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Our Thoughts On Women's Health's Major Body-Positive Change

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Photo: Courtesy of Women's Health Magazine.
I never, never thought I’d see the day when a magazine like Women’s Health opted to remove a cornerstone phrase like “Bikini Body” from their covers. But that’s exactly what happened this week, when in her editor’s note for the January/February issue, editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird announced that “Bikini Body” — and its judgy sister, “Drop Two Sizes” — would be banned from WH covers.

Part of my shock comes from my personal history with the brand. My first job after college and graduate school was as the assistant to the then editor-in-chief of Men’s Health, who was famous for his cover strategy, and played a part in the 2005 creation of Women’s Health, of which he later became editorial director. On Men’s Health covers, everything was about abs. Six-pack abs, specifically; 1,293 ways to get six-pack abs, usually. His meetings about Women’s Health covers usually happened on a different floor of our office building, but it’s safe to assume that equally impressive multi-digit odd numbers were tossed around regarding equally difficult-to-achieve body goals.

In another job at a women’s health magazine that was not Women’s Health, other editors and I would meet monthly to brainstorm coverlines. The body-focused ones were hardest for me to come up with. “Sexy sundress arms” was a knockout success every spring.

The thing I quickly learned about the big, bold, oiled-up, exclamatory covers of these magazines was that they were essentially meaningless. They weren’t editorial content — they were billboards. Sure, they ideally reflected the spirit of the stories behind them (and sure, the American Society of Magazine Editors had certain rules back then about whether you could advertise other brands on them), but it didn’t really matter what the covers said — it mattered how many people they lured in to buy them on newsstands. Of course, the stories inside may well be well-written, meaningful, and focused on subjects that actually improve readers’ lives (which is very true of much of the MH and WH content, written, edited, and designed by real pros I admire) — but not all of them are.

The magazine covers weren’t editorial content — they were billboards.


Which is why — while I’m proud of the team atWH for making a splashy, body-positive statement like this — I’m not so quick to interpret this as an earth-shattering, needle-moving change in the vast and sinister world of body-shaming messages that women have to deal with daily. Are they still going to run diets inside? Are they still going to help you “target” your “problem areas”? Let’s hope that as the negative messages on the cover begin to dwindle, so do the ones hiding behind it.

When I finally said goodbye to the world of print media and came to join the team at R29, one of the most refreshing things about my new gig was Refinery’s take on body image, health, and diet. Specifically, we don’t do diets, we never refer to weight loss as a goal readers should aspire to, and any fitness or nutrition tip-based stories we run are about feeling stronger, happier, more energetic, and all the other great benefits from living a healthy life that have zero to do with pounds on a scale. We literally have a column called The Anti-Diet Project. I can’t take credit for any of this — it was in place long before I started — but after years of being part of the bikini body, drop two sizes industrial complex, I’m really happy to be on this train.

Women’s Health, welcome aboard.

I asked a few R29 staffers for their take on this news as well. Here are their gut reactions.

“My gut reaction was 'Fucking FINALLY.' At R29 we obviously have strong feelings about the idea of a "bikini body" (which we distilled in our Take Back The Beach features this summer). So it's great to see Women's Health so strongly embrace this body-positive attitude.”

— Sarah Jacoby, associate editor, health & science

Women's Health has finally acknowledged something that their readers (and all women!) have known for a while now — the ‘bikini body’ is a myth and a construct perpetuated by the media, and has proven to be a source of shame rather than one of inspiration. Placing a moratorium on this term is certainly heartening, but what makes it less so is how long it took. I can only hope the magazine's overarching heteronormativity will be the next thing to go.”

— Sara Coughlin, editorial assistant, health & wellness

“My first reaction is: awesome. Growing up with phrases like ‘bikini body’ was considered normal, and it's easy to forget that this communicates that one has to have a type of body to wear a particular piece of clothing, which is clearly bullshit. (Not to mention, what is a bikini body, anyway? The phrase only serves to make women feel that their bodies are too imperfect for a precious piece of swimwear. Again, bullshit.) But while I'm all for the sentiment, I can't help but wonder why the magazine feels the need to announce their new stance; why don't they just stop putting the phrase in their magazine without patting themselves on the back? It feels a little bit like the Dove campaign body-positive pandering. That said, it's really a great move on the part of WH, so maybe I should just be thrilled that no more young women will have to face icky cover lines like, ‘Get a bikini body in 2 weeks!’”

— Rebecca Adams, senior editor, sex & relationships

"I give them major kudos for calling themselves out in this way. I admit, I've felt pretty burned by their constant use of this term. For me, the real issue was that every time you clicked on their website a pop-up ad appeared, trying to get you to sign up for their 21-Day Bikini Body Plan. In order to close the ad, you literally had to click a button saying, 'GET MY BIKINI BODY' or a teeny one that read, 'No thanks, I already have a bikini body.' Of course, it was illustrated with a photo of a thin woman — their definition of a bikini body — and every time I had to click on one of those buttons, it just felt like a slap in my not thin face. Maybe that sounds silly, but I'm a woman who's interested in health, and therefore I counted myself among the target readership of Women's Health. But the emphasis on thinness and the constant message that healthy equals thin was really alienating. I don't expect a miracle, but I do hope this shift in language is more than just appeasement. Rhetoric does matter, therefore this move is important and we should celebrate it. So, high five to Women's Health. Now let's hope they follow through and practice what they preach."

— Kelsey Miller, senior features writer and Anti-Diet Project columnist
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