An Open Letter To Women's Health Magazine

Dear Women’s Health Magazine,

I’m confused. You see, as a woman very interested in the state of my health, I recently purchased a subscription to your magazine. Apart from the happiness and well-being of my family and friends, my top priority is my own wellness, and I am a slave to it. I want to feel well all of the time — mind, body, spirit, as they say.

I recently read your new October issue. The cover copy encourages me to stop on by and learn how to burn fat, sculpt lean muscle, and shed pounds fast. Certainly you are addressing my shape, but what about my health? What’s puzzling is that, despite its illegibility on your cover, your magazine actually does have quite a bit of health-related content completely unrelated to my weight and to my figure. For example, this issue features a 5-page-long special report about the obesity paradox and “nutritional wastelands” — a topic of perennial interest for anybody invested in community and public health. There’s also a 6-page spread about sleep deprivation, how it contributes to poor health, and what to do about it. But these pieces are not featured on your cover — instead, you captivate readers by printing the promise: “Resize Your Thighs” in text nearly as large as the magazine’s title, and you put it right next to a photograph of a pop star in a midriff shirt. Why?

When I browsed your magazine’s website this past weekend, the first clickable story was one titled, “Your Guide to Uncircumcised Guys.” What information was I expecting to receive from a story with such a title? To be honest, I was expecting a whole bunch of sex pointers, heavily laced with double entendres and snappy little references to “turtlenecks.” However, when I clicked the link, I was confused to find a pretty well-wrought collection of stats from the CDC, as well as information about the safety of the procedure. There were even rates of STD transmission and UTI occurrence among men who have been circumcised. In short, what I found was valuable, pertinent, real-life information regarding health. That there was such a stark disparity between my expectations of the article and the content of the article is, I guess, of no real surprise to me — and, I suspect, of no real surprise to your web editors.

I say this because in the two months I have been a subscriber to your magazine, this is certainly not the first time that I have noticed how your health topics are delivered to your exclusively female audience in provocative, hypersexualized, and irrelevant packaging. Lots of boobs. Lots of bottoms. This trends seems to be tapping into the frustratingly mainstream notion that a woman’s first access to her world is through her body — through her sexualized body.

Of course, I’m more than happy to be more specific. Your October issue features a 4-page-long article titled, “How to Outsmart Breast Cancer.” The article approaches breast cancer prevention from a number of different perspectives — nutrition, environment, genetics, fitness, behavior, and mental health. Full of reputable statistics and advice from breast cancer experts, it is a good article, and an important one, and I have no problem with its content.

What I have a problem with is this: Your article is about breast cancer, a disease that, according to your own magazine, afflicts more than 300,000 American women each year. By simple virtue of the serious threat it imposes on our lives and on the lives of the women we know and love, outsmarting breast cancer is a topic of unequivocal importance to all women reading your magazine. And yet you’ve gone and done it again; a twenty-something supermodel is shown from the chin down — one hand on her hip, the other playfully pulling at the pink satin strap of her push-up bra — the one that so perfectly shows off her immutable (albeit Photoshopped) cleavage. The picture conflates the breasts of breast cancer with the breasts of porno mags and topless bars. But they are not one and of the same — when we talk about breast cancer, aren’t we talking about life and death? By highlighting the sexual value of a woman’s breasts, this image undermines the very real fact that breast cancer is a disease that kills women — many women — and that the real value of reading an article like the one you’ve published is not just to maintain one’s sex appeal, one’s ability to titillate and excite, but to survive.

You’ve even managed to sexualize my dental health. A full-page spread that answers the question: “How often should I switch out my toothbrush?” is topped with a honey-skinned beauty (again, shown only from the chin down), in white, satin knickers and a see-through lace bra. Sure, she’s holding toothbrush and all, but… really?

What’s confusing is that these pictures are for us – these pictures are intended for a female audience. This is not Maxim. And what’s perhaps even more confusing is that women are, for some reason, eating it up. The media has long subscribed to and perpetuated the stubborn tradition of representing the female through her body and its sexual and reproductive capabilities. Certainly, this model undermines a woman’s intelligence, strength, wit, and ambition, which normalizes this paradigm in the eyes of the male collective. But none of this is new or surprising information. Perhaps what is surprising (and threatening) is the damage this persistent tradition does to its female onlookers, who sometimes respond to their dismemberment by perpetuating it themselves. Because when women see themselves, in every single media arena, as a commodity of sex, pleasure, and beauty, they sometimes take to modeling their identity, their values, and their interests in the same ways in which they have been taught. This is how women, and women’s magazines like yours, become not only victims of woman bashing, but perpetrators of it.

Here’s the thing, Women’s Health Magazine: I am in interested in STD transmission stats, just like I am interested in breast cancer prevention and in dental health. My interest in these matters is why I’ve paid money to subscribe to your magazine, when I could have paid the same money to subscribe to Cosmopolitan, Allure, or Redbook. So why are you packing your magazine up and tying it with the same pretty, pink, misogynistic bows as all the others? Why do you assume that the only way to get me interested in my health is to lure me with promises of lean muscle and resized thighs? Why are you insisting that my sexuality play such a large role in my approach to my health, in my approach to my wellness? And why are you insisting that the one stand in for the other? Are we, as a culture, so deeply engaged in this rabid spirit of female objectification that even an article written for women about breast cancer prevention is packaged like just another “How To Get Your Man Hot” Cosmo column? Good grief.

What does “health” mean to your magazine? To me, health is more than resizing my thighs and it is a hell of a lot more than keeping my chest perky and taut (that is, in the face of breast cancer). And beyond feeling physically well, “healthy,” to me, means feeling well in my heart, in my intellect, and in my world. So why do we all exhaustedly roll our eyes at the “mind, body, spirit” approach to health and call it a cliche when, in fact, it is nowhere to be found? And why have you ignored it all together?

To me, part of being a healthy woman is being myself — is feeling free to be that person and feeling proud to be that person. You can be yourself too. You can be the magazine that respects that the health interests of women are just that and nothing more — nothing more provocative. You can be the magazine that prints an article about dental health with a photograph of {deep breath} teeth, instead of a photograph of a model in sheer lingerie who just so happens to have teeth. By being yourself you can be so much more than the sum of your own self-elected representations. You can be a magazine that is about more than women’s breasts and hips and thighs — you can be a magazine about women’s health. Isn’t that what you want?


Emily K.

This post originally appeared on Leaf Parade.