Women’s Fitness Magazines Are Fundamentally Ridiculous

They promise to tone, transform, fix, and whittle your body, but all women’s fitness magazines really do is help you lose all that flabby self-esteem you’ve spent years accumulating. How are they bullshit? Let us count the ways.

They seem like a capital idea, an alternative to the laws-of-physics-defying sex positions of Hot Slutmopolitan or the jumping model fashion spreads of Glamourvagina or the banal makeup tips of OMG BOYZ Monthly, but between the glossy cover lines featuring smiling celebrities inviting you to yoga class and exclaimed sentences about having your BEST BODY lies a disturbing subtext, an indicator that the English language itself has been hijacked and repurposed to sell diet pills that will give you a heart attack.

It’s happened so quickly and soundlessly that we didn”t even realize it was happening, but words like “fitness” and “health” have become dog whistle terms that imply “thinness” and “dieting.” Nowhere in the Women’s Fitness Magazine definition of “health” is there room for real strength, unless it’s a quarter page of lip service paid to a female body builder who is, I don’t know, sharing her tips for avoiding breakfast pastry cravings and fitting in her workouts between dates and shoe shopping.

We’ve long suspected that “fitness” is secret ladymagcode for “neurotic thinness,” and a perusal of three of this month’s “health” and “fitness” offerings — Self, Fitness, and Women’s Health — has shown that there’s some serious subliminal self-worth eroding shit going on. Readers are sold the idea of being healthy and strong and fit and end up with a stack of weight loss ads and splashy graphics about having pretty hair. The pervasive “lose weight” message is fed to us like a dog pill slathered in peanut butter, and we’re expected to just take it and go happily scampering off.

Between the three magazines, weight loss as the goal of fitness and calorie counting as a requirement of eating was mentioned and repeated and harped upon on over 100 pages. The second most popular topic featured in women’s fitness magazines? Makeup and beauty products, which take up 60 pages of the publications. We also are taken on a delightful journey through clothing, accessories, and jewelry, because nothing says “health” like having a nice healthy watch by Tag Heuer or a cancer-fighting Kate Spade bag. There are some lessons to be learned, though, important lessons that will help all of us feel crappy about ourselves without actually getting any stronger or loving our bodies:

Have an unbelievably fucked up relationship with food and expect that every other woman does as well. Desserts are “indulgent,” and “sinful” and calories are to be obsessively counted. Breakfasts are compared side-by-side and analyzed for fat content. Tips about how to resist the urge to eat a piece of cake abound. Foods are discussed as “belly busters” or “fat fighters” rather than “delicious things that you put in your mouth, chew, swallow, and enjoy without obsessing over.”

Think about your hair. A lot. Each of the three fitmags featured extensive discussions about hair and how to make it appear healthier using various products to be applied topically, because health cannot be achieved without chemicals. Do your hair in interesting ways, using interesting products, to, uh, indicate health and fitness.

Never stop wanting to be smaller than you are. Your ultimate goal should be to shrink to the point of complete invisibility. We should not be able to see you when you turn to the side. This month’s issue of Self featured an article that encouraged its readers to maintain their “slim down drive,” like it’s something that occurs naturally, like prey drive, or sex drive. “Here we see a gathering of bonobo monkeys scrutinizing each other’s thighs and vowing to collectively do more lunges. The natural beauty of the slim-down drive, in action.” It’s not natural to want to be smaller; that’s why you get hungry when you don’t eat enough. The magazine could have easily repackaged “slim down drive” as “workout drive,” but instead they chose to play on their readers’ insecurities by creating one of the Most Bullshit Phrases I’ve Ever Read.

Placing ultra thin celebrities on the cover alongside headlines that urge readers to “look great naked” or “fight winter weight gain” also suggests that these fabulous celebrities are worrying about these things, and that if they’re worried about it, you should be extra doubly super worried and that, in fact, the best thing for you to do is buy this magazine and buy the things it tells you to buy.

Aging is not healthy. Fight it tooth and nail. This month’s Fitness magazine featured a quiz that asked its readers to discover their “real” age based on their levels of physical fitness and their weekly diets, warning those who are secretly old that it will negatively effect their hair, skin, and weight (I quit the quiz after it said I was 15 years old and then made a poorly received joke about regressing to my pre-menstrual years using the power of exercise. Work out so hard that you become a teenager again! Stop your period with fitness). The other two magazines were dotted with fleeting fearful references to avoiding looking older and ads for skin creams that will promote looking young. Erm, “health.”

Every woman knows what “problem areas” mean, and if you only solve your “problem areas,” you will solve your actual “problems.” Women’s Health would really like you to look great naked, you know, for yourself. Fitness promises that cover girl and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn will share with readers her flat belly secrets. Because if Lindsey Vonn, professional athlete who makes money from using her body to accomplish physical feats that require a great deal of strength, balance, and concentration, cares about one thing, it’s having a fucking flat stomach.

You are very stressed out about all of this. Stop that! Each of the three magazines offered tips to help their readers destress, because it’s assumed that between worrying about their problem areas, their sex lives, their slim down drives, and the precancerous cells coursing through their veins at all moments of the day, readers of women’s fitness magazines are on the edge of mental breaks at all times. Try some aromatherapy! Use some of these products! Why not do yoga and destress while toning, because you should Always Be Toning (even, according to Self while brushing your teeth.). About midway through Women’s Health, there’s a two page ad for an anti depressant, and no wonder. After pages and pages of text telling its readers that they’re too fat, too old, and undersexed, I’m sure their brain cells could use some chemical rebalancing.

Women’s fitness magazines are packaged and sold as an alternative to the sex obsessed man pleasing tips of the Cosmos of the world, but they’re the same shit in a different package. They’re still telling us that the way to be happy is to be conventionally attractive and thin and firm and toned, to occupy the socially acceptable amount of space. They’re not about pleasing yourself; they’re about pleasing others, and their suggestion that they’re anything beyond that is insulting and condescending. Where’s the magazine that promises to help you squat 150 pounds by June? Where’s the guide to starting your own football league? Where’s the secret to eating foods that will satisfy you after pounding out a 10 mile half marathon training run?

These magazines are lying to us, and they’re expecting us to be okay with it, to keep buying and to keep accepting their assumption that when they say “fit,” we hear “thin.” We’re smarter than that, and we should stop rewarding them with our patronage.


By Morning Gloria, originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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    I always find it so disturbing how tummy-obsessed these magazines are, too. As a general rule, women are *supposed* to have a little pooch of fat on their tummies. That’s, like, part of being an adult human woman. The tummies we see in magazines either belong to unhealthy people or people who have been photoshopped to appear unhealthy. And that scares the crap out of me.

    I actually wear a size zero in the States, and my body looks NOTHING like that.

    • yes.

      women were made to bear children. WE NEED FAT TO GROW BABIES. BABIES LOVE OUR ROUND, SOFT TUMMIES.

      if you laid a newborn baby on your rock hard abs do you think he would fall asleep? do you think the rhythmic motion of your stomach like a pile of rocks being shuffled around would lull him to sleep? fuck no. he wants to lay on a pillow. he wants your belly to be round and soft and warm like that beautiful place he remembers from when before he was born.

      tummy tummy yes tummy

      fuck abs

  2. And this is why I stick to magazines like Men’s Health and Runner’s World. Useful advice, articles about interesting things, and food tips that are based around nutrition – not looking emaciated.

  3. LOVE this essay.

    As far as I’m concerned there are two legit popular fitness magazines for women and I love and appreciate them both. As it so happens, they’re also unisex and while they recognize the weight loss market sells, it’s not the core of what they do.

    1. Runner’s World. I don’t read the physical magazine, but I love the site. I include it as a magazine geared towards women because a) they have a women’s section, and b) they cover the gear for women that matters most – sports bras. Runner’s World is guaranteed to make you feel guilty about not running a marathon RIGHT NOW. Diet tips: eat more carbs. And more carbs. And more smoothies. And carbs, because you’re running 10km a day at least, right? You need carbs to fuel your body for MORE RUNNING! They have an injury prevention section on their website as well. I really like this. Also, Mark Bittman blogs for them and he can do no wrong.

    2. Yoga Journal. It has an illustrated pose guide. It has podcasts. I would hesitate to learn the immediate-results-focused yoga of something like Self magazine. In contrast, Yoga Journal is all, “Let go on a magical adventure together with meditation and holistic wellness!” It’s kind of like the magazine/website equivalent of the immaculate yoga teacher who is somehow more fit and spiritual than you will ever be, but who has deigned to help you be better, like some kind of insanely flexible angel who knows lots of Sanskrit.

    • oh my god yoga journal. sometimes jason crandell is so serene that i want to kick him in the shins, but his little voice is always there, cheering me on (serenely!) through ten thousand of those goddamn sun salutations.

  4. A sure fire way to a flat tummy is to remove all those pesky internal organs inside you. Uterus, bladder, kidneys and intestines have got to go!

  5. I’m a magazine person and every time a new magazine comes out I freak out and hope THIS ONE WILL BE THE ONE.

    When Women’s Health debuted, it was way more understated — much like Men’s Health. The cover photo was in black and white, the fonts were the red, yellow & blue also employed by Men’s Health. It seemed to be focused more on health, the writing was good, the articles were packed with information, there was a better focus on health rather than weight-loss. Even the relationship stories were interesting and relevant. I think maybe Pam Houston wrote something in it which was exiting. About six issues in, it became the piece of crap it now is. which is disappointing.

    Self I had to give up ages ago b/c half its pages were about this or that organic lip balm or meditation practice that nobody could really afford, and tons of articles about “happiness” that didn’t make me feel happy. I read about 12 issues of Shape before determining that I’d read them all, and Fitness I felt was aimed really, REALLY specifically at women who considered themselves overweight and wanted to lose weight. There was nothing in there for anyone interested in fitness for the sake of it. Also I read so many weight loss stories I started to lose my mind.

    meanwhile magazines like Outside and Men’s Fitness actually produce some of the best long-form journalism out there in print magazines today. WOMEN ARE ALWAYS GETTING SHAFTED

  6. whatever. you shouldn’t care about how your body looks, just how it feels.

    really I mean your clit. right now. done.

  7. I agree with _vending machine_ on Men’s Health – chock-full of little factoids, tips for enjoying all aspects of a normal, non-neurotic life and actual information on varied exercise/sports and how to make them work _for_ you instead of being enslaved to them. It never fails to make me want to exercise and feel able to do that. I feel empowered by it, like I can make myself stronger! :D (It doesn’t hurt when they do a recipe for a good, ‘healthy’ Bloody Mary, either!)

  8. Sports Illustrated Women was a pretty decent female-sports mag. Unfortunately it only produced something like 30 issues. I liked it because they actually chronicled real womens sports, like field hockey and stuff. They also followed female surfers, rock climbers, snowboarders…It was pretty bad-ass.

  9. I was very excited to pic up the latest (and my first) copy of Women’s Health (in Australia) because they were featuring some of our elite sportwomen… who, as we all know, get very little media attention. Their aim was to highlight this and try and get more women interested in sport.

    Great idea. Poor execution. Why? Take a look at this photo of Ellyse Perry: http://resources2.news.com.au/images/2011/01/15/1225988/410406-perry.jpg

    I almost didn’t recognise her because of the amount of airbrushing that’s gone in to this image.

    All they ended up doing was saying, “Hey! Look at this awesome athlete who represents her country in football AND cricket but guess what? She’s still not ‘perfect’ enough as she is. Let’s ‘FIX’ that.”

    On top of that, we have Stephanie Rice in swimmers and HIGH HEELS, cause that’s what we all wear to the pool, and Dani Samuels (Discus) saying I’M NOT BUTCH (heaven forbid!).

  10. Hot Slutmopolitan…Glamourvagina…OMG BOYZ Monthly…

    I need to subscribe to all three of these, please.

  11. I’ve seen Kate French on like 3 different covers of Women’s Health and each time it’s for the ‘Flat Sexy Abs!’ issue.

  12. So, as someone who has been doing ballet for about nine years, and considers herself a healthy eater, none of my healthy ballet friends look like those women who are almost always talking about some questionable diet they are on. I have a friend who is one of the best ballet dancers I know, and girlfriends got some hips. It’s normal to have a pooch… everyone has one. I sport some fairly impressive hips myself, with a pooch to boot. It’s not because I’m fat, or I’m consuming to much saturated fat everyday and should eat more blue berries, and I should be doing crunches while I brush my teeth, it’s my shape. I have a pooch and big hips and one of those dancers that women’s health magazines put on pedestals because they think we have this unreal body Stop focusing so much on your bodies. Maybe it’s some weird mating thing, but if a girl/boy gets you home and gets your shirt off, they will still have sex with you and think you’re beautiful, even if you don’t have a six pack and runners thighs. Really, about the only body type that isn’t beautiful is anorexic.
    Enjoy your damn food. It’s not going to kill you to eat that pasta.
    /inspirational rant.

  13. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Please, please, please don’t start cross-posting Jezebel’s incessant body image posts. That site used to have some amazing posts on a wide variety of important topics with comments from erudite and funny readers. Now there are at least three posts a day where posters clutch their pearls and wind themselves into a fever pitch of crazy over some affront to the female form, usually perpetrated by someone or some company I could give less of a fuck about. Are body image issues important? Yes. Is Jezebel’s obsessive and almost compulsive nitpicking about weight issues constructive or helpful? I doubt it.

    I’m kinda fat, and on top of the list of things I worry about in my life, whether people judge me for being fat really isn’t up there. Sorry.

    I was just thinking to myself how awesome and funny and self-aware Autostraddle was, and how it was such a reprieve from the judgmental, hive-mentality that’s developed on Jezebel. I was a dedicated, every-day reader of Jezebel from the beginning of the site. Now, not so much any more. Please, please, please don’t become like them by cross-posting more of their body-image articles.

  14. I liked the article and agreed with it, but I have to point out that even this website is not above glamorizing the super thin woman. Just take a look at the Autostraddle Calendar girls pic further up on this page.

    • Aye, but there is a difference.

      Autostraddle isn’t ramming it down our throat that ‘this body will make your life perfect and happy and everyone will love you and there will be rainbows and you might even get that pony for Christmas (oh and just in case trying to get there is stressful, we can fix that too)!!!!!’

      There are plenty of different kinds of women and men and even people who aren’t women or men looking hot on this site. I mean, should we just stop saying that thin people are hot? What about people who think thin people are hot, or who are thin themselves? The difference with AS is that other kinds of people are hot too.

    • the girls in the calendar aren’t skinny twiglets…not that there is anything wrong with that. the ladies in the magazines are WAY skinnier and WAY airbrushed.

      people need to stop getting down on the calendar & read the articles that come with the pictures & now videos(!).

    • when we start asking kelli and ashley for their slim-down secrets and belly-blasting workout tips so that everyone can do their very best to look just like kelli and ashley regardless of genetics, then you can yell at us.

  15. Here’s my ‘health regime’

    1. Eat whatever I fucking want
    2. Hit the GYM and RUN as often as my schedule allows.

    Which brings me to the point, why don’t these lady mags advocate hard core exercise? They don’t want women to be too masculine? Sheesh.

  16. I feel bad that I don’t have a witty/topical comment to add to the conversation…I just want to say this is a REALLY good article.

  17. I’ve never read anything by Morning Gloria and I won’t in the future. This isn’t real writing, it’s just really crappy blogging. “Gee, let’s hate on women’s glossies.” As if that hasn’t been done a million times before? How predictable.

    Morning Gloria sounds like she must be somewhat athletic. It’s ironic that she’d probably fall all over herself if any of these women’s health magazines offered her a real job.

  18. I joined a gym for the first time about 6 months ago and one of the best parts about it was seeing real people naked so often. (No nasty, hear me out!) Seeing a million different types of bare bodies makes you realize that bodies are just bodies and that if that 60-year-old woman with boobies down to her bellybutton thinks she fly, it’s because she is. And you are too. Looking good naked (or clothes) isn’t about being skinny, it’s about being comfortable.

  19. I pick up this free women’s health magazine at the grocery store every month and it’s both awesome and infuriating. It’s overwhelmingly classist and filled with misinformation, but at the same time, there are articles about how to prevent colds and how to manage stress, and it’s just so awesome to pick up a women’s health magazine and actually have it be about women’s health.

  20. Not all of these are bad. I do like working out and I do aim to maintain a flat tummy. I don’t like flabs on me either. Simply because clothes fit better, I feel healthier and overall, makes me feel good. I do not starve myself. In fact, I eat hefty amounts of food but healthy food then when I can’t help it, I have the “sinful” ones.

    One thing I don’t like with these magazines is when they feature thin women. I like to see women with muscles. That to me proves that they’re working out and are actually eating. They have to be featuring women with cuts, which kinda proves they’re working out, or at least, by honest journalism, look for women who honestly work out.

    I think, the problem with these magazines is that. They have to show healthy in all different ways, not just the thin kind. I bet most of those in their covers are not actually healthy.

  21. “Where’s the magazine that promises to help you squat 150 pounds by June?”


    subscribe to crossfit journal for $30/year

    Thanks to crossfit, a 150lb back squat is just a warmup for me. At almost 40 years old and 145lbs, my squat is 255lbs, deadlift 320lbs, bench press 145lbs!

  22. CROSSFIT! I was reading all these comments and just kept thinking that crossfit could potentially solve all these problems. You can, in some ways, eat whatever the fuck you want (disclaimer, most “true” crossfitters try to maintain some semblance of Paleo) but it’s all about doing functional workouts. They don’t have mirrors in their gyms and they don’t give a flying fuck what you look like. People are celebrated for being able to do heavy squats just the same as being able to do a pullup with a band. It’s awesome stuff! The crossfit journal is pretty cool but you can get most of the relevant information on the basic website and by searching around on this fantastic internet thing.

    And to the awesome poster above me, those are some very impressive numbers! Now throw up a Fran time and people will have absolutely no clue what you are talking about.

  23. No love for circus? Or dance? Or creative methods of exercise that don’t numb your brain to existence?

    Leave me and my curves be!

  24. I have been thinking a lot lately that women’s fitness magazines are ridiculous too. I stopped buying these things a long time ago. Recently my boyfriend bought me one when I started working out again–I told him he shouldn’t have wasted his five bucks. Why? Because in it were articles on what to wear, what “fragrance fits your workout” and a slew of dessert recipes. There were about two pages of actual workouts in the magazine.

    The little diet and fitness advice they give is common knowledge–nothing new. I have to assume that these magazine editors start running out of ideas for articles. I sometimes wonder is they get their article ideas from looking through stock photography first–for example they see a photo of a girl eating Chinese takeout and say –hey I can write a full page article on how Chinese takeout is bad for you–eat a salad instead. Yeah no kidding!

    These magazines are a bunch of junk that are produced to sell advertising and insult women’s intelligence (my opinion.)

    Anyway the solution is to read mens fitness magazines. They have real workouts, better information and I bet you will never find dessert recipes in them.

  25. I agree with kat There are plenty of different kinds of women and men and even people who aren’t women or men looking hot on this site. I mean, should we just stop saying that thin people are hot? What about people who think thin people are hot, or who are thin themselves? The difference with AS is that other kinds of people are hot too.

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