The Gender Binary in Health Magazines (Notes on “Are You Working Hard Enough to Achieve Your Natural Body?”)


I am not a healthy-living blogger, but let me take a side-step from food to health for a moment here: I snapped this shot at Bartell Drugs in May and submitted it to Sociological Images’ #PointlesslyGenderedProducts via Twitter, and now it’s a post!

I wanted to discuss this image a little further here on the blog since I didn’t write text for the post–perils of Twitter.

Content warning: discussion of transphobia, sexism, misogyny.

This is a textbook example (and should be in textbooks) about the gendered way we discussed men’s and women’s health–a conversation that excludes people who are trans-, non-binary, and intersex–and also one that emphasizes sexist beauty standards: weight loss for women and muscle gain for men. While, yes, there are some biological differences between men and women as groups, there’s no reason not to focus on a wider variety of health goals.

The emphasis is on maintaining a false, fetishized physical dichotomy; the flip side is how the reversed “goals” (weight loss for men without muscle gain, 15-lbs of muscle-building for women) are met with backlash that is ultimately transphobic in nature. A woman body builder–or even just a normal woman with a lot of muscle definition–is “too manly” and her body is “gross” because it’s no longer the “feminine” cultural ideal of being meek and soft. A woman who can fight back is a threat.

Meanwhile, in our culture of misogyny, a culture that hates women or anything perceived as womanish, a man whose body is softer, slender, or androgynous is worthless for not being “strong enough” to defend (or harm) women; he is a threat because he does not contribute to or even disrupts male privilege. Nothing could be worse than being like a woman, apparently, even though those attributes aren’t exclusive to women. “Real men” are supposed to gain muscle! Swole! YOLO! :throws weights around gym aggressively:

Other than the “Lose/Gain 15 Lbs!” difference, look at the other linguistic differences: Men’s Health uses action verbs that convey a sense of control, science, and adventure: hack your metabolism! cheat death! eat smarter now! Meanwhile, Women’s Health is about pleasing men, dressing oneself to look cute; working toward a bikini body (all you need is a bikini to wear, people); shrink the body. The copy doesn’t read Instantly boost your health (action!) but instant health booster (noun).  Although the magazine does offer some tips for what to eat while you’re strength training, half the article is  “do this, BUT LIKE NOT IF YOU’RE JUST TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT.” You don’t want to look like a man, right? Let’s ask the men what they like!

Let’s employ that favorite technique of Erving Goffman: what would this look like the other way around?

Men’s Health:

  • Spot-reduce your hips for jammer season in only 10 days!
  • Find that perfect pair of denim cut-offs to suit your body!
  • Ultra-hot sex moves to try with him tonight!
  • Image of slender man, smiling and in a cute printed bikini, standing at an angle to maximize thigh gap

Women’s Health:

  • Bulk up! 15 pounds of pure muscle, all in the shoulders!
  • Where to meet your match! [Thin man in a bikini top]
  • Impressive swim trunks to show off your calves!
  • Image of a buff women flexing, slouching, and looking sort of pissed, making a face like Robert Pattinson makes in Twilight

If you’re laughing because those seem ridiculous, it shows how deeply ingrained our ideas about gender are. By reversing them, much as in the case of The Hawkeye Initiative, we see how unnatural they are in the first place and begin to question “common knowledge” about gender roles and norms.

Or, the ideal: the non-gender specific Health, Fitness, and Other Marginally Related Junk:

  • How to lift weights! Exercises for newbies as well as new ideas for intermediate and advanced lifters with all different centers of balance!
  • Guide: how not to alienate folks at the gym!
  • Open that pickle-jar without help when you live alone!
  • Nutrition for training while on special diets (vegan, vegetarian, celiac, diabetic, soy allergy)
  • Sex: Roleplay that fanfic your partner likes!
  • Fun places to do your shared fitness interest with a romantic or platonic partner!
  • Swimsuits for EVERYONE! No, really!
  • Rainbow of people of all genders, gender expressions, shapes, sizes, colors having fun!

Thanks again to Sociological Images for running the image! Let me also recommend the fantastic blog Fit and Feminist to readers interested in fitness from a feminist perspective.

I’ll be over here canning jam and then opening the jam jars while yelling “swole!”

Are You Working Hard Enough to Achieve Your Natural Body? » Sociological Images.

If you’re interested in more about food and gender on this blog, check out my Gender category, where I blog about Brogurt, Mother’s Day vs Father’s Day, sexism in craft beer, sexism in coverage of Japanese food culture, and more.


13 Comments Add yours

  1. Holly says:

    I would so subscribe to your non-gender specific health magazine. :)

    1. Leah says:

      Thanks for the comment! I think I need to assemble a team of feminist fitness experts. I can be their Nick Fury.

  2. I love this entire post so hard.

    1. Leah says:

      Thanks for reading and for the lovely comment :D

  3. Laura says:

    I love this. I also get so annoyed by gendered sexist language (especially) in lifting. E.g. “If you don’t lift, you’re a pussy”, “If your boyfriend doesn’t lift, you don’t have a boyfriend, you have a girlfriend”. UGH. Just NO.

    1. Leah says:

      Ugh, agreed! I don’t understand that whole “hur you’re not a real man, you’re a girl” mentality at all. Never mind that some folks have girlfriends–and some have girlfriends that lift. Thanks for reading!

  4. Ryan says:

    You have given me feelings of happiness

    1. Leah says:

      So has your comment! :) Thanks for reading!

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