Seventeen’s Performative Diversity and Activism

The other day I was perusing through the covers of Seventeen magazine, a middle school staple read for waiting at the cashier line of Walmart. I was amazed at how white the covers remain, despite it being around since 1944. This inspired me to find the first black cover model for Seventeen and identify the magazine’s incentives for taking that first step towards diversity, as well as why it hasn’t improved on that field since. As it turns out, the first black cover model was Joyce Wilford on a 1971 issue, shown on the right below.

(July 1971) 

During the 70s, a number of issues — environmental protection, women’s rights, the anti-war movement, and Watergate, to name a few — led to a surge in political engagement among youth. It turns out that Seventeen published a number of political issues, reflecting the contemporary interests of their readers. In discussing hiring incentives for commercial models, Mears claims that “[c]ommercial producers are … more likely to embrace ethnic diversity models … in a conscious effort to reach a target consumer” (33). It’s no surprise then that the first black cover model would make her debut during this time, as implicit indicators of Seventeen’s “allyship” with their politically active readers. Having stayed away from politics before, Seventeen’s sudden engagement in racial and social discussion is suspect and shows an urgency to “relate to the consumer, please the client, and ultimately, sell products” (Mears, 32).

(L) Lowest cover topic says “A Noted Psychiatrist Discusses HOMOSEXUALITY,” (M) Top cover topic says “THE NEW ACTIVISTS: What they think, how they look, where they’re going,”  (R) Bottom right topic says “Special Report: TODAY’S YOUNG NAVAJOS.” Picture retrieved from Jane Hu’s historical report on Seventeen covers.

I found that many websites originally claimed that Whitney Houston was the first black model, appearing on a 1981 cover. Interestingly, the 1971 cover of Wilford and 1981 cover of Houston are laid out similarly, showing two women – one white, one black – enjoying their friendship.

On the left, models Bonnie Lysohir and Joyce Wilford frolic on the cover of a 1971 issue. On the right, models Diane Leicht and Whitney Houston sit and enjoy ice cream on a 1981 cover. 

Although published 10 years apart, the position and poses of the models portray a similar story. On the left, the popular 70s model Bonnie Lysohir frolicks on the beach with her obscure black best friend (I measured popularity by the number of articles I could find on each). On the right, burgeoning model Whitney Houston gazes at her friend, who smiles at the camera with a knowing look that she is the center of this photo, with both the viewer and Whitney giving her their full attention. In their respective covers, Wilford and Houston accessorize the white models as symbols of racial camaraderie during a time of political turmoil around the world. The disarming smiles and poses of Wilford and Houston hide a more sinister revelation about the media industry, best explained by Susan Bordo: “[W]ithin the overall system of meaning they will not be permitted to overwhelm the representation and establish a truly alternative or “subversive” model of beauty or success” (25). It isn’t surprising to me, then, that the first black model for Seventeen would not get her own feature. Seventeen may have been trying to pull a radical move with the “first”, but not enough to cause an uproar among its white fanbase.

As quickly as the 70s brought along performative political awareness, the 80s swept Seventeen back to the usual topics of heterosexual relationships, mixed messages on fashion and beauty (the September 1989 cover included an issue “Who says I need to have a boyfriend?”, accompanied by another title issue underneath: “Sexual decisions, it’s up to you! (no matter what he says)”), and the next trending story among the youths. Mears perfectly encapsulates the actions and behavior behind Seventeen and other commercial producers: “Their imagined consumer upholds a heteronormatively restrictive and idealized vision of white middle-class suburban femininity, but it is just that: an ideal with mass appeal, but nothing too surreal” (34). Having Joyce Wilford on a cover may have been a revolutionary first for Seventeen, but the accessorization of women of color is no new concept.



Bordo, Susan. “Introduction: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 1-42. University of California Press, 1993.

History. “The 1970s.” Accessed May 1, 2017.

Hu, Jane. “When We Were “Seventeen”: A History in 47 Covers.” The AWL, 2012.

Mears, Ashley. “Size zero high-end ethnic: Cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modeling.” Poetics 38 (2010): 21-46. Accessed April 26, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.poetic.2009.10.002.



3 thoughts on “Seventeen’s Performative Diversity and Activism

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  1. This reminds me of our Ford reading for this week, in which the author describes Essence magazine as having a similar problem to Seventeen’s performative activism, despite its being black-focused. Like the girls on the cover of Seventeen, Essence’s “chic, intelligent college student” is a “role model for teenagers and a symbol of racial progress for the older generation” (95). Black youth culture in the same time period featured a vibrant nexus of pride, political activism, and the signaling of those things through fashion choices–and clearly, magazines including Essence wanted to capitalize on that. It would be interesting to compare Essence’s translation of “soul style to a broader audience” (110) to the ways in which Seventeen co-opted its predominantly white audience’s political aesthetic. Interestingly, the magazines (at least from a context of our class readings) seemed to take a similarly de-politicizing trajectory in their efforts to appeal to a broader base: Ford states that “Despite the political fervor of the movement, the Essence soul sister was not overtly political. The special issue did not include stories on topics related to Black Power, black feminism, or antiwar sentiment” (110). If Essence “wanted to guide women from adolescence into adulthood,” (111), why did it not embrace the political energy infusing aesthetics like soul sister style? Was it trying to keep young black women within a certain, more “respectable” definition of black female adulthood?How would the audiences of the two magazines in this period (60s-70s) read and be read differently based on their style choices?–and how was Essence’s portrayal of a young female role model more or less limiting than Seventeen’s?


  2. Thank you for the post, I had no clue of Seventeen’s history with diversity and activism. As of late Teen Vouge has been increasingly political, and as a magazine, with a similar target audience, I find this interesting. As a teenager, I remember reading magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vouge searching for advice, learning about issues facing girls like me around the world. With this in mind, I can only think of magazines like these as cultural artifacts, shaping the views of young people. The current editor in chief at Teen Vouge is Elaine Welteroth, a Black woman. In Wanchen’s post, she quotes Mears talking about consumerism,“Their imagined consumer upholds a heteronormatively restrictive and idealized vision of white middle-class suburban femininity, but it is just that: an ideal with mass appeal, but nothing too surreal” (34). This quote combined with the new found rise of Teen Vouge back into popular culture, brings us back to notions of tokenism. Additionally is raises the question of how are we to interpret the use of activism in the age of Trump? In the turbulent times, we live in activism in any form is necessary. These magazines have a large platform to educate, and it would be a shame for them to waste it.


  3. The Houston and Wilford covers make me wonder about performative activism and acceptability. Both the 1971 and 1981 covers feature a black woman, but she is accompanied by a white one—that is, Seventeen is claiming to be progressive without actually pushing the boundaries of what their audience would find acceptable/unacceptable. Further, the white women are therefore granting permission to Houston and Wilford to be on the cover. This obviously plays into centuries of race dynamics and white supremacy, with white people deciding what opportunities and rights are available to black people. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that the models in the 1971 are not looking at the camera. They are shown as being in their own world and not confronting the viewer with their friendship, even though it is taboo. Meanwhile, between the two covers the only model to look at the camera directly is the white one from the 1981 issue, while her black friend looks adoringly towards her. However, though the white model in the 1981 cover is looking towards the camera, to offset any potential discomfort, the two models are dressed very conservatively and are holding ice cream to infantilize them. Therefore, I completely agree with your argument that Seventeen was more focused on participating in the trend of inclusion than actually believing in the cause.


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