jobs and parents and mascara, but also just wanted a bit of fun. There was a certain vocabulary, a certain register, which was completely wonderful to re-encounter – a hectic patter of neologisms and onomatopoeia, gleefully silly and irreverent: chumlihood, chortlesome, chickstrels, and quite a lot of words not beginning with “c”. (My personal highlight came from the sex columnist, Annabel G, who gave a lot of good advice on masturbation and blowjobs – both on giving them and avoiding them – and who addressed one young woman’s cystitis worries with the warning that she, Annabel G, was “no gynaecoogamaflip, but...”

It was so liberating, this messing-about with language – it was at once a form of satire and a kind of code. It inflected the register of my group of friends, its effects lasting, in fact, way into our college years – I still have hand-written notes from study hall and from the college library which are written in pure Just Seventeen-eze. I think that social media, in its tones and its concerns, has actually inherited a lot from this kind of register; certainly, I hear an echo of it in the way I interact with my female friends, both those I know in real life and those I don’t, on Twitter. It cheered us up, this fusing of irony and openness. It gave us, at a time which could be lonely and scary, the chance to snort with laughter. I was glad to meet up with it again, in the caravan. I was glad, once again, to meet up with that sense of being not-yet-17. We knew more than we thought we did, those of us who went down to our local newsagents with our 70p. Also, we were exposed to a few too many Ant & Dec posters, back when Ant & Dec were still PJ & Duncan. But nothing’s perfect. Except those Dunlop Green Flash trainers, of course. 

Tender by Belinda McKeon is published by Pan Macmillan 

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Belinda McKeon

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