A strange coincidence is that in the very same week I had an accident that left me bloody, damaged, and ugly, an issue of Self magazine was in my mailbox.
I used to enjoy Self magazine a lot. I’d peruse my issues for diet and exercise advice, poaching the ideas I liked. I read it for the well-written stories on all kinds of topics, especially health-related ones. I liked the self-care theme. I especially loved one article about being at one’s “happy weight.” Your happy weight is a weight at which you are healthy, vibrant, and yes, happy. It’s not a fantasy number. It’s your real life, I-live-in-this-body number. It’s a weight that is sustainable and even a bit forgiving—it doesn’t require “perfect” behavior from you. (Let’s see if I can find that happy weight article on-line…hmm, I didn’t find the one that I wanted, but this one isn’t bad. I like this excerpt: “When I'm feeling insecure—about work, a relationship—I'm apt to turn that dissatisfaction toward my body, maybe because it's easier to do that than to cope with whatever is truly bothering me.” Indeed! Maybe I’ll dig around in my physical archives to see if I saved the happy weight article.)
I stopped reading Self in my late twenties. I’m 31 now; it’s been several years since I’ve sat down with an issue. Perusing one now, I’m kinda shocked by how much of the magazine is flagrant product-pushing. Here I’m not referring to the ads, which are (of course) pushing products. Rather, it’s the magazine itself. And when it’s not pushing products, it’s pushing an agenda that whispers, You’re not good enough. You aren’t thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough. And as soon as I’ve absorbed that message, there’s another product waiting to rescue me from my own inadequacy.
How about a few examples? Here, let’s pick up the June 2013 issue, the one with Shay Mitchell on the cover. Five random flips gets us:
* p. 44. “Let us be your hairstylist.” Question: “I’m so over my bangs. How can I look cute while they grow out?” Followed by four product recommendations.
* pp. 110-111. Recipes for feta-dill dip, minty meatballs, and yogurt with pistachio brittle. Part of an article on summery Greek dishes.
* p. 51. “You look awesome in that!” A piece on “block frocks.” Three colorful dresses, complete with shoe pairings. Buy more stuff!
* p. 72. “2013 healthy food awards.” A list of “healthy” foods you can buy; the winners are low in “fat, calories, sugar” and high in “nutrients, fiber and most of all, flavor.” What was notable to me is the almost fat-phobic attitude that seems to guide these food choices. Even the cheese! String cheese at 3g of fat per piece and Swiss cheese at 3g per one ounce. When I think about fat in my food, I think about satisfaction, and low-fat food sounds profoundly unsatisfying to me. (Also, please note that this is an article about processed foods, not heads of cabbage. Not that Self wouldn’t encourage you to eat cabbage, but when you buy processed foods, you are paying for the processing, the packaging, and the marketing. You’re paying for a whole lot more than the calories you’ll ingest.)
* p 94. “Awkward!” Situation: “Nooo! I sent my friend a ranting text…about her!” (This is an advice column.)
Of these five samples, the only one of real value to me is the recipe article. Out of curiosity, I looked at the healthy food awards but was immediately turned off by the fat-free quality of most of their choices.
What is the impression that has stayed with me after reading two issues of Self? First of all, that the ideal body is slim, slim, slim and preferably not too muscular. Second, you should spend a lot of time on your looks—beauty time, that is, not just working out time. Third, eating healthy is so haaarrrd…I just want to eat ice cream! I have this feeling that Self is writing to readers who have a swinging pendulum relationship with food—that food is either naughty and indulgent or super healthy…unless you buy these less naughty treats that we’ve recommended for you! Maybe I’m just a freak in my moderation, but once I cracked the code to my sweet tooth, I developed a real passion for eating well—which means eating healthfully.
Back when I was still a subscriber, the thing I still liked most about Self were its essays. The essays were smart, pithy reads, and I looked forward to them each month. What these essays did not do (at least in my memory) is push products. They were stories about science, health news, families, personal tragedies and personal triumphs. They were fundamentally about people and our collective desire to live a good life. The stories I remember were a breath of fresh air away from the consumerism that pervades most of American life.
Stay tuned for Part 2…I know, I know. Another multi-part series on the blog! What can I say? I like to meander, but we’ll get to the point, I promise.
PS Here’s a series I did a while back on love. Though Matt and I are no longer dating, I still like that series.