Columbia, Mo. (May 28, 2010) — Popular women’s magazines tend to focus on what women can do as individuals to better their health yet largely ignore collective or institutional actions needed to address problems in health and healthcare, a Missouri School of Journalism study has found.
The study’s author, Assistant Professor Amanda Hinnant, analyzed articles on health through the lenses of various feminist perspectives. She found most coverage took a post-feminist view, focusing on self-help in a system assumed to be egalitarian, as opposed to other schools of feminist thinking which target cultural, economic and political forces and advocate dialogue and change at the societal level.
Researchers have suggested that health journalism focusing solely on the individual’s role may do a disservice because it turns attention away from government responsibilities and existing inequalities. “This focus on the individual doesn’t leave room for institutional or environmental causes for health problems. If the individual has total control, that means the individual has total responsibility for both the cause and the outcome,” Hinnant wrote.
“This focus on the individual doesn’t leave room for institutional or environmental causes for health problems.”
The study looked at 148 health articles and coverlines in the nine biggest-selling women’s magazines for March 2004: Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Redbook, and O, the Oprah Magazine. These magazines reach more than 35 million readers.
Most articles framed seeking better health as a way of taking control of your life, yet Hinnant suggested this was an illusion of control. “Mood, stress and energy are frequently substituted as symbols for health. Maintaining good health means constantly patrolling the borders for a bad mood, high stress and low energy,” she wrote. “What materializes is the notion that the pursuit of wellness will result in a life in control, when in fact it is a life that is controlled by the tyranny of constant surveillance.”
Hinnant found that weight loss was the most common health issue covered. Most articles did not approach weight loss as an appeal to vanity but as an avenue to health and wellness. Nutrition and fitness stories tended to be based on the premise of improving heart health or preventing cancer.
The study did find articles that provided empowering perspectives, including some that presented women as agents in their own well-being who could speak on a par with experts. These articles underlined feminist principles of self-determination and/or fostering a dialogue among women.
Hinnant also found a handful of articles that advocated broad social change, such as stories on the need for mandatory Hepatitis-A vaccinations or about families who have lived with toxic mold. She termed it “striking” that several articles in Glamour magazine focused on political issues: one about international cultural, fiscal, and government conditions causing women to die from health problems; an editorial urging readers to join the 2004 March for Women’s Lives; and an article about how health issues may draw young women voters to the polls.
Hinnant’s article, “The Cancer on Your Coffee Table: A Discourse Analysis of the Health Content in Mass-circulated Women’s Magazines,” was published in Feminist Media Studies Vol. 9, No. 3, 2009.
Updated: May 12, 2020