It’s Not Nostalgia: Revisiting Especially For Girls’ “Teen Works”

I have seen these peach binders filled with teenage advice often on visits home, sitting in the same drawer where I left them so long ago, but this time I gave them a closer look.

Dec 27, 2011 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Especially for Girls, as I recall, was a mail-order book club that would send out a box of books each month in exchange for some exhorbitant fee, I’m sure.

The books were hardcover versions of mostly-unoffensive YA fare, usually chaste teen romances with titles like “Janet Hamm Needs a Date for the Dance,” “Dream Boy” and “Out of the Blue.”

The books came in multitudes and many, I’m sorry to say, were eminently forgettable, although some still stick in my memory (I recall “Dream Boy” being quite compelling) and if nothing else, they proved a lighthearted distraction from the heavy “Six Months to Live” YA novels I so favored around the same time, all of them stories about kids fighting cancer or lupus or some other disease.

(As an interesting aside, while researching this post I discovered that the main character from “Six Months to Live” -- who defied those six months, naturally -- is the subject of a series of five books now; only the first two had been written in my day.)

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With the books, the unnamed Especially For Girls braintrust would also include cards on various girl-centric subjects every month, to kept carefully filed away in a specially-branded Especially For Girls binder, a peach affair decorated with a cheery confetti print and stamped with the title “Teen Works.”

The cards covered a variety of teen topics, from the obvious “Fashion,” “Beauty,” and “Boys,” to slightly (slightly!) less superficial fare like “Money,” “School Days” and “Your Personality.”

Researching these cards on the Internet is practically impossible, turning up a couple of references in comments to old blog posts, and some long-ago deregistered trademark information.

When I queried my father, he didn’t remember how I came to be a member of said book club either, adding, “Although I’m sure I paid for it.” Did I find it advertised in a magazine? On television? I can’t recall, although I remember the excitement with which I received the regular packages. 

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Though the original YA books I received from Especially For Girls were donated long ago, my peach Teen Works binders have spent the better part of the past two decades stored in a dresser drawer in my old bedroom, where I found them this weekend. Most of my cards bear copyright dates of 1987 or 1988, making these curious little bits of ephemera contemporaries of Sassy magazine, and though their rosy innocence stood in contrast to Sassy’s unabashed teen realism, both were fairly influential forces on my adolescence.

More than anything else, the “Teen Works” cards provided a convenient manual of female gender socialization. They told their audience of eager preteens how to dress, how to conduct themselves in the company of boys, how to care for their changing bodies, how to navigate friendships and how to generally survive in the cutthroat underworld of girlhood.

For me, as a tomboy raised mostly by a single dad, they provided invaluable counsel on how to not defy gender norms so much.

The desire to better fit in is something I’d scoff at today, but at the time, in that tenuous space between my childhood and my teenage years, a list of straightforward rules was what I needed. 

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When I first dragged out these binders, I expected them to reproduce the mindless conformity that I associate with so much of teen media; the urging to fit in, to look like everyone else, and not to rock the boat with annoying details like individual opinions.

I remembered enjoying them in a vague way, but I also remembered that I always considered them to be a sort of poor cousin to the calculated hipness of Seventeen and the other teen rags I had occasionally looked to for guidance.

However, as I read through them for the first time in at least 20 years, I was surprised to see that the uncredited Teen Works writers shared a surprising amount of heart.

There were several cards that described situations in which a girl should stand up for herself, even if it made her unpopular. One of my favorite examples is “What if you fall for a NERD?” which recommends several healthy approaches to this social conundrum. A beauty card encourages girls to “Accentuate the Negative,” and to see the “flaws” in their appearance as unique assets. A card about developing boobs is unexpectedly body-positive. A card on being “different” is forcefully affirming of individual weirdness, quoting Henry David Thoreau for emphasis.

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I had been prepared to find these artifacts to be an embarrassing remnant of my preadolescent years, but instead I think it’s kind of awesome that I had this resource -- that I was exposed to these ideas in a formal way during my so-called formative years. They weren't just dumb tips on dating; they were solid pointers for life.

Do you remember Teen Works? Or have you recently revisited something else from your childhood only to discover it was way cooler than you had thought? Should I just scan all these 100+ cards so we can all laugh at 80s fashions? Let’s talk about it in comments.

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