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Jason Alexander says he joined Jenny Craig after seeing images of himself and thinking, 'I don't like the way that guy looks.' (Mike Guastella/WireImage)
Jason Alexander says he joined Jenny Craig after seeing images of himself and thinking, 'I don't like the way that guy looks.' (Mike Guastella/WireImage)

Manly weight loss

The changing face of male weight loss Add to ...

George Costanza is no Dan Marino, and that may signal an important shift in dieting culture.

When the weight-loss company NutriSystem launched its men's program in 2006, it tapped Mr. Marino, a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback, as its spokesman. It was a move clearly calculated to make guys think that if dieting is manly enough for an athlete of Mr. Marino's stature, then it must be manly enough for them.

Ever since, the weight-loss industry has encouraged a culture of dieting for dudely reasons, whether by recruiting superstar athletes to promote various programs or, in the case of the television show The Biggest Loser, presenting weight loss as a gruelling competition.

Which is why the recent announcement that Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on Seinfeld, has joined Jenny Craig as the company's newest spokesperson represents a sea change in how weight-loss companies are now reaching out to men.

Rather than one more sports figure who's gotten a little fatter as his glory days have faded, the new face of male weight loss is just another pudgy guy who, like so many of us, has been losing the battle of the bulge over the years and wants to drop a few pounds simply to look better.

It's a change that is helping dieting shed its image as an exclusively female concern.

"You do see more men coming through the doors," says Paul Schiffner, general manager of Weight Watchers Canada, which has run men-only meetings across the country for several years now.

"Women are more likely to start dieting in reaction to what they see in the mirror or what they see in a photograph. That isn't it for men, for the most part. They're more likely to put off dieting until it becomes a health issue," Mr. Schiffner says.

Considering the rise in awareness of male obesity and its health consequences, including a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, it is no wonder more men are seeking out weight-loss programs, Mr. Schiffner says.

A main challenge for the weight-loss industry, however, is the fact that dieting has for so long been branded as a female pursuit. Is there any question as to which gender a company with the name Jenny Craig is focused on?

"The idea of losing weight, for men, has been really not front and centre. It's always been a women's thing," says Harvey Brooker, founder of Harvey Brooker Weight Loss for Men, in Toronto.

Since joining Weight Watchers earlier this month, Benny Osher has been somewhat tightlipped about his participation in the program.

"I haven't really spread the word out too much because I'm a little embarrassed to say I'm on Weight Watchers," says the 46-year-old Toronto accountant.

Each week, Mr. Osher attends a Weight Watchers meeting with fellow dieters. For every 10 people at the meetings, only about two are men, he says. "I enjoy the positive aspect of the meeting. I like hearing other people's stories," he says. While he has tried to lose weight in the past, this is the first time Mr. Osher has joined a formal dieting program. His hope is to drop to 169 from 182 pounds. The structure of the program has allowed him to get a grip on his weight loss.

"It feels good knowing you're taking control," he says.

Men who diet usually do so for health reasons, says Ray Burton, a personal trainer in Calgary. "You never hear, 'My wife doesn't find me attractive any more.' But you do hear 'My doctor just told me that I've hit the wall' or 'I want to be around to play with my kids,' "

In other words, for men, dieting has always had to have a higher purpose than mere vanity. Hence all of Mr. Marino's marketing-speak about how NutriSystem can help guys "get back in the game," whatever that means.

In shilling for Jenny Craig, however, Mr. Alexander has made it known that he was drawn to the company's weight-loss program simply to look better. It's much the same spiel women have been hearing from female weight-loss spokespeople (who still far outnumber the men).

"I just got to a point where, when I would look at the S einfeld reunion stuff or one of these other projects that I had done, I said, 'I don't like the way that guy looks. That guy is not attractive in any way, shape or form to me,' " Mr. Alexander told People magazine earlier this month. It might as well be Valerie Bertinelli speaking, minus the Seinfeld reference.

It's certainly a different line than the one offered by Jenny Craig's previous male spokesperson, Baron Davis. When the NBA point guard joined Jenny Craig in 2008, he boasted in a press release that being on the weight-loss regimen made him feel "more than ready to tackle the upcoming season."

Still, dieting carries a stigma.

Since many men are reluctant to talk about weight loss in the presence of women, Mr. Brooker's classes are open to men only.

"They can say anything they want and not feel embarrassed," Mr. Brooker says.

Weight Watchers Canada hopes to increase the number of men-only meetings as interest grows, Mr. Schiffner says.

Whether or not Mr. Alexander's new role at Jenny Craig will help boost that interest remains to be seen.

But considering all the dangers of being overweight, more men today accept that it's okay to diet just like their wives or girlfriends, Mr. Schiffner says.

"Guys are starting to get more in touch with the fact that they've got to deal with these health consequences and they have to deal with it earlier and they have to be a little more open to discussion," he says.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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