During the recent NBA playoffs, Weight Watchers rolled out a series of ads in the U.S. featuring manly men who just happen to be concerned with their figures. These high-fiving white guys were positively bromantic about weight loss, discussing their real-life reductions with bada-bing enthusiasm - often while grilling.
Diets, says one Jersey Shore-ish success story, "are not all rainbows and lollipops" (but I would totally do that diet). Guys just want to know how many calories are in a beer, dude, which is why there's now Weight Watchers Online for Men - no meetings required, so don't go getting all touchy-feely about it.
According to AdAge, 90 per cent of Weight Watchers' clientele are female and the $10-million (U.S.) campaign is a push to expand that 10 per cent. (A male-directed program doesn't exist in Canada yet.) This is not the first time the weight-loss industry has targeted men: A Nutrisystem campaign featured Dan Marino and Don Shula bragging about their new weights on a football field, punctuated by Lawrence Taylor with a bullhorn shouting a cheer: "Pizza, pasta, burgers, meat! Come on, guy food's all you'll eat!" And last year, Jenny Craig used Jason Alexander in a few satirical spots featuring the Seinfeld star upping the machismo, shooting pool and mocking the male Speedo.
It is unclear how "guy food," which apparently means triglycerides, aids weight loss. But we get the point: Dieting is not a chick problem any more. The weight-loss industry has forever played off the most limited perceptions of femininity for women, linking value, sex appeal and beauty to the circumference of one's thighs. Now guys are getting a similarly reductive treatment: Thinness is becoming a piece of masculinity.
Perhaps women should feel a pressure valve releasing, having carried the brunt of the social obsession with skinny for so long, even though we aren't necessarily fatter. According to Statistics Canada, 23.9 per cent of women and 24.3 per cent of men qualify as obese. And yet, in the national conversation about obesity, two groups seem to most often face scrutiny: women and kids. A recent series of Public Service Announcements by the government agency ParticipACTION succinctly combined these two moving targets. One ad features a working mom (in high heels and business skirt) smugly intoning, "My Jamie plays soccer twice a week. That's plenty of exercise." Then she gets hit in the shoulder with a soccer ball, while a voice-over hectors that Jamie needs 60 minutes of exercise a day. Idiot.
These ads aren't only mom-bashing - that soccer ball probably hurt - but a logical extension of the fact that fat is traditionally a female issue. In pop culture, male stars are usually given a free pass on body scrutiny. How many sitcoms feature the portly husband with the skinny eye-rolling wife? Fat has proved no obstacle in the career of Kevin James and became an identity for Chris Farley. But Gabourey Sidibe hasn't landed too many leads since her Oscar nomination for Precious. Of course, there are exceptions: The biggest celebrity in the world, Oprah, is frequently physically big. But Winfrey's weight battles have been one of her lifelong narratives.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle by David Sirota praised the dude-focused Weight Watchers ads as a welcome narrowing of the disparity between the way men's and women's bodies are publicly dissected and measured: "It is a disparity at the heart of everything from male obesity epidemics to female eating disorders - and it will end not when the fat lady sings, but when the fat guy finally loses his privilege."
But how is it progress to force men to walk the same parade of shame that's been so useless for women all this time (although it's nice to have the company)? The fact is that diets don't work: American Psychologist published an examination of 31 diet studies that showed the majority of people who diet regain all the weight plus more. But the weight-loss industry in North America is worth an estimated $50-billion, so making men feel bad about themselves is a lucrative proposition.
And feel bad they shall: A few weeks ago, the head of overweight Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was Photoshopped onto the body of an obese naked man on the cover of NOW Magazine, a Toronto weekly. Rather than selecting from the laundry list of myopic policies for which Ford deserves ridicule, they went for the body. Hillary Clinton knows the feeling.
Male Spanx, male cosmetic surgery, male dieting, male mockery - this isn't levelling the playing field, it's just spreading the pain across a bigger one. Actual liberation might look like a shift in emphasis toward health and exercise, a conception of beauty freed from the number on a scale, for women and men. But instead, body politics are becoming a quid pro quo proposition. Dude, who wants to high-five that?