It’s the fourth week in January, the time when many new year’s resolutions are faltering, if they haven’t fallen away altogether. If the diet/exercise/fitness menu was on your list for 2018, you’re not alone, as many people try to eat less in the beginning of the year to help combat their excesses from Halloween candy, Thanksgiving dinner, and end-of-year sweets.
Women’s health magazines have always highlighted female celebrities at the peak of fitness: workout guru Jane Fonda next to a headline shouting “Perfect Your Body” on a 1987 Shape cover is a classic example. Peering at the local magazine counter this month, I noticed a lot of women’s health magazine still had life- and body-empowering messages, but they stressed the mental gains over the physical: “Your Best You!” next to Brooke Shields on the cover of Health; “Hot & Happy!” aside E!’s Maria Menounos. Shape magazine now even has an online section called #LoveMyShape, in which Orange Is The New Black star Danielle Brooks discusses how she learned to embrace her curves through her Lane Bryant ads, and model Katie Willcox wants you to know that you’re so much more than you see in the mirror.
It’s been a while since I’ve picked up any of these, but when I did, the messages weren’t nearly as body-positive. In fact, a quick perusal of other Shape magazine covers from the 1980s (I was probably still reading Seventeen then, but still) shows a bunch of celebrity cover models who would like you to get off the couch immediately, with demands like “Get Strong!” and “Push For Fitness!” Also suspect: “How To Think And Eat Like A Thin Person” and “Is Food Your Lover? How To End The Affair.”
The ’90s turned toward a lot more talk about “fat-blasting” in the Snackwell’s/heroin chic era. But as the new millennium dawned, front cover messages started to sway from scolding to encouraging. Which makes sense: Why would someone want a magazine to yell at them? That’s why the current crop of women’s health magazine headlines stress taking time for yourself over how flat your abs might get. As Elizabeth Goodman, editor-in-chief of Shape magazine, explained via email: “As a women’s magazine, it’s our job to help women be their best selves—both inside and out. However, we don’t want to set the standard for normal or tell women what normal is; we want to encourage women to find and be proud of their normal… Our approach with our readers is not to judge or demand, just to inspire and support.”
Shape’s mantra seems a far cry from the health and fitness publications of old. It also significantly strays a bit from the current Men’s Health magazine, which still happily screams at you to get off your ass, already. The Jan/Feb top headline: “Get Back In Shape!”, which sounds like an angry command more than a helpful title to a magazine article. The tagline to Men’s Health is “tons of useful stuff,” which all seem to incorporate words like “hot,” “beast,” and “crush.” Inside, the “useful stuff” ranges from the difference between beef stock and beef broth to how to dump someone before Valentine’s Day. And reps. Lots of reps. These guys love reps.
Where Women’s Health may encourage its readers to take time for themselves, Men’s Health encourages its followers to “10x Your Life: Get More Done, Waste Less Time,” which I guess is comparable. Instead of many long-form articles, Men’s Health doles out info in short column bits with lots of graphics—the better for men to process quickly at the gym/in the barber chair/on the train?
Even a quick glance at the Men’s Health Twitter feed reveals a more mercenary tone, involving “revenge shredding,” and what to do if your mom finds your incest porn. Still, there are some bright spots, like “7 Creepy Things You Should Never Do When You Meet a Woman,” like “Just stop catcalling. It never, ever works.” (Notably, this particular article was penned by a female writer.)
Another major difference between the January covers we picked up: the scantily clad women versus coverboy Mark Wahlberg, who got to keep all of his clothes on. Shields (“Fitter Than Ever At 52!”) and Menounos (“Huge career. New fiancé. Then a brain tumor” right next to the shot of her in a teeny red bikini.) were not so fortunate. Maybe it’s on purpose: Menounos appears happy to show off her huge engagement rock as well as her impossibly flat abs, while Shields has been modeling since she was 11 months old, although hardly in such an unappealing posture as this one.
Fortunately, this trend is not across the board; on the cover of the January issue of Shape, Mandy Moore is in a black leather jacket so that her ensemble kind of resembles Wahlberg’s. This is not to say that Shape always covers up its cover women: Kate Walsh (right) was famously naked on her Shape cover (“How She Stays This Hot At 44!”), while The Biggest Loser’s Alison Sweeney also favored a red bikini.
Goodman explains, “We feature all sorts of outfits on our covers, with some more revealing than others. Our goal is to show that women are beautiful—no matter what they wear… So, whether that’s in a bikini or a leather jacket and jeans, we want our readers to know that being sexy is about being confident and owning who you are, not about the clothes you wear.” Or don’t wear, as the case may be.
Granted, our brief magazine survey here is far from inclusive. 2016 saw the debut of magazine FabUplus, specifically geared to the plus-size woman. Women’s Running featured regular-sized women on its August 2015 and April 2016 covers. But even as Shape promotes the body-positivity movement with interviews with people like Willcox, who now runs a plus-size modeling agency, it’s still pushing posts like the below. How are these body types different exactly?
Similarly, the interview with Brooks is great, highlighting the beauty of her latest Lane Bryant ad with Ashley Graham, Candice Huffine, and Denise Bidot. Which makes it even harder to get past the “How to finally lose those last 5 pounds” tip posted on the front page of the magazine’s website. Mixed messages, Shape. Is it “love your shape” or “keep striving for hard-to-obtain body goals”?
Still, it seems like women’s magazines have made some progress in the images that women see reflected back at them. 2017 did see the rise of plus-size models like Graham and Huffine on the cover of Vogue and Elle, respectively, but these are plus-size supermodels. There is still room for improvement in the worlds of fitness and fashion. And fitness fashion.
For example, these magazines may want to look at one of their likely advertisers, Athleta. The clothing line that specializes in stretchy yoga wear came under fire last year when it had decidedly non-plus-size models display the line’s plus-size clothing. Athleta followed up an apologetic statement by adding some non-“straight-size” non-supermodels to its latest clothing line, and receiving accolades from catalogue readers on Twitter.
In that way it differs from Title Nine, an athletic clothing line that favors “real people” as models, and boasts on its website that its photo shoots are “on-the-fly” affairs with “no makeup kits.” However, all these real people are incredibly fit, and list things like “19 days rafting in the Grand Canyon” under “last adventure” and “first Boston Marathon qualification” under “next proudest accomplishment.”
More power to these women, and sure, you could say that fashion and magazines are aspirational over reality-based. If you want reality, look in a mirror, but that’s just it: The super-cut flat abs of Maria Menounos are a far cry from most of us, and can even more damaging to young girls who would do better to avoid the unrealistic ideals that their mothers and older sisters had to grow up with.
So we can applaud some of the efforts of Women’s Health. As editor Amy Keller Laird announced in that Jan/Feb issue, the magazine “will no longer be using fitness models in our monthly ‘15-Minute Workout.’ We’ll feature readers of various body types and sizes,” like the refreshingly normal-sized Morgan Gibson Kanner, hurling a weight plate around in stretchy workout clothes. As progressive as the layout is, Laird points out that “it’s logistically difficult to book nonmodels who have day jobs”; sounds like she should hook up with Willcox’s modeling service.
Even just that single-page layout in Women’s Health is a huge step in the right direction. Seeing more normal-size women on the pages of fashion magazines and catalogues may actually be more inspirational than urging readers to take “more ‘me time.’” It’s also another area where women’s health magazines are surpassing the men’s version: The only non-cut men in Men’s Health are seen in “before” pictures in fitness makeovers. This is despite the fact that 90 percent of men are “overfat,” as the magazine itself reported. Non-six-pack men aren’t missing from the magazine because they’re difficult to find, same as non-size- 2s on the women’s side.
It’s one thing to tell women that their curves are awesome; it’s another thing to depict women who actually have them, making Shape’s #LoveMyShape section the most inspiring part of its site, much more than that bit about those last five pounds. Showing always trumps telling. Ramping up the normal-sized body movement might actually help get women on the road to “Hot & Happy”—as they realize that the order of those two adjectives should be transposed.