In case you didn’t know, women’s magazines are awful

The RUN 10, FEED 10 10K last weekend was sponsored by Women’s Health magazine. The whole premise of the race is that by signing up, you feed 10 people in your city. I applaud Women’s Health for going out of their way to promote awareness about hunger, and finding a fun and active way to engage their readership in helping those people.

I just wish they weren’t simultaneously promoting a message in their magazine that drives women to voluntarily make themselves hungry.

At the finish line, I got a free copy of the magazine. The largest headline is “LEAN SEXY LEGS” which, according to them, I can get “Faster than ever!” Carrie Underwood is also sharing her “slim-down tricks” and in the depths of this monthly periodical, I’ll find out how to have “the sexiest sex.” Not to mention the power foods that will “increase my energy, end cravings, and [of course], shed pounds.” While I definitely think physical and sexual health is an important part of an individual’s overall health, I think we can all safely agree that’s not the message here.

After picking up a copy of Women’s Health at the expo and seeing the cover, I got to wondering how much “health” information I’d actually find. And how that would compare to other women’s magazines. So I picked up a copy of Self, because it contained a “health special,” and Glamour, which is on the more traditional beauty and fashion end of the spectrum. For good measure, I also grabbed a Men’s Health.

There’s a lot of analysis that can happen here, but I don’t intend to do all of it. It would be exhausting. And I know none of this is surprising. This is not breaking news! But I still found myself enraged as I paged through them magazines making notes. And that was just thinking about the health/fitness/nutrition information. I can’t even touch on the “standards of beauty,” the whiteness, and the rampant sexism, because I’d probably give myself a coronary.

I try to calmly point out the differences among the magazines and the things I thought were interesting, but really, I’m mad. I’m mad that we don’t have a mainstream women’s health magazine that is actually focused on health and wellness just for women, that doesn’t conform to standard beauty ideals. I’m mad that Women’s Health PRETENDS they are doing this, when they are potentially WORSE than other magazines out there.

So here we go. This is long. But I wanted to include all the information so that people could also come to their own conclusions.

Largest headline on each magazine
Getting fit quick seemed to be the theme of all the mags, except for Glamour, which didn’t have one fitness or food related thing on the cover. I know it’s a fashion and beauty magazine, but I was pleased to see that there wasn’t one reference to thinness/slimness/diet/weight loss. Keep in mind that these are just the largest headlines – there were many on the others that touched on lean/fit/tight/thin!

  • Women’s Health: LEAN SEXY LEGS
  • Self: Flat Ab Secrets
  • Glamour: 100 Amazing Outfits for Every Day
  • Men’s Health: HARD MUSCLE FAST!

Having a flat belly is the ultimate goal.
It made the cover of Self, Women’s Health and Men’s Health.

  • Self: Flat Ab Secrets!
  • Women’s Health: Flat Belly Moves, Beauty Breakthroughs, and More!
  • Men’s Health: Knock Out Belly Fat!

Thinness, leanness, and low-fat are paramount, particularly in women’s magazines.
There was some of this in Men’s Health, but there was a bigger emphasis on strength and size than on being lean. But in Women’s Health, even an article on practices to reduce anxiety promises the ability to “kiss stress good-bye while “losing weight.” One of the things that made my blood boil most was an article in Self on pencil skirts. They’re described in functional terms by their ability “tuck your tummy,” “pop your booty,” “lengthen legs,” “trim thighs,” and “slim hips.” As if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, Self later has a feature on snow gear, including “leggings that show off your shape,” and ski bibs that “cinch your middle, and lengthen your body.” You can even “shorten the suspenders for an instant boob lift!” I was pleased to see this not be the case in Glamour, which focused more on accessorizing and color coordinating than how my middle was going to look in my freaking SKI OVERALLS.

 So, what did they actually say about health?

Aside from this body image crap, I wanted to look at the actual topics covered in each magazine. Defining health is murky, because I believe it includes components from a lot of different areas of life – physical, mental, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, etc. But the first category I tackled was traditional “health topics.” By and far, Men’s Health covered the most topics in the most in depth way. I was thrilled to see a feature devoted to the impact of Obamacare. They also had a whole feature on poop, which I highly doubt would be found in a women’s health magazine. Glamour didn’t have much, and Self’s was pretty dismal. One thing that shocked me was that Glamour had two ads for cigarettes – during Lung Cancer Awareness month! I tweeted at them, but have yet to receive a response. I kept the list of topics covered below, so that people could also come to their own conclusions.

Actual health topics covered:

  • Women’s Health
    • “Health Scoop”: heartburn and throat cancer, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and natural light and mental health
    • How to recover from the flu
    • The future of tailored healthcare
    • Hormonal changes in your body during PMS
  • Self
    • Sugar vs. artificial sweetener
    • 20 weird health questions answered
  • Glamour
    • Likelihood of getting pregnant is highest in November
  • Men’s Health
    • Best over the counter cough remedy
    • How body metabolism works – myths and truths
    • “Health Scoop”: Risks of back pain medication, benefits of brushing your teeth, natural light and mental health
    • Impact of Obamacare
    • “The Scoop on Poop: What your scat says about your health”
    • Various “health numbers” explained: cholesterol, triglycerides, hours of sleep, steps per day, hormone levels, VO2 max, uric acid, etc.

What about Fitness?
Again, Men’s Health “won” this category for me, with a focus on strength training and using actual weights. Part of this is personal preference – if I was really into cardio, I would probably really like the workouts in Women’s Health and Self. But, again, not surprisingly, the focus in Women’s Health and Self was fat burning and “toning” rather than developing actual strength. Again, Men’s Health also had many more articles on various fitness regimens, including neck exercises, rowing, various lifts, yoga, and two workouts to “fast track strength and crank metabolism.” But there was also discussion on the importance of all aspects of fitness – agility, strength, speed, and recovery. In women’s magazines, it was “do this workout with no equipment for ten minutes per day and look perfect!”

Fitness topics covered:

  • Women’s Health
    • Self guided indoor cycling workout for “calorie-torching, mood boosting benefits.”
    • 15 minute workout to speed fat burning (no weights)
    • At-home pilates workout
  • Self
    • Oblique holds that can “nip your waist” (so you can wear cinched dresses).
    • Standing shoulder presses
    • An article on new cross trainer shoes that will help you “crush your fave class, and mega calories!”
    • A workout to tighten and lift your butt
    • 5 workouts to burn 500 calories
  • Glamour
    • 10 minute, no equipment workout
  • Men’s Health
    • Benefits of neck exercises
    • Strength scoop: Benefits of rowing on strength, How to amp up your pushups
    • Heavy shoulder presses
    • Total body strength workout to “fast-track strength gains and crank up metabolism”
    • A yoga workout for “boosting athletic performance and unlocking greater strength”
    • Four week total body fat burner to “boost strength and fire up metabolism”
    • The importance of exercise in losing weight
    • Building more muscle: importance of full body workouts, lifting weird shaped objects, master the pull up, and move more weight, good core exercises
    • Cranking up cardio: fine tuning the treadmill, do intervals, run a sub-six mile, combine strength and cardio
    • Boost performance: increase agility, prioritize recovery, make rest more active

And what about food?
Who doesn’t love to eat? Well, apparently people in women’s magazines. Almost all of the features are about food as a mechanism for weight loss, with a focus on “flat tummy foods” and “low fat Thanksgiving recipes.” The one exception was a great article in Self about food regret, and why it’s not worth it, which I thought was a highly valuable piece. Ironic, also, given that the rest of the articles are about how to lighten up/healthify things. Men’s Health wasn’t exempt from this; there was definitely a focus on “amping up metabolism” and the importance of what we eat in body composition. But yet again, it was focused more on strength and in general, there was just a much larger variety of information. They even had a whole page on various information on organic food and how to make a low-stress, rather than a low-fat, Thanksgiving meal.  Men’s Health and Women’s Health are both owned by the same company, and they both had a feature on various processed foods that we should all buy. In Women’s Health, the categories were things like “make your mouth and abs happy” or “add taste, save calories.” In Men’s Health, it was “bread and grains,” “dairy and deli” or “proteins.” This is one of many stark examples of the lens with which women’s issues are viewed.

Nutrition/food/diet topics covered:

  • Women’s Health
    • Benefits of frozen/dried/fresh fruit
    • “Weight loss” scoop and “nutrition scoop” are separate sections all about food.
    • Low fat Thanksgiving recipes
    • Flat tummy foods
    • Seven pages of various processed foods you should buy to “make your mouth and abs happy” or “add taste, save calories”
  • Self
    • Dangers of sugar: “It isn’t fat that crushes your skinny-jean dreams – it’s sugar.”
    • How to “cut cals without hating life”
    • Food regret: why it’s not worth it
    • Healthy fries
    • Lightened up mac and cheese
    • Benefits of various seeds
    • Recipes for stuffed vegetables – portobellos, peppers, eggplant, etc.
  • Glamour
    • Celebs and health “gurus” describe their diets in 5 words or less
  • Men’s Health
    • 5 food swaps for a higher metabolic burn
    • Weight loss/nutrition scoop: Underestimating the calories in a dessert if it has a healthy topping; How suppress a craving by thinking about the benefits of avoiding the food; benefits of cheese, winter squash, and cocoa
    • Benefits of rice protein for muscle building
    • How to make stir fry
    • Feature on organic food – where it’s most popular, myths about it, and how you can’t find organic salmon
    • How to make a low-stress, easy, Thanksgiving feast (without missing the game)
    • Change the way you eat: green energy, more vitamin D, spread out protein intake, eat whey protein
    • 25 essential ingredients to have at home with categories like “potent produce,” “sultans of salty,” and “fat foundations.”
    • A small insert with 125 processed foods to buy with categories like “bread and grains,” “dairy and deli,” and “proteins.”

Conclusions

Women’s Health doesn’t rise above the fray. It doesn’t provide more health information, or more information for a variety of people. The audience for Women’s Health is the same as it is for Self, that much is clear. I used to read these magazines a lot, and surprisingly, my self esteem wasn’t great. I didn’t stop to protect my actual sense of self, but more because there’s only so many times you can read about having the best sex followed by an hour of getting that perfect bed-head look to go out to a meal that’s precisely 400 calories. It just gets boring.

But you know what? On the whole, Men’s Health was actually interesting to me. No doubt, there are problems with sexist portrayals of women and I don’t plan on subscribing any time soon. But as far as the health, fitness, and nutrition information? I actually LEARNED something. How powerful it would be to have a mainstream mag like this that celebrated all women and provided useful advice on how to love food and create strong, healthy bodies. Until then, I’m boycotting all of them.

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