By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

Teen culture today is something that is packaged, marketed, and sold back to teens for their own consumption... Instead of liberating us, teen culture restricts us.”
—Jamie Keiles
first-year in the College

One morning this summer, Jamie Keiles woke up and donned 5-inch heels over her lavender-colored pedicure. A teen magazine said it would make her more popular, but, really, the shoes just made it difficult to walk.

A first-year student at the University of Chicago, Keiles spent a month this past summer following virtually all of the fashion, make-up, and relationship advice in Seventeen magazine, then writing about it in her blog. The project quickly blossomed into a detailed, rollicking critique of such magazines and the bizarre expectations they often set for young women.

Her wry blog, “The Seventeen Magazine Project,” caught fire, drawing legions of readers and devoted followings on Twitter and Facebook. National Public Radio “All Things Considered” host Michele Norris called Keiles “fearless.” The popular blog Jezebel deemed her one of the teen phenoms—“teenoms”—“giving us hope for the younger generation.”

As she embarks on her first quarter at UChicago, Keiles plans to build on her success with the Seventeen project. She will concentrate in sociology and is writing “Teenagerie,” a blog she hopes will challenge media images of what it means to be a teenager.

“This is something that I am interested in and people are interested in,” she explains of her academic choice. “It seems viable.”

Magazine Sparks Unexpected Detour

The prospect of studying something she is passionate about also helped bring her to Hyde Park. A native of Doylestown, Penn., Keiles says she was intrigued by a quirky mailing from the University of Chicago that arrived with a fake coffee stain and a teaser about how students stay up late talking about philosophy. She says she had grown to love such wide-ranging intellectual exchanges in high school, and was eager to join a community where students take ideas seriously.

Keiles fell into the magazine project quite by accident. At the time, she was waiting to graduate and had plenty of time on her hands. One afternoon, whiling away some time in the school library, she happened to visit the teen magazine section.

Her initial assessment? “I can’t believe this was being marketed to my peers,” she thought. “Ninety percent was about doing your hair and fawning over boys all day.”

An avid New York Times Magazine reader, Keiles generally ignored beauty and fashion magazines. “It was prom season,” she recalls of the detour.

Keiles, someone drawn to projects since her early years, decided following the magazine’s advice had all the makings of a fun, educational experiment.

“It got me wondering more about the standards the media sets for young girls and women,” she says. “And, what if I really took it all seriously?”

So began her journey.

Spending Too Much Time on Looks

Every morning, Keiles got up at least 40 minutes earlier than usual to allow time to apply a full set of make-up. If she was straightening her naturally thick, curly hair, she needed an extra hour.

“After three days, I started to really resent the time,” she says of her morning beauty routine. “I was really bored with it.”

She soldiered on.

She posted photos of “hot guys” like Justin Bieber on her bedroom wall, she exfoliated, shaved, and waxed, she dressed in camp-chic, tribal wear, and “floaty” vintage clothes and wore mermaid braids in her hair.

By the end of the 30 days, she tallied the cost of the morning ritual alone: “I wasted 1,200 minutes this month doing my hair and putting on make-up.”

Beauty treatments aside, Keiles found much to dislike about how the magazine dealt with food and body image.

“I will have you know that for lunch I had a massive chocolate ice cream cone into which I dipped curly fries,” she wrote on the blog one day. “Afterward, I did not talk about how fat I felt, or how ‘bad’ I was for eating it.

“I will eat whatever I want in moderation, and I will not let any magazine’s limited idea of what is beautiful stop me; I suggest you all do the same, or find another way of thinking that makes you feel good about being you!”

Fans’ Message to Mainstream Media

Her message hit a nerve.

Readership averaged 200,000 readers a day, Keiles says, and unintentionally made her more popular in the process.

To wrap up the 30-day project, she invited readers to participate in a photo-submission initiative where fans of the blog would finish the sentence, “Hey mainstream media! I am ...”

Her fans did not disappoint. More than five dozen went so far as to fashion and post their own protest signs on Flickr.

“Hey mainstream media! I am... ”

“... repelled by your idea of normal. Seriously, what planet are you on?”
“... unable to walk in heels.”
“... not buying it.”
“... sick of being just a stereotype.”

Originally published on September 27, 2010.