Rachel Cosgrove recently put out her second book, Drop Two Sizes, and the reception has been…well, from what I’ve seen, it’s been what you could charitably call “ambivalent.” Charlotte Anderson at The Great Fitness Experiment recently wrote a review of the book in which she said she was “kind of embarrassed to be seen with it.” It’s pretty understandable. I have no plans to buy the book but I am pretty sure that I would be making sure to lay it cover down every time I took it to the gym with me.
Two of the main areas of critique that I’ve seen have been the title itself – which frames weight training as a way of fitting into smaller clothing – and the fact that the model is a fairly standard women’s fitness magazine model – you know, not runway skinny but not what I would associate with a trainer and fitness guru who owns a very successful gym. I mean, the model looks fine but her figure is not what I aspire toward building for myself. (Now Cosgrove, on the other hand…) Anderson also takes the book to task for its diet plan, which falls into the low-cal, low-fat way of thinking about food.
I certainly had my criticisms about The Female Body Breakthrough, but I don’t recall ever being embarrassed to be seen with the book. (By the way, on the advice of a bunch of you, I am now on my fourth week of The New Rules of Lifting for Women and I’m looooving it.) Plus, I know Cosgrove is legit when it comes to strength training. She comes from the school of thought that says you shouldn’t spend a billion hours doing cardio and that you’re better off doing compound lifts with heavier weights. Lots of people respect her, which is why I think her new book was greeted with such dismay from so many.
Last week, in response to some of the criticism, Cosgrove posted a defense of her new book titled “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover.” In it, she details the editorial decisions that went into the marketing of the book, which includes the models and title of the book. I found it fascinating, not least of all because I discovered why Women’s Health hasn’t appealed to me in years (because I haven’t been in their target demo since Dubya’s first term). It was a glimpse into the inner workings of one of the most influential fitness-and-sports media empires, and I came away from it with an uncomfortable mix of emotions.
Initially, I was incredibly frustrated. Women’s Health says they are aiming to provide the “must-have action plan for today’s modern woman,” but their demographic is women ages 18-24. That’s a whole fuckload of women who are interested in fitness who fall outside their target demographic, all of whom I guess do not qualify as “today’s modern woman.” The article contains a lot of discussion about reframing the conversation to meet these women on their own terms, to speak the language of “skinny jeans” and “getting toned” and avoiding anything that seems too hardcore. It reminded me of the problem with aiming for the lowest common denominator, which is that “lowest” is often pretty freaking low.
But I also respect what Cosgrove is trying to do. She wants access to that huge readership, she wants to get them to shift their way of thinking about their bodies and strength and if she has to do the rhetorical equivalent of baking spinach into brownies to get that to happen, then I can understand that. It might not be the choice I would make, but then she’s the one who has made a living out of helping women develop their physical strength, and I’m just a schmoe with a blog.
Over the weekend, though, I found myself really thinking more about this, specifically how I would react to a book like this if I was in that target demographic. I was going through some boxes of stuff and I found tons of memorabilia from my teenage years and my early 20s: photos, newspaper clippings, report cards, awards, my journals. I spent some time looking through everything, and I started remembering so many things about those years, including my relationship to my body, to sports and to fitness.
My path to embracing a life of physical training and athleticism was rather haphazard and weird. Here are some highlights (or rather, lowlights):
- Age 17: I sign up for a weightlifting class as part of my volleyball conditioning. However, I realize I have no idea how to use anything, so I spend my class periods doing hundreds of crunches and leg lifts. (I was obsessed with the fact that I had a belly pooch that would never go away and outer thighs that did not form a straight line from hip to knee.)
- Age 18: I go with my boyfriend to the university weight room. I am the only girl there. I bail for the cardio machines.
- Age 20: I decide I want to see if I can make it as a model before I got too much older and thus worthless to the beauty industry, so I begin eating little more than tuna fish sandwiches and grapes. I do yoga for 90 minutes a day. I develop a system of calisthenics that involves – you guessed it – crunches and leg lifts. (I never actually become a model.)
- Age 20-26: If they had a Stoner Olympics, I would have been Michael Phelps.
- Age 26: I decide to use my new college’s gym. I use the Nautilus machines and the elliptical. The abductor/adductor machine and I become good friends. I spend the rest of the time doing my elaborate abs routine. (By the way, do you see why I am so over the focus on visible abs? I have burned out the synapses that are capable of caring about that part of my body. I try to care and my brain just struggles to turn over – click! click! click! – like an ignition trying to start a dead car battery.)
- Age 27-29: I discover women’s fitness magazines and Pilates DVDs. I spend my time doing lots of triceps kickbacks. (I also take up running at this time.) I still have yet to touch a barbell, and I rarely venture into the free weights section.
- Age 30+: I stumble upon a wealth of strength training information on the internet, I ditch the magazines and I never, ever look back.
But then this is the really interesting thing: I never once thought that I shouldn’t lift weights because I might “bulk up” or “look like a man” or any of that silliness. It just never occurred to me that women could or even should lift weights. Like, my stepdad loved bodybuilding and used to have issues of Flex lying around and he’d watch “Pumping Iron” when I was younger, but, you know, I never once saw him watching “Pumping Iron II.”
While I recognize that this is a stunning lack of imagination on my part, I also want to point out that I also had no problem seeing myself as the first Madam President, nor did I think it was out of the question that I could become an astronaut or a movie director or a civil rights lawyer. So yes, I failed to use my imagination, but I also was growing up in a culture that was still coming to terms with the idea of women as creatures of physical strength. Yep, we had Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie and Picabo Street, but we never saw b-roll of them in the weight room like we have with, say, the US women’s soccer team. Instead we saw their shampoo commercials and their fashion spreads – media presences that reassured the public that, sure, they might be able to handle a ball, but don’t worry, they are still girly girls too!
So yes, I was definitely one of those women who had to ease my way into world of strength training. As much as I would like to envision myself popping out of my mother’s womb with a barbell in hand, the reality is that my path to strength training has been very typical in this regard. But none of this really tells me how I would have reacted to seeing a book like Drop Two Sizes, especially if it was presented to me alongside something like NROL4W. The truth is that I don’t know. (I don’t have ESPN.)
But even though I am sympathetic to Cosgrove’s decision, I am less inclined to let Women’s Health off the hook. They say they are catering to the desires of their target audience, but there is no acknowledgement of the fact that they played a considerable role in making those desires what they are. They contribute to the focus on weight loss and flat abs and shrinking your thighs and low-calorie diets by continuing to put that content in their magazines and their media materials over and over again. I know the defense – that if they don’t, they’ll lose readers who will go elsewhere – but if these are fitness-minded women, where else are they going to go? To Shape? Self? Fitness? (As if a magazine-buying woman isn’t scooping all of them up anyway…or was I the only one doing that?)
What I would love to see is a different approach to this. Instead of helping to create these desires and then throwing their hands up in the air as if they are helpless to do anything but cater to them, I’d love to see mainstream women’s fitness magazines try to change the terms of the conversation. Show models with a wider variety of bodies, and not just for a feature about “finding the best swimsuit for your body type!” Work harder to deconstruct these persistent myths about women and strength-training. Quit supporting the idea that a healthy, active woman should be able to live off 1,200 calories a day or whatever the magic number is these days. Do something, but don’t act like you have no say in the matter.
I do take solace in the fact that I think perceptions about women’s bodies and strength are changing. The truth is that the mainstream media – especially the older forms of them – are like cargo ships, and it takes them a lot of time and effort for them to make major course changes. Meanwhile, culture and perceptions can and often do change a lot faster, which is why you can look at online media and see a much more progressive, forward-thinking way of dealing with women’s physical strength. Sure, there are lots of people pushing old-fashioned ideas out there, but there’s a lot of people who are working to provide a counterbalance and to show that there’s another way to do this.
In fact, it was in online media that I encountered a story that gives me hope that things have changed dramatically from when I was a teenage volleyball player confronted with the confusing, intimidating world of weight training. I’m referring to this post by Ginger Calem, who has been training a pair of “high school athletic superstars.” She works with them on Olympic lifts and squats and deadlifts and…well, the post was just delightful and I don’t want to ruin it so just go read it yourself.
I keep thinking about how I would have fared as a young woman had I shifted my life forward a decade and a half. What if I had access to weight rooms with trainers and coaches who believed in it? Would I have continued to crunch my way into oblivion? What if the magazines I picked up had encouraged me to eat to build muscle, and had never used the word “tone”? What if I had grown up in a media environment that regularly showed female athletes doing hard work in the weight room and not just swinging around heads of shiny hair? Would that have shown me that weights are not gender-specific? Would I be like the girls in Calem’s story?
Again, I don’t know. But one thing I do feel confident saying is that I think most mainstream women’s fitness media is copping out here, and that’s a shame because they could do so much more with the resources they have.