Weight Watchers first launched an online program “customized just for guys” in 2007, one of their advertisements proclaimed, “Real men don’t diet.” This counterintuitive declaration evoked the questions that animate my current research. I’m analyzing how the consumer culture constructs notions of “real men” through depictions of food and the body, particularly during moments of intense social change and anxiety. As you might have guessed, commercial weight loss programs, developed for men in the early decades of the new millennium, provide ample evidence.
Men have made up a small but consistent 10 percent of the Weight Watchers membership since the company’s founding in 1963. Throughout the decades, program materials, cookbooks, and magazines have each addressed men. For example, the 1973 printing of the Weight Watchers Program Cookbook included a menu plan for men. It allotted two extra daily servings of fruit, an extra slice of bread at breakfast and lunch, and an additional two ounces of fish, meat, or poultry at dinner. Outside the pages of cookbooks, journalists covering Weight Watchers meetings routinely mentioned the “handful of men” present. Such remarks flagged social conventions that deem men at weight loss meetings as taboo and out of place.
This essay by Emily Contois originally appeared on “Nursing Clio”, August 15, 2017. It is republished with permission by the author and the editors.
With the launch of Weight Watchers Online for Men, the company attempted to tackle head on the stereotype that “real men don’t diet.” Their press release emphasized promoting men’s health and wellness, but they also likely looked to increase market share by securing more male members.
Weight Watchers asserted, “While the fundamental principles of weight loss are the same for both men and women — eat less, move more — men gain weight, lose weight and approach weight loss differently than women.” Emphasizing gender difference at every turn, early program ads declared that men “eat real food, and can achieve real weight loss with a customized online system built just for them.”
Food, Gender, and Realness
As a food studies scholar, the notion of “real food” caught my attention. The truth is, “diet food” — especially diet food marketed to women — often isn’t real, not quite. In Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, Carolyn de la Peña demonstrates how “diet entrepreneurs” during the period between 1953 and the late 1970s created “a set of meanings around newly artificially sweetened products such as canned fruit, low-calorie dressings and jellies, sodas, and desserts.” Women like Jean Nidetch (one of Weight Watchers’ founders) endorsed the view that “the use of these products was a fundamentally positive — even required — practice for women attempting ‘healthy’ living in the modern age.”
Such diet foods introduced a concoction of food science into women’s daily lives that still lurks in today’s supermarket. Take, for example, Smart Ones “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Sundae” — described as “low-fat cookie-flavored ice cream over a crumbly cookie crust topped with fudge sauce with cookie dough crumbles” — a “smart delight” with 140 calories and 3 grams of fat. The ingredients list reveals how unreal foods are reconfigured for women seeking to lose weight as sweet substitutes for the real thing.
The fudge sauce alone is made from a veritable army of artificial ingredients that make its low-calorie status possible: sorbitol, water, polydextrose, maltitol syrup, cocoa processed with alkali, whey protein concentrate, buttermilk, powder, butter [cream, salt], modified cornstarch, cocoa, salt, mono and diglycerides, natural and artificial flavors, sodium bicarbonate, potassium sorbate, and xanthan gum.
Even if taking a more “whole food” approach to diet food for women, extremely low-calorie eating pushes the boundaries of realness. High fiber, water-filled lettuces and vegetables, topped with low-calorie dressings, are constantly promoted as essentially calorie-free eating, a boon to weight loss efforts and hunger satiation. Women are fed such dietary recommendations at the hands of the weight loss industry, and often from the nutritional and medical establishment as well.
What Then of Real Food, Real Weight Loss, and Real Men?
The differences between “male” versus “female” diet food and weight loss grow clearer when considering Weight Watcher’s programs for men and women alongside one another. I did this a few years ago, comparing the 90-second “How does it work?” videos for the respective programs, which feature Weight Watchers success stories, Bonnie and Dan.
In these videos, Weight Watchers wrote a new weight loss script for men through Dan. The company aligned dieting with the sociocultural demands of hegemonic masculinity — that is, being a “real man.” Despite the tears you see shed on The Biggest Loser, Weight Watchers depicted Dan experiencing weight loss without emotion or personal reflection. You won’t find a hint of the therapeutic ethos either. Furthermore, Weight Watchers did not depict Dan internalizing the self-discipline, dietary change, and bodily surveillance long expected of women on a diet — themes endorsed, for better and (likely much) worse by Nidetch, for men and women alike. According to Weight Watchers Online, men simply track what they eat, “stay on plan,” and lose the weight.
What’s more, Weight Watchers depicted Dan eating decidedly real food. Program advertisements even referred to “man food,” or what food writers more recently have called “dude food.” The program video featured Bonnie eating “healthy” foods like whole-wheat pasta, “skinny” cocktails, and, of course, salads. On the other hand Dan (and the men depicted on the program website) ate burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings, mac and cheese, ice cream sandwiches, and steak kabobs, and drank beer.
Weight Watchers depicted Bonnie (but not Dan) doing the work that eating healthfully typically requires. For example, Bonnie shopped at the grocery store (a space often considered “a housewife’s paradise”) and cooked from recipes in the Weight Watchers database. Conversely, Dan stopped by a convenience store and grabbed a bag of chips.
Furthermore, the “What can I eat?” section of the men’s program website coolly read, “Anything,” bucking the conventions of dieting that require derisively feminized actions like eating fruits and vegetables, counting calories (not that that even works), or cooking specialized meals. In part, a marketing ploy to garner more male members, Weight Watchers’ construction of such foods and food behaviors as “man food” and “diet food for men” demonstrates how masculine privilege shapes the dieting experience.
Why “Masculine” Weight Loss and “Manly” Diet Food Matter
Thinking of male weight loss as distinctly different from female weight loss has real consequences. For example, in a randomized trial of a weight loss program designed for men, published in Obesity in 2015, the authors based their intervention design on the understanding that men want different things from weight loss than women do. The authors wrote:
“Men report wanting individually focused programs that do not include strict meal plans and provide the ability to tailor the diet to their preferences. Additionally, they prefer programs that do not disrupt their daily routine and provide information in a clear and direct manner.”
Such statements further naturalize aspects of “normative discontent,” a concept that psychologist Judith Rodin coined to describe the widespread nature of women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. This study privileged men, as it in effect assumed that women do want things like strict meal plans, not tailored to their tastes and that disrupt their daily life. In such cases, women’s more willing compliance with weight loss protocols can be misread as inherent characteristics of female study subjects. The truth is such a readiness to diet represents deeply ingrained and damaging behaviors into which women are more commonly socialized than men; an adherence practiced over years of dieting and often motivated by unyielding social demands for thinness.
What’s interesting (and troubling) is that studies of college students find that men’s body dissatisfaction is now normative as well. Furthermore, a 2004 review found that men across the life course — as children, adolescents, and adults — struggle with body image issues as often as women do.
Weight Watchers knew that men were increasingly vulnerable to body dissatisfaction and that men generally perceived dieting — and diet food — as feminine. And so as the company wooed male clients, they coupled “Real men don’t diet” with a new and equally contradictory tagline, built from the stuff of hegemonic masculinity, burgers, and beer:
“Lose like a man” — that is, “Don’t lose like a woman.”