The Vagenda

Sneaking Almond Milk Into Your Suitcase and Dieting Until Your Period Stops: What it’s Really Like Working For a Women’s Fitness Magazine


I started running some years ago. That first, tentative heavy jog around Wandsworth Common in baggy grey trousers and my PE trainers changed my life. From there I dove head first into the health and fitness world, and this hasn’t come without some unhealthy troubles.

Running has remained the constant. And this has been wholeheartedly positive. I’ve steadily grown my Lycra collection, run marathons, half marathons and other races, made great friends, got a job at a running magazine, achieved thighs so muscular my jeans no longer fit… But with the plunge into this world – the websites, the magazines, the forums – came a dark side riddled with conflict, confusion, insecurity and, well, ill health.

Over the years, I’ve watched various trends come and go. The fun diets and fitness movements – you know, eating seven eggs one day and then only beetroot the next, adding cayenne pepper to your lemonade, clocking 1,000-calorie workouts, something to do with cavemen when people hashtag ‘paleo’. May I tentatively suggest that the reason we don’t eat like cavemen and live in caves anymore is because, y’know, we don’t have to?

This year the extreme has hit the mainstream. National newspapers are telling us to give up sugar; The Times even had a model explain how. I’ve upped my banana consumption to three a day in protest (you can have 25 a day before potassium levels get dangerous, FYI). People in my office are on the 5:2 diet. The fridge is leaking almond milk. Chocolate-lovers are eating medjool dates instead. Now I’m one of the biggest date-lovers – I’d go to the Middle East just to eat the best ones going – but please! I’m drinking matcha tea as I write this, for goodness’ sake, and no matter what anyone tells you, it really doesn’t taste great when you get to the lumps.

My ‘normal’ friends and my three very head-screwed-on sisters look on in confusion. I recently sneaked some almond milk into my luggage on a family holiday and was met with outrage. When I got back, I went on a five-day juice detox and my sisters sent me abusive texts. I only actually made it to 10pm of the first day (but that’s hardly the point) – no matter what you read in magazines about it being tough but then feeling really energised, and having glowing skin and hair, it’s just not worth giving up food and drinking celery for. Believe me, I tried.

The trouble is that this is the message you get from the media. I work in health magazines and I’m surrounded by the reality; it isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears.

Staff regularly take part in challenges to ‘get ripped’. A recent example was a ‘six-week flat belly challenge’. Three female staff members underwent a psychologically scarring ‘before’ shoot in a brightly lit basement studio, wearing far-too-tight underwear to emphasise those ‘flabby’ bellies. Then, six weeks later a glamorous ‘after’ picture hailed the results.

These girls worked their asses off to get into shape: 90-minute daily sweat fests, carb-free meals, banana bans, weekly weigh-ins. I watched my good friend, who was incidentally in the best shape of her life pre-challenge, question everything she thought she knew about being healthy, suffer more body insecurity than she’d ever experienced, and become envious when her colleague mentioned her periods had stopped. Was her body fat not low enough to stop her ovaries working properly, goddammit? Disruption to the menstrual cycle is a common side effect of low body fat. And that’s just one example – the grim realities are endless. But when the final feature came out, none of that was documented. The reader just saw a slightly modified meal plan (they can’t publish how little they were actually eating!) and a short account of it being hard work but worth it for the results (‘Sure, it was hard not eating bread, but look at my abs’).

How can this be positive when the reader sees that her hips are wider than the girl’s in the picture, and tries the plan to no avail?

I always thought it was a journalist’s job to tell the truth. Even if the truth is a bit grim. For the bulk of humans, to get ab definition you need to stop seeing your friends, work out like a demon and eat chicken breast for breakfast. Even lentils have too many carbs. If the challenge was about what it really takes to be a bikini model, then it’s valid: it proves to the masses that being a bikini model is a full-time job requiring discipline and deprivation, and one that’s not viable for most people. Furthermore, getting visible abs isn’t really enough, because then what? You’re still the same person. Why don’t they tell us this?

The problem, sadly, doesn’t stop there. You can’t just choose not to buy the magazines sending out these messages. Once you’re invested in the health and fitness world there is a whole manner of things to obsess over and, erm, aspire to. I love people being active and doing things that make them happy, and if their happy cloud seeps into mine through a tweet or a blog post, then lovely. Positivity is super. But can we just take a second to ask about all the extreme fitspiration? The smug vegan food bloggers, and the people screaming ‘strong is the new skinny’ (while being skinny but also having abs). I am a self-confessed sucker for it. I thrive on these blogs. My Instagram is swelling with pictures of rainbow salads and thigh gaps. Swelling, I tell thee.

It’s an unhealthy obsession and I’m not proud. I gave up my Daily Mail celebrities-in-bikinis online feed six months ago. I’m six months clean! But I’ve found other things with which to fill my insecure head.

I hate how often I think about my body. Every time I catch my reflection or see a photo of myself, my eyes aren’t drawn to my happy face, I focus on my arms or how ‘cheeky’ I look. I know that happiness doesn’t come from a thigh gap from giving up going out for dinner. I’m an active person and it makes me feel brilliant, but there is still this unhealthy edge to my desire to be healthy, and it troubles me. I’m not sure what the answer is and, in 10 years’ time, I am sure I’ll look at pictures of my present self with envy (that’s what wiser people say to me, anyway). It doesn’t stop it happening.

We all need something to strive for, but this ideal body is not a real something. I’m aspiring to a false reality I know I don’t even want. The beautifully shot Instagram pictures of that vegan desert and the classic ‘hipbones on the beach’ selfie are just that: tactfully taken images of isolated things. The rest is made up in your head.

The press does its bit to enforce an unrealistic health ideals and then it filters through into every lifestyle choice. Of course I want the world to be health-aware, but it’s gone too far and we all need to calm down. Go for a run, then eat toast. It’s OK! Eating toast is OK. It doesn’t even have to be gluten-free – and if it is, it’ll cost you £3 a loaf. But getting sucked into the world of women’s health and fitness as it exists now might cost you one hell of a lot more.

34 thoughts on “Sneaking Almond Milk Into Your Suitcase and Dieting Until Your Period Stops: What it’s Really Like Working For a Women’s Fitness Magazine

  1. Thank God for that final paragraph. If you, after all that dieting and working in such a judgemental work environment came out the other side, there’s hope for us all yet.

    I read that it is normal for women to have up 30% body fat. That’s a third of our total weight can be fat and that’s still normal and healthy. As much as I dislike the idea of being a mother, we need to stop denying the biological fact and millions of years of evolution that have made us bloody good at continuing the human race.

    My 25 yo housemate told me yesterday that he read an article in a teen girl magazine that girls generally hated facial hair, the less the better. So just on that one fleeting glance at something that wasn’t intended for him, made such an impact that he still believes it today. We need stop believing and acting on the BS these mags peddle to us. All they want at the end of the day is our money.

  2. This is a really brilliant article. I’m a guy who’s pretty active – running, climbing, walking my dog and am so much healthier than I was a few years ago but still have been bummed out because I think it looked like I had a bit of a paunch in a photograph.

    You’re so right about there being a dark edge to the desire to be healthy. I find exercise as an essential component of my mental health and it’s so tough when image can bleed into that and ruin it.

    We’re all bombarded with this shit but I can only imagine how bad it is for girls and women, and those who don’t ID themselves as male or who don’t fit into any of those boxes at all – because they really do get the brunt of it. Men are told beer is good because it makes you a man and protein is good because it makes you a man – and being a man, no matter what your shape or size, is good.

    It must be exhausting being a non-male.

    (I love this website and try to read as much as I can on it. I went to an all boys school which was a breeding ground for misogyny so really see this site as a big part of my self-enforced re-education.)

  3. “You can’t just choose not to buy the magazines sending out these messages.”

    This is exactly what my biggest issue is with this whole faux-health extreme. It’s everywhere in our lives as women that health and body image are forever connected. The Stylist advertorial magazine one week will be publishing a whole issue on feminism and the next? Telling us that running makes our faces saggy and as women we should watch out for that.

    It’s a minefield and thank you for writing this so maybe we can see our way through a bit more clearly now.

  4. I’d like to mention that on getting to the end of this article I logged on to myfitnesspal and added the extra slice of toast and cup of tea with – horror of horrors – milk that I had left out of my diary yesterday. I have no social media connected to the app and I HAD eaten the food. I was just too scared of the net calorie box turning red from breaking 1750 calories so I lied to a machine. Who needs to worry about being judged by society anymore when you can do it yourself?!

    • I don’t know about that – our internal judgements are just our ideas of how we think other people will judge us (we really are *that* social). Things like the Daily Mail, fitness magazines and calorie-counting apps just reinforce a belief that everyone else is judging us all the time, when in fact (as the article sets out very clearly) they’re all spending so much time judging themselves they haven’t time or effort to think about us.

      It’s a pretty scary story indeed. The last time I heard about weight loss stopping someone’s periods was in relation to a friend’s anorexic sister – it’s shocking that “health” can drive people down the same psychologically-misshapen road.

      The craziest thing of all, to my view, is how many people get caught up in this, and how much of a social obsession it is to aspire to the image of the day. After all, another constant to all this is that no one actually feels pressure to conform directly from those around them – the author above certainly doesn’t seem to have felt direct pressure from her colleagues (though perhaps it would have been frowned upon to put cows’ milk in amongst all that almond milk), nor from her family (quite the reverse). And she certainly doesn’t seem to have contributed any pressure to the unfortunate women who punished themselves to weightloss. This tallies with my experiences of my friends: none of whom do anything but support one another (at least to my knowledge), and yet all of whom aspire to lose weight or become more muscular. How can an impersonal magazine exert more emotional pressure than our friends and loved ones can counter with support? The only explanation I can see is that human beings are hard-wired to be anxious about something, and when everything else is going OK, they become anxious about the flippant things (a kind of hierarchy of needs explanation).

  5. To be honest, whilst this is a great article, it is aimed at those who take diet tips verbatim and aspire to a thigh gap. I am 5 9, 12 stone (yes really) with a flat stomach and size 12 hips. Apparently no celebrity now days weighs above 8 1/2 stone. This has to be BS. Along with alot of the articles we read about how to be ‘healthy’. But if you use them as inspiration to make healthy changes (go to the gym, cut out white carbs, get your 7 fruit and veg a day) they are useful. If you follow them religiously and expect to look like a Victoria’s Secret model (who are often genetically this way- my sister is my height and a size 6- without the need to diet!). Then frankly you deserve to loose all your Saturday nights to the gym and cider vinegar until you work out that having a body others want should not define your self worth. A persobal lack of perspective is hardly the fitness industry’s fault.

    • Emma, it sounds like you’re in a great place with your body and have a healthy perspective – so no criticism of your mindset is intended in this post.

      However, I think these articles are attempting to verbalize the pressure that a lot of women put themselves under when it comes to their bodies, pressure which this sort of media does little to ease and a lot to intensify.

      You say that the fitness industry carries no blame for a person’s lack of personal perspective, and fair enough, but surely they carry some blame for publishing inaccurate articles? The “six week flat belly challenge” was obviously not reported properly. It can only be construed as a conscious attempt to shame women into buying more of these magazines in a perpetual attempt to figure out where they are going ‘wrong’ because they don’t get the same results.

      Markets are meant to be built on demand – i.e. you sell something that people want to consume. The whole Vagenda campaign seems to be building the hypothesis that the women’s magazine market is different. It exists because women are conditioned socially to be self-flagellating about their bodies and their looks. In the modern “fix-it” era, these products have developed to make money from our ingrained temptation to self-hate.

      It is literally a parasite market, selling something unachievable in three easy steps so that, when it doesn’t work, it’s YOU that failed. But don’t worry, there’s always another chance to get it right next time…

      (Apologies if this is repeating stuff from the Vagenda book – I have a holiday in a month and I’m saving it for then.)

      I suppose my key point is, yes, people COULD use extreme diets, bikini-ready challenges and other ridiculous articles as an inspiration to live healthily, but why the hell should they have to filter out all the BS to get that message?

      Where the fuck is the ‘fitness’ magazine which actually focuses on the sodding ‘fitness’, not achieving some ridiculously low body fat goal?

      Because I am really hoping that there are enough well-adjusted, sensible women like you out there who would give that magazine a decent readership, and hopefully start pulling in all of us other women who need a bit of help shouting down that socially-implanted, nasty little voice that says “you need to be thin and pretty, not just healthy.”

      P.S. If that magazine exists, Vagenda readers, let me know!

      • ^^ Men’s fitness magazines are a lot better for general wellbeing and fitness tips from what I can gather (I used to work with a few). It seems like, although obviously there’s that appearance-based aspect, they’re very honest about the commitments the models and “test subjects” are undertaking and generally the focus is on being stronger and fitter than on achieving the perfect hot bod. I think there might have even been an article on here not long ago highlighting the differences between men’s and women’s fitness mags.

    • Yes and all the people who lapped up Nazi propoganda should just be blamed for personal lack of perspective too. Bit of an extreme example but…the magazine industry is essentially propoganda.

  6. Great article! I have for about the last 4 months been eating a lot more vegetables. I tried the 5:2 before that and it turned me KERAZY. I had never EVER been a no-desert-for-me-thanks person or dieted before but that insane scheme made me obsess about food and my body every bloody waking moment (and some of my sleeping ones too). I was actually chastising myself for eating more than 100 calories for lunch. LITERALLY. I wrote about it here (not trying to spam, just if you’re interested in hearing what these stupid diets can do to sane people who consider themselves feminists) – Thankfully I’ve now come to my senses and realised that I will never be ‘bikini ready’ and I don’t give a f*ck. I just eat more vegetables now cos it makes me feel good and the reaction you get when you take a whole cucumber out of your handbag and chow down on the tube is f*cking hilarious. Peace out.

  7. I find it frustrating that the #fitspiration #paleo #eatclean #strongnotskinny trend seems to be giving people with eating disorders a socially acceptable forum to discuss and promote their unsustainable and unrealistic (and EXPENSIVE) eating/exercise habits. Because they position it as health and fitness-focused, rather than purely weight loss, it seems to fool a lot of people into thinking that this is not disordered eating, which (IMO) it is.

    I have a friend who spends about £100 every few weeks in Holland & Barrett buying various vitamins and seeds and pastes. When I ask her what it is she’s just poured into her water/almond milk, it’s invariably some kind of miracle seed/serum which gives you 10x your RDA of vitamin C or potassium, etc. What she seems to forget is that if you already eat healthily (which, of course, she does), it’s pretty redundant spending an extra £100 to give your body vitamins it already has in high supplies.

    There is a difference between eating well and exercising regularly, and obsessing over eating well and exercising regularly. Just because the ultimate goal is abs, rather than ribs, doesn’t make it any less of a psychological problem. Starving yourself of carbs, even if it’s the kind or carbs that are found in broccoli and are therefore accompanied by lots of vitamins and nutrients, stems from the same strain of thought as does starving yourself from all food. It’s about control and paranoia, and I feel sad that mainstream media and celebrities are promoting this type of eating as healthy and something to which everyone should aspire. Did I mention it’s incredibly expensive to live this way?! (Yes, I did.)

    Also, Robbie, I would like to be your friend.

    • Yes exactly! I can think of one person in particular who does just this, and it’s very frustrating not to mention worrying.

  8. As a palaeoanthropologist, the Paleo Diet is bulsh, in case any of you had any doubts.
    I’m too obsessed with food to go on diets, but as a fellow runner, I do enjoy it more than I should when exercise results in improved muscle definition/flatter belly etc, when really I should be more focused on what it means for my physical ability. The really worrying part was when I thought I should give up doing press-ups in case it made my arms too muscly. (I have since come to my senses and will use my not-actually-that-bulky arms to hit anybody who complains about my appearance)

  9. It’s possible for things to be different, even whilst living in our messed-up society.

    I’m pretty into general fitness type stuff, but I count myself lucky to have got into it via the world of Egyptian dance, which is generally a very body-positive community. So I came to this stuff with the mindset that I wanted to make my body stronger and better co-ordinated so I could dance better, rather than to change the way I looked. My gym buddy is another dancer, and we *never* talk about weight or dieting or body shape, just about how we want to be able to lift heavier or improve our endurance, and how much we’re looking forward to eating a massive, cheese-filled dinner when we get home.

    I’ve also ended up not consuming much pop culture for a few years now (no magazines, no TV, no bad bits of the internet), and basically live in my own happy little bubble of music and dance – and I am genuinely happy with my body most of the time now. But I can easily see how I wouldn’t be happy if I was regularly reading all the stuff that’s out there aimed at women, with all the thigh gaps and diet/weight obsession and neuroses about cellulite and circles of shame what have you.

    I think what makes the most difference, for me, is having found the right community of like-minded women with a healthy attitude to fitness. It means that I have moral support and advice and stuff sorted, and don’t need to expose myself to the objectifying, image-obsessed mainstream media too much. So um… try to find the right real-life friends, and be a bit of a hermit from the outside media world, would be my advice were I to give any :p

    I do understand that not everyone wants to have to be a hermit :) And it would be much better if this weren’t necessary at all. it works quite nicely if you’re a single-minded introverted geek anyway though.

  10. On the pic of the magazine cover, there is NOTHING about women’s fitness – it’s a diet magazine! It’s all about weight loss – what about being, er, FIT, you know as in moving the muscles in your body??? BTW I love food and I eat lots of it!!!

  11. I’ve worked on loads of different women’s health magazines and this wasn’t my experience at all. Most of my colleagues were fit without being obsessive and most of us were too busy pulling pages together to go on crazy diets or fantasise about thigh gaps. Some of us hoovered up the freebie snacks and couldn’t be fucked to walk for the bus let alone go to the gym. All of the magazines have been inspiring places to work and instlled in me a love of being active and nourishing my body. Clearly some people take this message too far, but I’m not sure we can blame health magazines for obsessive behaviour.

  12. That said, I never worked on Women’s Fitness (the mag pictured above) and if the coverlines are anything to go by then it’s clearly a crock. All of them refer to looks and image. Depressing. Perhaps there’s a difference between health mags and ‘fitness’ ones. I guess that’s something to be aware of.

  13. On the hottest day of the year, stuck in a fitness studio for another hour of step, realising that there were no men in the whole gym, let alone men feeling they had to be getting on with getting in 60 mins cardio a day minimum… this article resonates so strongly.

    I can’t think of the last time I walked past a mirror and didn’t feel downcast by the little tummy between my hips before I’d even looked at my face. Agree, today I lied to an app that thinks 1200 calories a day might help me lose weight.

    WHY are all the men I care about scrawny, or tubby or just damn FAT and somehow still HAPPY?? WHY do we, the women, have to work so damn hard to remain only moderately dissatisfied with our bodies?

    Can we stop caring? I know I can’t. And it makes me cry because I will never *ever* win.

  14. It’s so fucking depressing, and I’m so tired of it.

    As someone who is “out” as having had an eating disorder for a huge chunk of life, the question I most get asked is “How low was your weight” – when I say “Not that low, but my skin was grey, my hair was falling out, and I couldn’t get off the couch”, they’re disappointed. They want numbers, and they want diet tips! LOSE 5 KILOS FAST. EAST A SLICE OF BREAD A DAY (mmm, white bread!!!)

    These magazines – and I’m blaming pretty much every one that ever existed – tell people (mostly Women, but Robbie, thanks, you’re awesome!) that you can lose 400 kilos in a week, eat nothing but Kale and Sprouts whilst running 48km in an hour, and people believe them. Why? Because we’ve been told it for so LONG that it must be true.

    Do you know what this DOES to people? It tells my friend who’s big that she CANT be sexually assaulted (she was) because she’s big, and big “isn’t attractive”. It tells me that despite the fact I DO cycle 25km each way on my commute it’s not enough and I should eat less to get abs, and it tells every body out there that our bodies are not good enough to simply exist.

    I’m so tired of this! Also? Maybe angry!

  15. Thank you so much for writing this. I wrote a blog on a similar theme recently about the complete fitness/fitspiration/clean living overload that seems to bombard me from all sides.

    I’m at my ‘heavy’ weight at the moment and haven’t exercised regularly in quite a while. It’s a bizarre thing to say, but I actually feel nervous about giving healthy living a go anymore (my version – eating quite healthily and running a couple of times a week) because it just won’t cut it anymore unless I’m juicing, lifting weights and training for a marathon. It’s all, frankly, overwheming!

  16. The part about leaving out most of the work is so true in most aspects of modelling. I remember shooting for a ‘how to get this look’ spread – the actual look took 39 steps and 2+ hours. The spread showed 6 of them because they just wanted to make it fit, and 39 doesn’t seem as achievable.

    Ultimately, looking like the cover models in any magazine is down to genes. Even the ones in fitness mags start off with the ‘right’ base.

  17. I had a friend who suffers from BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) and her attitude to food/exercise was so sad. She introduced me to that magazine and I read it and gave it straight back to her in disgust. I’m into being fit but I detest the following: (1) “bikini ready” – I have a bikini, am I not ready? Why should I lose weight to wear a piece of clothing? (2) “(exercise) to be slim” – why can’t I exercise because I love it? I hate the gym but love dance classes – not to be “slim” but because it makes me happy and I enjoy the music? And I love food so no diet is acceptable to me. I eat well – lots of different foods, portion control and variety – that’s my motto. In the end, we stopped being friends because I hated the way she scrutinised other friends’ weight and she stopped being fun to be around (couldn’t eat/drink with her anymore). Tried to get her help but she wasn’t interested. These magazines are disgusting and I just hope they won’t exist eventually. And god, don’t get me started on wedding magazines….

  18. Having worked on various consumer publications, including a lifestyle title for raw vegans and writing for walking magazines, I’ve seen, heard and experienced all kinds of attitudes to so-called health and fitness from staff and readers. Just like every other magazine niche, photography, gardening, classic cars, there are good and bad titles – it’s finding the right one that’s the tricky bit. Maybe Women In Sport: if it’s still going.

    Maybe it’s average and normal we should all be striving for? Which includes ‘bikini ready’ meaning owning one!

  19. YES. I know several women who are all about being fit, doing the insanity workout, living in the gym (telling everyone they know about it) but really it’s just borderline thinspiration dressed up as something ostensibly healthy, which is spreading quickly with the aid of social media.

    I’ve largely given up reading women’s mags, celeb rags and “sidebar of shame”-esque articles (and can honestly say I worry less about my appearance as a result), but every time I catch an article with some improbably thin and 6 packed woman claiming she only “does Pilates a couple of times a week” I feel the urge to shout BOLLOCKS really loudly (yeah she may have great genes, but whatever). Thank you to this article for pointing out that looking this way is a full time job, and not actually healthy.

  20. Once we stop believing that health looks a certain way this will be done with. Yes we are programmed to find certain things attractive because they indicate health, like a good complexion, but I think it’s gotten twisted and we have started to label what we consider attractive, aka pictures of skinny people with muscles, as healthy. There have got to be better things that could even be remotely considered a global signal of health for our very varied human race. Like the sort of things you would learn from a blood test or body posture. Aka things that actually affect the positive functioning of our body.

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