Fashion and beauty magazines have been strongly implicated in fuelling body dissatisfaction and encouraging dieting among teenagers and young women(Reference López-Guimerà, Levine and Sánchez-Carracedo1–Reference Van den Berg, Neumark-Sztainer and Hannan3). Specifically, meta-analytic studies demonstrate that exposure to magazines is associated with disordered eating in both cross-sectional and longitudinal designs(Reference Levine and Murnen4). Glorification of slenderness is central to magazines’ depiction of a beauty ideal(Reference Hill5), with images of thin and glamorous models juxtaposed alongside articles exhorting readers to follow diet and exercise regimes for weight loss. Advertisements for slimming foods may add to this mix.
A limited body of research has systematically examined weight-loss information in print media orientated to young women. Weight loss has been found to be a mainstay of both articles and advertising content in a North American teenage magazine(Reference Guillen and Barr6), although content devoted to dieting declined between the 1980s and 2005(Reference Luff and Gray7). Advertising of weight-loss products has been reported to be seasonal in teenage magazines, with more advertisements in June compared with September issues, but there was no seasonal pattern in magazines for older women(Reference Korinis, Korslund and Belli8).
Albeit that young women may have high levels of body dissatisfaction, attainment of body weight ideals may be difficult within prevailing youth culture in which overconsumption of affordable, palatable, energy-dense, processed foods is the norm(Reference Fitzgibbon and Stolley9, Reference Swinburn, Sacks and Hall10). Overweight and obesity rates are at unprecedented levels among young people in many countries; recent data from the Health Survey of England 2009 showed that 40 % of women aged 16 to 34 years were classified as overweight or obese(Reference Aresu, Chaudhury and Diment11). Persuasive food and beverage marketing has been identified as a major driver of the obesity epidemic(Reference Fitzgibbon and Stolley9, Reference Swinburn, Sacks and Hall10), with particular criticism of such marketing to children and young people. Food advertising in print media is substantial; in 2007 £92·4 million was spent on food advertising in print media in the UK, accounting for 19·1 % of all food advertising(12).
Food and beverage marketing in women's magazines has been analysed by readership demographic and temporality(Reference Duerksen, Mikail and Tom13–Reference Adams and White16). These studies showed that food advertising is dominated by convenience foods, foods high in fat and/or refined sugar and alcoholic beverages, with a widespread lack of advertising of fruits and vegetables. This weighting was particularly marked in magazines orientated to young women, with advertising for chocolate and alcohol common(Reference Hill and Radimer17). A study of British women's monthly magazines of the time period 2008/2009 found that food advertising was more prevalent in magazines with an affluent readership and over the summer months, while alcohol advertising peaked over the Christmas period(Reference Adams, Simpson and White15).
Feature articles and editorial copy in print media have also been studied. Madden and Chamberlain explored the construction of food and healthy eating in popular New Zealand women's magazines using discourse analysis(Reference Madden and Chamberlain18), while Schneider and Davis unveiled a longstanding discourse of health in a time-series analysis of a mainstream Australian women's magazine(Reference Schneider and Davis19). In a temporal analysis of British women's magazines, Warde noted that representation of food consumption for health and nutrition reasons increased in the time period 1967 to 1994, while articles dealing explicitly with slimming declined, although energy (calorie counts) and nutrition information became more prevalent(Reference Warde20). Similarly Barker et al. (Reference Barker, McNeir and Sameer21) reported greatest visibility of slimming messages in both articles and food advertising in British women's magazines of the 1970s compared with those from earlier and later decades.
The current study examines seasonal and temporal patterns in food advertising and article content in two UK magazines aimed at young women over a 12-year period. This time period witnessed climbing rates of obesity in the UK conflated with the longstanding problem of disordered eating in teenagers and young women. Although true incidence of eating disorders is difficult to estimate, reports indicate that incidence among British children has increased(Reference Nicholls, Lynn and Viner22), while admission rates for eating disorders to English hospitals increased by some 50 % between 1996 and 2006(23).
Statistics from the National Readership Survey were used to identify the two most popular women's monthly ‘lifestyle’ periodicals with a predominantly young (age 15–44 years) readership. These two titles were Cosmopolitan and Glamour, which are both aimed at young, single women without children. Cosmopolitan and Glamour draw similar sized audiences (1·8 million and 1·2 million monthly, respectively) of a similar socio-economic status (ratio of ABC1 to C2DE = 1·7 and 1·6, respectively). However, Glamour draws a younger audience (ratio of readers aged 15–44 years to those aged 45+ years=3·5 for Cosmopolitan and 7·7 for Glamour).
The magazines were accessed at Cambridge University Library Periodicals Department. All issues of both magazines from April 2009 to May 2011, and all available issues from 2005, were studied. A full listing of issues surveyed can be seen in Table 1. Imbalance in sampling due to missing magazines through the summer months in 2005 (Glamour) and over the winter months (Cosmopolitan) is of limited consequence, as each month was represented. All issues of Cosmopolitan over a 2-year period from April 1999 to May 2001 were sampled. Glamour was first published in April 2001; therefore all issues from April 2001 to March 2002 were used. The sample comprised fifty-five issues of Cosmopolitan and forty-two issues of Glamour. All advertisements and articles relating to food and/or nutrition were included, giving a total of 590 advertisements and 148 articles. An article was defined as one paragraph or greater of text.
A content analysis based on the food coding scheme devised by Barr(Reference Barr24) and used by others(Reference Lohmann and Kant14, Reference Pratt and Pratt25) was conducted; we categorised branded food and beverage advertisements as present or absent (y/n) in relation to sixty separate food subgroups covering ten broad food groups (Table 2). Weight-loss claims in advertisements were coded as present or absent according to the nine categories of Barr's scheme (Table 3).
All magazines were coded for whether each subgroup was present or absent
* Adapted from Barr(Reference Barr24).
†Also coded under meal replacements.
Articles were coded separately to advertisements. All articles which referred to food or dieting were identified, including those of only one paragraph. The number of food articles per magazine was recorded. These articles were coded into three groups according to the focus of the article: (i) consumer/nutrition/health; (ii) weight loss; and (iii) cooking (see Table 4). Articles having consumer/nutrition/health messages were coded as present or absent (y/n) according to the following categories: eating organically; eating for beauty; ethical eating; vegetarianism; how to eat more healthily; eating to improve sleep, stress, premenstrual tension, hangovers, etc; eating for energy; detox advice; drink less alcohol; pro-supplements; eat more iron; food allergies/intolerances; how to put on weight. All these except how to eat more healthily had fewer than ten occurrences and were not analysed further.
Articles discussing weight loss were differentiated into nine categories (y/n) again according to Barr's coding scheme for weight-loss messages in advertisements (see Table 4).
Articles focusing on cooking were coded according to whether the article contained a recipe (y/n) with further differentiation as to the type of recipe: soup (y/n); easy/quick main meals (y/n); cakes/desserts (y/n); cocktails (y/n); salads (y/n); party food/savoury snacks (y/n); healthy recipes/healthier versions (y/n); luxury meals, special occasions, cooking to impress (y/n).
Microsoft Office Excel 2007 was used for coding of advertisements and articles. A second author coded a 10 % sample of magazines independently. For advertisements there was 91·1 % agreement in coding (κ = 0·466, P < 0·001), and articles had 87·5 % agreement (κ = 0·550, P < 0·001).
Coding data were imported into the statistical software package IBM SPSS Statistics 19·0 for statistical analysis. For each magazine, the presence or absence of food advertising at the level of sixty food subgroups and the presence or absence of advertising of the nine weight-loss claims was recorded. Similarly, the number of articles was recorded and article focus was coded as absent/present by issue.
Hierarchical cluster analysis was performed on the presence of food advertisements (sixty food subgroups) using pattern measure and within-cluster amalgormation(Reference Norusis26); the dendogram indicated three distinct magazine groups. Then χ 2 analyses were used to explore if these three magazine clusters of food type advertising were related to: (i) month and year of publication; (ii) weight-loss messages in advertisements; (iii) number of articles; (iv) weight-loss message in articles; and (v) presence of recipe, dish type and style of cooking. The probabilities quoted are exact probabilities as some of the cells had expected values of less than five.
The three magazine clusters, designated clusters 1, 2 and 3, are shown in Table 5 according to their advertising of food types. A total of 46·4 % (n 45) of sampled magazines comprised cluster 1, 37·1 % (n 36) magazines comprised cluster 2 and 16·5 % (n 16) magazines comprised cluster 3.
The frequency of advertising of these food types within the data set of all magazines is also shown in Table 5. Advertisements for alcohol, jarred sauces, weight-loss plans/services, Special K, weight-loss meal replacements and yoghurt were most prevalent.
Clusters were associated with month and year of publication (Table 6). Cluster 1 was most likely to feature in a pre-Christmas period, cluster 2 in a summer period and cluster 3 in a post-Christmas period (it should be noted that magazines are on sale, and therefore read, the month preceding their date). Cluster 1 was most likely to feature in the earliest time period sampled, 1999–2001; cluster 2 in the most recent period, 2010; and cluster 3 at the mid-point, 2005.
*χ 2 = 36·33, df = 22, P < 0·001.
†χ 2 = 50·80, df = 14, P < 0·001.
Magazine clusters were associated with advertising weight-loss claims (Table 7). Advertisements in cluster 2 magazines were most likely to contain weight-loss messages and those in cluster 1 magazines were least likely. Advertisements suggesting that weight loss should be achieved for health reasons were minimal; although to the extent that they were present, they were most apparent in cluster 1 magazines. Cluster 2 magazines had the greatest proportion of advertising advocating weight loss as a means to look good and increase self-esteem. Advertisements advising that losing weight is easy and/or that great results can be achieved quickly without having to give up eating nice foods, and advising diet change without including exercise, were most likely in cluster 2 magazines.
Magazine clusters were also associated with number of articles, article subject, weight-loss messages in articles and recipe type (Table 8). Cluster 1 magazines were most likely to have one article, while cluster 2 and 3 magazines were most likely to have two articles. A high proportion of all articles across all clusters were based on recipes; cluster 1 magazines were most likely to include a recipe within an article and cluster 3 magazines least likely. The recipes in cluster 1 magazines were most likely to be for cakes/desserts, while luxury meals/cooking for special occasions or to impress, and party food/savoury snacks were also strongly represented. These types of recipes were much less represented in cluster 3 magazines. There was no significant difference in other recipe types across clusters. In general weight loss was not a major focus of article content in any cluster, although weight-loss articles were most prevalent in cluster 3, with content tending to weight-loss success of ordinary readers and comparisons to celebrities.
Cluster 1: party time
This cluster was temporally associated with Christmas, New Year and Millennium holiday periods and magazines published between 1999 and 2002. The profile of food advertising was consistent with Christmas food consumption patterns, i.e. cheese, coffee and alcohol(Reference Pitts, Pattie and Dorling27), and in line with seasonal changes in level of alcohol advertising in British women's magazines(Reference Adams, Simpson and White15). Greater regulation of alcohol advertising in magazines published after 2005(28) may have contributed to the effect. Furthermore, inclusion of magazines published over the Millennium period will have reinforced festive patterns.
Young women are known users of convenience foods(Reference Buckley, Cowan and McCarthy29), which fits with the presence of advertising for jarred sauces in the cluster. Vegetarian women outnumber men in many Western societies and vegetarianism is particularly popular among young women, possibly as a means to restrain eating(Reference Kenyon and Barker30–Reference Forestell, Spaeth and Kane33). Advertisements for vegetarian meat alternatives in cluster 1 magazines may reflect seasonal demand as part of vegetarian Christmas dining.
There was a strong presence of recipes in article content, which is congruent with the role of cooking, eating with the family and sharing of food as germane to Christmas celebrations(Reference Madden and Chamberlain18, Reference Pitts, Pattie and Dorling27). The type of recipes recommended represented unfettered, hedonistic consumption, with recipes focusing on cakes/desserts, luxury meals/food to impress others/food for special occasions, and party food/savoury snacks; indulgence, enjoyment and celebration through food were represented large. Warde's analysis of food column content in British magazines of the early 1990s unveiled an antinomy of health v. indulgence in magazine article content – strictures to lose weight, eat healthily and show self-discipline for the sake of a slim and attractive body sat cheek by jowl with advocacy to seek solace with comfort food, break diet rules and indulge food cravings(Reference Warde20).
This cluster of magazines largely avoided such dichotomy; even weight-loss advertising solely comprised quick-fix pills for pain-free weight loss without sacrifice or the self-discipline of dietary restriction. However, advertising messages addressing losing weight for health reasons (as opposed to cosmetic reasons) did feature minimally (13·3 %). Other research, albeit now dated, noted that health and nutrition advice was minimal in British teenage magazines(Reference Davies34) and similarly in Australian teenage magazines(Reference Hill and Radimer17). This contrasts with a longstanding and strong health and nutrition discourse in advertising messages in Australian lifestyle magazines for mature women(Reference Schneider and Davis19).
Cluster 2: bikini body
This group of magazines was associated with spring and summer months of May and August and with the time period 2010. Weight-loss food products in conjunction with weight-loss plans dominated advertising in the cluster, with everyday foods absent aside from soft sugary drinks. The overwhelming weight-loss messages within advertising was that weight loss would result in improvements in appearance, and that weight loss was easy to achieve without exercise or restricting nice food. Construction and honing of a bikini body for summer was a main end. This seasonally based emphasis on weight loss for cosmetic ends corroborates studies of both advertising and article content of North American teenage magazines(Reference Guillen and Barr6, Reference Korinis, Korslund and Belli8). Low representation of advertising of core foods has also been noted in Australian young women's magazines(Reference Hill and Radimer17).
Young women were therefore encouraged to purchase specially formulated foods and follow diet plans not for reasons of health, but by a proverbial carrot of improvements in appearance. Magazines have long been blamed for spearheading social pressure for women to diet; more specifically they have been implicated in encouraging teenagers and young women to veer to restrained consumption and disordered eating(Reference López-Guimerà, Levine and Sánchez-Carracedo1–Reference Van den Berg, Neumark-Sztainer and Hannan3). A svelte body is fundamental to magazines’ subscribed beauty ideal, with youth, femininity, happiness, success and attractiveness equated to slimness, while failure to meet this ideal is stigmatised(Reference Germov and Williams35–Reference Orbach37). Weight-loss messages in this cluster were also heavily weighted towards improvement in self-esteem. Somewhat paradoxically, body dissatisfaction has been shown to be the norm for young women(Reference Hill, Oliver and Rogers38–Reference Wardle, Haase and Steptoe40). This phenomenon was wonderfully demonstrated in a sociological study of women from North East England, which reported that many women believed they would be happier and more confident if they were half a stone lighter(Reference Charles and Kerr36).
The suggested recipes within articles in cluster 2 magazines counterpoised weight-loss messages. These tended to be for cakes and desserts, party foods and savoury snacks, which are associated with pleasure and, with their high content of fat and sugar, opposite to weight-reducing food messages. This contrast is congruent with an antinomy of health v. indulgence apparent in the food columns of British women's magazines(Reference Warde41).
Women's sartorial appearance is linked to economic cycles(Reference Van Baardwijk and Franses42), thus the focus on body image and looking good in cluster 2 magazines may related to the economic downturn of 2008. Similarly, the strong presence of recipes for cakes and desserts, but fewer for luxury meals may reflect gravitation to more economical home cooking(43). Hard times also bring about a return to traditional or comfort foods such as cakes and desserts, as people are pulled to the reassuring and familiar in times of uncertainty, rather than food to impress(Reference Johnston and Baumann44). Modern women, balancing domestic demands with professional life, seek comfort in the familiarity of food ‘how mother made it’ and indeed since the Millennium there has been a renaissance in home baking within British cook books, with strong connotations of comfort and reassurance(Reference Humble45).
Cluster 3: going steady
The third food type cluster was reflective of a steady and everyday approach to eating. Cluster 3 comprised magazines advertising foods of the everyday such as yoghurt, cold meats, bread, breakfast cereals, soups and soya products. The cluster also featured weight-loss products in the form of snacks and desserts. Cluster 3 was associated with post-New Year and 2005 time periods.
Such ‘grab and go’ foods, such as soups, breakfast cereals and yoghurt, are particularly relevant for the magazines’ target audience, considering that young people who have recently left home often have limited cooking skills and rely on takeaways and convenience foods(Reference Lang, Caraher and Dixon46, Reference Brunner, Van der Horst and Siegrist47). To boot, convenience food advertising has been shown to be prominent across a broad spectrum of British magazines(Reference Adams, Simpson and White15, Reference Adams and White16). Advertising of weight-loss products also addressed convenience, since instant snacks and desserts designed for slimming were especially visible in this cluster. Such advertising of slimming snacks and desserts married contradictory notions of indulgence and restriction, allowing the dieter a ‘treat’ food, a ‘bad’ food and a slimming food in one fell swoop; representation of food as being naughty and bad, but being used as a reward for weight loss, has been previously noted in the context of advice outpouring from commercial slimming organisations(Reference Mycroft48).
The year 2005 was a time of economic stability, when employment and financial factors in people's lives were generally stable. It was not a year of particular economic boom, but nor was the UK in economic recession, and everyday eating, as evidenced in cluster 3 advertisements, mirrors that steady and assured period. Advertised foods tended to be dietary staples and may reflect advertising congruent with non-holiday periods founded on prosaic, everyday eating routines. There were fewer recipes in cluster 3 magazines, especially for cakes and desserts and party foods, probably due to this seasonal effect.
Generally cluster 3 had less weight-loss advertising than the bikini body cluster. The temporal position of this cluster may have a bearing on this scarcity, in that following the excesses of Christmas, households may reduce their food spend(Reference Cai49) and therefore there is a reduced market for premium weight-loss products. Furthermore in stable time periods advertising that promises a quick-fix solution may be viewed sceptically, while self-denial may be seen more positively. Greater prevalence of food and nutrition articles supports the behaviour-changing emphasis of the cluster and is in keeping with a post-New Year interest in healthy eating and sustained weight loss. In contrast to the individualised nature of weight-loss messages in advertisements, messages in articles socialised the reader as a member of a weight-loss community; thus weight loss was often discussed in the context of success stories of other readers, or celebrity dieting stories.
The magazine content analysed in the current study supports known eating habits of young women: vegetarianism, convenience eating and dieting(Reference Hill5, Reference Buckley, Cowan and McCarthy29, Reference Kenyon and Barker30, Reference Forestell, Spaeth and Kane33). Weight-loss messages were systemic across clusters, and these focused on short-term aesthetic goals rather than long-term health benefits. Advertising and articles represented losing weight as a quick and easy process, fostering an ideal contrary to the majority of dieters’ experience(Reference Green, Larkin and Sullivan50).
While we have unveiled seasonal and temporal clusters embracing both magazine article content and advertisement content in two popular young women's magazines, interpretation of these results must be tempered in that we scrutinised only two magazines. Although Cosmopolitan and Glamour are popular magazines for young women in the UK, they are unlikely to be representative of all young women's magazines. Moreover our temporal analyses are founded on a relatively small number of issues.
Nevertheless, seasonal variations in food and weight-loss messages were particularly strong: excessive eating prevailed in the run-up to Christmas, healthy eating and a more prosaic food pattern was advocated in the months following New Year, while dieting was dominant in the summer. This pattern of excessive consumption punctuated by periods of restriction is nutritionally unsound and is associated with poor psychological and health outcomes(Reference Brownell and Rodin51). There is an established axis between body dissatisfaction, binge eating and dietary restraint(Reference Wardle, Waller and Rapoport52, Reference Ricciardelli, Tate and Williams53). Weight cycling or yo-yo dieting is not conducive to successful long-term weight loss; Lowe et al. (Reference Lowe, Annunziato and Markowitz54) reported that a history of unsuccessful dieting independently predicted weight gain in young women during their first year of college, noting that there was some evidence that unsuccessful dieting is associated with appetite deregulation, increases in metabolic efficiency and disordered eating. Our observation of seasonal advocacy of consumption followed by restriction, which synchronised across both media of advertisements and articles, seems likely to propagate body dissatisfaction and encourage yo-yo dieting. Furthermore, longer-term temporal influences may exacerbate these patterns.
Such emphasis on quick-fix crash dieting is tragic given that women's magazines have great potential to disseminate public health messages about diet. The complex and contradictory nature of cooking, weight-loss and consumption messages observed in the present study highlights the need for further scrutiny of food and dieting content of print media aimed at young women.
Sources of funding: This study was carried out as part of a Master's degree programme at the University of Sheffield. The University of Sheffield covered its running costs, but had no role in the design and analysis of the study or the writing of this manuscript. Conflicts of interest: No author has a personal or financial conflict of interest. Ethics: Ethical approval was not required. Authors’ contributions: M.E.B. conceived and designed the study; R.J.S. drew up the sample of magazines and carried out coding for the content analysis; J.M.R. carried out the statistical analysis. R.J.S. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. M.E.B. redrafted the manuscript aided by J.M.R. All authors approved the final manuscript.