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Keywords:

  • responsibility;
  • healthism;
  • discourse analysis;
  • women's magazines

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

This article presents an examination of the ways in which responsibility for health is constructed in popular English-Canadian women's magazines. Women's magazines are a unique media form, acting as guidebooks for women on matters relating to feminine gender roles and are important to examine as part of the corpus of societal discourses which frame our understandings of what it means to be healthy and how good health is achieved. Using discourse analysis several techniques were found which reinforce women's individual responsibility to create and maintain good health for themselves and their families. The magazines instruct women/readers directly about their health-related responsibilities and outline the negative consequences of inaction or incorrect action. The magazines also use the traditional discursive technique of women's personal accounts as both cautionary tales and inspirational stories to encourage readers to actively pursue healthy behaviours. Reflecting and reinforcing the discourse of healthism, women's magazines consistently present health as an important individual responsibility and a moral imperative which creates an entrepreneurial subject position for women. The article concludes by discussing the implications for women's magazine audiences within the ongoing feminist debate about this cultural industry.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

Women are routinely confronted with media messages about health and illness. While these messages contain information promoting healthy living, they also comprise discourses that encourage particular forms of knowledge about health, women and society. One such discourse on health can be found in women's magazines. As part of their service mission to be an essential information source for women, many women's magazines include a substantial amount of health information in each issue (Andsanger and Powers 1999) and have become a popular site for feminist and sociological analyses. This article continues this interest in cultural messages about women and health by focusing on how responsibility for health is constructed in three top-selling Canadian women's magazines: Chatelaine, Canadian Living and Homemaker's to: ‘. . . observe the position of the contemporary subject of health discourses and the acquisition of the techniques for fabricating the healthy self’ (Bunton 1997: 239). While there have been several studies which note discourses of individual responsibility in media analyses of particular topics such as breast cancer (Lupton 1994), smoking (Street 2004), sleepiness (Kroll-Smith and Gunter 2005), nutrition (Madden and Chamberlain 2004), domestic violence (Berns 1999), and pregnancy (Marshall and Woollett 2000), examinations specifically about media discourses on responsibility for health are limited. Also, there are characteristics of health writings in women's magazines which transcend particular health and illness subjects, and the representations of responsibility and their implications warrant examination.

Women's magazines

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

Women's magazines are unique in that they are addressed to women readers solely by virtue of their gender. The magazines act as guidebooks for women's lives – women are to read them to learn how to be women (Ballaster et al. 1991). Early feminist critiques stated that women's magazines reinforced gender inequalities and their representations were a key site for the construction and dissemination of oppressive feminine identities and were therefore ‘bad’ for women and should not be read (for a review see: Currie 1999, Gough-Yates 2003).

More recent analyses critique this moral position regarding the consumption of women's magazines and their purported ability to manipulate millions of women who are supposedly less enlightened than feminist researchers (Hermes 1995, Korinek 2000). While Winship (1987) was among the first to view women's magazines as a vehicle for light entertainment which is not necessarily inherently harmful, the debate continues about the possible oppressive nature of these texts (Farvid and Braun 2006). Recent examinations of women's magazines note that they continue to reflect and reinforce traditional patriarchal gender roles through a continued emphasis on heterosexual romance, home, whiteness, beauty and family (Currie 1999, Gough-Yates 2003). As McRobbie notes, women's magazines appear to be ‘devoid of history and resistant to change’ (2000: 76).

Despite these concerns, women's magazines continue to sell widely and are read by millions of women as an inexpensive form of entertainment (Hermes 1995). Women's magazines emphasise pleasure and entertainment through their visually appealing covers and extensive use of graphics and photographs. Each title creates its own personality through design elements and routine content positioning making a market niche for the magazine and creating a ‘language’ which makes it easily recognizable and readable for regular readers (Korinek 2000). These magazines may also be compelling because of their emphasis on the personal, ordinary lives of women and their offering of solutions to everyday dilemmas regarding relationships, health issues, beauty, fashion and what to make for dinner. Women's problems are presented with the understanding that many other women experience the same things, but the solutions usually involve women finding ways to help themselves instead of situating issues in wider social structures and institutions (Ballaster et al. 1991, Berns 1999, McRobbie 2000). Through this emphasis, women's magazines define the woman's sphere as the personal and the emotional, with solutions to be found in the pages of these magazines.

Regarding health information, women's magazines are an important and distinctive discursive form as they integrate expert discourse on health found in medical journals with everyday practices and knowledges. In addition to their presentation of expert and lay understandings, they also reinforce and reflect particular and possibly oppressive gender roles for women within their pages, creating a unique discourse about health and women which is important to examine. Women's magazines are not mere reporters/reproducers of health information provided by health promotion agencies, scientific journals or medical professionals, they are also discourses to be studied the better to understand how messages about health are created as a representation of a particular view of reality (Cheek 1997, Lupton 1992, Sacks 1996, Seale 2003).

Healthism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

The focus on individual responsibility in media writings on health arises from current health promotion strategies which centre on individual lifestyle changes to maintain and enhance health (Grace 1991, Keaner 1985, Nettleton 1997, Thorogood 1992). These practices of the new public health reflect and reinforce the prevailing discourse of healthism (Fusco 2006, Hodgetts et al. 2005, Lupton 1995). Healthism, a term originally coined by Crawford (1980), is a system of beliefs which define health-promoting activities as a moral obligation. (Crawford 1984, Peterson 1997). This obligation actively to pursue good health can be fulfilled through personal, individual adherence to the many and varied protocols for healthy living.

Healthist discourse contributes to the creation of a subject who is interested in taking action to improve oneself; what is called an enterprising or entrepreneurial self. The subjectivity of the entrepreneurial self is based on the idea that one's identity is a personal project requiring continual and active assessment, improvement and management, leading to particular forms of self-discipline and self-surveillance (Bunton 1997, Lupton 1995, Robertson 2000). The entrepreneurial self within the discourse of healthism is premised on the idea of a free subject choosing to undertake those behaviours necessary to enhance and/or preserve good health:

A health that can be ‘chosen’, however, represents a somewhat different value than a health one simply enjoys or misses. It testifies to more than just a physical capacity; it is the visible sign of initiative, adaptability, balance and strength of will. In this sense, physical health has come to represent, for the neo-liberal individual who has ‘chosen’ it, an ‘objective’ witness to his or her suitability to function as a free and rational agent (Greco 1993: 369–70).

This identity is worn on the body – the physical manifestation of one's healthy inner or true self – shown through body work like exercise targeted to produce a lean firm physique, dieting, and ascetic measures surrounding one's deportment and consumption. Successful deployment of these measures also produces subjects who embody the cultural ideal that one has chosen and worked hard to pursue good health. The body, then, becomes the sign of both physical and moral health (Lupton 1995, White et al. 1995).

What strategies are used to exhort citizens to adopt an entrepreneurial subjectivity and undertake healthist prescriptions? Foucault's (1984) notion of disciplinary power is a useful descriptive mechanism to discuss how people are governed. A key element to disciplinary power is that it is not maintained by means/threats of violence or force, but by the creation of new norms against which individuals are judged and against which they police themselves (Deveaux 1996, Duncan 1994). These norms provide guidelines about how people should understand, regulate and experience themselves and their bodies. The body becomes something to be studied and surveyed, and individuals, to varying degrees, are morally regulated into conformity (Williams and Calnan 1996). Also, disciplinary power works through the creation of desires and the attachment of individuals to specific identities, and all these techniques work to render the body ‘more useful, powerful and docile’ (Sawicki 1991: 83). In the case of healthist discourse, technologies of disciplinary power create the rational, health-seeking, entrepreneurial subject which Wakewich (2000) has shown is a desirable subjectivity for some individuals, particularly middle-class women who are the primary consumers of women's magazines.

The findings reported here arose from a larger project which examines representations of health in these texts and the ways in which the magazines define health issues for their readers. I found that women's magazines fulfil their self-defined service mission by continually asserting their expertise and authority in health matters and their role in educating women about the latest health information. Part of this education was to delineate women's individual responsibility for their own health and the health of their families through adherence to the prescriptions for healthy living provided by the magazines. Before presenting these constructions of responsibility, I will briefly outline the sample of women's magazines examined, and the discourse analysis methods which guided this work.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

The research on which this article is based is an exploratory critical analysis of health writings in women's magazines (Cheek 1997). This involves the examination of women's magazine health writings using discourse analysis techniques to understand the messages constructed about women, health and responsibility. Magazines are not merely neutral producers of information; instead, they create/re-create, reflect and reinforce societal understandings about health (Cheek 2004). A critical examination of health messages can reveal ‘how linguistic processes construct and privilege certain definitions and meanings and the processes by which certain interests, norms, values, and opinions receive attention over others’ (Lupton 1994: 73).

For the purposes of this research, magazine articles are examined as representations. A representation should be understood ‘not as a true and accurate reflection of some aspect of an external world, but as something to be explained and accounted for through the discursive rules and themes that predominate in a particular socio-historical context’ (Prior 1997: 70). Discourse analysis examines texts and talk critically, not just descriptively. It examines not only what is said, but how it is said (Beaulieu and Lippman 1995). This entails examining the rules, patterns and structures which provide particular frameworks for discussions of women's health and the image of ‘reality’ these texts portray to readers (Prior 1997). The analysis has two main elements. First is an examination of textual dimensions which account for the structure of discourse. These include grammar, word choice, metaphor, and overt meaning. Also included are larger elements like topics and themes of the articles chosen for inclusion in the magazine. Second is the contextual dimension which relates examined texts to the socio-cultural and political context in which discourse takes place (Lupton 1992).

Three purposively selected English-Canadian women's magazines published between 1997 and 2000 were used for this study. Purposive sampling proved more useful than random sampling techniques because it allowed for a more thorough exploration of the health writings in a particular category of women's magazines (Cheek 1997). Chatelaine, Canadian Living and Homemaker's magazines were selected for analysis for several reasons. These magazines are the top-circulating women's magazines in Canada and have a long history in Canadian popular culture (Korinek 2000, PMB 2000). Each publication has a section dedicated to health topics in every issue, thereby suggesting that the producers, and possibly advertisers, believe this is important to their readership. Also, these magazines compare themselves to each other in advertising media kits; they are vying for advertising revenue from the same businesses and are directed at similar audiences. While there are editorial differences between the magazines, they are very similar in terms of look, content, mission, and reader demographics (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1. Demographic information for magazine readers
MagazineMarried%Some Post-secondary education%Income >$35,000%Income >$50,000%Home-owners%Employed full/part-time %
  1. (Source: PMB 2000)

Chatelaine625770527669
Canadian Living685874567968
Homemaker's706073547864
Table 2. Magazine circulation and readership
MagazineCirculationReadershipFemale readers
  1. (Source: PMB 2000)

Chatelaine815,0001,766,00081%
Canadian Living563,0001,986,00079%
Homemaker's883,0001,206,00084%

All health articles published in the three magazines between 1997 and 2000 were collected, formatted into digital text, and coded using NUD*IST software. Health articles were defined as any article which was included in the magazines’ designated health sections. Health articles not found in health sections were included if they had an educational focus, discussed health in a prescriptive way, gave direct health information or discussed the consequences for health of a particular situation or activity. In total, 1291 articles were collected; 83 per cent of these were found in the magazines’ health sections and 69 per cent were one-paragraph to one page in length. From this, a convenience sub-sample of 760 articles was selected for a discourse analysis of the representations of health in women's magazines, from which this discussion of responsibility arises. This included all articles published in 2000 for Chatelaine and 1998 for Canadian Living and Homemaker's and also articles published in January, April, July and October for the remaining years1.

To explore questions of responsibility within women's magazines’ health writings, I searched for prevalent themes, and considered the general tone of the writings. I examined the use of metaphors, images, word choices and analogies, and other journalistic methods. These methods are used to construct health writings which work both to promote certain meanings or interpretations of women's health and broader messages about society and responsibility, and to limit or exclude other representations (Brown et al. 1996, Lantz and Booth 1998, Prior 1997). It should be noted that my choices of discursive frameworks are not an exhaustive list (Cheek 1997). This paper is also a discourse and as such it also follows particular rules, patterns and structures.

Health is an important responsibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

The theme which was the most evident in the magazine articles examined for the larger study was that of women's responsibility to pursue good health. Following the most common features of the discourse on healthism, the magazines framed the majority of their discussions around the notion that citizens had an individual responsibility to maintain and enhance their health. The woman/reader of the magazine is continually exhorted to exercise self-control, personal determination and adherence to numerous regimens designed to create a state of good health, but which also demonstrated one's moral worthiness as a citizen and woman. What follows are a number of discursive mechanisms used by the magazines to reinforce this notion of responsibility for their readers.

You are responsible

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

The magazines directly underline this responsibility to pursue good health in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One technique involves the use of language which denotes health as an important priority, one that women/readers should adopt:

Jolly [a physician with heart disease] is adamant that women take on their own health promotion and seek help. ‘Women need to push the agenda’, she says. ‘They need to ask for second opinions. They have to be able to say to their doctors, “I think this is heart disease”. They need to fight for consultation with a cardiologist . . . The bells are ringing. They've got the ammunition and they need to use that ammunition to fight for awareness’[my emphasis] (Orton 2000: 70).

The use of words like ‘need’, ‘should’, ‘crucial’, ‘must’ and ‘vigilance’ creates a sense of urgency which underscores the importance the magazines place on health matters. Militaristic language is also used to encourage readers to heed doctor's warnings and use ‘ammunition’ (i.e. information) to fight for good health (Clarke and Robinson 1999).

Although the language used above may not appear overly subtle, magazines discuss individual accountability by explicitly stating that readers are responsible for good health. In some cases this was done by citing government legislation which enshrines one's responsibility in law, for example regarding seat belt use: ‘As the driver, you are responsible for ensuring that everyone under the age of 16 is properly buckled up’. (Stone 1997: 20). Here the reader is addressed directly and the emphasis is on the prevention of accidents and underscores the current societal notion that risks are preventable through individual measures, rather than the result of poorly designed automobiles, unsafe roads, driver fatigue, or unsafe environments (Lupton 1995).

Other times, the responsibility is constructed in moral terms, that is, what one ought to do. This was particularly apparent in discussions about illness and disease prevention. Readers were unambiguously told they were responsible for undertaking particular illness prevention strategies: ‘This is the peak season for food borne illnesses, and we’re all responsible for playing it safe’[my emphasis] (Curran 1998: 145).

Responsibility for health was also emphasised in articles which instructed women about how to deal effectively with medical professionals:

‘Persist’ and ‘Ask for a second opinion’ are two of the pieces of advice healthcare experts offer on getting the best from our healthcare system:

‘The new reality is that the onus is on the consumer to take more responsibility for his or her own health and health care’ says Heather Henderson, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union. ‘If you were going to buy a car, you wouldn't leave the lot until you were convinced that it was the vehicle you wanted. We need to do that with medical treatments and hospital care’ (Witten 1998: 95).

Similarly, the article ‘Doc, Can we talk?’ (Scott 1999) details a survey conducted by Chatelaine magazine about doctor/patient communication and what each side perceives and expects of the other. While the article ostensibly states that both physicians and patients share responsibility for improving communication, the latent content (Clarke 2004) places responsibility squarely on the patient, that is, the reader. In the section entitled, ‘The Solution: What we all can do’, women are instructed about what to do in medical encounters using headings such as: ‘Be Assertive’, ‘Get the Facts’ and ‘Set the Agenda’. The reader is directed to assess her physician and either demand change where needed or find another doctor.

Take responsibility or suffer the consequences

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

Responsibility for health is also emphasised in the magazines through the presentation of consequences which could occur if one does not follow the prescriptions provided in the health articles. These consequences were presented in two general ways. Most prominent were the personal cautionary tales of ‘ordinary women’ profiled in the articles which will be detailed below. Secondly, the consequences of inaction or incorrect action were also presented in the text of articles by authors and cited experts. In the following example, the risks of inaction surrounding heart disease are presented:

Alarms sounding clear and present danger for women at risk of heart disease are often muted by a stronger fear of breast cancer, lack of awareness both by themselves and their physicians, and failure to heed the major risk factors, including genetic disposition (Orton 2000: 64).

The reader is warned of the dire consequences and she ignores this information at her own risk, highlighting her individualised responsibility to be knowledgeable about and to prevent heart disease.

Typically, these negative health consequences involve the listing of symptoms or effects from a particular disease left untreated and/or inaction surrounding one's personal health (e.g. lack of exercise, poor diet, failure to control blood pressure etc.):

There are also studies showing an association between smoking and pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and tubal pregnancies . . . There's also disturbing evidence that if a woman smoked during pregnancy, a child born of that pregnancy (especially a daughter) is more likely to smoke. (Underwood 1999: 108).

The articles and cited experts caution the reader to take responsibility and adopt healthy lifestyles, and to avoid unhealthy behaviours, all with the aim of preventing illness and disease.

Cautionary tales

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

Cautionary tales are another technique used to reinforce the reader's individual responsibility for ensuring good health. Women's magazines present the stories of presumably ordinary women to personalise the subject matter, to engage the reader, and to show that the article details real problems of real readers much like themselves. Media portrayals of ordinary women contribute to a form of disciplinary power through the creation of norms against which individuals are judged and against which they police themselves (Foucault 1984); for example through the ways women's magazines ‘instruct’ readers about how to become healthier through personal before-and-after success stories (Duncan 1994).

An article in Chatelaine presents a lengthy account of one woman – Sandra Harder's – health concerns surrounding why her menstrual periods stopped at age 13, and how she never persisted in finding out what the problem was and how to treat it. When the problem was discovered (a hormonal imbalance due to a benign tumour), her physician recommended no treatment and she did nothing further despite a number of symptoms which had impacts on her sexual health: ‘She didn't tell; the doctors didn't ask. It's a classic case of a communication breakdown – which happens in a significant number of doctor-patient relationships in Canada today’ (Scott 1999: 27). Not only does this personal account frame the article's content, but through detailing Harder's lack of personal responsibility in pursuing this issue, the consequences are clearly presented to the reader as a warning about the perils of not being an assertive, informed patient.

Ms Harder's inability to take control of her health, this failure on the part of this ‘ordinary woman,’ is further reinforced with a story of another woman's ideal relationship with her doctor. Margaret Coshan's story is positioned near the end of the article which has clearly explained what readers should do to ensure a solid doctor-patient relationship, thereby detailing how an ideal health-seeking woman should act:

Margaret Coshan typifies the new kind of proactive patient. When Coshan went to her Toronto family physician, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, for her annual checkup in September, she took a folded piece of paper with a list of words: body mass, cholesterol, iron, calcium, weight loss . . . Running through her patient's list of concerns, Dr. Marmoreo asked her what she thought had caused her iron deficiency. Coshan had already searched the Internet for information on the subject, and the discussion ended with her promising to eat more red meat, sardines and wheat germ until they learned the results of the blood tests. Theirs is, in short, a very modern partnership between doctor and patient (Scott 1999: 33).

Ms Coshan's health-seeking, rational, responsible subjectivity is then immediately contrasted with Ms Harder's irresponsibility: ‘Sandra Harder didn't forge an effective partnership with her doctors, but played the role of passive patient’. (Scott 1999: 33). Harder's story serves as a warning to readers, a cautionary tale of what can happen if one does not pursue and maintain a proper relationship with one's physician.

A woman's responsibility to ensure the proper medical care of her children is overtly emphasised in the opening text of the article ‘An Insider's Guide to Patient Power’ (Witten 1998). It begins with the tale of the Smiths, whose daughter died from a rare strain of viral hepatitis after being misdiagnosed at a hospital emergency room. By highlighting the regret of the mother, the article uses this family's story to present the worst possible consequence that could occur if parents are not persistent advocates for their children's health:

We put so much faith in the medical profession that we think they always know what they’re talking about. As it turned out, they were wrong. I've learned the hard way. If we had done the right thing, we would have stayed at the hospital, we wouldn't have left. We would have demanded that a specialist see her (Witten 1998: 96).

What is also made clear is the reader's responsibility for ensuring she follows the advice provided in the article to escape experiencing a similar fate with her own family. This cautionary tale humanises the advice, illustrating for the reader a possible consequence of inaction. That the result of the Smiths’ (in)actions was the death of their child, highlights the importance of taking on this responsibility regardless of how rare such events may be. The article does not place the Smiths’ experience into context by reporting on the frequency of emergency room misdiagnoses leading to death. Instead, the issue of patient responsibility is heavily dramatised to entice the reader to finish the article and heed its advice.

These remarkable accounts appear to resonate with women's magazine consumers, and are a prominent news value in journalism (Fuller 1996). Henderson and Kitzinger (1999) found dramatic personal stories about breast cancer in the media were a commonly-used narrative technique which made a profound impression on women audiences and influenced their understandings of inherited breast cancer. Similarly, the dramatic accounts here encourage women to avoid tragedy or illness by engaging in these health-enhancing behaviours.

Inspirational stories

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

Personal accounts were also used to inspire women to take increased responsibility for their health. These generally took the form of ‘triumph over tragedy’ tales which profiled one woman's struggle with an illness or disease and how she was cured, or otherwise found ways to overcome the disabling aspects of the ailment. Women's magazines follow a typical format in their presentation of these stories. It begins with the sufferer's retelling of how she discovered she was ill, a description of treatment and ‘. . . then a re-evaluation of the experience in terms of what it could possibly mean and how the woman, and by implication her readers, could benefit from the experience’ (McKay and Bonner 1999: 564).

The women in these stories are valorised for overcoming extraordinary circumstances brought about by their illness or for achieving remarkable personal milestones. For example, Canadian Living, in their regular section which publishes first-person accounts of women's struggles with illness, presented one woman's story of learning to accept having multiple sclerosis (MS). After recounting the completion of her first triathlon, several years after first being diagnosed, the author tells of her initial health problems, diagnosis and struggles with MS:

Predictably, I have struggled through denial, rage and depression. ‘People like me shouldn't get MS’, I would lament bitterly. For years I stubbornly waited for a miracle cure. Then sometime around my 25th birthday, I accepted that the MS wasn't going to disappear and that I was going to have to be responsible (MacLean 1999: 73).

It is interesting that she emphasises taking responsibility for her illness and its effects on her spiritual, emotional and psychological wellbeing. She defines this responsibility as: ‘. . . accomplish[ing] the things I wanted in life right now. Today’ (MacLean 1999: 73). The article ends with the author describing how taking this responsibility for her illness has allowed her to triumph over MS:

Now every day is a celebration. Some days I celebrate achievements, such as my first triathlon. Some days I celebrate just being able to get out of bed. It doesn't matter what I'm celebrating; thankfulness is an unwavering constant in my life. Although my pace varies dramatically, each finish line is comfortingly visible – and at no point will I ever consider giving up (MacLean 1999: 73).

By training for and finishing triathlons, this woman's inspirational story also reinforces readers’ responsibility to maintain a healthy physical body as well. Surely, if a woman with MS can participate in high-level sports (though she states that she participates with the goal of merely finishing), the reader should be able to engage in physical fitness activities as well. These inspirational stories also reinforce the notion that ‘thinking positive’ is an important component to managing disease and illness (Ehrenreich 2001). These narratives present subjects who are cheerful and brave in the face of debilitating illness, and construct continued optimism as an important moral obligation – how one with a disease or disability ought to behave (Wilkinson and Kitzinger 2000).

Inspirational tales also tell stories of women who are concerned about their health (rather than suffering from particular diseases) and what they do to enhance it, as a means to motivate readers to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. The article ‘From distress to destress’ begins: ‘When Cynthia Martin realised her job was ruining her health she took control and started a company that makes feeling terrific a top priority’ (Martin 2000: 53). The article details Martin's employment in a demanding professional position and then presents her solution to the situation which was negatively affecting her health; she quit her job and started an independent business, eventually taking on a similarly-minded business partner. The article then details their new working lives designed, ‘. . . in a way that enhanced our health rather than depleted it’ (Martin 2000: 55). The article lacks the details of how they actually created their publishing business focusing instead on some of the health-enhancing benefits, a location close to their homes in an idyllic setting, and the ‘Forced Relaxation Clause’ in their partnership agreement which states that if they cannot agree on something they must spend the day together at a spa allowing them time to relax so they can sort out their differences.

The article ends with insights about the life-changes Martin undertook and her encouragement of other women to make similar changes:

The changes I made in my life were difficult, but I believe they were right for me. I've learned that taking charge of your health means putting your physical and mental well-being ahead of any corporate agenda. And even if you have to give up your health benefits to do it, there's nothing stopping you from creating health benefits of your own [my emphasis] (Martin 2000: 55).

The reader's responsibility to create a healthy working life is clearly presented. There is nothing stopping her, except personal fortitude, from making changes which will enhance her health.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

The notion of personal responsibility, a key tenet of the discourse of healthism, is a prominent feature in women's magazine writings about health. The articles are ostensibly written to instruct women about important health issues and fulfil women's magazines’ self-designated role as handbooks on women's lives. Through the use of discursive measures ranging from overtly instructing women about their health-related responsibilities and the consequences of inaction, to the more subtle presentation of women's personal accounts used as inspirational stories or cautionary tales, women are exhorted to strive for good health through the pursuit of particular practices which emphasise individual action and personal responsibility.

The analysis presented here represents one critical reading of women's magazines texts within a specific historical/social context; I do not assume that my reading of women's magazines explains individual women's reading practices. Audiences are not passive recipients of media messages; they are active readers who translate the messages based on a number of factors, including race, gender, sexuality, class, age, literacy, and membership in other sub-cultural groups. The discourses of healthism and responsibility in women's magazines are probably taken up by individuals with various degrees of acceptance, negotiation and resistance (Brown et al. 1996, Fusco 2006, Lupton 1995, Parrott and Condit 1996). While there are some examinations of women's magazine audiences (Henderson and Kitzinger 1999, Hermes 1995, Korinek 2000), there remains a limited understanding of women's reading practices, and whether they respond to, ignore, subvert, transform or resist mass media messages about health and responsibility (Hodgetts et al. 2005, Kline 2006, Seale 2002). Research has however shown that women are concerned with good health and engage in gendered healthist practices, particularly in the areas of bodily maintenance and appearance (Braun 2005, Dillaway 2005, MacNevin 2003). Women's magazines probably play some role in shaping women's desires to engage in these practices.

Cultural products like women's magazines are created for someone, they have intended audiences reflecting producers’ conscious and unconscious assumptions about who the audience is and what they want, what Ellsworth (1997) calls ‘mode of address’. In the production of women's magazines, readers are addressed as desirous of creating healthy lives and capable of making personal changes to achieve them. Women's magazines reinforce these neo-liberal ideas by conceptualising responsibility for one's health as not only something that can be chosen, but also something that should be chosen. While there are many societal discourses which present similar healthist messages, women's magazines also prescribe gendered notions of responsibility to their readers. Readers are positioned as mothers and wives who are the primary managers of their family's wellbeing through articles which promote such practices as proper food choices and preparation, and correct child-seat use. Women must ensure their own health to embody the subject position of the responsible citizen which also includes feminine care-giving duties to ensure the health of their families.

In addition, women's magazines do not present health as a complex confluence of many personal and social circumstances, and rarely acknowledge the barriers to health-enhancing activity which arise due to women's work and caring responsibilities, and the power relations which govern them. Instead of presenting health information which acknowledges and possibly examines the social factors shaping the reality of women's lives, the discourse of women's magazines places the responsibility for health in the women themselves, who are expected to find time for health-enhancing activities (Fullagar 2003). By addressing their reader as a ‘superwoman’ (Winship 1987) who is autonomous, rational, capable and responsible, women's magazines set high standards for what constitutes proper health-seeking behaviours. However, the discourse also invites women who identify with this mode of address willingly to engage in healthist behaviours as a way to embody their moral ‘fitness’ of the ideal entrepreneurial, responsible subject.

Recognition of the socio-political context of women's lives occurred very rarely in the magazines (16 of 1291 articles), probably because this sort of analysis deviates from women's magazines’ focus on the personal lives of women and may be considered ‘too political’ or controversial because it necessarily involves strategies of social change. This mirrors other research showing that women's magazines generally choose to avoid political topics (Ballaster et al. 1991: 13). The reasons for this absence are less clear. Those controlling women's magazines (owners, publishers and editors) may consciously choose to avoid controversy, coupled with fears of losing advertising revenue, and the assumption that women do not desire these kinds of information (Andsanger and Powers 1999, Doner 1993, Korinek 2000).

In a revealing article Gaulin (2004) presents research conducted by Homemaker's magazine which states that women wanted more articles about food, beauty, fashion and other topics traditional to women's magazines. Similarly, Chatelaine polled their readers and found, ‘. . . the days when women needed to be told that they were confident and strong are long gone. The Chatelaine reader was overworked and in need of being entertained not bombarded with social issues that already filled mainstream news’ (Gaulin 2004: 4). The editors of all three magazines dismiss the notion that the lack of social-issues content results in a ‘dumbing down’ of women's magazines. They assert that women's magazines are a form of entertainment, and reading them is a relaxing leisure activity for women. This is the major finding of Hermes's (1995) interviews with women's magazine readers: women read these magazines because they are easily put down, providing a perfect activity to fill up small bits of free time in their busy lives.

Taking this view, women's magazines are merely giving women ‘what they want’– it is a media form that is embraced and enjoyed by women. Given the popularised conceptualisation of feminism that a woman can be and do anything she desires, it could be economically risky for a women's magazine to deviate from the dominant societal messages regarding women's gender roles which these magazines currently reflect and reinforce. However, this does not mean that women's magazines cannot be examined and critiqued, but they should be recognised as a particular discourse which creates particular effects. Reading women's magazines may indeed be entertaining and pleasurable, but this enjoyment for readers ‘cannot be understood as ‘innocent’, nor separated from their ideological function in women's lives’ (Ballaster et al. 1991: 169). These magazines create and reflect a particular and often dominant discourse on femininity and in this case health. Even though women's magazines are only one of many discourses women encounter in their daily lives, understanding this discourse, its silences and effects, and the understandings about health they promote is an important part of sociological inquiry.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References

I want to thank Sara-Jane Finlay and the referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I also wish to acknowledge my PhD committee, Helen Lenskyj, Pam Wakewich and Kari Dehli. My PhD work forming the foundation for this article was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship.

Note
  • 1

     While coding the articles in Chatelaine published in 2000 I found the content repetitive and formulaic and opted for a convenience sample of one full year and one per season for the remaining years for each of the three magazines resulting the in 760 articles included in this study.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Women's magazines
  5. Healthism
  6. Method
  7. Health is an important responsibility
  8. You are responsible
  9. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences
  10. Cautionary tales
  11. Inspirational stories
  12. Conclusions
  13. Acknowledgements
  14. References
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