Both US Glamour and Australian Cosmo have run body specials this month (both which have their merits), so I thought I'd preface my mag reviews with an account of my own experience of compiling a health/fitness special...
Last year I executed (i.e. wrote/styled) a nine-page body special for Girlfriend magazine's December '07 issue, as part of the mag’s Self Respect campaign (I know – yay for me).
When my editor approached me in late 2006 with the idea of creating a health campaign to address rising levels of obesity, I went away and compiled a four-inch thick research folder on girls, body image, obesity, eating disorders and health/nutrition. I came back to her with the words 'SELF RESPECT', believing that this concept could be the anchor for how we treat ourselves – mind, body and soul – and the editorial we'd run.
The concept behind the SR campaign was to make girls aware of their health (in the context of growing media/societal concern about childhood obesity), while being sensitive towards young women’s propensity for developing eating disorders (within the context of a celebrity culture in which Nicole Richie and her skinny frame had reached iconic status).
After consultations with doctors including Dr Rick Kausman (prominent in the field of dieting and weight management), Dr Jenny O’Dea, who has dedicated much of her research to young women with eating disorders, and representatives from Victorian eating disorder organisation The Butterfly Foundation, I developed the framework for the editorial side of the campaign. It would focus on building girls’ self esteem while encouraging healthy habits in every aspect of their lives – from eating, exercise and relaxation, to community involvement, building positive relationships, pursuing their passions, finding faith, building character, embracing creativity and giving back. This also happened to coincide with what Dove was doing with its new real-women focused beauty campaign and Self Esteem Fund.
Essentially, the motive was to strengthen the girls’ self esteem by encouraging them to see themselves as more than reflections in the mirror while concurrently encouraging healthy eating and exercise habits and featuring a range of body shapes and real girls in each issue, to balance out the use of generic size 8/10 16-year-old models in the fashion spreads.
I’m not sure how successful the campaign was/has been, though we did get a lot of positive feedback.
The most recent Mission Australia Youth Survey found body image to be the number one concern of young people, above family conflict, coping with stress, school or study problems, suicide, the environment and emotional abuse. This is terribly depressing – some young people are so distracted by their outward appearance and thinking about their bodies/food/exercise that it may inhibit their development in other parts of their lives, stopping them from reaching their full potential.
Smart, discerning young women are not exempt from this (read Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters?) – in fact, they’re more likely to develop disordered eating and exercise habits because they become so well versed in the language of diet and, through social conditioning, part of a pervasive, accepted discourse in which women are applauded for losing weight (great willpower/control!) and warped behaviour (wow, she exercises like a demon!), even after giving birth. I, for one, have certainly not escaped the trappings of rigidly adhering to strict diet/exercise practises in order to control my body (and, to some extent, my life). I remember reading diet stories in Dolly when I was 14, studying a Cleo body special when I was 17 and dedicating myself to the exercises shown and, even now, it's rare for me to read/review a magazine which doesn't offer some new way to improve oneself via a change in diet.
I think the media, particularly women’s magazines, celebrity weeklies and the tabloid press (here’s looking at you, Daily Mail), can shoulder a big chunk of the blame for the vexed position we find ourselves in. Sure, the fashion industry has a preference for using girls on the catwalk who look like they’ve never had a decent meal, and shows like The Biggest Loser use weight loss for entertainment value, but the constant barrage of editorial around celebrity bodies, weight loss/diets, and even well-intentioned ‘love your body’ stories, have the cumulative effect of perpetuating and feeding our body angst – the focus is rarely off our outward appearance. Women, it seems, are really not more than the sum of their body parts.
In this world, self improvement is all about managing your weight and choosing the right clothing for your body type. Even when women are being celebrated for their different body shapes, the message is still ‘you should be thinking about how you look’. Controlling your weight and shopping for your body shape is promoted as a means for increasing your happiness – forget working on your character, your values, your contribution to the world at large: if you can just keep a lid on your penchant for peanut butter, you will soon see results.
The thing is, anyone with half a brain knows you have to eat nutritious food and exert a decent amount of energy to stay on the safe side of the BMI scale (which I think is flawed as a measurement of overall health, anyway). Though, as a nation, we clearly need more education on nutrition and health, I think most young women know their good fats from their French fries. There is a place for health and nutritional education and information (I like to get mine from magazines like Australian Healthy Food Guide), just as there is for sound relationship advice and money management tips. But women's magazines, and the glamorous women who work on them, are aspirational – and the aspirational body/figure they tend to promote looks a lot like Kate Moss.
Yes, women's magazines make health and nutritional information accessible for women who really need it – many get encouraging letters from readers who have been inspired to take control of their health and lose weight. But there also needs to be a message about weight loss not being the key to happiness. Show me a skinny, carb-deprived woman who's smiling and I'll give you a hundred bucks (Nicole, Mary-Kate et. al. could barely muster the energy for a smile, surviving as they do/did on Starbucks coffee).
Also, the feminine relationship with food is far from a simple hungry = eat something equation. It’s inextricably connected to our emotional state (stressed? Pass the chocolate! Sad? I can't look at food), our social conditioning (what’s your family’s or friends’ attitude to food?), female competition (a friend loses weight and you feel jealous) and self esteem (eating to excess to hide from the world; limiting calories to feel a sense of control). Food, for most, is a psychological, as well as physical matter. Yes, it is the role of the journalists working on women's magazines to take sometimes obscure and complex concepts and make them palatable for their readership, but telling us what to eat and how much to exercise is but a small piece of the pie.
I think this is where magazines like Frankie and Yen get it so right – who cares what your body looks like; what’s going on in the rest of your life? We really need to emancipate ourselves from the relentless barrage of media images intent on making us feel discontent. Whether that means refusing to buy celebrity weeklies or any issue of a magazine that promises you a better body, is, of course, up to the individual. And, unfortunately, celebrity body specials tend to be best sellers (after celebs without makeup, of course).
It’s sad that most young women aspire to look and be like Kate Moss, who’s a sylish lass, for sure, but doesn’t have the kind of depth of character/intellect we should aspire to. Heck, even a well-honed sense of humour is often overlooked in favour of developing Jennifer Garner biceps, Jennifer Aniston's lean physique and Jennifer Lopez's butt.
It’s important that there’s dialogue around this issue. Why is so much of our self worth tied up in how we look? How can magazines make women feel better about themselves without ‘body love’ style campaigns? Has the feminism movement failed to move us from objects to whole beings? Do we manipulate our bodies to please men, other women or ourselves? Who, exactly, are we exercising for?
After I wrote up the Girlfriend body special, putting all my efforts into thorough research, presenting readers with a comprehensive guide to eating and exercise (as well as emotional health) and cute styling, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt – the feeling that some girl, somewhere, would use the information to embark on what could become a lifelong dedication to staying in shape via label reading, meal planning, portion control, salad making and regimented exercise.
Girl With a Satchel
Images: Girlfriend magazine December 2007