Men's Health in Context
Mark Beachill, 14 December 2009
This essay looks at the en-gendered nature of magazines. It assesses changes in the landscape of magazine publishing, despite many formal continuities of subject matter, and attempts to situate lifestyle publications for men, in particular Men’s Health, as part of this changed landscape. Men’s Health, first published in the UK in February 1995, is now the best-selling monthly men’s magazine after 15 years of sales growth (Magforum, 2009).
The recent history of consumer magazine publishing is heavily gender based. Division according to gender became especially pronounced in the early twentieth century. In Britain in 1911, for example, IPC divided its capacity for new launches between Women’s Weekly and Golf Monthly (IPC 2008). The gender gap featured throughout the post war growth in mass magazine publishing; and has now reached the point where, if you enter the premises of a large newsagent such as W.H. Smith, you will find separate sections for women and for men, as clearly delineated as the prayer rooms in a mosque. There are classic magazines which are of general interest to both men and women: Life and Time from the USA, or the now defunct Picture Post in the UK. However, the mainstays among modern magazine titles aim either first at women or foremost at men; rarely both.
The sexual division of publishing has, it seems, reflected the sexual division of labour. From the early twentieth century male workers began to earn enough to support a family without the woman working. It became established that men would earn ‘the family wage’, while many women found themselves pushed out of the workforce. Over time a male ‘breadwinner ethic’ – qualified in practice for low paid workers – was established (Ehrenreich 1983: 5-7).
In the post-war boom, as consumption and leisure time increased, there were both the time and the means for magazine consumption to expand. In this growing consumer/leisure society, the primary orientation for women was the domestic sphere and family life, whereas for men it was the public world centred on work. Raymond Williams referred to the ensuing combination of inward and outward orientation as ‘mobile privatisation’. (Williams, 1990: 26)
Whereas purpose and meaning for men might be found ‘out there’, the situation for women was more tenuous. They relied on men for income and led a more privatised existence. While domestic life could bring personal satisfaction, it was indeed personal. Accordingly, domestic work was done to a privately set standard at a personally agreeable pace: it was private in character. In contrast, wage labour was organised, regulated and remunerated through the market according to externally determined standards.
Women’s selfhood was established largely through the conduct of personal relationships in a private setting, focussed on family and friends. But many women were dissatisfied with the narrow range of this experience. Magazines developed which met their need for a broader identity, unavailable in situ. By enabling their female readers to explore what it meant to ‘be a woman’, these magazines encouraged women to expand their identity by increasing the range of experiences which they could identify with. But since being a woman usually meant being domesticated, the same publications also reinforced the identification of women with domesticity. Meanwhile advertisers were only too pleased to obtain access to the woman who made many of the most important purchasing decisions in the household.
By contrast, magazines for men were externally focussed. Generally about ‘doing things’, they featured hobbies, interests, motoring and sports. They were not explicitly labelled as male, but they did not need to be. It was safe to assume that magazines about doing things, especially in the outside world, were primarily for men. Women were to busy being at home.
Men’s magazines of the post-war period might seem to be simply about passing growing (sizeable) amounts of free time and disposing of increased income (both of these being newly acquired). Closer inspection of the subject matter, however, would suggest a wider role. For example, many of the leisure interests were associated with the world of (male) work, e.g. beer brewing or creating model railways. These might be seen as a pleasurable rendition of craft, deployed at a time men tended to be alienated from the work-based products of their own labour. Craft, on the other hand, was amenable to celebration and imitation (even on the part of relatively unskilled, non-craft workers), because it suggested a higher level of autonomy over the pace of work, and the kind of work that might conceivably engage the whole personality of the worker.
Partly inspired by magazines, quasi-craft in the form of ‘hobbies’, could take place in the loft or garden shed; but though they might occur within its four walls, they were not really of the home. Other ‘male’ activities served as escape routes; for example, the motor car meant not having to be fixed in the regular roles of work and home; and there was always the freedom to dissipate tension on the football terraces. Magazines that men bought looked to the outside world for inspiration. They were accommodations in leisure to a world seen as too constraining.
The early men’s lifestyle magazine Playboy, launched in 1953, also sought to break out of the narrow confines of post-war life. Ehrenrich sees it as a projection of the desire by men to relieve themselves of the responsibility to provide for women. Thus the eponymous playboys were seen to replace marriage with fleeting commitments and pleasurable consumption (1983: 42-51). At that time, Playboy and its imitators did not so much ruminate about what it was to be a man; instead they dared to ask why men should live within the constraints of marriage and family.
During the 1980s the single wage-earner model began to break down. The economic slowdown of the 1970s was countered by breaking the unions and lowering wages. Growth in income would have to come through the expansion of the workforce (two or more pay packets being brought into the same home), largely through the employment of women. At the same time, the world of work became - or, at the very least, seemed to be - much less stable, especially when collective bargaining was replaced with individual contracts and one-to-one relationships between employer and employee.
As the world of work shifted, so too did notions of family life. Despite a brief flurry of support for Victorian values, the idea of the nuclear family (and men’s role in it) was brought into question. Feminist critiques of patriarchy became mainstream and guilty men began to question their own positions (see Connell 1995: xiv; Seidler 1991: 1-17). Zygmunt Bauman argues, with the new theories of post modernity in mind, that there was a sense of fundamental change; signposts in society were being removed with nothing to replace them (2000:10, 59). Over the space of a few short years, men who had only recently been regarded as praiseworthy, bread-winning role models came to be disregarded except as dysfunctional bodies in need of mental reconstruction.
One way these changes were experienced was through the development of ‘lad’s mags’. By 1996, these comprised the fastest growing consumer magazine market (Brooks et al, 2001: 28) New magazines such as Loaded attempted to negotiate “re-nominated” male lifestyles ironically. Addressed to ‘men who should know better’, as it billed itself, Loaded depicted young men as cheeky lads who could get away with it (‘it’ being anything from fucking to farting) and only because he doesn’t, and you shouldn’t, take them seriously. Perhaps this defensive response is unsurprising, since, as Mick Hume argued, by 1996 almost every representation of men in the media showed them as ‘inadequate, weak or evil’ (cited in Brooks et al, 2001:41) The surface appearance of men continuing to behave badly, as projected in ‘lad’s mags’, served to obscure the novel necessity of (ironic) self-justification and the insecurity it indirectly expressed.
It may seem that the gendered nature of magazine publishing has not changed significantly. After all, the gender divide remains a constant feature. Yet the socially determined content of gender – what it means to be male or female – has been far from constant; and such shifts cannot but be reflected in the style and content of magazines. Though the gender divide is something of a fixture, gender itself is not
Two examples serve to illustrate the changed meaning of men’s and women’s leisure activities.
The first comes from an academic study of ‘the lads’, a group of ageing working class men in Leeds who have continued to act laddishly. Their weekends often consist of drinking in local pubs and clubs. Tony Blackshaw, the author participant/observer, sees their leisure activities as creating a ‘leisure life-world’ where ‘the lads’ attempt to establish order and fixity in a world of ‘endemic disorder’ (2003: x)
When so many other things are changing, the sense of order seems to come from a temporary fiction linked to past ideas of masculinity. However, when the ‘fiction’ is lived out, for as long as the performance lasts, it is also the reality of here and now. (Blackshaw 2003: 166) Blackshaw has identified the use of leisure as a source of stability, for those whose lives would once have been anchored against established roles in the workplace and family.
The second example is from Psychologies magazine, where the author discusses the role of crafts such as sewing, knitting and baking for today’s working women:
Churchwell is a journalist using evidence from experts that such activities provide comfort and a sense of nostalgia. No longer essential to routine family life, these activities have become leisure pursuits, consciously and artificially deployed to recreate something solidly traditional that is felt to have been lost (ironically, a tradition partly mediated through specialised, social networking websites which have only recently emerged). Whether in preference to identities available to them from work, or perhaps in combination with work-based identities, these twenty first century women are referring to nineteenth century domestic practices, now reconfigured as leisure activities, in order to find some fixity in their lives.
These two illustrations have common themes that suggest magazines focussing on domestic and leisure activities, while seeming similar to days-gone-by, might play a very different role in today’s uncertain times. Essentially we have ‘zombie’ categories of leisure and domesticity from the past, that are re-used for entirely different purposes today. This happens perhaps because no new strong or stable sense of purpose is coming forward to replace earlier outlooks which have been largely undermined.
Launched in the UK in 1995, Men’s Health must be seen in the context of the changing views of men discussed here. When trying to establish what men are and their position in the world, their biology would seem to be a fixed point; and, in these days of flux, its fixity might make it even more significant. However, this essentialist standpoint is unduly focussed on the private and personal.
While it might seem that a strong idea of the physical, biological self might act as a launch pad for re-establishing an active, transformative, externally oriented sense purpose, the contemporary concern with health is both a symptom of insecurity – we are after all healthier than we have ever been before. Moreover in lending itself to existential terror at the prospect of death without meaning, it expresses the lack of any positive purpose; hence the assumption throughout Men’s Health that living longer is a virtue in itself.
Bauman explains the endless circle entailed in attempting to use the body as an anchor. The body, being the only permanent thing in uncertain circumstances, becomes fiercely defended, and even health turns into a permanent battle (2000: 79, 183) ‘Uncertainty, insecurity and unsafety’ (2000:181) are combined in an ‘unholy trinity’ that further undermines the individual, especially when he is bereft of other reliable signposts. For example, soon after they have been welcomed as either innocuous or even virtuous, diets, nourishment and therapies turn out to be risky or imbued with long-term problems (2000:79).
As Deborah Lupton explains about nutrition as a key aspect of health programmes, because we have a choice of diet, we can express a moral virtue in choosing the right (healthy) foods. In that it comprises a movement from the outside world to the self, eating is “inextricably linked to subjectivity” (Lupton, 1996: 17, 89). But subjectivity and even morals derived from what men put in their mouths - or the work they do on their own bodies - are a poor substitute for a place and purpose in the world.
Significantly, Men’s Health, while able to present exercise in a straightforward way, is often reduced to irony or humour in an effort to distance itself from judgements outside that narrow sphere – and even then requires backing by generally unnamed 'expert’ opinion (Brooks et al, 2001:119). The branding of the UK edition further limits it from going outside a very narrow remit of views and topics (see Vernon 2009).
The man in Men’s Health is trapped in the pursuit of his body image and extra days of life in the same way that women at one stage were trapped in the home. The sales growth of this magazine tends to confirm growing problems with establishing stable and active views of masculinity outside the weight room.
This clean cut image of healthy, sensitive men has been celebrated as transcending both the New Lad and the New Man (see Vernon 2009; Gauntlett 2002), however, we must bear in mind that this is a dead end; and today the pursuit of leisure and lifestyle – often the quarry of magazines – has become a central point in a self limiting attempt to recreate lost identity and meaning.
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