Earlier this month, the magazine published a story, “The Hunger Diaries: How Health Writers Could Be Putting You at Risk,” which took a look at how six widely-read health and fitness bloggers — dubbed “the big six” — might be putting out information that not only was not medically sound or verified, but that could be putting their readers at risk for unhealthy eating habits and an obsessive approach to diet and exercise, even though at least one of the six is a registered dietitian.
The bloggers met at a “Healthy Living Summit” last August, organized by the bloggers themselves, with sponsors like Stonyfield Farm, Quaker Oats, Arnold, and Oroweat hoping to get in on the action through sponsorships.
Marie Claire‘s Katie Drummond gives examples of blog posts by the “big six”:
But behind the cutesy titles and sloganeering (Summit motto: “Bloggers for a Balanced Lifestyle”) lies an arguably unhealthy obsession with food, exercise, and weight. The blogs’ pages of meticulous food photographs and descriptions are often updated several times a day and immediately dissected by readers. A typical morning post documents breakfast with a photo and description—say, a smoothie of raw spinach and rice milk—followed by an afternoon report on the day’s herculean exercise and an evening update on perfectly portioned snacks and dinner. Pare once chased a 10-mile run with a flourless, low-fat, black-bean “brownie.”
According to Ragan’s PR Junkie blog, the response to the article across the web was less than supportive, with upset readers taking to Twitter, Marie Claire‘s website and the magazine’s Facebook page to express their disagreement. So far, the magazine has yet to respond, but PR Daily contributor Claire Celsi told PR Junkie that, as she sees it, “I’ll bet after some fact checking is finally done, readers will get an apology.”
It should be noted that, for all the backlash the article has received, Drummond seemed to be careful to frame her argument in terms of the nature of this genre of blogging, not so much on any nefarious intent on the part of the bloggers themselves. An example:
Doctors consulted by Marie Claire supported the women’s aim to be healthy, and said certain meals seemed more nourishing than others, but found aspects of the blogs alarming.
“The sheer number of food images and intense exercise descriptions can be particularly triggering to eating-disorder-prone followers,” says Dr. Robyn Silverman, a developmental psychologist in Mount Freedom, New Jersey, whose book, Good Girls Don’t Get Fat (published in October), addresses influences on female body image.
Of course, while it’s tempting (and a good story!) to frame this as a battle between print and web media, magazine writers and bloggers, the issue isn’t, as I see it, quite that simple…
Of course, the medium does mold the story, so the fact that bloggers can write on a number of topics — including health and diet — without being expected to supply credentials, fact-check their stories, or corroborate with health professionals before publishing can and does lead not only to misinformation being spread, rapidly, across the web, but can also lead to (fiercely loyal) communities quickly forming around this information. The fast-paced nature of blogging and, on a certain level, the need to give fans and commenters what they want lest their instantaneous feedback turn negative does shape the content of blogs, and it’d be dishonest or idealistic of bloggers and their readers to deny this.
Then there’s the claim that bloggers only write about what “works for them” and that they “never claim” to be role models to be emulated by their readers.
In a post about the controversy, BlogHer quotes one of the six profiled bloggers, who offers this as a defense of her content:
In the 2,681 blog posts that I’ve written to date, I’ve never once claimed to be a perfect eater or healthy role model. I write about what works for me, which I’ve noted time and time again on my blog. I’m not an expert on anything, except my own life.
So, is Marie Claire correct in its assessment of the “big six” bloggers? Possibly. It’s not as if this is a criticism that’s particularly new or groundbreaking to anyone who even casually peruses health, food, exercise or lifestyle blogs. Is it, as one BlogHer contributor phrased it, a “mean spirited attack”? Perhaps.
But maybe, just maybe, Marie Claire is merely focusing on a particular trend that falls within its scope of coverage. And maybe a democratic playing field in which writers working both in print and online can offer critique and commentary without their words being turned into fodder for an ongoing battle between new and old media — and without running the risk of being labeled with emotion-based descriptors like “mean spirited” or bitter or jealous — is better, ultimately, for readers who have the option and the savvy to cull information across a variety of platforms.