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A Millennial Youth

Seventeen and MTV aren’t responsible for my feelings of inadequacy or the fact that I’m an addict. But they did their part to help.

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Models, maybe—but role models? Photo via

By Taylor Ellsworth

07/01/12

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I started reading Seventeen and Cosmo magazines about seven years too early. When I went grocery shopping with my parents, I would plop down on the floor of the magazine aisle, trying to memorize every sex tip and beauty how-to before it was time to check out. Eventually, my weekly sessions weren’t enough and I would beg my mom to buy me the newest glossy collection of ads until she finally gave in with reluctance, probably just to shut me up. Parents take the easy way out all the time to get some relief from their children and I don’t blame them. I doubt my mother ever thought that the occasional four-dollar fashion magazine would have any sort of impact on my adult life—she just wanted the 30-minute break from my begging, crying, and talking.

The overwhelming presence of advertisements and messages, explicit and implicit, in my childhood was certainly not her or my father’s fault. I couldn’t turn on the TV or go outside without seeing a commercial or billboard promising to deliver something that I would realize, upon seeing it, I desperately needed. I was raised in a culture that taught me that I was not enough—not beautiful, thin, smart, fashionable, healthy, friendly, or happy enough—and I needed something outside of myself to be whole.

I remember watching MTV Spring Break while sitting on the couch with my brother, truly believing that any respectable college girl spent her spring break competing in wet t-shirt contests and doing body shots in a string bikini on the tropical beaches of Mexico. At 10 years old, I felt like the lamest person in the world, inside on a drizzly grey day—March is still considered winter in my hometown of Portland, Oregon—eating chips and wishing somebody would just invite me to a Mexican beach rager already. I wasn’t even in high school and I already felt left out of the college party scene. MTV taught me who I was supposed to be in college and I had nearly a decade to practice before getting the opportunity to act out the lifestyle I desired.

I can still forget that I am the only one who thinks I need to be someone else.

When I wasn’t learning how to party from episodes of Spring Break or The Real World, I was learning how to be a woman from movies like Clueless, Mean Girls, and Legally Blonde. Despite these films’ intended positive messages about the power of female friendship and perseverance, what I took away from them was that if I wore a size two, dyed my hair blonde and played dumb in front of boys I liked, I would be pretty and cool like Cher, Elle and Regina. I had little semblance of an identity but I felt certain that if I could be more like the girls on screen, I would find one.

The OC became a huge sensation when I was in middle school. When I watched Mischa Barton’s character smoking cigarettes, drinking to the point of passing out in alleyways, fighting with her parents like a bratty child and snorting cocaine without a second thought, I wanted to be just like her. Her jutting collarbones and quilted Chanel bags made depression look so glamorous. Though she blacked out, she never puked on herself, her hair always looked perfect, and Ryan—Ben McKenzie’s character—never stopped loving her, despite her intrinsic fucked-up-ness. I don’t know if this show or films like Clueless were intended for middle school girls; if they were, those producers owe America’s 20-something women an amends—or at least a confidence boost. Either way, The OC aired on network television and could easily be found On Demand. Even when my parents began to question its appropriateness, I never had a hard time finding the latest episode. And I learned from Marissa’s relationship with Ryan that if I let my damaged neediness run rampant, drinking and snorting everything in sight, a man would save me from myself, Disney-princess style.

By the time I had moved from adolescence into my late teens, I had internalized a myriad of messages and each one represented another facet of my being that was inadequate. I thought my out-of-control drinking at age 14 was normal because the kids on TV did it too; I thought that my drinking problem made me complex and sexy because Marissa was complex and sexy; I thought that I needed to look like Rachel McAdams to be loved; I thought that I was incomplete without the newest MAC lipstick. I forged my identity through trying to be both what Cosmo told me a man wanted from me and the sloppy yet sexy party girl I saw on the screen.

One of the problems with forming an identity that revolves around overcompensating for everything I wasn’t was that it was impossible to know myself. It’s hard to find time for self-exploration or recreation when all of your time is spent getting trashed and trying to make up for all of your largely imagined shortcomings. When I got sober, eight years after I began scouring magazines for the secrets to life, I came to the realization that all I knew about myself was that I really loved to drink and use drugs and that I was deeply afraid of the world. Everything else that had once defined me was symbolic of who I thought I was supposed to be in order to live up to a standard of—of what? Womanhood, perfection, coolness? I’m not sure. All I know was that it was there, and no matter how hard I faked it, I could never live up to it.

I know that I cannot blame alcoholism, bulimia and a general all-consuming self-obsession solely on the media on which I was raised. If skinny actresses and on-air parties had this effect on everyone, all of the women of my generation would be plagued with the same self-loathing that drove me to the extremes of addiction. Maybe I was just an incredibly impressionable child. Or maybe the combination of my genetic predispositions to alcohol and depression, my anxious and fearful personality and the saturation of my childhood with magazines, cable TV and movies created the shit storm of insecurity that I associate with the media.

When I first got sober, I replaced alcohol with a laundry list of other obsessions to fill the void: weight; attention; shopping; areas of my life where I felt inadequate. Today I have been relieved—at least somewhat—of these obsessions. Sometimes, if we stay sober long enough, things just start to fall away. As I learn how to be a functional person in the world without substances, once-insurmountable obstacles become scraps of paper obstructing the ground and nothing more. Little by little, I have been able to let go of the idea that I will never be cool if I’m not drinking. And the free time I’ve been left with has allowed me to explore the world and discover that I still really love to run and paint my nails. Who knew? It has also given me space to learn what kind of friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, and coworker I want to be, rather than basing my decisions on the WWEWD? (What Would Elle Woods Do?) philosophy.

Even so, when I watch Californication, I’ll catch myself wondering if my boyfriend is going to break up with me for not looking like the bronzed, plastic-y women that sleep with Hank. I can still forget that I am the only one who thinks I need to be someone else.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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