Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness

Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness

Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness

Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness


Are you ripped? Do you need to work on your abs? Do you know your ideal body weight? Your body fat index? Increasingly, Americans are being sold on a fitness ideal not just thin but toned, not just muscular but cut that is harder and harder to reach. In Body Panic , Shari L. Dworkin and Faye Linda Wachs ask why. How did these particular body types come to be "fit"? And how is it that having an unfit, or "bad," body gets conflated with being an unfit, or "bad," citizen?

Dworkin and Wachs head to the newsstand for this study, examining ten years worth of men's and women's health and fitness magazines to determine the ways in which bodies are "made" in today's culture. They dissect the images, the workouts, and the ideology being sold, as well as the contemporary links among health, morality, citizenship, and identity that can be read on these pages. While women and body image are often studied together, Body Panic considers both women's and men's bodies side-by-side and over time in order to offer a more in-depth understanding of this pervasive cultural trend.


A quick stroll past any newsstand will reveal a plethora of magazines devoted to health and fitness. “Healthy,” “fit” bodies are draped across covers. Serving as advertisements, cover models beckon, enticing readers. Take a closer look. Choose a magazine. Pick it up, and your eyes will undoubtedly peruse the finely tuned form on the cover, communicating the meaning of the words “health” and “fitness,” singing it to you through rippling muscles. As if they could speak to you, cover models' eyes look back at you with pride. “Hard work,” you hear the implied whisper. All of you can do it. The uniformity of bodily appearances that stretches down the wall of magazines stands in silent, sharp contrast to the cavalcade of bodies in all shapes and sizes moving past the bustling newsstands along such streets as 42nd Street in New York City or on the Third Street promenade in Santa Monica, California.

Invariably, men's health and fitness magazines feature an athletic man posing in a tank top, or shirtless. Usually he is white, has a “healthy” tan, and his vascular, cut form implies the successful engagement in and cumulative repetition of a variety of bodily practices. Bulging biceps, defined broad shoulders with rippling striations, cut six-or eight-pack abs, and wide, pumped chests merge into a singular ideal. Nearby, a second character awaits. Women's health and fitness magazine covers “flesh out” this being in detail. She is “perky” and inviting with a coy smile, she leans, lilts or languishes, displaying a lean, tight, compact body beneath monochromatic smooth skin, in tight, revealing clothing. Frequently she wears a bikini. Also usually white, she is tight and toned, but lacks visible rips or cuts. Her muscles are long and lean, and certainly not “too big,” while her body possesses a subtle dose of curvaceousness.

The differences between the two bodies are striking. Big. Little. Wide. Narrow. Bursting. Contained. Massive. Toned. Gender seems to permeate . . .

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