A girl is sitting in an open field. She’s wearing red sneakers and a red varsity jacket over a t-shirt that says “SENIORS” in blocky blue letters. She looks straight at the camera lens, her blonde hair windswept across her face. Green is all around her — the blades of grass like brushstrokes.
I am looking at this photograph from my family’s desktop computer. I am 11 or 12 years old. I am probably wearing a training bra from Target and a shirt that says something like “GIRLS ROCK!” The girl on my computer screen is an unnamed high schooler, only a few years older than I am, but I idolize her as if she were a supermodel on the cover of Vogue.
I found this photo on the website for Rookie Magazine, an online publication geared towards teenage girls. Rookie Magazine was founded in 2011 by Tavi Gevinson, a teenage blogger and fashion critic. Unlike other magazines I encountered as a preteen, Rookie prioritized creativity over consumption. Most of its content was produced by other teenagers, and its archive consisted of countless articles teaching teen girls how to make collages, publish zines, or write poetry.
Rookie, like many other magazines, aestheticized female adolescence. After the sixth grade, I came home and clicked through film photographs of girls in flower crowns and vintage clothing. I scrolled through fashion columns advising me on how to style myself, after Lux Lisbon from “The Virgin Suicides,” Suzy Bishop from “Moonrise Kingdom,” or Audrey Horne from “Twin Peaks.” I read sprawling interviews between Gevinson and her friend group of teen girl celebrities. I bookmarked personal essays about first-time sex and sneaking out.
When I was a preteen, Rookie fueled the daydreams that I had about my coming teenage years. I imagined fun parties, memorable misadventures, my picture-worthy prom dress. Not something perfect, but something precious that I could only access in the years between 12 and 20.
If I internalized anything from Rookie Magazine, it was the impulse to create. I spent all of high school writing short stories about things that had never happened to me: drunken kisses, hookups and heartbreaks, thin cigarettes perched between shaking fingers. Fiction was the facade I built to conceal my actual teenage experiences, which consisted mostly of studying and listening to angsty songs on loop. Adults warned me about treating my teenage years like a transitory period. But I wanted to graduate the day I started high school, and I spent the next four years ensuring that I could go to college somewhere far away from my hometown.
I don’t have a direct way to explain why I wanted to escape the place I was from. I grew up in a quaint, quiet suburb outside of Houston, Texas. When I describe that place to my friends in college, the word I use most often is hostile. I remember friends confessing that their parents were strong proponents of replacement theory, a far-right conspiracy that argues that racial minorities maliciously intend to displace the white population. I remember the xenophobic rants on the neighborhood Facebook page, the MAGA rally at the mall during the 2020 election, the racially coded insults that I learned to take with a blank smile.
I didn’t pursue memorable teenage years because I was motivated to move away from the place that raised me. In high school, almost every action I took was an investment in my future, a step on the way out of adolescence. I never bought my picture-worthy prom dress because I skipped the dance and spent the weekend at Harvard instead.
Even now at 19, teetering at the edge of adolescence, I’m not sure if I regret that mindset. I try to look back on my own teenage years through a neutral lens: it happened, it can’t be changed. At the same time, I find myself peering into the next dizzying decade of my life. I graduated from training bras many years ago, but I still feel like the preteen at the desktop computer, trying to catch a glimpse of the years ahead of her.
Even though the publication folded in 2018, I’ve recently found myself returning to the film photo albums of Rookie Magazine. The girls in cheer skirts and scrunchies are crystallized in the hallways of their high schools: figures from a beautiful memory, a memory that isn’t mine.
— Magazine writer Yasmeen A. Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @yazzywriting