“Weigh Less, Smile More:” How Fitness Magazines Define Health in Very Unhealthy Ways
Though fashion and lifestyle magazines are the traditional targets of research on body image dissatisfaction and eating disorder connections, I argue that fitness magazines are an even more important source to examine for their potential influence on these matters. They don’t just show readers what’s in style or what’s “beautiful” –they blatantly claim to represent health and portray fit female bodies. As a thriving sector of the media industry, these magazines play a powerful role in defining and depicting female health and fitness in a society that is clearly in need of help to understand what health entails and how to attain it, as evidenced by our epidemic rates of both eating disorders and obesity.
Despite the industry-wide decrease in sales in recent years, magazines targeted toward women’s health and fitness have actually increased in sales, circulation and advertising profits (Consumer Marketing Trends, 2010). Magazines’ reach among 15- to 17-year-old girls remains close to a whopping 80 percent and penetration for 18- to 24-year-olds is higher than any other age group, at 92 percent. Health magazines in particular are one of the fastest-growing categories of women’s publications, and are shown to be second only to physicians as sources of health information for women and families (Barnett, 2007). Therefore, I decided to critically analyze the top two titles of this popular genre, Shape and Self, to better understand the ways they represent health and fitness for their millions of readers and the millions more who see the covers on every newsstand, whether they like it or not.
Probably not surprisingly, I found some very not-so-healthy ideas about health within the glossy pages of Shape and Self from April 1990 through April 2010. Claiming to be “the ‘how to look and feel amazing’ resource of young, confident women everywhere” (Shape Media Kit, 2010), Shape magazine has concentrated on physical appearance since its inception in the early ‘80s, though it markets itself as a “premier health and fitness magazine” that targets the “fit and fit and health conscious female consumer” (Shape Media Kit, 2010). With consistent content focusing on fast weight loss and the easiest way to get looking sexy, Shape and Self are challenging what “fitness” really means. Beyond objectification of bodies and the perpetuation of beauty ideals, these magazines are creating a new definition of health for women. I argue these magazines have re-packaged health and fitness in terms of thinness and sex appeal. Through the following descriptive analysis, I argue that this dangerous re-packaging is accomplished in three different ways:
- “Look Wow Now:” By representing fitness in terms of appearance rather than ability and well-being
- “Strong and Sexy:” By verbally combining terms that represent traditional fitness with terms that represent sex appeal
- “Weigh Less, Smile More:” Through an overriding emphasis on weight loss for everyone in editorial content and images
“Look Wow Now”
Through the idealized bodies and appearance-focused covers, headlines, articles and images in every issue of these magazines, Shape and Self are equating health with “attractiveness.” In doing so, these magazines are normalizing an objectified concept of health by portraying it in terms of appearance rather than ability or well-being. Even before analyzing the articles inside the three magazines, a clear appearance-focused agenda becomes apparent when simply looking at the teasers printed across the front covers. Headlines such as, “You can Enhance Your Breasts by Strengthening Muscles” (Shape, April 1990), “Look Great from Any Angle!” (Self, April 2000), “Get a Sexy Butt, Abs and Thighs” (Shape, April 2006), “10 Great-Butt Shortcuts: Look Amazing in Jeans” (Self, April 2004) are continuously plastered across the covers along with bikini-clad models and passively posed, heavily made-up women.
Self and Shape’s clear, consistent emphasis on beauty and sexual attractiveness on their covers also outweighed any focus on health or fitness within their pages. In the few feature articles representing fitness activities or health information, the narratives were nearly always perpetuating a view of the body as an object rather than as an instrument. Nearly every fitness or physical health-oriented article in both Shape and Self throughout this time period could be classified as “re-packaged” health. For example, a story on how to join the Self Fitness Challenge includes a main photo of a woman who is actually engaged in physical activity, but is unfortunately posed in such a way that the reader has a direct view down her sports bra of exposed breasts. In one of countless examples, Shape’s April 1992 cover featured the bold headline “Fast Firmers” with a posed model in barely there mesh clothing arching her back and sticking her derriere and breasts out. Passive, sexualized and body-part-centric images are common throughout every issue of these two magazines, from Shape’s April 1994 busty, bikini-clad cover model with “Your Best Body Ever: Part 1 of the Ultimate Diet and Fitness Series” to Shape’s April 1995 highly sexualized full-page image of a thin, posed model in only underwear for an “Art of Movement” fitness story.
“Strong and Sexy”
The bold headlines describing Self’s annual fitness challenge reflect one major strategy by which these magazines equate health and fitness with thinness and sexual attractiveness: the verbal confusion of physical fitness and sex appeal. They prominently feature the headlines “Be strong and sexy” and “A slimmer, sexier you in one month.” Self claims any woman can “Get Exponentially Fitter (and Slimmer and Sexier)” (April 2006 cover). “Sexier, slimmer,” “strong, sexy,” “healthy, gorgeous” and “stronger, slimmer” are just a few the seemingly infinite number of examples inside these magazines of words representing physical health being confused and combined with words representing “attractiveness” and sex appeal. This is traditional health being verbally re-packaged in terms that reflect a dangerous idea that sex appeal and thinness are central to a woman’s “fitness.” When women’s health and strength is framed and advertised as “sexy” and “gorgeous,” it privileges an ideology of women’s subordination and male pleasure, which does a disservice to all people.
A similar power dynamic is reinforced when thinness is equated with sexiness – as demonstrated by the Self Challenge feature and throughout the magazines. By equating weight loss with increased sex appeal, male pleasure is once again privileged as the dominant power. Simultaneously, objectification comes into play when fitness is defined in terms of appearance rather than ability, such as the Shape April ’08 cover story detailing how one workout keeps cover model/actress Jennifer Esposito in “close-up shape.” When women are socialized to perceive their own bodies from the perspective of another’s gaze, as these magazines train women to do through the images and content of every issue, objectification is reinforced and actual health and fitness are forfeited.
“Weigh Less, Smile More”
An overriding emphasis on weight loss rules the magazines, which is key to normalizing the definition of health as equating to thinness. Self’s prominently displayed and promoted fitness challenge carries the bold advertisement “Lose Weight Every Day!” with the sub-text, “It’s never too late to achieve your best body ever!” As subjective concepts like “your best body ever” and “your better-body goals” are combined with straight-forward messages advocating daily weight loss, Self continues to equate thinness with self-improvement and fitness achievement – for every reader, regardless of size or weight. Self’s April 2006 cover advertised “A slimmer, Sexier You in 1 Month” with a shot of perfectly styled pop star Carrie Underwood. Interestingly, the same music icon is featured two years later on the 1998 cover of Shape, but this time carrying the teaser, “I Lost 20 Pounds! Her 3 slim-down secrets inside.” When she posed as cover girl for Self in 2006, there was no mention of her needing or wanting to lose weight. This phenomenon pervades these two magazines throughout the last decade. The April 2000 issue of Self advertises the “Cindy Crawford Shape Up: How She Did It,” as if supermodel Cindy Crawford ever needed to slim down.
Despite a blatant emphasis on appearance and becoming slimmer and sexier with nearly every article, Shape highlighted this ironic quote from a reader on an opening page: “I was trying to fit a mold of how I should look, rather than working out to take care of myself” (April 2006). Though sometimes discreet, the underlying narrative of thin-ideal media is consistently perpetuated throughout women’s fitness magazines: “Being thin means being happier, sexier and more loveable” (Pompper & Koenig, 2004, p. 92). Or, in Self’s own words, “Weigh less, smile more.” Whether it’s tips for becoming a “foxy, sexy, strong, lean lady” or getting a “strong, sexy body,” Self and Shape consistently demonstrate text-based strategies for re-packaging traditional health and fitness in objectified, power-laden terms.
Perhaps the most obvious notion represented by both of the magazines through their images and text is the thin ideal. Self’s “The workouts, diets and styles for every shape” featured only thin models – even runway-thin models for some. A nine-page spread in Shape, titled “Your perfect weight: Get there, stay there,” featured four models as the representatives of a range of body shapes and sizes. Each of them was shown from the front and back walking on the beach, and each of them wore a bikini, with no sign of any cellulite, rolls, bulges, stretch marks or other supposed signifiers of “flaws” found on many healthy women’s bodies. With so little variation in bodies represented as healthy or fit, a skewed notion of reality is being constructed and perpetuated by these magazines.
After critically analyzing the top titles of this genre, Shape and Self, I argue that these women’s health and fitness magazines are re-packaging fitness as thinness and sexual attractiveness through an overriding emphasis on weight loss and appearance. By touting themselves as health-promoting materials while consistently framing fitness in terms of appearance and sex appeal throughout the vast majority of their editorial content and images, these magazines are normalizing an inaccurate and oppressive idea of what it means to be healthy and fit. The dangerous distortion of women’s health and the sexualization of fitness – as found in these magazines – is oppressive to everyone, and is particularly dangerous when presented under the guise of “health.”
What YOU Can Do
Protest with Your Pocketbook: If you don’t agree with the serious misrepresentation of women’s health in these magazines, don’t subscribe to them or buy them. If you have friends or family that subscribe to these titles, forward them this link and recommend that they protest with their pocketbooks as well.
Use Your Influence: If your favorite salon, gym or doctor’s office offers these magazines for free reading in their waiting rooms, recommend that they be removed or placed behind the counter where young girls or children won’t be so easily exposed to their harmful messages about bodies. Turning the magazines around in the checkout stand or placing something in front of them at the grocery story is another great way to protect young people from the images and headlines.
Keep this Conversation Going: Share this link with friends and family that read these magazines or may be influenced by their messages so they can start to recognize the difference between beauty ideals and true health and fitness. Leave a comment! What kinds of more empowering and accurate representations of health have you seen? Where? What do you think of the argument that these magazines are doing a good thing for women by providing them with goals to reach for in terms of what their bodies can look like? Are these magazines actually inspirational or just degrading and harmful to body image? Are the images or fitness messages realistic? Keep the conversation going here and anywhere people can get involved!
Proceed with Caution: If you enjoy reading these magazines, as many people do, just continue to do so with a critical eye. See this analysis of Cosmopolitan that offers some great perspectives on these same issues. Recognize the ways they frame fitness in terms of appearance with such a strong emphasis on fast weight loss, and be aware of the sexualization of bodies and exercise in the images. Being aware of these strategies is a great step toward breaking free from these harmful ideas in your mind, even as you enjoy your favorite magazines. A boycott of all media is often an unrealistic expectation for most people, so learning to be more critical of the messages we’re exposed to can be a great way to be more aware of the profit-driven ideas we’re being sold about women’s bodies.
Lindsay Kite (2010) “Women’s Fitness Magazines: Defining and Depicting a Distorted View of Women’s Health.” Paper submitted during Ph.D. program Dec. 2010. Department of Communication, University of Utah.Cited References: Barnett, B. A. (2007) “More Contradictions: A Framing Analysis of Health, Aging, and Femininity in a Magazine for Women Over 40.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association. Pompper, Donnalyn & Koenig, Jesica. (Spring 2004) Cross-cultural-generational perceptions of ideal body image: Hispanic women and magazine standards. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(1), 89-107.