If you are a woman who likes to lift seriously and lift heavy, the universe of glossies really only has two magazines for you: Muscle & Fitness Hers and Oxygen. In my opinion, the other women’s fitness magazines – Shape, Self, Women’s Health – are little more than your standard ladymags, except with fashion spreads focused on yoga clothes and a five-step workout routine featuring a young celebrity who also, coincidentally (or not), has a project to promote. In almost every other way, they are indistinguishable from magazines like Allure and Mademoiselle.
Women’s Health is particularly disappointing in this regard. I still remember the moment I realized the magazine had become a shell of its formerly sweaty, ripped self, and that was when the editorial staff dedicated a feature to First Lady Michelle Obama’s five successful tips for a happy relationship. I’m very happy the Obamas have a great marriage but if I wanted to read that kind of schmaltzy junk, I’d pick up Women’s Day. I let my subscription lapse shortly afterward.
So these days, I almost exclusively read M&F Hers and Oxygen. The models are all cut and buff, which I like a lot. No teenagers posing like busted-up, half-starved dolls here! The women in these magazines might have long, flirty hair and perfectly manicured nails, but they could also crush your head like a walnut. Hell yeah.
The editors also include a few lifting routines in each magazine, which is good for a lifter like me, who knows enough of the basics to get around but doesn’t have the knowledge to take my training to the next level. They also introduce more advanced techniques, like pyramid sets, supersets or negative lifting. They don’t shy away from promoting the stereotypically dudely moves, like bench presses or curls, and in fact, are very enthusiastic about helping women develop serious upper-body strength.
Of course, not all of their readers like this as much as I do. I still remember a reader writing in to one magazine to complain about all of the arms workouts they’d been featuring lately. “Not all of us want to look like men,” she complained. *facepalm* *headdesk*
Finally, maybe the best thing about these magazines is that they don’t act like weight training with the goal of building muscle is something that can be done half-assedly. Yes, they do their share of features that focus on weight training routines that can be done in thirty minutes a day, four times a week, which, for most of us, is just fine.
But they also profile professional bodybuilders and fitness competitors, who talk candidly about the tremendous investments of time and energy and the major sacrifices they make to have bodies like that. There’s none of that “I lost the baby weight by chasing my kids around” crap. No one ever says “Oh, I eat what I want tee hee!” These women are straight-up about the fact that they work out hard several hours a week and that they follow strict dietary guidelines. (By “strict” I don’t mean severe caloric restriction, but rather “eating clean,” which is a philosophy that eschews processed foods in favor of whole ones. In our society, that is considered strict, I’d say.)
In a world where people are willing to pay money for gadgets that purport to literally shock your abs into washboard glory, it’s actually refreshing to see women who are like, “Yep, I work hard to look like this.” I imagine that some people find this intimidating, but I don’t. I’d rather hear that Ava Cowan say she spends two hours a day in the gym and eats very carefully then hear another celebrity say they don’t do anything to be a size 0.
I think that women’s lifting magazines have a lot of very positive attributes, which is why they are the only kind of mainstream magazine aimed at women that I continue to buy.
So where does the hate come in?
That said, I would have a hard time unequivocally recommending them to every woman who wants to get into weight training. Frankly, if you are the kind of woman who has struggled with disordered eating, these magazines will trigger you left and right and up and down.
I still remember someone writing into Oxygen to complain about the media’s portrayal of First Lady Obama as a fitness role model, because her body-fat percentage was too high. And the publisher actually agreed with the LW! I don’t know what universe they are living in, but in the one I occupy, Michelle Obama is a beautiful, strong, healthy woman who, frankly, has way more important things to deal with than decreasing her body-fat percentage by a few points.
The language that shows up in most issues of these magazines – “becoming your best self,” “developing a better you” – is also very frustrating, as this kind of rhetoric equates the kind of person you are with the way you look. Yeah…no.
It’s awesome to like the way you look and it’s great to feel strong and I will be the first to talk about the way distance running transformed me as a person, but to turn it into a matter of being a “better you” or “your best self” says that anyone who doesn’t do these things is not living up to their potential as a human being, and that’s not just wrong – it’s insulting to people who cannot, for whatever reason, pursue these kind of things.
The food features also include some pretty serious calorie-counting. The magazines will often offer eating plans that come complete with detailed calorie and nutritional counts. Now, I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, the eating plans they lay out are actually not all that terrible – they have three meals plus snacks, which is already doing way better than, say, Tracy Anderson’s 700-calorie nightmare.
In addition, the calorie counts are supplemented by protein tallies, which is important if you are trying to build muscle, and they also look at fat and sodium, not with the goal of cutting these things out entirely but to limit them to healthy amounts. And finally, if you are at all like me, and completely ignorant when it comes to the true nutritional value of things, it can actually be useful to see it all laid out. (This is part of why I am such a huge fan of nutritional listings at restaurants. I am just not capable of gauging these things by looking at them.)
But on the other hand, if you are already the kind of person who obsesses over calories, this is not going to help you. In fact, it could very well push you right back into the abyss of disordered eating.
The glue holding all of this together are the omnipresent ads for those horrid fat-burner “supplements.” You know, the ones that show a Before, featuring an average woman in her bikini, maybe looking a bit sad and washed-out, and an After, with the same woman gleaming and smiling and showing off rock-hard abs. These are the ads that promise more energy, diminished appetite and a euphoric feeling. (Gee, where have I heard this before?)
Whenever I see these ads, I’m always reminded of this:
The horrible thing about these ads is that you can know what total, unmitigated bullshit all of this is, and yet you see those glistening Before & After photos, and you start thinking, hmmm…maybe I should try this. This happens even though every rational part of your brain is screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOO!
It reminds me of the Photoshop effect, where you can know intellectually that a model’s skin has been airbrushed into porcelain flawlessness, you can know that no one actually looks that way, but something deep inside still sees those photos and thinks about your own wrinkles and lumps and scars and leaves you feeling ugly and gross, even though you are essentially comparing yourself against a drawing.
So why do I keep reading these things?
I am very lucky in that I have made it to this point relatively unscathed by the tremendous pressures put on women to hate their bodies. (Notice I say “relatively.” I may be slender and I may be athletic, but these things are not inoculations against poor self-image and disliking one’s body, not by a long shot.) I feel those twinges of self-doubt and I hear those destructive voices of criticism that point out all the things I perceive as being “wrong” with my body, but I have gotten better at not focusing on things that amplify those voices and that self-doubt. (Hence, my refusal to read ladymags.)
I would love it if some enterprising publisher were to put out a magazine for women who lift weights yet who aren’t hung up on being figure competitors. I would love it if that magazine were not riddled with body-hating language or ablist rhetoric. But, sadly, I’m also a realist about the state of publishing in this country, and I know such a magazine would never survive. (To which I say, thank the universe for blogs like Stumptuous.) So I take the good and discard the shit, and I always try to remain mindful and critical of what I read and see. This is far from perfect, but it will have to do for now.