Beauty Redefined Blog

“Weigh Less, Smile More:” How Fitness Magazines Define Health in Very Unhealthy Ways

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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:

  1. “Look Wow Now:” By representing fitness in terms of appearance rather than ability and well-being
  2. “Strong and Sexy:” By verbally combining terms that represent traditional fitness with terms that represent sex appeal
  3. “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.

Conclusion

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.

  1. Imelda
    Imelda02-23-2011

    Oh, thank heavens for you girls and for this article! I knew I couldn’t be the only one to have noticed this. Your examples are excellent, but you don’t even need to look at more than one issue of the magazines to see the problem. On an Australian women’s magazine that has ‘fitness’ in the title, I once counted 12 teasers, 10 of which were about losing weight and/or appearance. And on closer examination, there was not a single article about training that wasn’t geared to achieving an appearance-measured result. And not a single article about women’s sport, an area appallingly under-reported and which you think you could rely on a women’s publication to cover.

    Many of us know the damage these messages are doing, but it is fantastic to have some solid research to point to when fighting the fight. Keep up the good work!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined02-24-2011

      So glad to hear that others are disgusted with these magazines! And we definitely hope the research helps the argument against their harmful “fitness” ideals. Thank you so much for your comment and the support!

  2. Mulliner
    Mulliner03-01-2011

    I admit your judegment could not have been expressed in a more thought inspiring way. I commend you on the rigorousness of this post. Thanks

  3. Rachel
    Rachel03-04-2011

    How interesting to read this article! I had these same thoughts several years ago and, as a result, cancelled my subscription to Shape Magazine. I had been wanting to lose weight after two pregnancies had left me…ahem…a little flabby, and I had subscribed in order to encourage me to get more fit. I was appalled at the blatant hypocrisy going on in each issue. There were no models of fitness at all! I bet every model was under 20 and had never dealt with pregnancy weight nor eaten a square meal in her life. Thank you for explaining my thoughts in a way I could not!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined03-05-2011

      “Blatant hypocrisy” is a perfect way to sum up what goes on inside Shape. Well stated! Thanks for your comment, insights and support of this important cause!

  4. Stephanie
    Stephanie03-04-2011

    I am a subscriber to Self and really haven’t paid much attention to my magazine over the past year. I agree that there is an unhealthy portait of women displayed through much of the fitness magazines. Being of all shapes and sizes is part of what makes us beautiful. I have been fairly active and so-so about visiting my local gym.

    About a month ago my doctor advised me I need to lose weight due to some medical issues. At 155 lbs and 5’5″ it may not seem as though there is that much to lose, but it has become medically necassary for me. My prior treadmill walks and bike rides were not cutting it to improve my lifestyle. So I took a serious look at my lifestyle and made some very important changes to my diet… goodbye fast food. Over a 3 week period I lost 5 lbs which was incredible. I was thrilled at the progress.

    I wanted to rev up my workout routine and pulled out my last years issues of Self. I sorted through for the workout and fitness tips and suggestions. Many of which come from well respected personal trainers such as Jillian Michaels. The tips include strength training routines, online access with how to’s, advice on how to keep from injuring yourself and recieve the maximum benefits from your routine. For example with each strength training routine they encourage you to use work out 3 days a week on non-consecutive days. They highly encourage high intensity interval training and suggest ways to get started for those that are not as physically fit. The workouts help to boost metabolism and in turn increase fat burn. The most helpful to me have been the tear out cards in each issue detailing how to do a different strength routine. I found Self to be a great resource for jump starting my workouts and much more affordable than a personal trainer.

    In the last week I have improved my weight loss to 4 1/2 for one week! I know that this will not last for long and I will plateau after another week or two and be back to maintaining my new healthier weight through regular exercise and healthy diet. But I am more healthy and in turn feel much better about myself. In turn I am expereincing increased spirituality, greater productivity at work, and improved relationship with my husband who is an avid outdoorsman, I can now keep up with him. I work with a group of young women and have always encouraged them to be actively fit and maintain a healthy lifestyle for these reasons. For me Self Magazine has been a vital tool in reaching these objectives.

    In conclusion I wish these magazines made greater effort to feature average women… Which I have observed Self do on a regular basis ove the past year while telling the story of what worked for them to live a healthier lifestyle. And change the taglines to “all over strength workout” instead of “sexy abs, butt and thigh” because the first is more correct.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined03-05-2011

      I’m so glad you were able to look past all the objectified crap and use the actual fitness info for yourself! Congrats on your success in your health goals – it sounds like you’re doing great, and doing it for all the right reasons. I’m with you in hoping these magazines start to put more effort into representing healthy goals and healthy bodies. Thanks for your comment!

  5. yoga
    yoga05-04-2011

    On an Australian women’s magazine that has ‘fitness’ in the title, I once counted 12 teasers, 10 of which were about losing weight and/or appearance. And on closer examination, there was not a single article about training that wasn’t geared to achieving an appearance-measured result. And not a single article about women’s sport, an area appallingly under-reported and which you think you could rely on a women’s publication to cover.

  6. Ashley
    Ashley10-04-2011

    I have always read these magazines with a critical eye just as I have for my own pleasure. I admit I enjoy reading Self from time to time. I like reading about the work outs and lifestyle articles, but I have also always saw how much emphasis was pushed on weight and looking hot. I was always able to kind of ignore those messages anyway since I am already thin and I suppose attractive by society standards. It would still be nice if they cut down on the weight and being sexy focus and just stay on the keeping active and healthy part.

  7. CoEd
    CoEd03-07-2012

    “By equating weight loss with increased sex appeal, male pleasure is once again privileged as the dominant power.” I think plenty of women derive pleasure from feeling sexy. Doing things like working out in order to increase a personal feeling of sexiness does not automatically privilege male pleasure over your own. (Especially if you are homosexual…). Sex appeal in itself– is that really equal to male pleasure? It seems to me that being sexually appealing is increasing your own pleasure, because you will feel good about yourself and get to have sex with whomever you want. If you have lower sex appeal, you are not lowering male pleasure. You are lowering your pleasure and he is getting off from someone else.

    • Laura
      Laura02-12-2013

      While it is true that women derive pleasure from feeling sexy, it’s also true that a lot of the pleasure women receive from feeling sexy is directly related to the response that they will receive from men as a result of their perceived sexiness. Women aren’t trying to be sexy to turn themselves on – they are trying to be sexy to appeal to their target audience. You make a good point about it not always being about male pleasure, since there are plenty of homosexual women who aren’t intentionally targeting men with their “sexiness”, but since the majority of women are not homosexual it is not unfair to assume that most “sexiness” is aimed at promoting male pleasure.

  8. ally
    ally03-16-2012

    Looking for motivation again and thought I’d re-subscribe to shape when I came across this article. Are there any alternative magazines/sources you would recommend? Thanks!

    • Kat
      Kat04-19-2012

      Look up a website called stumptuous. It has a wealth of information for women about proper exercise. It’s where I first started on my fitness journey way back in the day. (4 years later, I’m a personal trainer!)

  9. Claire
    Claire05-02-2013

    Hey ladies,

    Thank you so much for this post (and for all the other fantastic work you’re doing!). A few years ago, during my (still on-going) recovery from an eating disorder, I started reading these magazines. I even contemplated writing a letter to one, much like the letter quoted. I bought into the idea that I was being “healthy” and “fit” when all I was really doing was keeping my ED happy with excuses to work out endlessly and punish myself because I didn’t look like the models in Shape.

    I still find myself consuming this kind of media on a distressingly regular basis, in spite of knowing, consciously, that is it bad for me, that is it BS. Your description of cognitive dissonance really struct a chord. I feel it almost constantly. I dearly want to be able to work out and eat healthily because it makes me feel better (and it does! it makes me calmer and happier) but I struggle with how complicated my relationship to food, exercise and “thinspiration” is.

    I do however feel stronger and more hopeful for having wonderful, intelligent, inspiring women like you on side. You’ve opened my eyes to quite a few things that felt instinctively wrong, but which I couldn’t quite put into words.

    Thank you. xxx