Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise. Along with diet and exercise… We hear the words again and again from doctors to television ads to the backs of cereal boxes. Two words to lead us frolicking down the white pebbled beach of health. Right?
But then again, what do we mean by healthy? Is it the same for everyone? Who waves their magical fingers, sprinkling the glittered “yes or no” to determine what we call healthy? The science changes every few years anyway. In the 70s and the ensuing 40 years, science told us fats were bad, so we replaced them with sugar. Then a decade ago we agreed sugar was bad, so we replaced it with fats. At least we are all in this confusing battle together. When we delve into the realm of media, the concept of health mutates into an entirely new form, one that does not care about being healthy so much as looking healthy. And here is where we hit the gender divide—a sea that parts health into crashing waves of jacked male bodies and ripples of tiny female ones, abandoning everyone else.
To follow the appropriate gender-current, we often turn to magazines promising us quick fixes in the form of smoothies or squats and force ourselves to swallow its pseudo-science like Rocky gulping back raw eggs. The raw eggs are probably better for us. Magazines like Men’s Health and Women’s Health manipulate the word “health” into a synonym for “thin” women and “muscular” men and profit from the products they pitch to get you there.
Look at the trend of fitness shakes and smoothies. Today it would seem that if you do not own a blender, you cannot care about health or fitness because if you did, you would down those smoothies on the regular. This only adds to nutrition’s class divide—evident in food deserts and overpriced produce—as not everyone can afford a blender or the smoothies’ specialized ingredients.
Take the two workout-recovery shakes from Men’s Health and Women’s Health I recreated. Both are supposedly designed to speed up the muscle recovery process, so it would only make sense for them to assume a similar makeup. But this is not the case! The smoothie from Men’s Health, “The Recipe for Fast Recovery,” asks readers “Hard Day at the Gym?” before listing a recipe in which the milk and protein powder alone total 22 grams of protein. It is a common consensus—at least for right now—that protein is an important macronutrient in building muscle and is therefore logical for a shake designed to repair muscles to contain a large amount of it. Except that the synonymous shake listed on the Women’s Health page does not have anywhere near the same amount of protein. The adorable rhyming “Cherry Berry Sore-Muscle Smoothie,” which graciously prevents its readers from being “so achy that it hurts to laugh or raise your arm to brush your hair,” contains a total of nine grams of protein. Instead of boasting impressive muscle-building nutrients, women readers should be impressed with the smoothie’s low 260 calorie count.
Men’s Health smoothie–thick, a nice purple color and sweet from the vanilla protein powder. Approximately 382 calories and 28 grams of protein.
Women’s Health smoothie–green from the kale, watery and lacking flavor. Approximately 262 calories and nine grams of protein.
So what does this all mean? Basically, that fitness and health magazines construct gendered bodies and exaggerate differences between men and women while selling them off as natural biological variances to maintain an unequal distribution of power.
Your eyes might glaze over after reading that. Don’t let them. Let’s move away to something easier to digest for a second. Let’s put this in the context of cake.
Say your town hosts an annual cake bake-off. You could enter with either a cheesecake or a Bundt cake, but everyone knows, since you are a woman, you’re really good at making Bundt cakes. So you read recipe book after recipe book, following every tip and practicing every day. But your Bundt cake doesn’t win. Jim from across the street who only makes cheesecakes for family barbecues wins with a recipe he ripped off from the Philadelphia cream cheese container. So you keep trying, entering year after year, but every time some guy with a cheesecake takes the prize. See the pattern? See how, despite what you had been taught about women’s inherent Bundt-cake making abilities, the town just doesn’t value Bundt cakes as much as cheesecakes. That’s what we’re doing to our bodies. Our recipe book is the fitness magazine telling us what we should look like and the cake is our body which we are choosing to make inferior by baking those damned Bundt cakes or by listening to those magazines’ advice. Why can’t we be muscular and strong and make any cake we please? Could it be because they are scared women might make a better cheesecake?
You might be thinking that women aren’t supposed to have the muscular physique of men and that’s why they do not need the same amount of calories or protein to recover. But where are you getting this information from? Is it from well substantiated studies and experiments documenting what body type is best for you to individually perform at your best? Probably not because those personalized studies do not exist.
More than likely it is from believing that the same repetitive body types flaunted all over every media outlet are the golden standard. We assume these bodies are healthy because we are told this is what we should look like, and we are told to be healthy; therefore to possess one of these bodies must mean you are healthy. Unfortunately, this is a false syllogism. Despite how society encourages men to bulk up and women to diet—rewarding them by portraying them dancing in a bikini and swirling their old cover-up—studies disprove the correlation between fatness and an increased death rate. In fact, thin bodies have the highest fatality rate. Rather, it is the incessant pursuit of thinness and resulting yo-yo dieting—the very thing these magazines promote with their impossible diet plans—that often lead to the greatest bodily damage.
Regardless of the PhDs and science experts health magazines claim to cite, they are not basing their advice on what is best for an individual’s well-being, but are designing the bodies they want you to have and then profiting off the ways they tell you to get there. Bodies are a leading tool in determining and maintaining power because of how easily they can be identified and ranked. In a culture pushing for women to be thinner than men, it encourages women to be smaller, less significant and less capable of outperforming men. What other way could society secure this than by putting a woman’s femininity at risk if she does not abide? By claiming a muscular woman is a masculine woman, the media regulates her, keeping her thin and hungry and incapable of reaching the same level as a man. These health and fitness magazines are social, not scientific, institutions run by people who see the most benefit from maintaining the patriarchal status quo because if they can create separate publications for men and women, they can double the profit. In order for this to seem necessary, magazines must ignore gender fluidity and amplify the difference between the two genders, then construct that difference through the diet and exercise advice they provide.
Women’s shake on the left and Men’s on the right. Someone got a second helping…
At the same time the magazines magnify difference, they ignore it as well. After observing the bodies they promote as their thin or muscular ideals, size is not the only recurrent theme. An overwhelming majority of the bodies in these fitness and health magazines are white, young, cisgender (identifying with the gender you were assigned to at birth) and able-bodied, and although different cultures possess different body ideals, every culture is subjected to the dominant mainstream culture. Therefore, even if an individual fits the body shape most desired in her/his/their society, it may still fall short of the mainstream. The magazines’ decision to separate men and women but ignore any other identity demonstrates the desire to keep the dominant class—middle and upper class, straight, white men—on top. White female bodies can be displayed and represented on a separate publication, but only to teach them how to maintain their lesser feminine position. Everyone else should apparently be used to the lack of representation.
We know our own bodies better than anyone. We know what makes us feel good and what doesn’t and we know what our intentions are. It’s time to take a closer look at the intentions of others who proclaim to know what is best for us. According to magazines, men should be muscular, capable of taking charge and performing. For women, it does not matter what you can do, so long as you appear thin and frail to maintain your femininity. This may be what is desired of us, but it is not always what is healthy for us. When we question outside motivations, we can learn to question our own; do we want the bodies a patriarchal society tell us to have or do we want the bodies we know to be best for ourselves?