The Farce of Fitness Magazines


Recently, SELF magazine shamed Monika Allen, a cancer survivor, for running an LA marathon while wearing a tutu.  Oh, the editors weren’t aware that Monika is a cancer survivor, or that she made the tutu herself, one of many she makes for her company Glam Runners, which donates proceeds to Girls on the Run.  The editors didn’t know any of that because they didn’t ask her about herself or the tutu—they just asked for permission to use her picture, which they ran in a segment called “The BS Meter” with a caption about a “tutu epidemic.”  Hmmm… a segment called The BS Meter?  Sounds more like fare for a tabloid than a magazine about healthy women.  But that shouldn’t be too shocking—women’s fitness magazines aren’t really about supporting healthy women.  They’re about supporting our cultural “beauty” standards, under the guise of “fitness.”  Which means shaming women for our bodies and choices is fair game—in fact, it is the game.

The major fitness magazines—SELF, Shape, Women’s Health, and Fitness come to mind—are essentially the same.  Glance at the cover of one of these magazines and it is clear that “fitness” and “health” mean having that “perfect” body, the one we all know so well that we could recite the ways we don’t measure up to it in our sleep.  Whatever the magazines might offer in terms of helpful content—low-fat recipes, new ways to strengthen your arms or tone your core—they will also, always, offer the false beauty standard as the epitome of health, along with a cornucopia of advertisements encouraging you to spend money on beauty—um, I mean health.  So what’s a woman to do if she wants to read up on fitness tips and find some inspiration to keep on keepin on when it comes to her personal fitness journey?

This was the question some friends and I collectively pondered in an online discussion, as some cancelled their subscriptions to SELF and all agreed we didn’t know of many alternatives.  So I did some digging—and here’s what I found:

Print Magazines

As I suspected, there isn’t much here.  Since the days of the Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in and the beginning of Ms., women’s magazines have been co-opted by the beauty industry, and fitness has simply jumped on the bandwagon:

  • You can find some good information—such as articles on doing squats during pregnancy and enjoying your fitness journey—  at Muscle and Fitness Hers. You can also learn how to burn fat fast and do a bikini body blast while viewing lots of pictures of women who, presumably unlike you, have mastered these things, and have zero body fat to prove it.
  • Tips for your workout and interesting, healthy recipes are available at Oxygen, which also features a Cover Girl segment.
  • Health and diet for middle-aged women are featured in Prevention, along with tips for, and pictures of, the sculpted abs we all know we should have.
  • Black Fitness Today focuses on health in the African American community, but also showcases traditional ideas of celebrity beauty.
  • FitnessRX for women is chockfull of ways to burn fat while making sure that nothing—not even your knees—shows your true age.

To varying degrees, all of these magazines suffer from the same disease:  an assumption that women want and need to look like celebrity models, and that that look (along with eating well and exercising) equals health.  I don’t think most of these magazines would act like a tabloid, but they include images and ideas that undermine the very basis of health:  self-esteem.

Blogs and Online Magazines

Ah, here is where you will find it:  the body-positive approach to fitness:

  • Ms. Fit Magazine includes articles on knowing your body, dealing with family “diet police,” and stories of personal triumph.  It does not include articles about the fastest way to lose belly fat or how to get a high, tight tush.
  • Fit and Feminist is a blog by journalist Caitlin Constantine that focuses on being fit while also loving yourself.
  • This list of feminist fitness blogs is just plain awesome.

Note:  I also recommend Stories from the Belly, a blog about the female body and its appetites by Diahann Reyes.  Diahann’s blog is not specifically focused on fitness, but it is focused on understanding, accepting, and loving the female body—and that is the essence of body-positive right there.

Most of these blogs and magazines are overtly feminist, and all of them are easier to find if you are comfortable with feminism and connected to the feminist community.  That’s not surprising—but it does mean that most women aren’t going to find them, as the popular understanding of feminism doesn’t allow women to embrace it, or anything connected with it.

The work of body-positive fitness—the work of loving and accepting our bodies while also striving to become healthier and stronger—is not the stuff of mainstream culture.  It must, by definition, push back against that culture.  We are beginning to see more and more of that pushback—the response to SELF (which issued an apology but left angry consumers in its wake) is just the latest example.  It is my hope that the feminist floodgates will soon break open, and mainstream fitness magazines will reflect the bodies and needs of everyday women who are journeying toward better health.

One thought on “The Farce of Fitness Magazines

  1. diahannreyes says:

    Thanks for tackling this subject Liz. I was really bothered by the way Self handled this and why it even happened to begin with.

    I love that you include other alternatives where women can turn to for fitness and body positive insights/ inspiration. I love the reminder that they are not mutually exclusive and that fitness doesn’t have to be about objectification or perfection but about empowerment and self-love and care and strength…

    There are some great sites out there that you’ve made me aware of and I will definitely be checking them out. And, of course, I’m honored to be included here. Thank you.


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