Em Odesser is a 16-year-old New Yorker and the fashion editor of Teen Eye Magazine, an online publication created and written for teens, by teens. I learned about her on Instagram, where she uses the platform to educate her peers about the political climate, inform her followers about upcoming protests, and of course, share selfies that she likes.
Odesser lives with her family an hour outside of New York City in Westchester. More often than not, she can be found riding the Metro North into the city to meet up with friends and work with activist groups. When I invite Odesser to the VICE office in Brooklyn for an interview, she quickly accepts but reminds me to schedule our meeting after her school day lets out.
When Odesser does arrive, she's wearing a Care Bears shirt tucked into a plaid mini skirt, a heart-o-ring choker decorating her neck. Glitter covers most of her face. Within minutes, we've raided the office snack room together and Odesser emerges with arms full of fruit snacks, Kit Kats, and potato chips. Once we sit down, she reveals what's inside her overflowing backpack and takes out a large palette of glitter eye shadow. She offers it to me, and we do my makeup in a bright dragon green.
When Broadly staff writer Diana Tourjee learns there's a cool teen in the office, she ventures out from her desk to meet Em. After Tourjee declines Odesser's immediate request to give her a glitter makeover, she gets a digital tour of Teen Eye and starts asking the hard questions: Whose photo is that? Who is doing the design work? Who is paying for this?
Started in 2014, Teen Eye is a quarterly publication focusing on art, fashion, and culture. With advertisers (mostly Etsy shops and other online boutiques), more than 40 contributors, and a pitch guide, the teen magazine is pretty official, publishing more than 20 pieces an issue. Its last installment sought to answer a single question: How can youth mobilize to change the future for the better?
What Odesser makes very clear is that Teen Eye is a completely teen-run publication. Em's network of teenage friends is doing everything: photography, site design, writing, and other staffing needs. While talking about a graphic designer nearing her twentieth birthday, Odesser says, "I'm really going to miss her," revealing that once you're no longer a teen, you're out of Teen Eye. "It sounds mean but it's not," she reassures. "This magazine is for teens. It just has to be this way, this is truly a space for teens."
It's rare for teenagers to seem wise beyond their years, but you definitely get that sense from Odesser. When I ask her about politics, she is a spew of information, citing headlines in rapid conversation and actively trying to highlight injustices committed by corporations and the Trump administration on her social media platforms.
Since Donald Trump was elected POTUS, teenagers—most of whom were not able to cast their vote—have become increasingly politically activated. While cool teens in New York City were protesting in Foley Square, Odesser and her friends staged their own walk out in solidarity at their public school. "The election changed everything," Odesser says. "Now my peers and I, we're active. I've met so many new teenage friends at rallies, a lot of cool 14-year-olds at Planned Parenthood protests."
This awakening is also reflected in Teen Eye's expanding political coverage. "Now we're trying to adjust to the political sphere and figure out how to incorporate it into our content. I don't think we need a whole new section to cover politics," Odesser explains. "Politics fits into culture, it fits into fashion."
While political tension can often feel compounded in the digital age of terror-inducing clickbait headlines and Instagram memes of World War III, Odesser realizes there's something of a silver lining: using digital platforms to connect with people and fight injustice. "I would love to have been born in a different era, I would have wanted to be an original Riot Grrrl," says Odesser. "But twenty years ago, I wouldn't have this platform and I wouldn't be able to give other teenagers a platform to explore what they care about ... Without the internet, I couldn't have asked them if they want to write a piece for the magazine. But now I can."
Beyond helping to run a magazine and applying to college, Odesser is involved with Reprorights, a zine about reproductive rights, and Sad Girls Club, an online and real life club working to destigmatize depression for women of color. "I'm really, really busy," says Odesser, who doesn't have her driver's license yet. "My parents joke that they're my personal assistants, they always have to drive me around."
Odesser has just recently finished a school paper about the history of birth control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger. "Now that I have more time, I want to start a lot of creative projects," said Odesser, listing off her plans to write more for Rookie, launch a new zine for feminist protest, and another zine called "Boys I Liked Until I Learned They Were Misogynists."
As she was leaving the office, Em ran into a friend of hers who is working at VICE as an editorial intern. "Why are you here?" Em's friend asked. When Odesser points to me and says, "She's looking for cool teens," her friend turns to me, points back to Odesser, and says, "This here is the coolest teen."