Our newest post from Sydney Avitia-Jacques.
A 2014 study by Amy Slater and Marika Tiggemann found that “reading men’s magazines [was] a unique predictor of both drive for thinness and muscularity” in adolescent boys (Eat Behav. 2014; 15:679; cited in Eating Disorders Review). I took a look at a small sample, Askmen.com’s list of the 10 best men’s fitness magazines, to explain why. I wasn’t able to read all ten of these magazines, but I found that I didn’t need to— the content on the covers alone was overwhelming evidence of a culture that worships a homogenous, unrealistic standard of “fitness” based on the visibility of your abs and the thickness in centimeters of your biceps.
I’ve written before about the problem of the lack of diversity in the men praised for their attractiveness in our culture— specifically in celebrities named sexy by Glamour —and the same applies to the models on the covers of these magazines. But the homogenous standard in this case, in fitness and health magazines, is more dangerous. It’s not just saying that men have to appear tall, buff, and fat-less to be attractive, but that they have to look that way to be fit and healthy! The keywords here are appear and look, words that have little to do with one’s metabolic physical fitness (see this 2012 Time article: http://healthland.time.com/2012/09/05/can-you-be-fat-and-fit-or-thin-and-unhealthy/).
Regardless of this fact, most of these popular magazines featured multiple headlines focusing solely on appearance. Specifically, on growing certain muscles: “10 Rules For A Massive Chest And Wider Shoulders,” “Five moves to a thick, wide back,” “Add 5cm to your arms in 8 weeks,” “Add an inch to your arms,” “Huge Biceps!” “Eat For Size” …and losing fat: “Lean out in seven days,” “Fat-loss tips from the pros,” and “28-Day get ripped diet.” These magazines are claiming to be about helping men live healthier lives, but really just telling them what they should look like! Their shallow view of health is visible abs and a wide back, and they challenge men to reach standards that only some are genetically predisposed to achieve in a natural, healthy way. One headline encourages readers to try looking like a literal superhero: “Becoming Thor! Chris Hemsworth reveals how he rebuilt the body of a Norse god.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with admiring the bodies of professional body builders and athletes, but there’s a problem when a single body type is treated as the only one good enough. When readers look in the mirror and don’t see 21 inch arms like Thor’s, are they going to feel like they’re missing something? If the EDR study, and the millions of men and boys around the world suffering from muscle dysmorphia and poor body image, are any indication, then the answer is unfortunately yes. For those willing devote themselves to the pursuit of these unrealistic standards, the titles offered nothing short of perfection and all-around life improvement: “Your ultimate prescription for The Perfect Body,” “Live life looking great,” and even “Change your life— we show you how to transform.” These headlines encourage the idea of a Perfect Body that will make men’s entire lives better— part of the mentality that has driven so many men and boys to eating disorders and obsession over weight and diet.
Adding to the danger of this mentality, many of the fitness “solutions” were restrictive and radical, more like quick-fixes for apparent change than lasting lessons for a truly healthy lifestyle: “The 45 minute 6-Pack Promise,” “15 muscle workouts that will double your results in half the time,” and “Wanna spend less time in the gym? Six strategies to help you get it done and get out.” It’s saddening that these headlines are geared towards the physical end result rather than the exercising process. Shouldn’t people who are interested in fitness enjoy their time in the gym, and relish the natural endorphins that come with exercise? On the contrary, the message here is that working out is simply a means to looking acceptably fit.
These magazines were generally un-diverse, lookist, and lacking in substantial health advice. They serve an appearance-obsessed culture and a shallow, dangerous system of self-worth. For men who want to improve their fitness, we need to see more headlines with science-based advice on longterm regimens that will make them stronger and healthier— no more 2-week plans promising “the body of a Norse god.” After all, when Thor defeated the Destroyer, he was probably thinking about how to best Loki in battle, not how many of his ab outlines everyone could see.
See the list of men’s fitness magazines, and their covers, at http://www.askmen.com/top_10/fitness/best-fitness-magazines_6.html. For the EDR article referencing the study on adolescent boys and media, visit http://eatingdisordersreview.com/nl/nl_edr_26_1_7.html.