A couple months before the annual formal at my college, two guys announced a weight-loss competition. I was not very good friends with either of them, but I heard all about the ins and outs of their diets and fitness regime; they liked to complain loudly about how bored they were with yogurt and how sore they were from the gym, or expound on the latest nutritional powders and appetite suppressants they’d ordered off eBay. Many of my female friends also reduced their caloric intake in the weeks leading up to the ball, but they did it quietly. You’d have to pay attention to notice they were skipping dessert or going for longer and longer runs.
“It’s hard to grasp,” writes Lauren Bans in a recent essay for The Cut, “just what is so unappealing about someone monitoring her food intake.” But the crucial word there is “her.” As dieting has become more of an equal-opportunity endeavor, it’s actually compounded the pressures placed on women when it comes to consumption. Talking about nutrition—or appearing weight-conscious at all—has become taboo for women, while men feel more and more liberated to embrace and advertise food-related anxieties. Nothing is more humiliating or lonely than being the girl who orders a salad at a burger joint, writes Bans.
Calorie-counting has practically become shorthand for female vanity. It recalls Cher from Clueless whining about the “two bowls of Special K, 3 pieces of turkey bacon, a handful of popcorn, 5 peanut butter M&M's and like 3 pieces of licorice,” that she’s pigged out on. Or Regina George, the villain of Mean Girls, studying nutrition labels in the school cafeteria in an effort to lose three pounds. (Down-to-earth Cady, on the other hand, nonchalantly loads her tray.) Or Emily Blunt’s character from The Devil Wears Prada on her “Paris” diet, which involves eating a cube of cheese when she feels like she’s about to faint. “I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” she tells decently-sized Anne Hathaway. The Cool Girl, writes Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang.”
This down-with-dieting ethos has even made it into the corporate world. Special K partnered with Tyra Banks to launch a campaign called “Fight Fat Talk,” urging women and girls not to use their body issues or diet as conversation topics lest they damage each other’s self-esteem or even trigger an eating disorder. “Fat Talk Free Week,” a national campaign with sponsors like Seventeen and the National Organization for Women, challenges women to go five days without disparaging their bodies in conversation. Women are believed to be hyper-sensitive to “fat talk,” constantly at risk of contracting an eating disorder.
The way the media treats male and female actors who lose weight also reflects this double standard. Men who transform their bodies tend to be celebrated for their dedication to their craft, while women are criticized for glamorizing eating disorders.
Jared Leto, for instance, has said he “enjoys the challenge” of manipulating his body for different roles (including, most recently, losing over 40 pounds for his part as an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club). Matthew McConaughey, who also lost nearly 50 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club, expounded on the pros of being underweight, claiming he needed less sleep and felt more alert, almost “hyper.” He called the experience of losing so much weight a “really fun adventure.” Christian Bale said that losing 60 pounds for The Machinist left him feeling calmer than ever, “like some sort of guru that could go sit on top of a mountain.” Michael Fassbender, who starved himself for his role in Hunger, noted a decrease in his libido, which he found “liberating.”
It’s hard to imagine an actress being so cavalier about extreme weight loss. When Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman shed pounds to portray ballet dancers in Black Swan, their transformation was endlessly dissected; they were even accused of encouraging eating disorders. Both women were apologetic in interviews. Kunis assured reporters she found her underweight body “disgusting,” and was “relieved” to gain back the weight. Portman said she felt like she “literally was going to die.” Nutritionists piled on, warning that the women would regain the weight in unflattering places. When Anne Hathaway lost weight to depict a starving prostitute in Les Miserables, she refused to reveal details of the diet she followed, lest other women try to emulate her; she did say that she “thought she would collapse” from hunger. Nevertheless, some fretted that Hathaway’s restrictive diet was setting a poor example for young actresses on set.
The same behavior that has become the subject of ridicule in pop culture and verboten in any moderately forward-thinking advertising campaign is forgivable among men. What explains the shift?
There is almost a cuteness element to the male diet. Perhaps it’s because—like wearing skinny jeans—it’s trendy, edgeing up to gender norms and then, ever so slightly, transgressing them. “Traditionally, men do not care about what they eat, and prefer a narrow meat-based diet,” says Brendan Gough, psychologist and co-author of Men, Masculinities and Health: Critical Perspectives. Men who do care, and who make a point of showing that they care, are advertising a sort of emotional and physical self-awareness. Weight-consciousness is also relatively new for men, and pop culture hasn’t yet given them a stock of unattractive Regina George–like figures to rebel against.
Or maybe it’s a reflection of the (stereotypically male) impulse to compete, and take things to an extreme. Some of the more all-consuming diets—like Paleo and Dukan—are marketed primarily to men. (According to Grub Street, the Paleo diet is “most often associated with city-dwelling males who go around pretending they’re cavemen.) “Men aren't just going to be healthy, they are going to be ‘super healthy,’” says Christopher Faircloth, a sociologist and author of Medicalized Masculinities. “They are going to completely master and regulate the male body. And they will communicate their mastery to others, most likely in small group settings, such as the office.”
“Young men today don't tend to have the same hang-ups about the feminine associations of ‘dieting’ that their fathers had,” says Mark Simpson, an English journalist who coined the term “metrosexual” and has written extensively on masculinity. “I think many men today are often completely obsessed with their 'diet,' and don't really care who knows—and in fact are happy to go on and on about their eating habits with other chaps. Men's Health magazine, or as I like to call it, Men's Hypochondria, is full of ‘diet’ advice.” The Men’s Health website features articles like “The Problem with Gaining Just a Few Pounds,” “5 Supplements to Take Every Day,” and “The Simple Way to Hide Holiday Weight.” GQ extols the benefits of a six-day “water fast” and offers tips on losing the last ten pounds. Maybe it's time to include men in the "ban fat talk" conversation.