Carol Weston and her cat discuss her new book in a YouTube video.
When I was growing up, my mom got me a subscription to Girls’ Life magazine. When it came every month, the first thing I did was turn to the “Dear Carol” advice column. Written by Carol Weston for the past two decades, the column answers letters from girls struggling with all aspects of growing into women. Weston is also the author of 12 books, including Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You, which I personally read cover-to-cover at least eight times growing up.
Weston’s current project is writing young adult fiction. She has a new book out this month: Ava and Taco Cat is the story of a young girl who gets a yellow tabby cat for her 11th birthday, but struggles to make the cat feel comfortable when all it wants to do is hide.
I talked with Weston about how her writing and the advice has evolved with the changing culture over the last couple decades.
Girltalk in its many translations and new editions.
GEORGIA PERRY: You have been writing the “Dear Carol” column in Girls’ Life magazine for 21 years. Right off the bat, I’m so curious about how the questions you get have changed over the years.
CAROL WESTON: You know, there’s not really a clear-cut answer to that. I’m speaking as somebody who wore hot pants and bought the album Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones as a teenager—that’s the one with the zipper on the front. We didn’t think about it! I’m sure our parents were losing it, just as their parents couldn’t believe what Elvis Presley was doing on stage. I raised two daughters who are now grown and there were definitely times when Eminem was singing and I was horrified, but my husband was singing along and the kids were happy. I think it’s always been important for individuals and families to try to think, be sensible, be mindful, and not just go with the ridiculous flow of where society is taking them.
Teenagers have always been a little reckless. I do think it probably is a little harder to be a teenager, and to raise kids, today—but at the same time, I’ve done four revisions on Girltalk and one chapter that doesn’t change much is the “love” chapter. If you look at the hearts of girls, the human heart doesn’t change that much. Girls still have crushes and in 100 years they’ll have crushes.
What parts of Girltalk have changed in revisions?
Well, the first edition came out in 1985. AIDS was sort of new and mysterious, and I remember I spent a lot of time on that book tour explaining what anorexia and bulimia were and why they’re dangerous. As time went on, there was a lot more to talk about gender stuff and STDs. Honestly I learn so much from the letters I get. In the first edition of Girltalk, I included just a couple paragraphs about incest. Afterwards, I got all these letters about incest. It was like, wow—I’d sort of entered the world of social work and real problems. The first time I heard about cutting was in a letter. Much later, the New York Times wrote about it.
It’s always been interesting to toe that line, because I’m often writing for 11- and 12-year-old girls. Sometimes if you write about these topics you stir up more questions than are necessary. It’s hard. You want the kids who are feeling alone to not feel alone and have support, but you don’t want every single 10-year-old to have to learn about condoms and drugs if they were just gonna kind of go get on the swing set.
Right. At the same time, though, it seems to me the biggest difference between now and when you wrote the first edition of Girltalk is the extent to which technology has come into the lives of everyone—including young kids. In what ways have things like social media and texting affected girls’ experiences of growing up, especially in terms of their sexuality?
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s amazing how many girls will admit to me they can’t turn off the computer and go to bed. And texting is huge. In the first edition of Girltalk I wrote about phones and answering machines. Now everybody has a cell phone—or if they don’t they’re writing me complaining that they don’t have one. I also have to say when it comes to technology I really have heard from a lot of girls who have fallen for guys online—it’s not just the “scary media” putting that out there. Sure, in you’re 20’s [you can use] match.com or whatever—go for it. But when girls are 12 or 13, I really think it’s way better for them to try to have real, live face-to-face relationships. A lot of girls are vulnerable enough to predators that it is pretty scary. I’ve definitely given the spiel to sweet little 11-year-old girls who are naive, “No don’t meet that guy! Don’t give your address!”
What about when girls are a little older and more Internet savvy? Especially with LGBTQ teens who maybe don’t live in supportive environments, I know that the internet can be a safe place—sometimes safer than the communities in which they live—to meet someone or find support. How does your advice differ under those circumstances?
My advice under those circumstances is more like, trust your gut. Remember people can lie online. For sure meet someplace public, not at his or her home or a hotel. Take it step-by-step. Remember it’s a lot easier to fall in love online than when you actually meet the person, and it’s a lot easier to agree with everything someone says when you’re just writing to them online. Take it slow.
When it comes to LGBTQ issues in general, culture has changed a lot since the 90’s when your column began. What has changed from your end, in terms of both the questions you get and the answers you give?
I get hundreds of letters from girls who are gay and their questions range in subject matter. Like all girls, I just try to help and to let them know they’re not alone. One thing I have noticed that’s different is that in the last several years girls are beginning to question their sexuality much younger, which is a good thing in a lot of ways. At the same time, I cannot tell you how many 11-year-olds write me saying, “I’m bi and so is my best friend, and my neighbor thinks she’s gay…” The thing I notice is girls feeling a rush to label themselves when it comes to their sexuality. My advice in these situations is similar to my advice in a lot of situations, which is to slow down take your time. I’ll write, “Listen, it sounds like you haven’t kissed anybody yet. I don’t think you need to say to yourself or anybody, ‘I’m bi.’ Take your time. Time will help you figure this out.”
I want to address body image, too. What changes have you seen over the last 20 years when it comes to girls’ issues around their bodies and sexuality?
Honestly, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen has had to do with porn. When I wrote the first edition of Girltalk, nobody thought or worried about girls and porn, even teenage girls. It didn’t really occur to me. Now, all of a sudden we know that teen boys are just awash in this. They have to navigate this world and it’s right there on their computer—they can go there anytime. And guess what—girls can too. I’ve received scores of letters from girls who feel terrible and ashamed about the fact that they are kind of addicted to porn. At the same time, sometimes I get a letter from a 12-year-old who stumbles upon her brother’s porn and writes me because she’s horrified that she lives with a “perv.” In those cases, it’s my job to kind of try to give her a hug and remind her that curiosity is natural and encourage her to try not to think ill of her brother because he’s not the only one. The world we live in is full of all sorts of stimuli. For the older girls who are worried they’re masturbating too much, my response is more like, “Hey don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Nothing’s wrong, but get yourself outside some more, take some walks, get off the computer—that shouldn’t be your whole life.”
I just imagine it being so much harder now to be a tween or teen girl today. Everyone posts selfies on Instagram, we can literally Photoshop ourselves to look our “best.” I can just see myself as a 12-year-old obsessing for hours over which profile photo to use.
I do think it’s gone overboard, but growing girls have always been self-conscious about the way they look. Even if it was 50 years ago, everyone wore lipstick and they all had their hairdos. I think the deal is, it is an amazing thing to go from a girl to a woman and it happens in a short timespan. Even if society was giving nothing but beautiful messages, even in a perfect utopia, if you are flat chested and your best friend suddenly has big boobs, you’re both going to feel a little funny about it. It doesn’t help that the messages from the world are so confounding and toxic.
Definitely. As someone who has built her career around trying to help growing girls in the midst of those toxic messages—which often serve to derail the good advice you give—how do you make peace with it all?
I think that’s one of the main reasons I have recently moved into writing fiction for girls, after decades of writing advice and nonfiction. In fiction, I get to control that world. If a girl writes me and she has a horrible home life, I can give her hugs—well, I can give her words—but I can’t give her a new family. With fiction, though, I’m in charge. When I write a novel for children, I get to give it a happy ending. That makes me so happy because I can’t always do that for my Girls’ Life or Girltalk readers. I try—believe me, I try. Sometimes the advice is, “Hang on, it’s going to be so much easier in college.” That’s hard advice for somebody who is 15 and feeling trapped where they are. Even if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it still might be a long tunnel.
Has the way you define what a “girl” is changed, in light of new awareness around gender that has developed in society in recent years?
Sometimes I have trouble with definitions. I think there’s no easy way to define “girl” and I wouldn’t want to try, because that would be putting a girl in a box. I sometimes see posters that say like, “Girl: Glitter with a giggle!” or something. I hate that! But it’s not like I think every girl has to be a leader, or tough and strong necessarily. I just think it’s great if everybody can be kind but be kind and also strong, whether you’re a guy or a girl.
Georgia Perry is a journalist and humor writer based on the West Coast. You can follow her on Twitter.