Holiday Gift Guides Suck: A Case Study

It’s that time of year again where, if you’re not one of those super-prepared-for-every-occasion people, you’re starting to think about what gifts to give your loved ones for the holidays.

For those of us who are both incapable of making a decision and eager to buy people’s love, holiday gift guides seem like a good idea. For a second, you bless the kind souls who have carefully curated the list of what to buy your father, mother, teenage daughter, boyfriend, wife, colleague, great aunt (twice-removed), or womanizing divorced step-uncle who gets a bit too handsy after a few drinks. You should know these people better than some stranger on the internet, but sometimes you can’t help but draw a blank.

On the internet, all parents are closet alcoholics

It doesn’t take long before you realize that every gift guide follows the same guidelines.

For some reason, every mother loves wine, home goods, toiletries, scarves, tear-inducingly boring hobbies to kill time like quirky puzzles and coloring books, and, most importantly, being your mother. Because nothing says “I care about you as a unique person with interesting hobbies and special interests” to your mom than giving her a gift solely revolving around the concept that she birthed you.

Fathers, on the other hand, get chucked with such interesting gifts as “alcohol”, “spicy food good”, “manly barbecue kit”, “seemingly-practical gadget they will never use”, and “paraphernalia that reminds him that being a dad is hard because men are bumbling idiots and incompetent at domestic things, har-dee-har”.

No matter where you look, every category follows the same gendered rules. Putting in the effort to look for specific gifts that match the interests of the person you’re buying for requires time and effort. That route isn’t compiled into a neat little animated slideshow for your convenience. No, gift guides have to step it up and give us something new, dammit.

A gift guide to inadvertedly antagonize the teenage girl in your life: a case study

Once in a blue moon, you come across a different gift guide. A special gift guide. One could even call it a gift guide of uncommon goods.

In my search for unique gifts for teenage girls, I came across a site that offers one-of-a-kind presents. It was through this gift guide that it dawned on me that there’s good reason most guides play it safe.

Although the specifics of what I liked as a teenager have changed, most of the basics still stand. Most teenagers just want some dope clothes, cool tech, and not to be reminded of the hormonal emotional awkwardness that comes along with being a teen. Somehow, this gift guide has managed to throw everything we knew about teenagers to the wind, conspiring to make you their enemy number one.

Here’s a rundown of the six most inadvertedly offensive gifts.

1. For the teen who never gets invited to anything

JOMO Journal: Embrace the Joy of Missing Out
How to say “I’ve accepted you are a social pariah” without saying “I’ve accepted you are a social pariah”

FOMO, the terrible acronym for the Fear of Missing Out, has been cheekily replaced with JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out, for this gift. The JOMO Journal (ugh) is there for your teen to enjoy the fact that they’re missing out, building the practice of mindfulness. There is no way they won’t see this as a transparent ploy to get them to feel OK with not being invited to things.

From its preview, it features such thrilling prompts as Look out the window and describe what you see and Zone out and do a word search. On the surface, it looks like a journal encouraging your teen to slow down and appreciate being in the moment. In reality, it looks more like a way to trick them into keeping quiet and busy because they don’t have any friends to hang with.

As an ex-tween prone to bouts of canceling plans, staying home to read, and being entirely OK with it, if someone had given me this as a gift, I’d start worrying whether I should be getting out of the house more.

What to get them instead

If you’re going to give them a journal with prompts to keep them busy, go with an oldie-but-goodie: Wreck This Journal.

Wreck This Journal goes beyond letting you get creative, encouraging you to pour coffee on it, break the spine, tear out pages, and all-around make a mess of it. It’s fun, task-driven, and cathartic, without constantly reminding you to feel the moment. Most importantly, it doesn’t perpetuate the paradox of not being able to be in the moment because you’re constantly reminded that you should be in the moment.

2. For the teen that’s “too emotional”

The Box of Emotions
Hey, that’s what they called me in high school!

Ah, emotions. Once puberty hits, along come those wonderful hormones that hit your system like a shock to the heart, including all the complex feelings with it.

It might be because I come from an emotional family that’s not stellar at handling emotions, but if they’d have given me this card deck, I would have been quick to dig out “confused” and “disappointed” from its box. Yes, I still have difficulties differentiating between whether I’m hungry or angry, but it’s not because I don’t understand what those feelings mean, it’s because I live in a world where I refuse to accept they’re different emotions.

I am a firm believer in the idea that at times, you’re not ready to receive information on its own, because you lack the background needed. You need to live the right moments to make it click. You need the right practical experience to put it into context and make good use of that theoretical knowledge. Muddling your way through newfound emotions as a teenager is one of those cases.

You can’t just spring a bunch of cards on them and hope they take it from there.

What to get them instead

If your teenager lacks the self-awareness to understand their emotions to the point you’re bringing didactic materials into the mix, just give them some therapy.

Alternatively (because therapy makes a pretty lousy gift for the holidays, especially if it’s coming from the parents who most likely caused the issues in the first place), find out what their emotional outlet is and get them a present that encourages them to explore that. Be it music, art, physical activity, writing, whatever, invest in what that they like that helps them organically sort out all their emooooootions.

3. For the teen with low self-esteem

I Am Everything Affirmation Card Deck
I am… tired of the discourse around affirmations and manifesting

Teenage girls have it hard. Apart from the already unreasonable expectations society puts on them, social media has added to the mountain of ridiculous standards they are meant to meet. Instagram models and TikTok stars are using every which photo and video filter they can get their hands on (sans disclosure, of course) and getting Botox and filler at 16 (because ageism is this generation’s answer to 2000s toxic diet culture). Check any teen girls’ Instagram page and you’ll see a generation that’s grown up on YouTube beauty videos, finding out what lighting flatters them the most, and knowing their angles.

On top of that, they have to deal with the attention of the worst cohort of humans in existence, regardless of sexuality: the 17-year-old teenage boy.

We want to remind these teens that they are enough. We also want to remind them that their lack of self-esteem hasn’t gone unnoticed. Oh no, in case they were worrying if anyone else noticed how insecure they felt, this deck of cards with affirmations will let them know they did a terrible job at hiding it. There’s no better way to make them feel more unsure about themselves than letting them know that it’s obvious they’re not confident.

What to get them instead

I’m going to eschew the obvious female empowerment literature route, and suggest something that would appeal to more than just the bookworms. Instead, put together a DIY self-care kit so they have something for the days when everything gets a bit much. You’ll need a couple Lush bath bombs, scented candles, and (the cherry on top) a weighted blanket. Keep it a full sensory experience so they can take some time for self-care and block out the world when they need it.

Add a personal note reminding them how amazing and strong they are, and that’ll mean more than any set of pre-packaged affirmations.

4. For the teen who… eats too many… burritos?

Twist & Eat Burrito Holder
No, it does not double as a thermos. I checked. God forbid it be useful

Your teen might not hate you for this gift. They may even appreciate it, depending on how much they love burritos. But every adult in the room will judge you the moment they realize that a) you spent 45 euros on a holder ONLY FOR BURRITOS and b) apparently you’re feeding your teen enough burritos that they appreciate a gift that is a holder built ONLY FOR BURRITOS.

During my teens, pizza was the thing to be obsessed with. Anywhere you looked, pizza was love, pizza was life, pizza was God. This burrito holder has unlocked a memory I thought gone forever: the existence of the portable pizza pouch. I wanted one so bad. I was young and foolish and thought I’d look cool walking around with a slice of pizza dangling at my hip, salami, dough, and cheese at my fingertips. The reality was, I did not eat pizza nearly as much as I thought I did for this to be a reasonable purchase. And I’d just be ridiculed because I’d be walking around, smelling like Eau de Pizza Salami everywhere I went.

These burrito holders are this generation’s portable pizza pouch. Let’s not add more waste to the world by encouraging the youth to use food-specific gadgets.

What to get them instead

Anything that holds more than one type of food or drink. Did you know a lunchbox can carry a burrito AND more? Or that a thermos can carry multiple drinks? Like tea? And coffee? And hot chocolate? Hey, hot chocolate may not be healthy, but so isn’t EATING BURRITOS SO MUCH YOU NEED A 45 EURO HOLDER FOR THEM. Here’s a list of aesthetic lunchboxes for teens. Who cares if lunchboxes aren’t cool anymore in high school? They’re guaranteed cooler than a designated burrito holder.

If your teenage girl does love burritos so much you think that they would appreciate this, first: please stop enabling their habit. Get them this burrito blanket instead so they can become one, instead of eating them.

5. For the teen you want to make hyper-aware of the new changes in her body

Menstrual Cycle Tracking Bracelet
Ah, the perfect gift for when you can’t wait to hear the words “Didn’t you know there’s an app for that?”

Periods should be demystified. Periods are completely natural. Periods should not be stigmatized.

But they do take some getting used to.

And while you and your family may be enlightened when it comes to the ebbs and flow of Aunt Flo, getting a period tracking bracelet for the teenage girl in your life is still kind of weird. You’re putting the onus on a teen to broadcast their cycle with a piece of jewelry, all while she’s still figuring out how she feels about what her body’s doing in the first place.

I track my period because I don’t like to be caught unawares while wearing white or stuck without Ibuprofen in my bag. I don’t feel a special connection to the fact that it happens. It’s not some mystical experience of womanhood. It’s just something my body does every month that’s kind of a hassle, but whatever, we get through it. Up until now, there has been no inclination to glorify the experience by adorning myself with a reminder on my wrist.

Normalize periods by having frank, open discussions about them and not treating them like a gross failure of the human body to be ashamed of. Not by making them out of touch, spiritual, and a symbol of womanhood. When can we move past the mysticism and get to the point I can complain about my cramps at work?

What to get them instead

Any other piece of jewelry that doesn’t openly say “I get my period!”. You can go the trendy route and win some cool points with a custom name necklace. Otherwise, if you still want jewelry with a purpose, spinner rings are great for the anxious teen prone to fidgeting. They’re discrete too.

If you still insist on period paraphernalia (ok, fine, you do you), give them a Diva cup. Practical, sustainable, and you don’t wear it on your wrist. Just give them a heads up so they don’t open it in front of the whole family if they don’t want to. Let them decide how comfortable they want to be with sharing information about their period, on their own terms.

6. For the teen who’s also an unfashionable civil rights activist

Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" Scarf
Ideal for cursing your teen with an endless onslaught of “What does your scarf say????”

Younger generations are more involved in activism than ever, and that should be encouraged. But maybe let’s stay away from making it a fashion statement. At least if we’re going to bring it into fashion, make it fashionable.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but infinity scarves have gone the way of galaxy leggings and have been retired as an official “cool girl” item. Nowadays, unless you’re a proponent of Christian Girl Autumn, it’s best to leave the infinity scarf behind.

Not only would you, teenage girl, be gifted with an outdated scarf style, but you’ll also have the entirety of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech emblazoned across it. Because there is no better way to share that you’re interested in activism than by wearing an accessory that spells it out for everyone else. Oh, except the typeface is still too small for anyone to read it unless they’re standing uncomfortably close to you. Hope you don’t have a personal bubble!

What to get instead

You’ve got two options, depending on what your goal is. If you’re buying the gift to start a conversation and educate, opt for anti-racist books for teens instead.

If you want to give a non-book gift, it’s better to buy them something they enjoy from a black-owned business. You can’t go wrong with practicing what you preach and supporting black-owned businesses with your money. If they like it, your teen will be more likely to recommend the same gift to their friends, helping boost the business, and going beyond performative activism.

But then, what do I give?

Let’s be real. There’s a target audience for this faux-inspirational, semi-educational, quasi-spiritual, get-in-touch-with-your-emotions, touchy-feely sort of thing, and that target audience was never me. I hated Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and passed out cold the first time I did yoga (Shavasana with dimmed lights, incense and chakra-healing music swirling around the room, and the encouragement to close my eyes? I never stood a chance). I wasn’t raised in a tote-swinging, granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing household. Even if I was, the problem with these sort of gifts – and that of many gift guides – is that the present is more about the gift-giver than the receiver.

We have to stop buying presents that we like and remember it’s just not about you. That’s what makes a good gift. Take the extra five minutes to jot down what you know about the other person and go from there. Sure, you can give it your own flair, but stick to a 15-85 ratio: 15% your sparkle and shine, 85% their interests.

Oh, and if you’re still stumped and getting a gift for an adult, you can’t go wrong with some good socks.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.