Commentary

Women's Health

I learned an awful lot during my cross-continental trek for a cousin's wedding last weekend. Travelers, it seems, are fat. They lack the capacity for spatial reasoning, as witnessed by their repeated attempts to cram 200"-by-350" portmanteaus into 60"-by-20" overhead bins. And heavens to Betsy, they sure do love their magazines.

Seriously, they do. I don't have any opinion on the whole digital-wipes-print-off-the-face-of-the-earth thing; I tend to concern myself with more pressing issues, like Eddie Van Halen's lowly standing among modern-era guitarists. But if my entirely anecdotal research conducted between slugs of seltzer is accurate, and I have no reason to suspect that it isn't, people very much enjoy reading magazines when they are confined in small spaces for extended periods of time. I trust the MPA will spend somewhere north of $36 million in 2006 to reach this very same conclusion.

Anyway, one of the titles I spotted upon many a lap during my travels was Women's Health. As I'm partial to Rodale publications--they alone seem to fully grasp the concept that magazines should be, you know, useful--I poached a copy from a chirpy 19-year-old headed down Tel Aviv way. She didn't ask why I wanted it, and I offered no additional information. Cue "Strangers in the Night," but with a perv subtext.

Her comment upon handing over the mag ("there's sooooo much in there!") pretty much sums things up. The July/August issue of Women's Health packs an awful lot of information into its 144 pages. As opposed to the fluff that populates many women's health/fitness/service mags, however, most of it teems with both personality and utility.

To answer the obvious question: yes, there exists some similarities with corporate sibling Men's Health. The two pubs traverse the same topical terrain (how's that for an elegant, sort of alliterative way to say "they write about the same stuff"?), and each features its share of expert Q&As and a stat-happy final page. Design-wise, however, the nine-month-old Women's Health feels slightly less busy; both titles have creative ADD, but WH's art minions seem less inclined to pack every morsel of space with some kind of graphic doodad.

Tonally, the differences are even more pronounced. Whereas Men's Health's dominant voice is that of a bike-ridin', bar-hoppin' partner in crime, Women's Health comes across as less chummy and more focused on bigger-picture concerns. That's not a knock on MH--which I dig--so much as high praise for its younger sister. It would've been quite easy for WH to imitate its predecessor; instead, it tweaks a proven formula to great effect.

Like in its first-person pieces, which intersperse live-well exhortations with subtly humorous observations (notably food editor Kate Dailey's attempt to follow her nutritionist's advice for a full week). And especially in the lengthy analysis of the state of Title IX, in which athletes and others who benefited from THE LAW discuss its impact. That piece, by the way, marks the only appearance by a celebrity (plus-size model Emme) in the July/August issue. Please, big fella/gal upstairs, let this be the start of a trend.

The "Letter to My Younger Self," written by a college kid, captures with surprising poignancy the experience of hanging around with kids at a summer camp (if I were to write a similar letter to my younger self, in fact, its central admonishment would be something along the lines of, "You've been at camp for 14 summers now--get a real #@% job so that your writing 'career' achieves liftoff before you die"). "A Matter of Fat," its inexcusably punny title notwithstanding, offers more information about the role fat plays in the human body than you'll find outside a medical journal. Hell, I even like the active, encouraging thrust of the mag's department names and story headers ("You Can Do This," "Action Figures," "Are You Game?").

The July/August issue does come across a bit schizo organizationally: the mag devotes single pages to five topics ("health," "weight loss," etc.) right up front, then more to those same topics in the "In Focus" section that follows. The "active" poses in the fitness clothes photo spread make the models appear as if they're contorting their torsos to, say, avoid a speeding bus. Finally, no story, in a women's mag or elsewhere, should begin with the three-word inquiry, "Vagina not happy?"

Ultimately, though, it's tough not to be at least a bit charmed by a health-focused magazine secure enough in its mission to give a semi-enthusiastic thumbs-up to Hostess Cupcakes (as part of an "eat this, not this" bit). That slight tinge of contrariness, also found in the "Upside of Envy" reexamination of jealousy, serves Women's Health well. Distinguishing itself from the competition in all the right ways, WH is quite precocious for its age.

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