By Carol Lee
Saturday, March 2, 2002
More than 2 million teen-age and pre-teen girls turn to YM for advice on boys, beauty and fashion. But thanks to new editor Christina Kelly, readers looking for diet tips will have to go elsewhere.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When millions of teenage girls page through this month's issue of YM magazine, what they read--stories like "Girls' Night Out" and "Cat Got Your Tongue? It's Hard Being Shy"--may be less noteworthy than what they don't read. There is not a single dieting story, tip or "how to." Nor will there ever be as long as Christina Kelly is in charge.
Kelly, 39, publicly announced last month her decision to ban dieting stories and to feature larger-size models in YM, which has 2.3 million readers. Her announcement came four months after her promotion to editor in chief of YM from executive editor. But Kelly says the policy unofficially began her first day on the job.
"I always had this belief that as soon as I became editor in chief, diet stories would be gone," Kelly says. "I'm really aware of the body-image issue."
Although they won't formally know about the changes until they read the editor's note in the April issue, readers and their parents have already noticed them. Rebecca Onion, who edits the letters section of the magazine, says she has sifted through volumes of grateful correspondence from readers who used to balk at skinny YM models.
"I knew people would agree with me. I just didn't know how many," Kelly says.
Not everyone agrees. One former YM photographer refused to shoot anyone who wasn't a size four or six. So YM doesn't work with her anymore. The fashion editor of the magazine has also struggled to find models of all shapes and sizes, says Kelly. Apparently, her efforts have paid off: The February issue features a size 14 model.
"We want the girls to reflect our readers," says Kelly. Indeed, when Kelly publicized YM's pursuit of larger models in a recent television interview, she was deluged with unsolicited photographs of enthusiastic readers.
Advertisers have been supportive as well, although Kelly says their reaction was not a factor in her decision. "If parents and readers are happy then advertisers are happy. And parents and readers are happy," says Kelly.
Brianna Pesce, 13, a faithful YM reader, noticed the missing diet stories in the magazine's past couple of issues and that "they're going for a more normal look" in terms of models. She and her friends at the all-girls Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, N.J. like what they see--and read.
"I think [getting rid of diet stories] is good because otherwise you're encouraging people to lose weight," Pesce says. "It's better for a teen magazine like YM that people look more real. Otherwise it gets bad ideas in people's heads, that they should look like models, that they should have really small waists."
Magazines that present dieting and unhealthy thinness as the norm can be especially damaging for teen-age girls, according to Jean Kilbourne, creator of "Killing Us Softly," a film about gender representation in advertising, and author of "Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel."
"It's terrible for anybody to diet, but particularly for girls that age," says Kilbourne. "It sets them up for eating-disorder issues."
Most of the estimated 7 million women and girls in the United States who have eating disorders developed them in their teens, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, an educational and self-help organization.
"Any magazine that purports to be for girls and young women, dieting has no place in it," says Kilbourne. "This is a step in the right direction and [Kelly] should be applauded. It would be wonderful if some other magazine editors would be equally as courageous."
Kelly's awareness of the issue stems from her own experience growing up as a teen-magazine junkie. "I recently came upon a Seventeen from that time and it had things like how many calories are in certain foods. I remember that really affected me," she says. "As a teen-ager you're already so self-conscious."
Kelly has remained partial to the teen market throughout her varied career. After attaining a bachelor's degree in English and History from Colgate University, where she was editor in chief of the school newspaper, Kelly headed to New York to pursue a career in journalism.
Determined to write, she passed on working at one of the larger mainstream magazines, where the only prose she might create would be in "letters for your boss," and opted for trade magazines, briefly writing for ADS magazine and then Footwear News for two years.
In 1988, Kelly became a founding editor of former teen bible, Sassy. But six years later, new management fired her and her co-workers. Shortly after, the magazine folded.
Reeling from her beloved publication's bust, Kelly worked as a senior writer for US magazine and freelanced for such magazines as Rolling Stone, Spin and Premiere. In 1997, she helped found Jane magazine, where she was deputy editor until February 2000. She then moved on to the executive editor position at YM.
When Annemarie Iverson left her position as YM editor in chief in September 2001 to assume the same spot at Seventeen, Kelly, mother of an 18-month-old son, took over. In addition to removing diet stories from the mix, she added lengthy feature articles.
"The first thing I did was add more substance, more articles and features," she says. "We still cover fashion and beauty and teen-agers want to see that stuff in the magazine."
Even as executive editor, Kelly worked to keep diet stories out of the magazine, says Onion, her assistant. "She was kind of like the voice of reason," she says.
Now, the entire YM staff seems to be speaking in unison. At a recent editorial meeting, someone suggested writing a feature story about raw-food diets, noting research that suggests the plans are healthy. The idea floated around for a bit, but was ultimately eliminated.
"Girls would read it and think that we were condoning this sort of diet--even if we say that we're not," Onion says.
Promoting healthy eating and fitness without teetering towards a thin-is-in philosophy can be tricky, but not impossible, says Kilbourne.
"There's plenty of room for nutrition, recipes and good stories about healthy eating. You can educate people about that," she says. "The goal shouldn't be that you'll be thin, but that you should be healthy. You'll have clearer skin and shinier hair, rather than you'll be a size zero."
Carol Lee is a student at New York University's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:
By Caroline Polk