Rhetorical, Literary, or Cultural Analysis Award 2011
When the assignment for this paper was given, I found myself struggling to narrow the topic. Almost out of desperation, I blindly picked up Health magazine. I thought about some of my favorite writers whose editorials are published in national newspapers. Their work is powerful because they are objective and factual, but at the same time a very strong personal voice comes through. Seeking to emulate that style, I dissected the magazine by categorizing advertising content, and then topics of articles, but the hard part was making it personal. My professor shared many components in good writing, but two of them struck home with me: revision and the “So What” question. The revision part is obvious; you keep writing until you get it right. But what about the “So What?” It answers the questions, “What’s the point? What does this matter? Why should I read this?” It’s what makes our writing relevant and provocative and personal. Compiling data in a piece might be informative, but on its own it’s a real yawn-fest and destined for the bottom of the birdcage. I thought about those questions often while writing this essay. They are what led me beyond critical thinking and data collection and helped me do some painful digging and excavation of hidden feelings. Now each time I read over it, I’m surprised anew at the self-discovery that took place while writing it.
I strolled up to the women’s restroom at work. In the cabinet cluttered with brushes, combs, dental floss, and hairspray, there are always a few good magazines. I picked up the first that my hand reached without giving a thought to its name. As I walked down the hall to my office, I looked down and read the name of the magazine emblazoned across the front cover: Health.
The cover had a pink banner across the very top, like the news channels do with their breaking alerts. This one read, “Wow! Lose 10 lbs. fast with these metabolism boosters.” As I read further down the cover, I saw that I could: get a flat belly now, drop two inches in four weeks, burn more fat, melt fat with carbs, look younger, dress slimmer, feel happier … yes you can!
Wow. That pretty much summed up my To-Do List for the next … well … for-E-ver. It’s the same list I’ve had since I turned sixteen and started working at Chick-Fil-A. Since then, I’ve become a sort of human GPS, able to direct you to the nearest Chick-Fil-A—my thighs giving testimony to how I know where they’re all located.
I pulled back the front cover. A smallish Toyota was featured in the ad. It wasn’t a minivan or a crossover, so I didn’t have much use for that two-door. Next page: that’s more like it, yes. There stood Bethenny. You know, THE Bethenny of Real Housewives of NY. Except she left to give birth and enjoy motherhood. She’s here, and she’s looking fabulous on page four. The former Housewives star has a teeny tiny little emerald green dress on. She’s smiling, except the smile only reaches about halfway up her face, a telltale sign of Botox treatments. Those crow’s-feet, hastened by late-night feedings, are annoying. So Bethenny, with the Kennedy-like jawline, apparently “opens up about getting her body back and loving her new life” on page one hundred forty-two. Can’t wait. I’ve wanted to get my body back since the first time I gave birth, almost twelve years ago.
Did you notice that getting her body back was listed first, then her new life? I’m sure it’s a typo. We don’t assign greater importance to our post-baby bodies than our happiness, do we?
Well, apparently in Health magazine they do. In fact, of all of the advertisements in the magazine, most are for only healthy, low-calorie foods, diet foods and supplements. The caloric content is prominently placed in each layout. There’s not one ounce of chocolate to be found between the covers, and only “good” carbs. I love how we’ve given humanistic descriptions to a measurement of energy. Now they are called sensible carbs, guilt-free calories, good carbs, bad carbs, empty calories, and smart calories. If you read the advertisements in this magazine, you might think that food has feelings, an IQ, and maybe a police record.
It’s not just this skewed idea of health that Health is promoting. More than one-third of the advertisements are about your appearance beyond the number of your Body Mass Index. I’m talking hair, skin, teeth and nails here. One ad is for Clairol’s hair color: “The hair color that feels as healthy as it looks.” The font for the “feels as healthy” line is about two to three times larger than the rest of the font in the ad. Whether hair is actually healthy is immaterial; it only matters that we give the appearance that it feels and looks healthy.
So far, the magazine has covered keeping a slim, healthy body (41%) and looking good, mostly younger (34%). The remaining ads cover medications (19%) and clothes (a measly 5%). That leaves one Toyota ad and a Discover card ad.
Can you imagine what medications they tout in this faux health mag? If you guessed antidepressants, you’ve probably identified yourself as having too much insight to read this particular issue. In fact, antidepressants are tied with cholesterol-lowering medications for most ads. The interesting part about the antidepressants is that they show up in the middle of the magazine as the twenty-third, twenty-fifth, and twenty-eighth advertisements. It’s like they tried to camouflage them in the middle so that by the time you’ve read it cover to cover, it’s not in the forefront of your mind that you saw them. My guess is, after eighty-plus pages of reading articles such as the best moves for shaping your butt and suggested diets of twigs and berries, we need some pill that will help us take the gun out of our mouth and hide the bullets before we go on to read the second half.
So aside from the hard numbers of what is advertised, let’s talk about how it’s advertised. Eva Longoria, of Desperate Housewives fame, is the first model we come to. What do you think of when you see her? An oversexed Latina who lives on a lane named Wisteria, where all of the other women who live there are psychotic, OCD, and oversexed. She is advertising for Ever-Pure shampoo and conditioner. I let a giggle escape at the irony. Another ad, one that disturbs me, is for Avia. It’s a close-up pic of simply a torso. A very lean, muscular torso in walking motion. The shot is cropped from just at the neck down to just above the kneecaps. I got a little nauseous when I realized the message here is that I’m supposed to think what is important about me is between my knees and neck.
But the ad that made me want to throw up in my mouth was surprisingly one of the “Got Milk?” ads. We typically equate milk with wholesome goodness. Not so for this ad. It’s a photo of Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson on the balance beam. Try to picture this: She’s half-lying on her left side, and her right leg is extended straight up in the air. Her right foot is flexed, and she is balancing a glass of milk on the sole of her bare foot. She’s smiling at the camera with a fake milk-stache. I’ve seen girls on mud flaps of semi-trucks in this pose, sans milk. I can’t remember how Shawn did in the Olympics, but this was definitely not even a bronze-medal moment for her.
It’s a sad but true fact that there isn’t even an attractive guy in the whole magazine. The first man we see is in the twenty-first ad we come to. He has a definite paunch, gray hair, and a puffy face. He’s a decidedly non-threatening, neutral sort of man, hawking Symbicort inhalers for chronic lung disease. With the extreme diligence to image perfection displayed in this magazine, I can’t help but wonder why that same standard isn’t applied to the smattering of men that appear—unless they want the men to be forgettable. And they are.
This brings up an interesting point: Who is the audience? To whom are all of these costly print ads aimed? Obviously it’s women, but what women? There isn’t a single ad with a maternal bent to it. There are no contraception or STD ads, not one tampon to be found. Even though Bethenny of Real Housewives was the cover girl, they didn’t focus on her recent foray into motherhood. Rather, it was all about how she looks and how she got back her pre-baby body. There was no pic of Bethenny and baby, even though I’d seen her recently on a cover with a close-up of her with her newborn. Is it because the editors don’t want the reader to associate Bethenny with motherhood? If so, why?
I find myself getting impatient now, tapping my left foot in irritation. As I do this, I’m reminded of how these shoes bother my feet. They are ill-fitting and falling apart, but I have trouble swiping the card for new shoes when I see so many other things I could get for my children. That’s when it hits me: this magazine denies all that is sacred and important to me, the best part of me, my highest privilege: being a mom. Pregnancy and taut bodies are usually mutually exclusive. In fact, there are a lot of things pregnancy does to your body that don’t fit the image portrayed in this magazine.
When I try to imagine the intended reader, I’m left with an unsettling vague, empty hollowness. The woman targeted here is brainless, consumed with her appearance, and doesn’t have relationships or children. Whether she’s truly healthy or not doesn’t really seem to matter. The overall message received from this magazine and its advertisements is that as long as you look healthy (read “look good”), you are healthy.
So why do I want to read this magazine? What has compelled me to hold on to it long after I had culled its contents for data? This leads me down an uncomfortable path. Weight has always been a struggle, and I’m genetically predisposed to packing it on. My mind is filled with mental images of my aunts and grandmothers. What I thought of as a child as ample cushy laps on which to be held are now just plus-size reminders of my flawed heritage.
I look at the sinewy arms, lean thighs, and washboard abs and feel unworthy. I want to have what they have, but it feels like an impossible dream. My life is good, so good. Why do I feel like I have to look like Bethenny to have value? My head knows the truth, but that whisper-soft voice with perfect enunciation is saying, “You’re too fat. Your husband deserves better; your children deserve a thin mother.” I am equating thin with being healthy, and that is just not true. No matter all of the knowledge about what it means on a scientific level to be healthy, it’s no match for the insidious thoughts invading my brain.
As I work to stifle that voice in my head, a terrifying thought occurs to me: my daughters are probably already hearing these voices too. In their minds, they are observing me and thinking, “There’s no hope for me. Look at my mom. It’s an impossible dream to be thin.” I imagine them walking inside from a backyard soccer game, plopping down on the couch, saying, “You might as well hand me the TV remote and pass the cheesecake.”
I push these disturbing thoughts aside. I have a duty and a mission to present the truth to my daughters. I also must change myself to save them. In dissecting the articles and ads in Health magazine, I have uncovered one of the biggest lies thrust upon us females: We are the sum of our appearance. Our weight and caloric intake define our worth, and with the right antidepressant (and taking a cue from the Clairol hair color ad) we can “feel as healthy as we look.” Because, as the lie goes, looking good means being healthy.
I’m angry now. If I’ve bought into this bunk, what makes me think my daughters won’t? I’m also angry as I look down at my plus-size Levi’s, at myself. I am their first role model. Who am I to present this body as the ideal? My excuse is that with all of my work, school, home, and church duties, I don’t have time to work out. I use motherhood as an excuse to be too busy to be healthy. Now I see that because of motherhood, I must be healthy. As much as feeding, clothing, and protecting, how I promote health to them will impact the rest of their lives. I have to practice what I preach.
I picked up the magazine again, for the last time, and came upon an article titled “Eight Ways to Fall In Lust with Your Body.” The picture accompanying the article is a girl taking a bubble bath, hugging herself. She’s thin, she’s young, her teeth are white, lashes long, and her complexion clear. She has no relationship, except the one with herself.
Health. October 2010. Print.
Editorial Team’s Note
An obvious strength of Rebecca Craft’s essay is that she blends narrative with analysis and doesn’t use terms like ethos, pathos, and logos to organize her paper. In fact, the author doesn’t need to mention this terminology to demonstrate that she’s reading rhetorically. While she is doing a rhetorical analysis of advertisements, she locates her analysis within a specific context—a magazine geared toward women. Drawing from her own experiences as a woman and as a mother, the author critically analyzes “health” in this magazine geared toward a vision of womanhood that very likely doesn’t exist. In this way, the author aptly examines the consequences that words and images have on the lives of real people. As you revisit Craft’s analysis, can you think of other magazines that communicate unrealistic and potentially harmful visions of what it means to be healthy, beautiful, female, male, etc.? Note what she says in her writer’s reflection about wanting a strong personal voice to come through. How does her style in this analysis bolster her ethos as a rhetor?