Minding the Magazines: Examining an Editor’s Letter
If you’ve been feeling slightly off, acutely apprehensive or flat-out frightened, women’s magazines likely know the reason: Why, it’s bikini season! And forget fear, you should be plain panicked, whether the villain is your bulging belly or your massive thighs. Fortunately, women’s magazines have graciously excused our past transgressions—when we supposedly inhaled heaping helpings of food and exhibited outright laziness—and offer us salvation in the form of workout and diet tips.
In particular, in May’s issue of Women’s Health, editor-in-chief Michele Promaulayko aptly summarized our appearance woes, and, sadly but not at all surprisingly, amplified these worries in her Letter from the Editor entitled “Crunch Time”:
You’d think that as an editor I’d have deadlines mastered, but there is one that sneaks up on me every year: the countdown to bikini season. Right about now, the nerve-wracking Jeopardy! theme song is playing full-blast in my head.
I know I’m not alone in my pre-summer panic. Stressing about peeling off the winter layers—in public, no less!—is practically encoded in the female DNA. But here’s the miraculous part: Even if you’ve slacked off since the holidays, there’s still time to get into amazing shape. In fact, having a rapidly approaching cutoff date—whether it’s Memorial Day weekend or your girls-only getaway to Miami for the Fourth of July—can actually be a huge advantage, because it spurs you into action. And telling your friends that you’re embarking on a mission to melt the extra pounds you let creep on will help even more. Though it may spoil your “big reveal” come beach day, making a commitment out loud pushes you even harder to meet your goal.
And of course you have WH to give you a friendly kick in the butt, too. We came up with a plan to help you look great naked—or in a barely there swimsuit (page 130). It features the most effective ab exercise on the planet (that are shockingly easy to do!) and tips to tone up your jiggly bits, smooth your cellulite, and flawlessly fake a tan.
Once you’re ready to proudly strut down the beach sans sarong, go to page 52 to find a hot new suit. We’ve got tons of options, and best of all, we’ve broken them down by body type, so you can find the perfect one for your specific proportions.
So what are you waiting for? The race against the clock has officially begun. See you at the finish line.
The problems with this letter abound. Here’s a selection of five:
- For starters, there’s absolutely no mention of health. Considering this is a women’s health magazine, this seems oddly out of character. The editor says nothing about how exercising will help your heart, stamina and energy in the warmer weather and how fretting about your bikini bod can foster negative body image and unhealthy behaviors. Yes, exercise is great for losing weight and toning your muscles, but why focus entirely on looks? Women’s magazines are notorious for their outrageous standards; however, if your magazine is called Women’s Health, is it that outrageous for us to expect the editor-in-chief to highlight health in her own letter?
- Worrying about our bodies isn’t “practically encoded in the female DNA.” It’s partly thanks to so-called health magazines like these. Their articles often further the assumption that women should dwell in a constant state of body dissatisfaction. For example, in “The 5 Rules of Flat Abs,” (p.136), we’re practically scared —and shamed—straight into exercising:
“Most of us don’t stress about a bit of belly fat hanging over our waistbands during the winter—after all, damage control is just a body-shaping undergarment away. But now you’re headed to a place where not even Spanx will save you: the beach.”
Another article focuses on flexing “your willpower muscle” (p. 102), discussing how to “whip your willpower into shape,” so “that cheesy Sicilian slice or glazed doughnut will be no match for your mental strength.” It’s not much time before we become brainwashed into bashing our bodies and thinking we are not OK as we truly are (until we participate in grueling workouts). Instead of an exposé on resisting temptation, how about an article on equating self-worth with one’s waistline?
- It’s a common misconception that if you work out hard enough—and watch what you eat enough—you can whittle yourself down to a size 2 or a flat stomach. In fact, the article on those shockingly easy, yet effective ab exercises (p.134) states that we’re at fault for our “flab:”
“If you’ve been doing crunches religiously for years and still have belly flab, it’s not your genes that are to blame—it’s your approach.”
First off, it’s very rare for women not to have some “flab” on our stomachs. This is natural. Secondly, this sets up the false belief that everyone can—and should attain—a “perfectly toned tummy.” For many of us, unless we take drastic, unhealthy measures, we’ll never have flat stomachs. That is encoded in our DNA. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t have a strong, healthy core, nonetheless.
Dieting also rarely works. One longitudinal study found that although women who dieted lost weight faster, after two years, they gained most of the weight back, had a drop in self-esteem and lost the health improvements they’d made. However, the other participants—who were in the “Health At Every Size” condition, which doesn’t focus on weight and teaches women to enjoy eating a variety of foods, listen to hunger and full cues and participate in pleasurable physical activity—showed physical and psychological improvements at followup.
- Having a goal is great. Having a short-term weight-loss goal can be unhealthy. It’s no secret that contestants on The Biggest Loser go to extremes before the final episode. By putting so much emphasis on the “big reveal” and “the race against the clock,” it puts more pressure on the external goal of looking slim and trim—not on having healthier habits in general.
In an article on how to “Get a Strong and Sexy Beach Body—Now!” (p. 68), we’re told, “with so little time to get in shape, you need to hit everything—hard.” Instead of emphasizing a healthy lifestyle, this creates an end goal, after which you can stop your exercise and eating regimen, finally exhale and overeat. Interestingly, there’s no mention of how to maintain your weight loss. Perhaps that’s addressed in the June issue.
- You’d think that the last thing a magazine would want to do is to promote panic, especially when it comes to weight loss. It’s tough to think health and moderation, whether it’s for eating or exercising, when you’re freaking out about losing weight. What do I do if I’m not “ready to proudly strut down the beach sans sarong”? Do I take drastic measures or just throw in the towel (or better yet, wear it the entire time I’m at the beach)?
Instead of fostering fear, Ms. Promaulayko, why not spread the message that panic is unnecessary and unhealthy? Tips for healthy eating and exercise are great. We love those, but don’t do it in a way that makes us feel bad about ourselves. Ultimately, this letter nurtures negative body image in the guise of health.
How could we not feel painstaking pressure to prepare for bikini season when we’re reminded about our “jiggly bits,” wilting willpower and the (risky) race we’re running for “barely there swimsuit” perfection? There’s already an excess of weight-loss misinformation and dangerous products. Women’s health magazines should be a rational, supportive, helpful voice, guiding women in the right direction toward health and body acceptance—not chastising our choice to enjoy cookies or playing the Jeopardy! song as we punish ourselves toward a false finish line.
Interview with eating disorder specialist Sari Fine Shepphird on body image and the media
Articles on gurze.com on giving yourself permission to eat anything and focusing on hunger, instead of controlling biology
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Tartakovsky, M. (2009). Minding the Magazines: Examining an Editor’s Letter. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 30, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/06/03/minding-the-magazines-examining-an-editors-letter/