Superficial Inadequacies

Christine Whelan | Posted on 06/02/10

Gawker recently reported that Men's Health magazine was recycling cover stories - and selling readers nearly identical covers - with messages of physical inadequacy. Men's Health has four topics that it routinely features, Gawker proves with terrific graphics: "Six Pack Abs," "Lose Your Gut," "Get Back in Shape" and "Flat-Belly Foods."

In an age of obesity, that's as good of a sore spot as any to poke and prod relentlessly: Your abs are not flat, so you are a bad person.

Comments the sociologists at

"The degree to which cover lines can be reused, and content is interchangeable, underscores the degree to which these types of magazines - whether aimed at men or women - are selling us the same story, month after month. That story is: you aren't good enough, your body isn't good enough, but we have the secret to fixing it (lose weight, gain muscle), getting great sex (or, in the case of women, pleasing your guy), and improving your life in other ways (men = make more money, women = deal with a difficult coworker). The magazines are selling you slightly modified versions of that story because that story is what advertisers want you to get."

None of these ideas are new: Back in 2000, when I was writing my master's thesis on changing dating and marriage patterns in the U.S. as seen through men's and women's magazine advice, I came across plenty of these concerns: When did men join women in worrying about crow's feet? When did men start shopping at the Clinique counter? When did men become obsessed with improving their sexual techniques? And most importantly-why?

In a tongue-in-cheek piece in the Washington Monthly back in 1998, Michelle Cottle said men's magazines "provide the ideal meeting place for men's insecurities and marketers' greed," adding that "the strategy is brilliant: Make men understand exactly how far short of the ideal they fall, and they too become vulnerable to the lure of high-priced underwear, cologne, running shoes, workout gear, hair dye, hair strengthener, skin softener, body-fat monitors, suits, boots, energy bars, and sex aids."

In "Turning Boys into Girls," she wrote that men's magazines perpetuate this self-critical body obsession:

‘With page after page of bulging biceps and Gillette jaws, robust hairlines and silken skin, Men's Health is peddling a standard of male beauty as unforgiving and unrealistic as the female version sold by those dewy-eyed pre-teen waifs draped across the covers of Glamour and Elle. And, with a variety of helpful features on "Foods that Fight Fat," "Banish Your Potbelly," and "Save Your Hair (Before It's Too Late)," Men's Health is well on its way to making the male species as insane, insecure, and irrational about physical appearance as any Cosmo girl.'

A focus on the superficial and sexual is a product of affluence, I argued in my thesis. When survival is no longer a concern, new problems-including diet and body obsession-become the focus. While men's magazines like Esquire and Playboy encouraged men to buy luxury goods in the 1950s and 1960s, during the last decades of the 20th century, men were bombarded with more outlets for retail therapy than ever before.

Maybe. But I am sort of amazed (and depressed) that 10 years later men and women alike are still being made to feel superficially inadequate - while none of these magazines focus on deeper questions of self-improvement, core virtues or character development.

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