Remembering Sassy Magazine's life advice for teen girls
Theresa DeLucci got a letter published in the only publication for girls that really attempted educational journalism—amid Twin Peaks fashion spreads and celeb interviews with grunge luminaries like Kurt Cobain and Kim Gordon.
The recent news about the return of Twin Peaks got me reminiscing about the magazine that introduced the show to me in the first place – Sassy, the most valuable print magazine for teenage girls to ever exist. It sounds like hyperbole, but compared to its peers -- Seventeen, YM, Teen -- Sassy was the only publication for girls that really attempted educational journalism amid its Twin Peaks fashion spreads and celeb interviews with grunge luminaries like Kurt Cobain and Kim Gordon. This was well before everyone had the internet. For many, Sassy was like a super cool, trusted, wiser sister who could tell you what to expect at your first gynecologist visit, wha
t to do if you've been raped, why it's important to make your voice heard and vote. The magazine had its regular columns: One to Watch, Cute Band Alert and It Happened to Me, which featured first-person accounts of experiences seldom or never before discussed in print for young women. "I Went to Prison." "I am a Muslim." "My Mom's a Drug Addict."
Being a bookish, weirdo teen in a small town (Sassy's target demographic), I desperately wanted to write for them. But, alas, my feeble fiction was justly rejected, and I was too young and too far away from the New York City offices to try for an internship. Yet, while I didn't feel comfortable sharing anything heavy enough for an "It Happened to Me" article, I could at least put together a passable question for the much more light-hearted Dear Boy advice column and try my luck that way.
Dear Boy. An innocuous enough feature. Many teenage girls find the male mind pretty mysterious, especially the mind of an older, famous, possibly cute boy, so Sassy provided a space for that. I wrote in without a thought as to what a man's advice specifically might imply. Is it really mansplainin' when the whole point is to have a girl ask a much older man in a position of social power a personal question? Does any teen girl need to know J. Mascis' opinion on big butts? (He likes them and cannot lie.) Does a parent want Thurston Moore telling their daughter that she'd be "lucky" if some crappy, cheating boy returns her affections? Is any woman anywhere served by Billy Corgan's guilt-tripping tale of woe at being romantically rejected by a childhood sweetheart?
Every month I would get my subscriber's copy of Sassy in the mail, bound up to my room, close the door behind me, and thumb the pages to the column to see if my question was there. And one day, one issue, in 1994, Mike D of the Beastie Boys answered. My hands shook as I started to read the familiar words under the header:
"BUMMING BAD SEED?
My mom was a well-dressed, popular boy-magnet in high school. I am a punked-out loner boy-repellent. I get the feeling she’s disappointed in me. To top that off, my dad thinks I am unfeminine. Help! Searching for my real parents."
I cringe at the words "punked-out" now. I believe my original letter referenced my pea-green hair and good grades, but Sassy edited it for space. Anyway. Mike D responded:
"By age 14 I had orange hair and a safety pin in my ear and everyone thought I was a freak, but I had found music and friends who meant more to me than the accepted norm amongst kids in school. There’s no need to conform to the preconceptions of your parents. You obviously have got it going on, so as you achieve stuff on your own terms, your parents might come around to respect you."
It was a total softball question for the magazine that was my gateway drug to the fiction of Francesca Lia Block and Poppy Z. Brite, the music of Bikini Kill and Henry Rollins. But it was also very earnest. And self-edited. There was no "feeling" that my mom was disappointed by my combat boots. She made it very known. Or that my frustrated dad didn't exactly say I was unfeminine - more like I dressed like a freak. (His codeword for lesbian.) I did feel the weight of parental expectations like these, and I didn't know any sympathetic adults I could ask that particular question to. After all, my friends' parents were kind of all dealing with the same disappointing "freak" kids in their houses, too. And I was very privileged, really. The parents of some of my friends kicked out their lesbian daughters, neglected their clinically depressed kids, and lived in denial of their children's drug addictions. Those, unlike black lipstick and Bauhaus shirts, were actual, serious family conflicts that couldn't possibly be addressed with two witty sentences from a Beastie Boy.
Before that day, I liked Mike D, but wasn't a huge fan. Compared to past Dear Boy columnists, he wasn't as cool as Iggy Pop -- who had predictably terrible advice for teen girls -- but he was definitely a cooler Dear Boy than Evan Dando. (Damning with very faint praise, I know.) But after that Dear Boy column, I would think about a misfit Mike D who went on to great, creative things and I would feel a needed twinge of solidarity.
And Mike D was ultimately right. I already knew seeking parental approval wasn't a big concern for me, but, yeah, after a few years, I did feel my parents came around to respecting me. And accepting me as I was -- and as I continue to be -- which is not everything they had quite hoped for. A near impossibility for any child to be, but especially a teenager wanting to be herself as well as a "good" daughter, to whom all parents seem as distant as aliens.
Not at all like Mike D.
Of course by its nature, Sassy's Dear Boy questions were published anonymously two decades ago. My box of back issues has long since vanished. And that bums me out, because I always consider Sassy to be the first time I ever wrote to market. I don't expect everyone to believe my long-distance teenage connection to Mike D, but I also don't know why anyone would make that up. (Though it's a great way to get thirtysomething-year-old women to buy you a drink when they find out.) All I know is how I felt that summer – when I sometimes took to wearing a safety pin in my own ear -- I felt a little less weird and walked a little bit taller because of my secret pen pal.
Once upon a time, twenty years ago, Mike D thought that I had it going on.
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