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The Dangerous Mixed Messages In Women’s Magazines

{A hilarious and oh-so true illustration from the amazingly talented Elizabeth Patch!}

On Monday I talked about fighting for a better body image and shared five ideas on how to hold on. One of my tips was to make things easier on yourself and get rid of the items that essentially make you feel like crap. One of those items: women’s magazines.

Here on Weightless, sometimes I like to call out these publications for their ridiculousness. These magazines are very much part of our culture. And so many women rely on them for their “healthy” food and fitness advice. Advice that in actuality is misleading, shame-inducing and downright depressing.

A magazine that’s especially guilty of this is Women’s Health whose letters from the editor — from editor-in-chief Michele Promaulayko — are a combo of mixed messages and subtle shaming. (Here’s a several-years-old letter by her, which features in-your-face shaming and fear tactics.)

I wanted to excerpt Promaulayko’s letter from November’s issue, because it’s especially representative of the subtle, inconsistent messages we see everywhere, unfortunately.

The ones that say sure, you can eat what you want, but don’t eat too much or you’ll blow up and be hideous. Or sure, walking is considered exercise but only if you walk five miles or run in between. Or yes, you can embrace your shape, but you have to watch your weight for your health, remember. Or don’t worry about eating that cupcake, just get back on track tomorrow by eating less and torching those calories on the treadmill. 

The problem with these messages is that a bit of it makes sense or seems like it’s going to make you feel better, so you’re more likely to believe the rest.

For instance, while Promaulayko’s letter starts out with the usual fat phobia, it seems to swerve into an accurate a-ha moment (that restricting and deprivation equals overeating, binge eating and body hatred and is totally unhealthy).

But just when we think there’s a breakthrough, we get the same old diet and weight-loss mentality.

Like most American women, I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life trying to lose those maddening last few pounds. Gratefully, I’ve never had as many to shed as the valiant contestants trained by our super-fit cover star, Anna Kournikova, on The Biggest Loser. But somehow that makes it all the more frustrating — I mean, why can’t I do this?!

One possible reason: The second I decide to restrict what I eat, my mind rebels and I make a beeline for whatever it is I’d planned to deprive myself of. I once tried a three-day cleanse and ended up binge-eating for the first (and last) time in my life! Not good. Since becoming the editor-in-chief of Women’s Health, I’ve smartened up. A lot. I now know not to obsess over hitting a specific number on the scale, and that the ideal weight is one at which I feel energetic and confident in my clothes. Still, there are times when I need to trim back — like now, before the gluttony of holiday partying ensues…

It’s interesting that Promaulayko credits the magazine with giving her a more balanced view of her body because the headlines and tips are anything but.

Here’s a sampling of headlines from their website: “Things That Make You Fat,” “Holiday Pig Outs: What Overeating Does To Your Body,” and “Is He Making You Fat,” with the tagline of “Here, we identify five of the behaviors that can lead to a serious case of love chub.”

But the words aren’t the only worrisome part of women’s magazines. It’s also the images.

While you might read advice on accepting your body, how often do you see women who aren’t stick thin and muscular? How often do you see women who at least sort of look like you?

In other words, you rarely, very, very rarely, see a diverse group of women in these magazines.

Even though I have a positive body image and I know better, looking at the images in these magazines is a slippery slope for me. I start focusing on their sculpted muscles, lean physiques and thick hair, and slowly get sucked in. I start thinking about my own body, my looks, how I might compare, and of course, no good can come from that.

Promaulayko thinks her magazine teaches us not to obsess about our bodies, but it really does the opposite with its super slim and sculpted images and pro-dieitng and fat phobic tips and tricks.

So unless I’m writing up a post for Weightless, I steer clear of these publications. Because I know myself, and I know that it’s not worth it to spend my money on something that only chips away at my positive body image (and contributes to the magazine’s success).

What do you think about women’s magazines? Do you think they promote mixed messages? Does reading these magazines make you feel bad about your body?


The Dangerous Mixed Messages In Women’s Magazines

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). The Dangerous Mixed Messages In Women’s Magazines. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2018, from


Last updated: 9 Dec 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Dec 2011
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