Dear SELF Magazine

One of the requirements of my kickass counseling class this semester is to participate in some social justice advocacy. Those of you who know me, know I like this kind of thing. However, there is a catch. Whatever we say we’re going to do on paper…well…we have to actually do it. So I have to actually send this letter to SELF magazine…outlining why I will no longer buy their publication and why other women should do the same…

Dear SELF Magazine,

I have been a long time on-again, off-again reader of your publication for the last ten years or so. I am also a consumer of other health and fitness magazines. After looking through several different publications in recent months, I became increasingly aware of the impact of magazines such as yours on perpetuating impossible physical ideals for women.

I have long appreciated your information on health and fitness, particularly the annual SELF Challenge. I also feel inspired about your success stories of real women who improved their own health and quality of life by making significant changes in their own lives. More recently, I have also come to appreciate the quality of your advertising. Your magazine includes advertisements for running shoes (as opposed to the uber thin model wearing them), natural health and beauty products such as Burt’s Bees, and wholesome, mostly natural foods. Your ads contribute to your overarching message that women can and should be healthy, fit and happy from the inside out.

My primary concern, however, is that you ultimately are selling a mixed message. Recently, you have come under scrutiny for the issue in which Kelly Clarkson is on the cover as well as a feature story. Anyone who has paid attention to entertainment media in the last few months is aware that Kelly Clarkson’s weight has changed from her days on American Idol. Right now, she is at what she calls her “happy weight”—what you call “being healthy, fit and happy from the inside out.” That part is fine. What is not in any way acceptable is the fact that you tell women to love themselves as they are (which Ms. Clarkson seems to be doing these days) while you retouch and airbrush not only Ms. Clarkson’s cover photo, but all other cover models as well. Your message is clearly inconsistent. However, your editor does not seem to find that to be the case—which brings me to my next concern.

Your editor, in interviews with morning talk shows, said that SELF did not retouch Clarkson’s photo to make her look slim. Then she posted a couple of blogs about this situation, in which she makes the case for retouching photos. She even goes so far as to describe using the magazine’s staff to retouch photos of herself that she didn’t find to be flattering after she finished a marathon. What happened to being healthy, fit and happy from the inside out? Your editor said that creating beautiful photos is “meant to inspire women to want to be their best.” The question I have is this: what does it really inspire/motivate women to want to be? With the number of women who read your publication—likely for the promise of flat abs without a single crunch…or the best body of our lives—I have to wonder if they aren’t also trying to look like your cover models as opposed to looking like their own healthy and beautiful selves. Also, if Ms. Clarkson doesn’t care what people think of her weight, and if you think that she is the role model for the rest of us, then why did you retouch her photo?

Speaking of models, you have (retouched) cover models and role models and modeling the standard for the norm. If you are going to spread the message that women of any size of any age can be “healthy, fit and happy from the inside out,” then you need to take responsibility for how you spread that message. Right now, you are not modeling your own ideas. You create a beautiful cover model in order to sell the magazine. The model you have created—on the cover and in the promises of thin beauty you offer—contributes to the impossible ideal women spend billions of dollars a year to try to attain. Many of them never do, of course, and continue to feel badly about themselves, developing poor body image and a lower sense of self worth. Instead, it would be great for you to lead the charge—to really be a model of a healthy women’s health/fitness/beauty industry publication. It would be great if you would sell a healthy message—one that’s realistic and attainable.

When you retouched Ms. Clarkson’s photo, you squelched the very message she was trying to convey. You took away from her inspirational power and you destroyed your own integrity. What’s more, you did it with such hubris, thinking it was perfectly acceptable to do so. I disagree. It is perfectly unacceptable. Consequently, I want to call you to begin to be a role model for the women’s magazine industry. For the next three issues (October-December), don’t retouch a single photo. In the mean time, I think Ms. Clarkson deserves an apology for usurping her very positive and healthy outlook for your own financial gain. You did it to sell covers, and that is not OK.

I will be looking out for the next few months to see if you have done these things. If not, I will not purchase another issue of your magazine, and I will encourage other women to consider whether SELF is worth their time and money, given the message they would actually be buying.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Selling Mixed Messages

Dear Women’s Health/Fitness Magazine Industry,

I, like so many other women, hold–either presently or some time in the past–a subscription to your publication. I may even hold a friend’s subscription as a gift. If I am not a subscriber, either presently or some time in the past, I have purchased your publication based on what the cover said that particular issue contained.

Quite frankly, I am presently, and have been for some time, frustrated and disappointed with all of you.

You talk about how those of us “real” women can achieve great results and get into the best shape of our lives, but you never once put a “real” woman on the cover. Instead, you relegate her to one of your success stories. Don’t get me wrong. Those stories are highly inspiring. But that’s all the air time any “real” woman gets. Instead, you chose your cover models carefully…and if someone messes up a little, it’s OK. You’ve got an airbrush for that.

You talk about how to get “perfect” abs…thighs…butts…arms…whatever. I’ve yet to see it delivered.

One of you recently included as a cover story a “shocking” report on detox diets…and promised to tell us the things we ought to know so as not to cause harm to our bodies. Somewhere around 3-5 pages before the printed story, you advertised a popular detox program that can be found at our local GNCs.

Many of you made a crap ton of money from selling Hydroxycut ads.

The problem is that, while ads generate revenue which you need to keep bringing us these fantastic publications each month or two, you are selling the reader mixed messages: Here’s how to get in great shape. Do these exercises. Pop these pills.

There’s rarely a Do these exercises. Eat more plants. Drink more water. kind of advertising or message on its own merit. I’ve yet to see a The reason you may not be able to lost those extra pounds may lie in your thyroid or an undiagnosed food allergy.

You are not selling health. You are perpetuating the lofty, socially-driven, unattainable ideal. And you are being irresponsible.

What would it do for your publication to instead sell REAL health and REAL beauty. The kind that are found in women of all ages, shapes and sizes? What if you stopped cowing to advertisers’ dollars and really led the way to changing popular media’s portrayal…and objectification…of women?

Oh sure. Women make the choice to purchase your publication. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it. But let’s face it. Women are buying a dream. Shouldn’t you be selling them a better one?

However, I would like to say thank you for publishing letters along these lines where women write in and point out how disappointed they are that you do not portray real women. And for your yummy recipes.

Now, if you would go beyond printing the letters to actually changing your work…