I grew up surrounded by women’s lifestyle magazines. They were at my parents’ house. At my aunts’ houses. Grandmas’ houses. Libraries and waiting rooms and car repair shops and grocery store racks. I loved them all. As a girl, reading Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping and Self and O and Prevention and Better Homes & Gardens and Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living and Ladies’ Home Journal and that tabloid-esque Woman’s World made me feel like I had unlocked the secrets of how to be a woman. Between the covers, I found all the cleaning tips, holiday hosting etiquette, and signs of premature aging I would ever need.
And even though I know from my research on weight loss success stories that women’s lifestyle magazines are an important tool in the project to discipline women’s bodies, I still read them. In fact, my favorite way to spend a Sunday morning is out on my deck with a cup of coffee, a mimosa, and a Marie Claire.
I don’t subscribe to the magazines. They just show up at my house every month. Right now, I get Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Marie Claire, Glamour, and the occasional Vogue. I read with a skeptical eye, knowing that all the “best of” beauty product recommendations are sponsored and that I’ll never actually make the apple maple spice cake I saved to Evernote. But I admit that part of the appeal is imagining what my life would be like if I rehabbed a quaint 1950s Cape Cod with a cool, retro nautical vibe and an open floor plan.
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To show white middle-class women what our lives could be like if we bought the right moisturizer, served the right food, and cleaned our bathrooms properly. In a word: ideal. The magazines work very hard to show us what the ideal American woman looks like, what she knows, and how she cares for herself and others. So, of course, there are weight loss success stories. Lots of them.
When you start noticing how frequently weight loss success stories appear in everyday media, they are hard to ignore. I see them in obvious calls to action that impart “hot weight loss tips” and in sneaky metaphors that suggest I can “sculpt” a better butt. Just like throwing the meticulously detailed luxury tapas party or hand-sculpting radishes into woodland creatures for edible after-school bento boxes, these dramatic weight loss tips function as a completely unattainable and unrealistic ideal.
Is it possible someone learned something about heart disease in a magazine and scheduled a life-saving doctor’s appointment? Yes. Is it possible that someone was inspired by someone else’s work with nonprofits and upped their volunteer efforts? Yes. I’m not here to argue that media in general or women’s magazines specifically lack significant educational value. In fact, the opposite is true. These lifestyle magazines have a lot of power to influence not only the products people should buy, but also the kinds of stories that guide our lives.
But it’s time for these stories to change. Teen Vogue has responded to the call to expand the range of issues it covers and the voices it represents in publication. Self, admirably, issued a style guide that publicly states a commitment to define its ethical promotion of health and wellness.
So what would happen if women’s magazines took weight loss out of their content? Would we even buy magazines anymore if we didn’t have the chance to learn what detox tea to buy this month? What else would writers fill those columns with?
Last month, I indulged in the latest Woman’s Day while making dinner, and I noticed yet another weight loss success story in “Live Longer and Stronger,” a column about women making lifestyle changes for overall health. I usually flip right past this column, but something about the story struck me: This before-and-after weight loss success story didn’t include much about weight loss.
Consider the headline: “Heart Smart for Good.” Improved cardiovascular health isn’t something you can see in a before-and-after photo set, so I read on. “On a path to improve her blood pressure, Janet Cervantes-Hageman, 55, has lost 111 pounds. Here’s how she’s keeping it off.”
WAIT A DANG MINUTE, WOMAN’S DAY.
Do you mean to suggest that Janet’s dramatic weight loss is what improved her blood pressure? The article says Janet attributes her lower blood pressure to the following actions:
- reducing her stress
- adding intentional movement into her routine
- making nutritional choices that support her heart health goals
- shifting her mindset to make self-care a priority
Women can make these changes with or without intentional weight loss, yet Janet’s body shape was the story’s main hook. I took out my editor pen and revised the article to find out what would be lost or how the meaning would change if I removed all references to weight loss. I changed the subhead and struck 29 words of text.
Removing references to weight loss changed nothing about the story itself.
And this doesn’t even address the truly unnecessary before-and-after pictures. Bad, Before Janet is pictured with someone she clearly cares about — her granddaughter, maybe. Good, After Janet stands alone. Is this supposed to send a message that Janet’s life before her dramatic weight loss wasn’t as good as her life after weight loss? If readers identify with Before Janet, does this story as written help them see a healthier future, or do they feel daunted (again) by the message that dramatic weight loss is the only way to a happier life? How can these readers see themselves as worthy of care and capable of making changes to their wellness habits now?
All it takes is changing a few words to help people go from “I wish I could do that” to “I could do that!”
Woman’s Day just posted a similar web article about a woman with diabetes who improved her quality of life by making more supportive nutritional choices. If you’re up for an experiment, read this piece, mentally remove any references to weight loss, and see if the point of the story—or any advice offered—changes. (Hint: it doesn’t.)
I hope more women’s magazines will follow in the inktrails of Teen Vogue and Self by critically examining their role as mainstream culture makers and taking that responsibility seriously. Telling better stories about what it means to take care of yourself and others is a great place to start.