From Thinspo to Fitspo: Depictions of health, fitness and wellness in Australian women’s magazines
This presentation was created for ENGL6970: Reading Magazines at the University of Sydney.
This is my presentation on the depiction of health, fitness and wellness in Australian women’s magazines, ‘from thinspo to fitspo’.
‘Fitspo’ refers to ‘fitspiration’, which is less of an underground subculture and more of an accepted mainstream embracing of images of young, fit, toned, healthy-looking women. My hypothesis is that women’s magazines have moved away from a subtle promotion of ‘thinspiration’ and towards an overt promotion of ‘fitspiration’. Despite this suspected shift, the depictions of fitness remain overwhelmingly white, young, and thin — one could argue that the magazines have cottoned on to the concerns people have about thinspo-type content, and are now attempting to sell it as healthy instead. A recent study (Simpson and Mazzeo 2016) found that despite fitspiration’s claim to encourage fitness and health, 72% of 1050 Pinterest fitspiration posts emphasized appearance whereas only 22% emphasized health. A second study (Bozsik et al 2018) found that approximately 70% of fitspiration images featured white models.
For this assignment, I studied nine Australian women’s magazines: Cleo, Cosmopolitan, Dolly, Elle, Girlfriend, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Marie Claire, and Vogue. I studied 78 individual magazines in total, and I included the now-defunct Dolly and Cleo because of their influence on several generations of Australian women.
In her chapter on culture in The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf wrote that “Women’s magazines for over a century have been one of the most powerful agents for changing women’s roles, and throughout that time — today more than ever — they have consistently glamorized whatever the economy, their advertisers, and, during wartime, the government, needed at that moment from women.”
Fitness and health related advertisements could be found across several of the magazines studied, although they were significantly rarer in the magazines aimed at teenage girls, Dolly and Girlfriend. They were more covert than the ads described throughout The Beauty Myth — there were more ads for fitness technologies and supplements than there were for diet products (the only example of an ad for a diet product that I could find was the Lean Cuisine ad shown in slide 4, from Marie Claire.)
The ads for supplements shown in slide 5 and taken from various issues of Cleo used the language of the wellness movement; “Natural beauty starts from within” and “helping me get the most out of life”. The woman featured is a relatively well-known Australian model, Ashley Hart, sister to the more famous Jess Hart. In addition to modelling, Ashley is also a ‘yogi’, and one of the ads features her in a yoga pose. All of the ads feature her in swimwear or activewear and on a beach, selling the ideal of white-Australian thinness and beach-readiness. This ideal was further perpetuated by the sheer number of ads for swimwear found throughout issues of the magazine, all of which featured thin white women in bikinis, looking suntanned, toned, and every bit the stereotypical Australian as found on Home & Away. A study on the women’s beach body in Australian women’s magazines found that there was a “general uniformity in the characteristics of the women modelling the swimsuits; they were all able-bodied, most were judged to be under the age of 30, body shape favoured the slim body, and the ethnicity of the women was overwhelmingly white Anglo” (Small 2017). The researcher concluded that “The beach body is a homogeneous body — young, slim, white, tanned, able-bodied and passive. The magazine focus is ‘‘the look” of the beach body — not what the body can do, as in swimming and other water sports.”
Depictions of sport and fitness in the magazines studied were far more common than overt depictions of dieting and weight loss advice. Cleo included a bonus fitness magazine in their January 2016 issue, Vogue includes a fitness article in every issue, Elle has a ‘Fit Club’ section in its magazine, and Cosmo regularly features double-page spreads of exercise instructions.
All of the Cosmo fitness spreads that I could find featured appropriately toned white women, including one which taught readers to do exercises that models do to keep fit.
Elle’s ‘Fit Club’ section had similar representation, but instead of being instructional, took more of an analytical approach, analysing and reviewing new fitness trends like trampolining, and new fitness gadgets. It also featured essays on the impact of music on workouts, and on the benefits of jogging on one’s mental health. Essentially, it takes a more holistic approach to fitness than Cosmo, but the women featured remain young, white and toned.
Dolly’s articles on fitness often focused on how those new to exercise can learn to enjoy it and make it part of their routines, and all of these articles suggested exercising with a friend. This approach changes fitness from something unpleasant but necessary for weight-loss to a more social activity, and I was pleasantly surprised by this approach. However, the women featured were, again, young, white, and toned.
Occasionally the magazines would feature actual female athletes and sportsplayers, including the volleyball players and AFL women’s players shown on slide 10. This celebration of professionals in the field is similar to what would be found in men’s magazines, and in the case of Dolly, it lets the young readers know that girls can be just as skilled as men. While such features were relatively rare, where they did exist, they featured young, toned, white women.
From Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminism: “In a conversation with the brilliant Stacy Bias recently, this is what she taught me: In a system that values productivity, we value bodies that symbolize productivity to us; simultaneously, we devalue bodies that symbolize unproductivity… We talk about thinness in terms of the rigidity of dieting and the dedication of going to the gym. We think of thin bodies in terms of what they’ve had to sacrifice to get to where they are.” (Fabello 2016)
While women’s magazines have moved away from overt celebrations of female obedience in the form of extreme thinness, they have moved towards celebrating female obedience in the form of primarily celebrating young women who are fit and toned — who are obedient enough to regularly work out and watch what they eat. Naomi Wolf’s argument from The Beauty Myth’s chapter on Hunger that a cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but rather one about female obedience, lurks at the back of the mind when flicking through endless magazines featuring thin yet visibly toned women.
Several studies have found that exposure to images of fit and thin models has been associated with greater physique anxiety (Sabiston and Chandler 2009), decreased body satisfaction (Benton and Karazsia 2015), increased body dissatisfaction (Homan et al. 2012), negative mood, and lowered appearance self-esteem (Tiggemann and Zaccardo 2015).
A study published last month found that “women prefer a toned and thin female figure to a solely thin one, consistent with figures commonly seen in fitspiration media. Results also suggest that muscularity and thinness are becoming more ubiquitous among female media figures” (Bozsik et al 2018).
In Am I Thin Enough Yet?, Sharlene Hesse-Biber argued that “the interest in physical fitness for both men and women has been growing since the 1970s. Getting in shape with exercise is now considered an essential part of a healthful lifestyle” and that “the 1980s brought a more muscular ideal of the female body”. Examples of the leaders of this change include Jane Fonda and Victoria Principal. I would argue that this ideal was revolted against in the 1990s with fashion’s ‘heroin chic’ iconography, made famous by Kate Moss, but that the fitness ideal is now returning. Instead of being championed by actresses, however, young women are now looking to social media for their fitness heroes. Several magazines included features on Instagram-famous fitness gurus, particularly Kayla Itsines and Ashy Bines, who have turned their large Instagram followings into multimillion dollar empires. The worship of these gurus goes beyond mere admiration for their abilities, however, as demonstrated by the Dolly article on slide 11 on ’10 reasons we love Kayla Itsines’ that focus on her personal life. The issue also featured a poster of Itsines, making the worshipping particularly explicit.
Continuing the trend of moving away from explicit diet and weight-loss content, women’s magazines have moved towards championing the idea of ‘wellness’. According to UC Davis’ Student Health and Counselling Services, wellness is “an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life” and has eight dimensions: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual.
Girlfriend’s now-defunct ‘Balanced’ section encouraged balance across several areas under the guise of ‘health’: diet, fitness, and skin care, primarily areas that affect one’s appearance. The women featured in this section, whether it be quotes from celebrities or interviews with Instagram wellness gurus, were primarily thin and white.
I was surprised to find that many of the magazines did not have significant health and wellness content, particularly the fashion-focused magazines. InStyle had no fitness or wellness content in any of the four issues I studied, and the only instance I could find in Vogue was an examination of beauty and wellness treatments available at high-end spas. The examples from Harper’s October 2017 issue on slide 13 exemplify this: as part of a wellness special, their writers examined innovations in the health and weight loss industry: non-invasive fat removal and a fitness regimen based on a DNA analysis. The models used to illustrate these articles were thin and white.
Both Harper’s and Elle had spreads on the ‘A-Z of Wellness’, and in Elle’s, they defined the “Elle brand of wellness as being emotionally and physically robust while wearing the sleekest gear”. Here is an overt example of health and fitness jargon being used to advertise and promote activewear and the latest in fitness technologies.
Many of these magazines use fashion as a way to incorporate images of fitness into seemingly every aspect of women’s lives.
‘Athleisure’ or ‘sports luxe’ or ‘glam-leisure’ purportedly grew out of the trend of women wearing yoga pants outside of the yoga studio. Athleisure is distinct from activewear; the former is not designed to be worn during fitness activities, but merely designed to emulate the style of activewear, which is designed to be worn during fitness activities. As of October 2014, the US activewear market reached over $35 billion in sales in the previous twelve-month period.
Almost every magazine studied included at least one example of activewear being used in place of more traditional high-fashion, with one spread from Marie Claire explicitly referencing ‘fashion’s love affair with sportswear’. All of the women featured in these fashion shoots were typical models: thin, white, tall, able-bodied, and young. Turning athletic gear into high fashion is a clear win for the booming activewear industry, and it adds a layer of sophistication and desirability to the clothes women wear to work out that would not otherwise exist.
As for the depiction of food in these magazines, there was a clear difference between how the magazines aimed at younger readers portrayed and discussed food compared to how the magazines aimed at older readers did.
Dolly and Girlfriend regularly included recipes for what could be described as ‘junk food’ — sweets and carb-heavy foods that women have traditionally been told to avoid. This suggests that editors are comfortable giving covert permission to teenagers to eat whatever foods they desire.
This is not the case for magazines like Marie Claire and InStyle. When food was depicted in these magazines (which wasn’t often in the cases of Vogue, Elle or Harper’s), the meals shown were healthier, well-rounded and altogether more sophisticated than the treats shown in Dolly and Girlfriend. This makes sense, as the magazines are for women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but the shift was quite striking. When ‘treats’ are featured in these magazines, they often come in the form of alcoholic beverages, which for obvious reasons can’t be promoted in the teenage magazines.
In addition to fitspiration content, I also wanted to examine body positive content in Australian women’s magazines. Originally that was to be the focus, but I soon found that there simply wasn’t enough content to base an entire presentation around. Instead, I will examine body positivity briefly now, and in the context of changing values regarding women’s appearances.
Cosmopolitan made the most concerted effort to include women of various body shapes and sizes, followed by Cleo.
Bizarrely, Cleo’s forays into body positivity focused on below-average sized women, as exemplified by the spread shown on slide 22.
However, they were the only magazine to feature plus-sized women on their cover, not once, but twice: Rebel Wilson in February 2016 and Adele in January 2016. Notably, their full bodies were not shown, although Rebel’s chest was included on the cover, but this isn’t unusual for Cleo, whose covers had a mix of full-body and close-up photos.
Cosmopolitan’s efforts to include plus size women in their magazine are more concerted, and include their sponsorship of a model search for women sized 12 to 24. Alongside ads for this model search in several issues are spreads of women discussing their bodies and their self-esteem;
the five-page feature shown on slide 25 is notable in that it actually portrays a diverse range of body shapes and sizes. Interestingly, when examining the photos, I was unable to find any stretchmarks, blemishes or scars, which suggests to me that the images have been digitally enhanced, which is decidedly not body positive.
A second five-page spread in a later issue of Cosmo also discussed body confidence and featured several women, including a pregnant woman and three women of colour, but again I was unable to find any stretchmarks, scars or blemishes. This suggests that while Cosmo supports body positivity to an extent, their editors still want the women to look as conventionally beautiful as possible.
As for the more high-fashion magazines, plus sized women were, unsurprisingly, hard to find. The only example I found was a feature on Ashley Graham, a famous American plus sized model, in the October 2017 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. While considered plus sized, Graham is obviously tall, not particularly fat, and beautiful.
As for Vogue, out of eight issues examined, the only remotely plus-sized person I found was a sumo wrestler featured in an editorial shoot set in Japan for some ‘local colour’.
Bizarrely, images of thin white women in bikinis or fitness gear were often featured in the magazines when they were irrelevant to the subject matter. As the examples on slide 29 show, these images were used to illustrate articles on reading, dating, ‘taking a leap of faith’, and a quiz on whether you’re a trendsetter or a follower. This highlights the ubiquity of such images in women’s magazines.
A study published in 2011 examined several Australian women’s magazines to measure their adherence to the Voluntary Code of Conduct on Body Image released in 2009. The code encourages the use of a diverse range of body shapes and sizes, as well as encouraging publications to refrain from digitally altering body shapes to unrealistic standards. The researchers found that out of seven magazines studied, three did not use a diverse range of models, four did not acknowledge body size differences in text or visuals, and four included tips for enhancement of diverse body types. Essentially, the magazines were fairly evenly divided in their inclusion of diverse body shapes and sizes.
Lastly, I briefly examined the magazines’ websites for health and fitness content. Please note that the Cleo website now redirects to the Cosmo one, and the Dolly website has not been updated since September 2017.
There is an overlap between the health and fitness content of Girlfriend, Marie Claire, and InStyle as they’re all owned by Pacific Magazines, but none of their websites have a dedicated health and fitness section. Cosmo has a dedicated health and fitness section, as do Elle and Harper’s, all of which are Bauer Media titles. Vogue has a ‘wellbeing’ section, and is owned by NewsLifeMedia. Cosmo is unique in that it also has a ‘Cosmo Curve’ section on its website, which is regularly updated with ‘body positive’ content (including content on the aforementioned Ashley Graham) and features ads from TakingShape, Cosmo’s partner in their plus-sized model search. The majority of women featured across all of these websites are young, thin and white, and often famous in some capacity. Their digital content and approach to health and fitness essentially reflects the content of the magazines.
In conclusion, my hypothesis was proven to be largely correct, in that the images of waif-like women that populated women’s magazines in the 1990s and early 2000s have largely been replaced by fit and toned women. The women depicted in these magazines remain young, white and able-bodied, and are all well below the average size for Australian women (14). While some women’s magazines have also moved towards embracing body positivity, the rampant use of airbrushing and lack of inclusion of anyone with a disability suggests there is still a long way to go. Out of all the magazines studied, the high fashion ones (Vogue, Elle, Harper’s, InStyle) were most likely to feature extremely thin models, as those remain the norm in the fashion industry. The amount of explicit weight loss content has decreased in recent years (based on data from multiple studies), which reflects the shift in consumer attitudes away from weight loss products and towards a more holistic approach to health and fitness (Mintel 2016).
For more resources on body image and acceptance, check out this Google Doc I’ve put together here.
Bauer Media, Cleo, October, November & December 2015 issues; January, February & March 2016 issues
Bauer Media, Cosmopolitan, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November & December 2017 issues; January, February & March 2018 issues
Bauer Media, Dolly, January, February, March, June, August, October & November 2016 issues; January 2017 issue
Bauer Media, Elle, July, August, September, October, November & December 2017 issues; January & February 2018 issues
Bauer Media, Harper’s Bazaar, May, June, August, September, October, November & December 2017 issues; January 2018 issue
Boyd, Elizabeth Reid, and Moncrieff-Boyd, Jessica, “Swimsuit issues: promoting positive body image in young women’s magazines”, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, Volume 2, Number 2, 2011
Bozsik, Frances, Whisenhunt, Brooke L., Hudson, Danae L., Bennett, Brooke, Lundgren, Jennifer D., Thin Is In? Think Again: The Rising Importance of Muscularity in the Thin Ideal Female Body, Sex Roles, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0886-0
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Enhanced Media Metrics Australia, September 2017 Readership Report, http://www.magazines.org.au/wp-content/uploads/emma-Readership-May-17.pdf
Fabello, Melissa A., “Yes, You Still Have Thin Privilege If You ‘Worked For’ Your Body — Here’s Why”, Everyday Feminism, June 9, 2016, https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/06/thin-privilege-worked-for-body
Ferguson, Marjorie, Forever Feminine: Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Femininity, Heinemann, London, 1983
Fitzgerald, Tomas, and Bromberg, Marilyn, “Should ‘pro-ana’ websites be criminalised in Australia?”, The Conversation, June 23, 2017, http://theconversation.com/should-pro-ana-websites-be-criminalised-in-australia-79197
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Beauty, Oxford University Press, 1996
Madden, Helen and Chamberlain, Kerry, Nutritional Health Messages in Women’s Magazines: A Conflicted Space for Women Readers, Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 9, Number 4, 2004
Mintel, “Weighing the Odds: Diet Products Fall Out of Favor as 91% of US Consumers Prefer Well Rounded Diets”, Mintel Press Office, January 8 2016, http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/social-and-lifestyle/weighing-the-odds-diet-products-fall-out-of-favor-as-91-of-us-consumers-prefer-well-rounded-diets
NewsLifeMedia, Vogue Australia, July, August, September, October, November & December 2017 issues; January & February 2018 issues
Pacific Magazines, Girlfriend Australia, June, July, August, September, October, November & December 2016 issues; January, March, May & December 2017 issues; January 2018 issue
Pacific Magazines, InStyle, November & December 2017 issues; January & February 2018 issues
Pacific Magazines, Marie Claire Australia, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November & December 2017 issues; January, February & March 2018 issues
Skrabanek, Petr, The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism, The Social Affairs Unit, 1994
Small, Jennie, “Women’s ‘beach body’ in Australian women’s magazines”, Annals of Tourism Research, Volume 63, 2017
University of California, Davis, Student Health and Counselling Services, “What is Wellness?”, https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/wellness/what-is-wellness
Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth, Harper Perennial, 2002 (originally published by Morrow in 1991), New York