Often people talk about wanting to develop a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food. This is often the goal of HAES practitioners, intuitive eaters, or some variation on that theme. The idea that there is such a thing as a “normal” or “healthy relationship with food” has become a favorite myth. And it will remain mythical as long as there is a month called “January.” We are in the throes of an annual festival of soon-to-fail New Year’s resolutions, all documented in our women’s magazines.
At the grocery check-out, I picked up a Family Circle (at $2.79, it was the cheapest). Here’s the on-line version. Let’s have some fun with content analysis: try to figure out the messages we’re supposed to get that will help us develop a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food. In total, there are 192 pages in the print version. Maybe we can pretend that a Martian is on his first visit to this planet. Assuming he wants to experience what we think is “normal” or “healthy,” what shall he choose to eat based on the messages he sees?
In addition to food messages, I identified body image messages, since that speaks to the other side of our “relationship” with food. Food and body image messages comprised 60 percent of the magazine’s content. Some pages clearly had a single message, while other pages were significantly dedicated to a message, so I counted them toward my totals as well. I created four categories, and in each category I separated ads from articles. Here are my findings:
- Pages predominantly about food with messages that are neutral or unconcerned about health (emphasize pleasure), Ads = 18, Articles = 15, Total = 33.
- Pages about food that promote health benefits (but not necessarily weight loss), Ads = 26, Articles = 7, Total = 33.
- Pages concerned about obesity and specifically promote weight loss. Ads = 13, Articles = 18, Total = 31.
- Pages that promote fashion, makeup or style using extremely thin, young models: Ads = 9, Articles = 10, Total = 19. (Note, there is one ad featuring a fat model who presumably uses aspirin to prevent heart attacks. That is the only ad or article that features a fat person but is not about weight loss.)
- Remaining pages (subtracting from 192) of miscellaneous content: 76 (39%)
You tell me what this says about us. More than half of a wholesome “family” magazine is devoted to expounding on food, while presenting images of thin women engaged in shopping, living or modeling (and fat ones engaged in weight-loss dieting). Food is presented in almost equal quantities of health v. pleasure. Since we may acknowledge that the two are not mutually exclusive, could this indicate that we are balanced (healthy and normal)?
Hell, no. Clearly, we are schizzy. An article tells us how to “lose weight faster” within pages of another that entices us to indulge in “elegant cocoa confections.” Page 168 features a recipe (with luscious photo) for “irresistible” double chocolate cookies. It faces an ad that shows a woman zipping up her slinky green dress because she eats a type of light soup that is 80 calories per serving. Page 169 is a picture of two other chocolate desserts (recipes on later pages), which face an ad featuring two older people on a motorcycle who have conquered their heart problems because they eat the low cholesterol version of that same brand of soup. Turn the page from the Atkins Diet ad (pages 78-79) and, viola, it’s a one-and-a-third page ad for Stouffer’s lasagna, which makes no health or weight-loss claims, but promises to pull your family together. The message of the Stouffer’s ad (which ends on p. 81) is re-enforced by a three-page article starting on page 84 stressing the importance of family meals and supported by guilt-provoking statistics. That article is followed two pages later by a Nutrisystem advertisement, which explains that a “Hot Mama” receives her fresh-frozen gourmet cuisine from “America’s #1 home delivery weight loss company.” Hmmmm. Surely she doesn’t serve that to her kids family style. If thinking about how she’s destroying her family depresses her, however, she can ask her doctor about Abilify – one flip to the next facing page. And isn’t it additionally telling that regardless of the question, in the “Solve my Health Problems, Please” feature (p. 128-130), anyone who wishes to ask Dr. Oz a question must first state her height and weight?
I knew I’d find this, of course (except for the height/weight requirement on the advice column – that was a surprise). I periodically promise myself I won’t read these kinds of magazines, because they can make me mad. The message is always, “hate your body, buy stuff, drug yourself when all else fails.” Still, other days, I can’t help myself. I take guilty pleasure in playing “spot the silliness.” Hmmm. Makes me wonder whether my hair stylist has the annual “Half Their Size” issue of People in the waiting area. Always a fun challenge to read between the lines and figure out who’s still losing, who’s in the honeymoon and who’s entering maintenance. There are very few legit maintainers, and some years none.
As I grin at my magazines, I hear our Martian friend’s head explode in his helmet. He has no idea what to eat here or why, and he doesn’t “get” the fun of the game. One thing he does know, we do NOT on this planet have a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food.