Gay Talese’s Basement
From the beginning, Women’s Health presents an inherent contradiction, palpable in its tagline, which sings “You and improved!” beneath the cover’s bold red title. The magazine not only promises to improve your body and life but also preaches accepting yourself and your flaws. Um—OK, sure.
The magazine’s concept, according to its website, is to reach “a new generation of women who don’t like the way most women’s magazines make them feel.” I get that. I get that reading Cosmo and InStyle and Glamour can make me—and thousands of women with non-model bodies and non-designer clothes—feel dowdy, boring and fat. Even Self and Shape can overwhelm me with self-improvement strategies and complicated workout moves. So, when I picked up Rodale Inc.’s Women’s Health, I had high hopes that it would represent me—an ambitious, practical gym addict uninterested in $1,000 dresses, celebrity Q-and-As and diet comparisons.
No such luck. The September/October 2005 issue featured a $1,150 Cinzia Rocca coat. Every issue has a “Give and Take” session with a celebrity (in the September/October 2005 issue it was “24’s” ultra-slim Kim Raver). And weight loss stories are sprinkled throughout.
At times, the emphasis on cutting calories overwhelms the other aspects of Women’s Health, as if the magazine’s tagline should read: “You’re great. Now lose weight.” In the January/February 2006 issue, for example, there is a feel-good, first-person essay detailing the moment the author vowed to trade starvation diets and disappointing boyfriends for her own fulfilling ambitions. But then, 20 pages later, the magazine sends a less upbeat message with a feature that instructs, “Follow these nine laws for hitting that perfect number on the scale.” Other issues show a similar pattern.
That’s not to say that Women’s Health, which formally debuted in October 2005 after a year of newsstand specials, is bad. Copycatting its older brother, Men’s Health, the cover always displays an eye-catching black-and-white photo of a perfectly toned, nearly bare model, surrounded by teasers in primary colors. Inside, the pages offer a host of brightly colored features and fast takes. It’s an entertaining, pleasant read, with plenty of helpful advice for everyday living.
But for a brand-new magazine, there’s a shortage of anything actually new to the crowded field of women’s fitness monthlies, which includes Shape, Fitness, Health, Women’s Health and Fitness and Self magazines. But despite formulaically following its predecessors—or perhaps because of it—Women’s Health seems to be succeeding. Its special newsstand issues sold more than 200,000 copies each, a respectable sell-through rate of more than 40 percent, according to a Rodale press release.
The magazine, which aims to empower women, does manage to be motivational. Its tips and step-by-step instructions are clear and simple. Its models resemble human beings rather than toothpicks. And men are virtually invisible in its pages, keeping the focus on women’s goals and achievements, rather than how to snag a guy. The one-page “Health,” “Fitness,” “Weight Loss,” “Nutrition” and “Sex” reports break down new studies and facts into easy-to-manage bites, and the “In Focus” section presents advice columns, facts about periods and food portions, and brief sketches of real-life women who make a difference. The special reports, on topics such as hospitals and acupuncture, also succeed, as do the no-nonsense sex articles. “Anatomy of an Orgasm” in the September/October 2005 issue, for example, is full of clinical facts, expert opinions and fascinating statistics.
Statistics are one of Women’s Health’s strong suits. The magazine is loaded with fun, punchy numbers, from the calorie counts of popular fast-food entrees to the percentage health insurance costs have risen in the last four years. In the back, an absorbing feature titled “The Average Woman” is all statistics, with such data as the average woman’s income ($31,223, more than $9,000 less than the average guy’s annual income), number of friends (14), and engagement ring (1-carat diamond).
The magazine’s entertaining statistics, bite-size features, and easy-on-the-eyes photos and white space mask a major flaw, though. Although the format makes it easy to read at the gym, it doesn’t offer any truly substantial, longer pieces to sink your teeth into. One of the longest articles in the January/February 2006 issue was probably the worst. Its foreboding headline, “YOU WILL SURVIVE,” is followed by the subhead “Hellish things can happen to you, so here’s how to stay cool and pull through some of life’s most threatening moments.” Those 16 moments include being caught in a tornado, being pulled over for speeding, having your 5-year-old walk in on you during sex, having your car plunge into a lake, overcooking dinner and arriving in casual clothes at a formal event. Seriously. It sounds like something The Onion would do.
If Women’s Health sincerely wants to improve on the women’s fitness formula, it needs more than fast facts and fluff. To stand out, it needs to differentiate itself from its rivals. If it had solid stories about real women, sports (since there’s more to life than cardio machines and yoga) and athletes, rather than the same old celebrities, that would make me sit up and take notice.