Women and weight: gendered messages on magazine covers

Women and weight: gendered messages on magazine coversFeminist researchers have repeatedly reported on the significant role that the media play in the construction of the "beauty ideal" that society holds up to women (Faludi, 1991; Freedman, 1986; Wolf, 1991). For the majority of women this ideal is impossible to attain and may lead to feelings of inadequacy. Feelings of inadequacy are also likely to be fed by cosmetic manufacturers and weight management programs whose ad campaigns focus on convincing women that they can ameliorate their bodily flaws and imperfections only by purchasing their products or taking part in their programs (Freedman, 1986).

The messages sent out by the media regarding bodily appearance are quite different for women and men. A strong emphasis has been placed on the bodily appearance of women that equates a thin body to beauty, sexuality, and social status; less focus has been placed on the bodily appearance of men (Freedman, 1986). These gendered messages can clearly be seen in magazine articles and advertisements. For example, Anderson and DiDomenico (1992) examined the 20 most popular magazines read by women and men to see if the number of articles that focused on dieting and body shape would reflect the actual prevalence rates of eating disorders in the general population. The results indicated that the 10 magazines most frequently read by women contained significantly more diet articles and advertisements than the 10 magazines most frequently read by men. The ratio of diet articles in men's and women's magazines was 1:10, which is identical to the actual ratio of eating disorders in men and women in the general population. The authors noted that when the men's magazines focused on bodily appearance the articles and advertisements centered on changes in body shape (i.e., "bulking up"), whereas the women's magazines focused on changes in body weight (i.e., "slimming down"). Anderson and DiDomenico suggested that "Instead of simply reflecting the weight and shape ideals of our society, popular media may be, to some extent, imposing gender-related norms, which then lead to sex-related differences in the frequency of critical behaviors" (Anderson & DiDomenico, 1992, p. 286).

Nemeroff, Stein, Diehl, and Smilack (1994) also examined women's and men's magazines to see if different types of magazines contained discrepant messages for men and women and whether this has changed over time. They looked at articles that focused on the behavioral means used to achieve physical ideals, which they placed into four categories: weight loss, beauty, fitness, and health. based on previous work in the area, Nemeroff et al. chose to examine three categories of general interest magazines (i.e., traditional magazines, fashion magazines, and modern magazines), and they picked magazines with broad circulation and longevity of publication to represent each of the categories over a 12 year duration. They found that, overall, the women's magazines contained far more body-oriented articles than did the magazines that targeted male readers. However, the frequency of weight loss articles increased over the time period for men, but decreased for women, which indicated a gender-related change in trends. In addition, when they compared analyses of gender by magazine category, it appeared that over time the frequency of health articles seemed to increase in men's fashion magazines but not in women's fashion magazines. The authors concluded that at least some concern with the body was now being portrayed in men's fashion magazines. Finally, in comparing the different types of magazines, the researchers noted that fashion magazines were the most body oriented, modern magazines the least so, and traditional magazines fell somewhere in-between.

The purpose of the present study was to examine gendered messages regarding weight and bodily appearance on the covers of popular magazines. We chose to examine magazine covers because often it is the cover that initially attracts the reader to the magazine. Titles, catch phrases, and pictures displayed on magazine covers are usually all that the reader has time to look at in a store. Frequently it is these items that influence the reader to buy the magazine, as is reflected in the following statement by a corporate circulation director in the marketing industry. "The cover is primarily a sales tool...the images selected and the way we describe the contents must be provocative, hard-hitting and full of elements that sell - not feature oriented" (Lee, 1998, p.1). For this reason, it is important to explore the messages that are being presented to readers on the covers of popular magazines.

It was hypothesized that, overall, covers of women's magazines would be more likely to contain a message about bodily appearance than covers of magazines targeted at men. We were interested in examining conflicting messages (i.e., message with opposite meanings placed in close proximity to each other) that were displayed on magazine covers. It was hypothesized that covers of women's magazines would also be more likely to contain conflicting messages about bodily appearance than would covers of men's magazines.



Twenty-one magazines were chosen for the present analysis (see Table I). Of these, 18 were chosen based on the results of the 1987 Simmon's Study of Media and Markets, which rated magazines on the basis of readership by gender and age. These magazines were essentially the same ones used by Anderson and DiDomenico (1992), however two were eliminated (i.e., Playboy and Penthouse) because they were not available in public libraries, where the rest of the magazines were obtained. Three additional magazines (i.e., Vogue, Ms, and Esquire) were chosen based on suggestions from other members of the authors' research team. These magazines were included because it was believed that they were frequently-read magazines that were not included on the Simmon's list.

For each magazine title, six monthly issues were reviewed from different seasons throughout the year of 1996. At least one issue from each season was included to account for seasonal variability in topical articles. For one magazine (i.e., Ms) only three issues were obtainable. In total, 69 covers of women's magazines and 54 covers of men's magazines were examined.



A checklist was designed to examine the magazine covers; it concerned the content of the visual images and text on the covers, as well as the placement of each. The content of the text was analyzed to determine whether it contained a diet message (e.g., "Cut 100 Calories a Meal and Lose 10 Pounds"), an exercise message (e.g., "Walk Your Way to Thin"), a message regarding cosmetic surgery to change the size of the body (e.g., "I Love My New Thighs: Diary of a Liposuction"), or a general message about weight loss with no specifications about how to lose the weight (e.g., "5 Ways to Lose 5 Pounds"). The position of messages was examined to determine if conflicting messages were placed next to each other (e.g., a message about losing weight next to a cookie recipe), if the conflicting messages were separated on the page, and if there were articles about appearance and romance placed adjacent to each other. Magazines were divided by gender of readers, and percentages for each item of the checklist were obtained for each magazine category. Percentages for each magazine category were calculated by dividing the number of magazine issues that contained each checklist item by the total number of magazine issues for that magazine category.

Each cover was examined by two of the authors together as they completed each checklist. It was determined beforehand that differences between the authors on which section a message fell into (i.e., diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, other) would be discussed until an agreement was reached. No differences arose, however, and all messages clearly fit into only one section of the checklist.


Table II displays the percentages of each type of message related to bodily appearance found in women's and men's magazines. Of the 12 magazines most frequently read by women, 54 of the 69 covers (78%) contained some message about bodily appearance, whereas none of the 53 covers of men's magazines contained such messages, [[Chi].sup.2] (1, N = 123) = 49.62, p [less than] .005. Therefore, consistent with previous research (Anderson & DiDomenico, 1992; Nemeroff et al., 1994), the analysis showed that women's magazines were more likely to contain messages about diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery to change body size than were men's magazines. Although the majority of the most popular women's magazines focused on changing and improving one's self, most of the popular men's magazines focused on the outside world, news, politics, hobbies, and activities.