See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.
Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955) was a muscle boy, a media emperor, a health nut, and a visionary. His public knew him as Body Love. According to his own up-from-puniness accounts of his self-made manhood, Macfadden's great breakthrough came in 1898, when he designed a pamphlet to promote a resistance-spring exercise gizmo. The pamphlet became its own product—Physical Culture, America's first fitness magazine, soon a prominent venue for pictures of sweethearts swinging dumbbells and prose praising Upton Sinclair's muckraking. The text was the exercise, and form is enduring. To survey today's top fitness magazines—Body Love's teeming brood—is to anatomize the American soul as it tenses for action and to poke at the contemporary gut as it checks its many appetites.
The first fitness magazine to beckon me from the newsstand was Fitness itself. The logo on January's Special Total-Body Makeover issue smiled the same sunbeam yellow as the cover model's two-piece swimsuit, which she wore beneath a striped sweater from Express and a whimsical straw hat. Fitness is a product of Meredith Publications, which puts out Ladies' Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens, and it shares the family values and moral fiber of those bright behemoths. The recipes, consistently yummy, invite you to contemplate shrimp-and-shiitake risotto among other "low-cal comfort foods." The ads want you to choose Smucker's, to spray Febreze, to join the Marines. Most women's fitness magazines stand straight with a sense of civic duty, and Fitness is especially proud this month, with a big package—"Champions of Health and Fitness"—honoring the surgeon general. The letter from the editor finds Betty S. Wong sounding devoutly noncompetitive: "I'm going to worry less about my net finish time at races and focus more on simply having a good time." She and her girlfriends are gearing up for a carnivalesque half-marathon at Walt Disney World.
The Fitness woman is sometimes a 38-year-old IT project manager conquering a fear of swimming, and sometimes a mother of three kids under 5 modeling "instant pretty" beauty tips. But mostly the Fitness woman is the Fitness girl. The magazine is in conversation with a person in the market for fruity body washes, festive snow boots, and "jewel-toned sneaks." "Are there any cute workout clothes for under $25?" asks one party. "Can you work the new trend of leopard-print shorts at the gym?" answers the other. A list of the "100 Best Work Out Songs" slots the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" (2003) in its "Blast From the Past" section. From the corner of Page 26, one of the magazine's interns chimes in to say what she brought for lunch ("Mediterranean pizza. … Try a different hummus flavor, such as lemon or garlic, to treat your taste buds"). It's lovely to hear that magazine interns can afford to eat these days.
In Fitness, boys are few. Rare exceptions include a box on the philanthropy of "TV's hottest doc"—his two-day Dempsey Challenge—and the wholesome hunks in the ads: Drew Brees peaceful in his sleep after hitting the NyQuil, a Dempsey knockoff modeling Champion Cold Weather Gear by hoisting a lass over his shoulders. This is a favored means of transportation in this magazine genre, the piggy-back ride, with its vision of a readily liftable girl and its Jesus-carried-me spiritual aspect. An atmosphere of G-rated innocence, an image of total surrender: wholesome domination. But no lust, please, we're Middle-American.
The ideal reader of Shape, meanwhile, has for years now been putting on her leopard-print shorts one leg at a time. Shape is sugar-free candy confected by the people at Weider Publications, whose men's magazines did little for me. I don't have the right stuff for Muscle & Fitness, a glance at January's "Fat Burning Meal Plan" made clear. (I really don't mind eating the first of nine daily meals at 7 a.m., but the idea that black coffee is, in contrast to half a scoop of whey protein, "optional" at such an hour is risible.) I simply couldn't vibe on Men's Fitness, despite the savor with which coverboy Ashton Kutcher talks about Israeli combat training and his plans to use his bare hands to protect Demi and the kids—and Bruce, even, I suppose—in the coming apocalypse. "What happens when all our modern conveniences fail?" Ashton incisively blathers. "I'm going to be ready to take myself and my family to a safe place where they don't have to worry." And I could not achieve a physique and demeanor appropriate to Weider's Flex unless an accidental overdose of gamma radiation altered my body chemistry.
Shape, however, I could appreciate with a neutral eye. On the cover, Brooke Burke, a generically attractive host of ABC's Dancing With the Stars, says that "Sexy Is a State of Mind," thus giving voice to Shape's Cosmo streak, its helpful insistence that you play games with your own head, whether letting go of regrets or buying the most flattering jeans for your body size. There's a lot of fruit among its pages—palatial berries in an ad for sweetener, pretty citrus in an ad for lip balm. Slobbering over the lush crimson of cranberries and the tart curves of a quince in the editorial content, it became clear to me that the Shape girl is not just supposed to eat this food but identify with it. She is not a piece of meat.
Speaking of which: The iconography of the hamburger is crucial to fitness magazines, with grotesque double-patty pile-ups and surreal towers of lettuce leaves variously signing repulsion and signifying obsession. In this month's Shape, a male model is jamming one sloppy sandwich into himself whole, without chewing or even swallowing, for the sake of promoting a story titled "Sex, Beer, and Burgers: Why Guys Are Healthier Than You Think." This is one of those numbers about embracing male desires: Eat a bigger lunch. Drink bottled beer as a matter of portion control. Masturbate more frequently in order to release "feel-good hormones including endorphins and oxytocin," they quote an Ivy League gynecologist, the science classing up the matter.