From Cher’s shrieks in Clueless and Blair Waldorf’s whines in Gossip Girl to your teenage cousin’s shrill giggles, high-school girls have long been defined by their, well, girlish voices. So why do the 10th graders who eat lunch on my block sound like a group of lawyers from Staten Island?
Puberty isn’t new, but the vapes in teenage girls’ hands are. In 2021, the C.D.C. reported that young adults, ages 18 to 24, are the largest group of e-cigarette users. The problem starts even younger: according to the National Institutes of Health, 37.3 percent of high-school seniors vape. The C.D.C. claims the problem starts younger still: in 2022, 1 in 30 middle-schoolers admitted to using a vape within a 30-day period. That same year, only 1 in 100 middle-schoolers reported smoking cigarettes.
One of the many issues with vaping is that it hasn’t been around long enough for the effects of extended use to be completely understood. According to a report written by Dr. Reena Gupta, the director of the Division of Voice and Laryngology at the Osborne Head & Neck Institute, in Los Angeles, “vaping produces a highly-irritating vapor that is inhaled past the vocal cords, causing inflammation of the lining of the vocal cords,” which makes “injury far more likely. Injury can include vocal fold nodules, polyps, cysts, or other injuries related to vocal trauma.”
Vaporizing and inhaling a proprietary blended chemical cocktail can cause hoarseness, injury, and changes to the vocal range—especially, one would assume, if you’re under 18 and your larynx hasn’t finished developing. In sum: constant vaping may have given a generation of teen girls raspier voices.
Lilia, whose name has been changed for this story, is a confident high-school senior in New Jersey. She likes watercolor and Lana Del Rey. She started vaping only a year ago, and has a low, droning, Greta Garbo voice. Talking to me for this story is a big deal. Both of her parents were smokers, but they don’t know that she vapes, and she has “no intention of telling them.” She doesn’t want them to know she’s made the same mistakes.
“I hope my voice hasn’t permanently changed. I don’t think it has, just because I haven’t really vaped for a long time,” Lilia tells me. “I do notice that, like, in the morning after I hit it a lot my voice is raspier than it normally is. A lot of my friends that vaped for all of high school have talked about that.”
I ask her what flavor of Juul she prefers, and she immediately makes a face. I’ve dated myself. “I’ve never Juuled. Nobody really Juuls,” she says. Currently, Lilia’s friends, who are all seniors in high school, either use single-use vapes, such as Elfbars, or have started smoking cigarettes to quit vaping.
To stop teens from vaping, in 2020 the F.D.A. banned flavored Juul cartridges, leaving just nasty menthol and nicotine. This ban created a market for single-use vapes in even more synthetic flavors and Tamagotchi-like colors. “It’s kind of ironic,” Samantha, a recent high-school graduate, tells me. “All my friends stopped vaping and used cigarettes to quit.”
“I do notice that, like, in the morning after I hit it a lot my voice is raspier than it normally is. A lot of my friends that vaped for all of high school have talked about that.”
Samantha, who is getting ready to start college, began vaping in seventh grade. Her middle-school friend group was obsessed with Skins, the early-aughts coming-of-age TV show about partying British teens. Her friends would sit around smoking tea leaves, until one of them brought her older brother’s vape to a sleepover.
Afterward, Samantha went to the local bodega and got her own vape, a red-apple Myle Mini. I make her repeat the name three times for me. Nothing has made me feel older than researching vape names. They’re all multi-syllabic mush meant to entice babies: Puff bars, Zovoo, Flum, Flux. When Samantha tells me about the delis selling vapes to her at 12, she giggles, incredulous.
Samantha, who has a low, breathy voice, tells me, “I mean, I definitely have crazy vocal fry.” She’s in an after-school chorus, and she’s found that it’s harder to sing high notes. From freshman year to now, her voice has become more gravelly, to the point the choral director remarked on its tone change. I ask if she likes that. “A little bit,” she admits.
For a middle-school palette, Samantha explains, “cigarettes were gross, and too real.” Vape flavors, on the other hand, were fun and yummy. “Obviously, now that I stopped vaping, I’ve started buying packs of cigarettes. It’s less, though, because you can only do it outside.” Lilia says the same thing. Cigarettes were “more of a community thing. Like, ‘Who wants to go out for a smoke?’ With the vape it isn’t special.... You just hit it.”
Samantha was the last of her friends to quit, during junior year of high school. “It started becoming embarrassing—it’s also so expensive.” She rolls her eyes. “I think of it as a very young thing to do. Whenever I see adults vaping, I’m, like, that should have stopped a while ago. That’s a middle-school thing to do.” She’s only half kidding.
The side effects of quitting the vape were crazy. Samantha tells me, “I’d be hyperventilating in class wanting to hit it. You can’t exist as a chill vaper.” She shakes her head. “Cigarettes at least look cool, but, like, it’s all embarrassing.” Though their voices were lower and more adult, it was nice to find the enduring shame of being a teenage girl remained.
Nicolaia Rips is a screenwriter, an editor, a senior features writer for HommeGirls, and the author of Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel