I’ve seen a lot of chatter online about Self Magazine’s latest online issue, with Tess Holliday on the cover. And for good reason:
- The interview with Tess Holliday is awesome
- The essay by Lindy West, edited by Ijeoma Oluo, is awesome
- The essay by Jes Baker is awesome
- The inclusion of more bodies, voices and more careful discussion of “health” and “fitness” is awesome
The one piece that did give me pause is the publication of Self’s style guide. In the wake of all this awesome content, it was jarring to read their internal guide to talking about health, wellness and bodies. Some it is commendable (such as the commitment to showing more diverse bodies, using people’s preferred descriptors for their bodies, doing away with terms like “bikini body” and “tank top arms,” officially stepping away from food moralizing, etc.) but some of it was also questionable (such as the dogged insistence on covering weight loss, sticking to stigmatizing words like “overweight” and “obese” because “there are unfortunately no other terms that can accurately describe these specific medical conditions or health markers, as defined by body mass index, and used commonly in the scientific literature,” and the dogged insistence on using weight as a “health marker” throughout the entire piece). I appreciate the transparency, I honestly do. But so much in the style guide didn’t just give me pause – it made me do a full-on tires-screeching double-take.
To me, the sum of Self Magazine’s parts are greater than the whole. They can publish articles by Lindy West and put Tess Holliday on their cover, but they are still a “health and fitness brand.” Their ultimate goal is still to advertise to their audience, which is almost wholly women — this is just an attempt to include more women in their audience. And I get it! That’s how a media company survives. They rebrand, they adapt, they move where their audience is moving. But I still can’t escape the feeling that just as Weight Watchers has repackaged their diet as a “lifestyle change,” Self is merely repackaging their incessant focus on weight, exercise and women’s bodies as “body positive.” You know, for the clicks. For the likes. And I’m not sure that I’m here for it.
Self is still focusing on weight as a “health marker”
So, I work in marketing and write content for a living. I know that language is tough and writing editorial style guides is even tougher and requires the sort of digging into parlance that the average person who is not a word geek cannot imagine ever doing. But Self did that work with their new style guide, and they said so many of the right things in so many places, but still insist on referring to weight as a “health marker” throughout the document.
And this is the thing: if your style guide and philosophy does not allow that health AND fatness can coexist side-by-side, you’re not body positive and you’re not using a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach. If you’re not allowing that “health” and “weight” are not inextricably connected, you are not body positive or using a HAES approach. If you are using weight as a “health marker” instead of treating it as one of the many variables in appearance that creates the beautiful, diverse tableau of different human bodies we have in this world, you are not body positive and not using a HAES approach.
Sure, weight can be a “health marker” for some. If you lose a bunch of weight really quickly without really trying to, that can mean something is up. Same goes for gaining a bunch of weight really fast. Weight can be a symptom. But weight, in and of itself, is not a health marker because health is so much more complex than a number on a scale or having a body that falls in the “average” range for any attribute. (Imagine “height” being called a “health marker” as a catch-all term.) But health is not a yes or no box you can check off with a few markers, it’s a spectrum, and “health” looks different for every single human body of every size and shape. Being over a certain weight is not a tick against you on the “health” checklist because that checklist looks different for every body.
Reading this style guide, it looks like Self is maybe … 30% of the way there? But not quite there yet.
Self is still insisting on using stigmatizing terms
One of the parts of the style guide that got my hackles up was this:
A few points here:
- The fat community has been clear about this for a very, very long time. The words “obese” and “overweight” pathologize us, stigmatize us, and imply that simply being the weight we are is a medical condition or disease.
- The fat community has also been clear for a very, very long time that it prefers the word “fat” to “obese” or “overweight.”
- Being obese or overweight are NOT “medical conditions.” They are simply different ways for bodies to be.
- Self is using the Body Mass Index to defend their use of these terms when the BMI is bullshit. They could have asked Lindy West or Jes Baker about it when they were putting this issue together! They had so many great brains who could have told them why using an outdated, inaccurate statistical model to categorize people and pathologize body diversity is absolute bullshit.
- Refusing to listen to activists and people actually living in fat bodies and defaulting to problematic “scientific” and “medical” language makes Self part of the problem.
Self used lots of nice, pretty words to sandwich this defense of something they clearly know is problematic, but despite the pretty bun, the meat of this statement is still rotten.
Self is sticking to and defending their practice of giving diet tips and talking about diets and weight loss
At first, when reading the issue and this style guide, I wanted to cheer them on and pump my fist. I really did. But it took a little bit of time for it to really hit me: Self is going to keep publishing content about diets and weight loss.
Again, this is phrased well for the HAES/BoPo audience. But the fact of the matter is that they are still going to publish content on weight loss, diets, body modification, and fitness challenges … with disclaimers. Is that progress? Is that revolutionary?
There is some progress here. We’re talking about a magazine that’s made its name on diet and exercise and “bikini body” content. And I get that there is an audience for it: diet culture is pervasive and a good chunk of Self’s readers expect this sort of content from them. They want to know about the latest diet trend, and learn about Whole30 and paleo and keto. They want to participate in a 30-day six-pack challenge. Because diet culture has their hooks in them. So, yeah, duh, there is a market for weight loss articles. Obviously. That’s why Weight Watchers is such a profitable enterprise and has over 3.2 million members.
But what if Self actually flipped the script? What if they 86’d the content about what to eat and how to work out and how to be and just focused on health generally? What if they came out and said, “Hey! Articles that focus on dieting and weight loss are part of the harmful diet culture and we will not be publishing them anymore.” What if they said, “We’re really going to dig into those cultural forces that make women want to lose weight, and why they seek out articles about weight loss and join weight loss programs, and we’re going to mine those systemic forces like access and affordability to healthy foods.” Or what if they even said, “We’re going to hire more fat and more diverse writers and editors and we’re going to elevate the voices of people living in bodies that are marginalized.”
Their content is, honestly, pretty diverse. Just on their homepage, I see articles related to how to pickle vegetables, how to store produce, how to stretch your hamstrings, how to help people with depression. These are good things that are not weight loss focused! So why can’t they just drop the content about weight loss entirely?!
Because until we’re in a place where “weight loss” and “wellness” are not indistinguishable from one another, we’re still just making progress in little baby steps.
This is their attempt to market to a new audience
I see what Self is doing here. They have identified that young women who are interested in body positivity and fat acceptance and feminism are an emerging market. They’re an audience that is active online and vocal in supporting brands they’ve identified as allies. This is their attempt to reach out to that market.
And so, in that respect, is this really any different than Weight Watchers rebranding as a “lifestyle change” instead of a diet? With Weight Watchers, the product is more or less unchanged in decades. (And that new flexible “Freestyle” plan they’re saying is so revolutionary? That was called “Core” a decade ago. They’re just recycling old iterations of the plan. I see you, Weight Watchers.)
The proof is the in the pudding, as they say.
If Self truly commits to a change in the way they discuss bodies and how they approach the issue of health and changes their product to adapt to the wants and needs of the emerging marketing they’re trying to rope in, then maybe they aren’t like Weight Watchers after all. But if it’s the same old magazine doling out weight loss tips and diet talk peppered with BoPo lingo, then we’ll know it wasn’t sincere. I am not seeing the sincerity in their style guide. I’m seeing language that attempts to speak to us, without actually hearing us. I’m seeing defenses of the same old same old with apologies and disclaimers built in. I’m seeing a lot of admissions that certain language and certain stories are problematic without commitments to just fucking stop doing it.
I want Self to surprise me, and prove that I was just being unnecessarily skeptical. I really do! I want them to realize that they don’t have to write about weight loss and diets at all and continue to publish work from awesome fat and fat-positive authors.
But, just reading through their style guide, I am not confident. But maybe they can get there, if their readers and the public pushes them out of their comfort zone.
I don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of good, and I can appreciate that there is some progress in the fact that a fitness brand is having this conversation internally and publicly at all. But I also don’t want to let sort of good to be enough. I want brands to go further and commit to not being part of the problem.