Social media is forcing women’s health magazines to reinvent

If you’ve been paying attention to the Health & Fitness section of your local newsstand, you’ve likely noticed some changes. As in every area, the selection of titles has dwindled significantly thanks to digital’s domination. (Fitness, Natural Health and Martha’s Stewart’s Whole Living are among those that have folded in the last five years.) What’s more unique, however, has been the evolution of the surviving covers. In addition to the increase in diversity among the models featured, there has been an obvious shift in the colorful teasers that typically frame them: References to get-skinny stories are no longer; in their place are lines about living healthy and real women who have learned to love their bodies.

Take the most recent Shape cover compared to one from five years ago. Coincidentally, both feature a toned celebrity wearing yellow briefs and a bright blue top. The most prominent cover line this month reads “Body Proud! 75+ Ways to Reach Your Goals in 2017.” On the January 2012 issue, to the left of Molly Sims, “Drop a Dress Size” stands out.

Shape’s January 2012 and January 2017 issues.

Listening to readers

In the timespan between the the two issues, a handful of editors made their intentional transition away from borderline body-shaming messages. For example, in 2015, following a poll on what readers liked and disliked, Women’s Health’s editor-in-chief, Amy Keller Laird announced the publication would eliminate certain words and phrases. “Drop two sizes,” “bikini body” and “shrink” were among those banned.

“We had been monitoring what was going on in the world and in social media — how people were talking about health and wellness, and what was important — and it was a wake-up call,” said Keller Laird. “The body positivity movement had started, and we were finally like, ‘Let’s look at what these words might imply.’”

Looking to readers to gauge the need for change was a smart move, according to Desiree DiIeso, Associate Media Director at PGR Media. “From a business perspective, publishers need to hear from their readers first before making an extreme shift so they don’t alienate their core,” she said.

A few years back, Self— which announced last month that it will close its print edition following its February 2017 issue — may have benefitted from that advice. The publication underwent two revamps in two years, seemingly at the discretion of in-house whims. In 2013, in an attempt to skew younger, it switched to a snackable content model, inspired by Twitter. Thirteen months later, under the direction of a new editor-in-chief, it took a turn for a more sophisticated direction, complete with supermodels front and center.

“You have to be listening,” said Keller Laird, in regard to her own experience with reader feedback. “There’s so much noise on the newsstand, and there’s so much noise online — readers don’t need to go to one particular thing if they don’t feel it’s speaking to them any more or it hasn’t evolved with the times. So you have to be in tune with them, now more than ever.”

Changing the conversation

Late last month, Self made a noble effort to end its run on a positive note when it released its last issue featuring model and body-image activist model Iskra Lawrence on the cover. However a sample meal plan that was part of the issue’s New Year’s Challenge rankled the cover model. An ambassador of the National Eating Disorder’s Association, Lawrence felt the plan was too restrictive. “I don’t believe in diets, haven’t controlled my food since recovery, and would never mean to advocate for them,” she posted following its launch, on InstagramSelf answered her concerns by pulling the plan from its site and issuing a letter of apology.

NEDA backed Lawrence’s claim that promoting diets can be quite harmful: According to a stat the association provided, 35 percent percent of “normal dieters” eventually progress to pathological dieting, and of those, 20 to 25 percent progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.

While Women’s Health has no plans to stop featuring weight-loss stories, it has become more thoughtful about how it presents them. “We all know there are many health ramifications of being significantly overweight — and this is a health magazine; we’re always going to be talking about healthy weight-loss,” said Keller Laird, “but we never want to frame it in a way that makes people feel that you have to be a certain size because there’s only one size — because there’s not.”

She pointed to “You Lose, You Win,” a column that’s been successful for Women’s Health since its inception 10 years ago. “It’s real women, losing weight, telling their story of how they did it,” she said. “If you look through that column, it’s always women who had very unhealthy habits, and they shifted to having healthier habits.” For this month’s column, the Women’s Health team rounded up some of the strongest examples from the past 10 years. “We’ve pulled their best tips, and this is what worked for them. We’re not saying there’s one prescription for everyone.”

The feature’s tone is in sync with the messages that are driving positive reader engagement, according to DiIeso. Today, pushing “health as wellness, versus health as weight-loss” wins publishers points, she said. “We saw this in fashion/style years ago, when editors evolved beyond black-and-white ‘This looks good, this doesn’t’ advice.”

Maintaining a unique POV

However, as more publishers cater to this trend, maintaining a strong point of view and point of differentiation will no doubt prove challenging, said DiIeso. “Readers will want to engage with positive sentiment, but they will also want to return to a brand that has as a true north.”

The same survey that motivated Keller Laird to stop hyping slim-down secrets motivated her to feature more stories on mental health, which are rare in other publications. “Women want to see all different kinds of women, and that doesn’t only include different body types and ethnicities.” She spoke to her own OCD in a story last year, and recently, Women’s Health featured 16 women dealing with illnesses ranging from depression or postpartum. Both were big successes among the magazine’s readers, according to likes and comments.

In addition, social feedback moved Keller Laird to feature more stories on the fact that you don’t need to love your body 24/7. “We all know we have our moments — but we are not beating ourselves up all the time. Our readers are talking about that” she said. “Today, more women have voices and can be seen. We’re seeing them and feeling like, ‘Alright, [mine] is a normal body.’”

Keller Laird said that evolving Women’s Health for the digital age and maintaining its DNA as a brand has been a delicate balance. However, it’s clear that she has managed to do both successfully, unlike so many of her competitors. According to a report by GfK MRI last fall, Women’s Health — which currently boasts a monthly print audience of 10.8 million and a global audience of 32 million across platforms — had the highest growth of millennial women readers among print publications in the last quarter of 2016.

“We haven’t lost subscribers, but we are doing things differently. ” she said. “We can’t just do the same thing we did five years ago. We are constantly saying, ‘They’re responding to this, they don’t want that’; social media has changed everything.”

Get news and analysis about fashion, beauty and culture delivered to your inbox every morning.