I became an avid Muscle and Fitness Hers reader when I first moved back to Massachusetts from Georgia and began working two jobs and twelve hour days, to afford health insurance, rent, groceries, and bills. By day I was an on-call substitute teacher, by night I was a receptionist at a Chevy dealership. To say that this year of waking up at 5:30 every morning, wondering if my phone was going to ring inviting me in to work for the day, not knowing if I’d be pretending to know Spanish in a middle school classroom or teaching high school Calculus to seniors on the verge of graduation, running to my car at 2:30 to weave and dodge through after-school traffic to be at the dealership by 3, closing out transactions for the entire day by myself in a gray- walled box beside the shop, returning home to cook dinner for myself and my then-husband who would leave for work a half hour after I arrived, lesson planning until after midnight when I was covering for the same classroom for weeks at a time, then waking up to repeat the cycle again the following day was a challenge would be an understatement. The days really started to wear on me and I needed some sort of outlet.
When I was younger I dreamed of growing up to be a professional ballerina. Things didn’t quite work out as I’d expected, but my early days of dancing instilled in me a love for physical fitness. When the work days started to string together in an endless cycle I began to crave the endorphin rush I knew would come after a good workout. My former husband and I had purchased a giant home gym and elliptical when we were living in Georgia and both had made the move back north. I started waking up early enough to get in a workout before beginning the day.
Maybe it was because I always took dance classes growing up, but as an adult I never feel like I’ve challenged myself enough unless I’ve worked out in a led class. There were some mornings where I would lie down on the cold floor to stretch and find myself shutting my eyes and napping instead of getting back up for another set of overhead presses. I passed by Muscle and Fitness Hers magazines at the supermarket one Saturday night and the picture of the perfectly toned model on the front cover convinced me to buy a copy.
I bought the magazines regularly for over two years, reading them cover to cover, then trying the new moves from the “training” section. It wasn’t a class, but it was something for me to follow as closely as I could to avoid cheating my workout.
At some point in that time, the magazine switched editors and started focusing much more on supplements and the proper fitness diet. I started to notice too the ads that covered practically every other page and featured too-perfect models clutching the latest pills, pudding, and protein powders. I don’t believe in gaining the “perfect” body from pills or protein shakes and to see these things marketed so forcefully was disappointing.
Just before leaving for the road trip I went online in an attempt to suspend my gym membership so that I wouldn’t have to pay full price for something I knew I wouldn’t be using. While logged in to the online system I found a section of graphs for personal usage. In my most popular month I’d only gone to the gym five times, some months not at all. Although this probably makes it seem like I never work out, I can assure you that all of the days I wasn’t at the gym were spent at the yoga studio, running through my neighborhood, or working out with my weight set and elliptical at home.
I got the gym membership originally just after I’d taken swimming lessons last summer. In just six weeks I went from being afraid to put my mouth and nose under water simultaneously to swimming laps across the pool. I didn’t want to lose my new skills, so I bought the membership to the only local gym that had an indoor pool. Despite my dedication to continue swimming, I only visited the pool twice. Even at 10:00 on a Saturday night the pool was always filled with men who looked like they were training to be the next Michael Phelps. I was proud of how far I’d come in a few weeks, but too intimidated to share a pool, let alone another lane, with these future Olympians.
Every time I walked through the rest of the gym with its endless rows of cardio equipment, treadmills, and free weights I thought of hamsters in an over-crowded, sweat-soaked, smelly cage. I was lucky if I could find an open machine near a window so that I could stare out and watch people in the nearby apartment building. Usually I went to hit the heavy bag, but there were only two and most of the time they weren’t hung up so I’d spend fifteen minutes setting up the aerobics steps, dragging the bag across the floor, hoisting it up to the 21st step just before climbing up myself so that I could hook it from the metal loops on the ceiling. I’d asked the front desk for help the first time I found the bags in the corner on the floor, but I was told there was no one to help except for maybe a personal trainer who might be able to give me a minute of time if I could find one on the second floor.
So when I saw my limited use and couldn’t find a way to suspend my membership, I decided to just cancel it altogether knowing I’d find another way to stay in shape if I landed back in Massachusetts after my road trip.
I woke up this morning happy to be in my own bed, brewed a fresh cup of my favorite coffee, and pulled out my old stack of Hers magazines. While I sipped my coffee and ate my breakfast I went through and ripped out all of the “training” sections and discarded the rest of the photos and ads. Though I took away a fair amount of good quality workouts, in comparison to the large stack of leftovers it was not nearly enough to convince me to become a regular reader again.
Worse than the lack of workouts in the fitness magazines though are the pictures– the main reason why I stopped buying the magazines.
Looking back, I’m not really even sure how this was possible, but I didn’t know what Photoshopping and airbrushing could do to a picture until my mid-twenties. For most of my life I strived to look like the photos of models in magazines with their perfectly long legs that don’t touch at the top, washboard abs, sculpted arms, and beautiful flowing hair. I remember when I first saw a picture of a model before and after retouching I was shocked. I felt like I’d been lied to my whole life. I can only imagine the countless other teenagers and adults who, like me, thought that eating healthy and working out regularly could make them look like the cover models on their favorite magazines and when all attempts failed resorted to over-exercising and under-eating in an attempt to meet this unrealistic ideal.
This morning as I flipped through the magazines I came across a cover photo of a beautiful blonde with the perfect body clutching a medicine ball emblazoned with the headline, “Get These Abs.” Even though I tore away the section filled with ab exercises and started the intense “summer body” workout this morning, I know I will never “get” those abs because I won’t allow a photograph of myself to be airbrushed and flaunted on the cover of a magazine.
I dream of a day when magazines will not be filled with female models who flaunt perfect spray tans, dyed hair extensions, and plastic surgery enhanced bust lines. Models who I’m sure work hard to look beautiful, but still must undergo a battery of Photoshopped enhancements that carve inches away from their waists and thighs, create more muscle definition than exists in real life, balloon out their breasts, and add light that accentuates every new curve that has been added and subtracted with the click of a mouse. Until the day when I see real women with real bodies and real beauty attained without extreme dieting, without supplements and pills, without plastic surgery, free from Photoshopping, airbrushing, and the erasure of every “imperfection” I will not buy another fitness magazine. I will not perpetuate the cycle of self-destruction that exists in our culture and is ingrained in us from the time we see the first ad, the first picture of society’s unattainable vision of beauty.