Before I even start this post, I just want to say something to all of you who are going to get offended/upset by what I’m about to write: this post isn’t about you, the end user, and your choices. I’m not judging you for the way that you want to look, feel, eat, or perform. Your choices are yours and I respect you for making them and living by them.
This is a post about the purveryor of information. About a magazine and its writers’ and publishers’ responsibility for shaping and guiding the trajectory of its readers’ choices. About the decision to put information out there without necessarily taking its entire audience–intended or not–into account.
This is also not about the bodybuilding industry or those who choose to participate in it. I’ll reserve my own thoughts of the industry for another time and place, but if competition or lifting or dieting is something that makes you happy, then please: be happy.
This is about how one magazine conflates bodybuilding/competition with general health and fitness, and about how that conflation is neither transparent nor realistic. This is about creating disorder where there needn’t be. With that, please read, knowing that my message is coming from a place of recovery from disorder, not from a place of trying to judge your decisions. I am a blogger who writes about eating disorders and recovery, about food and body relationships. And if you have something mean to say, please first consider my frame of reference and then why you’re angry at my opinion in the first place before you leave a comment.
I can’t believe I even have to write this post, but here we are:
Oxygen Magazine is coming back, and I’m not happy about it.
Now, a little disclaimer and full-disclosure: there was a time when Oxygen Magazine made the first week of every month like a mini-Christmas for me. I read every issue from cover to cover for about 3 years. I cut out articles to put in my workout and nutrition folders when I was training for bikini competitions, and I saved whole issues under my bed. I was even a subscriber when I started this blog.
I honestly believe that Oxygen was one of the best women’s fitness magazines on the market.
But that opinion doesn’t mean much, because these days, I’ve come to realize that most women’s fitness magazines aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
When Oxygen went bankrupt, I breathed a little sigh of relief. Why? Because even though my subscription had lapsed, that magazine was my guilty pleasure and even seeing it while standing in line at Whole Foods was my little reminder that ED can still get the best of me when he wears the right competition bikini.
Here’s the thing: Oxygen inspired thousands of women across the world to get off their butts and take control of their health. It promoted a “clean” diet, regular exercise, and a love for function and strength over skinniness and weakness. It empowered women to love their bodies and to stop being victims to obesity and disease.
On the surface.
My problem is in how the above messages were marketed. (And before you say anything, yes, I understand that you don’t sell magazines by promising lumps, bumps, and a body that works; people buy weight loss, six packs, and meal plans/supplements that get you a dream body fast.)
It seems to me that the magazine served two populations, and, unfortunately, had the opportunity to breed disorder from the merger:
First, the magazine served the average woman who reads Shape and Fitness and is overweight/out of shape/”average” (whatever that means)/looking to make a drastic change in her diet, lifestyle, and fitness level because she has a wedding to go to next month or it’s almost bathing suit season or she just got an app that will hold her accountable to her diet–this time.
Second, the magazine served fitness competitors/models and fitness competitor/model aspirants, who must eat a highly restrictive diet* and follow a very strict workout regimen while manipulating their bodies for aesthetic purposes–because they are training for a competition or making money from posing in front of the camera.
At the end of the day, Oxygen, like any other fitness magazine, made its money by promising women that they could look like the models on the cover. What makes Oxygen more dangerous than any issue of Women’s Health ever could be is that it actually showed women how to do it.
If you’re just Jane Doe, an average 20-50-something year old woman with maybe a kid or a mortgage and some student loans and a regular job and maybe a few extra pounds of unwanted belly fat (or maybe imagined belly fat), you don’t need an “eat-clean” meal plan that limits your calories to below 1400 per day and suggests that you eat more than 1 g of lean (read: fat-free) protein per pound of body weight in a single day, doled out in 6 perfectly measured portions. Jane Doe doesn’t need a six-pack to prove that she is strong and healthy–she doesn’t need a low-fat diet or a medicine cabinet full of fat burners.
Jane Doe–and, hell, let’s face it, even I (at one point)–wants to look like one of the cover models on any given fitness magazine. She buys a copy of Health on her way to check out at the grocery story because she honestly believes (or at least earnestly hopes) that, hidden in its glossy pages, she’s going to discover the true secret to burning fat and building muscle, and all it’s going to take is following the instructions in this month’s cover article. But, as in most of those magazines, the instructions are lacking or based on pseudo-science (Spot-toning! Low calorie snacks all day to keep your metabolism burning! Lose weight while you sleep/work/talk on the phone/have sex/pay your taxes!)
In Oxygen, however, the instructions are abundant. In Oxygen, they give you the meal plans, the workouts, and the fitspiration photos to put on your vision board. They give you pages and pages of supplements and protein powders (Hydroxycut! Oxylean! NO Explode! MusclePharm!) carefully positioned next to articles on the benefits of eating “whole, unprocessed foods.” They show you how the fitness models do it–and how fitness models do it (especially when unassisted by a coach who knows what they’re doing) can lead to broken metabolisms, thyroid issues, amenorrhea, eating disorders, weight gain, injuries, and a whole host of other problems that I don’t think Jane Doe really wanted when she decided to take her diet to the next level by turning her body into an object to be judged while wearing a sparkly bikini and 5″ inch heels.**
(And I’m sorry if this offends you or if you’re a fitness model or a competitor–this isn’t a judgement of your decision to compete. I’m incensed, because Jane Doe is me. And too many other women who don’t realize that you don’t need to put your body on stage for judgement by a group of strangers in order to be validated as a worthwhile, strong, empowered human being. If you want it, do it. Just know that someone else’s judgement is not the only way to validate your strength. Just my two cents.)
Don’t get me wrong–as far as an industry magazine goes, I think Oxygen is fantastic. It serves its purpose and keeps fitness competitors motivated.
As far as a general women’s fitness and health magazine, however, it’s not okay. It’s not okay, because it tells general women that they should eat and train like a fitness model or else their bodies aren’t going to be sexy or healthy. It’s fitspiration delivered in long form, and I believe it’s damaging as hell.
And please don’t tell me that it’s not a big deal. When Jane loses her 10-15 pounds or starts seeing muscle definition and suddenly realizes that it’s working, setting her mind on doing a show is often the next step. Transformations and challenges and 16 week contest preps keep us engaged with our health–but they judge success on aesthetics.
And now that the Oxygen message is more mainstream (thank you, Pinterest, for bringing fitspiration to the masses and irresponsible personal trainers for saying to their weight loss clients, “You know, you’re looking great–have you thought about doing a show?”…not!), I cringe every time I see a friend or family member start to work out and then suddenly turn their health into a beach-body transformation challenge.
I know there is a whole legion members of the cult of Tosca*** who are going to ream me out for writing this post. Look: I appreciate and am grateful for all of the good things that Oxygen did for my life–it showed me how to lift heavy, got me interested in personal training, and motivated me to go from cardio queen to gym rat, etc. However, I got sucked into the industry of fitness modeling because I trusted Oxygen’s mixed message about where health and aesthetics meet. I take ownership for my part in this (I didn’t have to buy it or buy into it), but at the end of the day, we have to admit that most of us aren’t ready to see through the marketing messages until it’s too late, and it’s up to influential people and publications to be forthcoming about the meaning behind their messages.****
The way I see it is, if you have a platform, then you have a responsibility to understand who might hear your message, how they might interpret it, and to what end, especially if your message could have an effect on your audience’s health and wellbeing.
So here’s my message: Oxygen, be honest about who your audience is and what you think their goals should be. If you’re going to sell fitness competitions, then sell fitness competitions. If you’re going to sell health, then I want to see that you’re telling people that health and fitness competitions can be, but are not always, the same thing. And, Jane, you don’t need to be a fitness model to be healthy or lift weights. Love your freaking body, ‘cause it’s the only one you get–and you don’t need a magazine to tell you that.
Anyway. Rant over. Buy it or don’t, but make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into when Oxygen magazine hits the shelf again.
*And I know that the Eat-Clean diet always talks about how much food you’re allowed to eat and how full you always feel, but if you break it down, even the “off-season” eating plans were under 2000 calories a day, and required you to eat 6 small meals of mostly protein. And if you followed the “fat burning” meal plans…well, you’d have to have been prepared for meal plans around 1400 calories a day and full of egg white omelettes and lean meats and such. And, FYI, I only ever followed the fat-burning plans. What dieter in her quote-unquote “right mind” follows a plan that leave you the potential for ingesting more calories? I rest my case….
**I had to buy my competition shoes from a stripper site online.
***Tosca Reno, wife to Robert Kennedy, who published the magazine. She was a 50-something housewife with a host of health and body issues, and Robert turned her into a fitness model. Now she’s a famous influencer in the world of fitness and figure competitions, as well as the woman at the helm of this resuscitated publication. She’s helped tons of women regain control of their bodies and their lives, and that’s cool and all, but I still feel like the whole “sisters in iron” thing gets a little cult-y. I know, ’cause I was there.
****But I suppose I could say this about every single health and fitness magazine out there with a picture of a ripped model (male OR female) on the cover…