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“Lose Like a Man:” Gender & the Constraints of Self-Making in Weight Watchers Online

I’m pleased to share my newest article, “‘Lose Like a Man:’ Gender and the Constraints of Self-Making in Weight Watchers Online,” which was published in the spring 2017 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, edited by Melissa Caldwell.

As a scholar of food studies and American studies, I find that analyzing the public faces of commercial diet programs gives me a way to examine and interpret American identity through what you could call an inverted foodways approach—not through what we eat, but through what we aspire so vehemently to limit and avoid. A nexus of discourses on food, bodies, health, and cultural ideals, dieting encapsulates the paradoxes and conflicts at the core of American identity: abundance and restriction, freedom and containment, aspirations and expectations.

Founded in 1963, Weight Watchers has been one of the most popular, long-standing, and financially successful commercial weight loss programs in the world. As an institution and a cultural force, Weight Watchers not only sells diet products, but also communicates, represents, and manipulates gender—more than ever with the launch of Weight Watchers Online for Men in 2007, a program “customized just for guys,” marketed with the tagline “Lose Like a Man.”

In this article, I demonstrate how Weight Watchers constructs masculinity and femininity—and what “Lose Like a Man” really means—by conducting a side-by-side comparison of the 90-second “How Does It Work?” videos for Weight Watchers Online and Weight Watchers Online for Men, which depict program “success stories” Bonnie and Dan. I first argue that Weight Watchers engages aspects of hegemonic masculinity as they endeavor to construct “masculine” dieting as wholly unique from “feminine” dieting through contrasting depictions of food, the body, and technology use—and binaries like masculine/feminine, rational/irrational, unhealthy/healthy, satisfaction/restraint, and public/private.

For example, the videos depict the meaning of weight loss differently for men and women, which variably represent the body. At the beginning and end of her video, Bonnie is depicted alongside her “before photo,” and her motivations to lose weight are framed around personal aspirations and concerns for her health. Dan, on the other hand, never appears in the same frame as his fat body, and his weight loss motivations are presented as central to his career success, and as a military sergeant, to the health of the nation state as well.

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Bonnie and Dan depicted with and without their “before photos” at the beginning of their “How Does It Work? videos. Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

These videos also reinforce food gender stereotypes as normalized aspects of men and women’s eating behavior and weight loss efforts. While Bonnie uses program cheat sheets to dine out at a restaurant and make “healthy choices,” Dan eats out at a stereotypically masculine location—a sports bar, filled with round, high-top tables, backless stools, and flat screen TVs—and orders tacos and pizza. The videos also depict Bonnie shopping for and preparing “healthy” foods in traditionally domestic spaces like the supermarket and kitchen, while Dan is shown “on the go” at a convenience store (buying chips) and grilling his favorite food (steak) outdoors.

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Bonnie and Dan using cheat sheets in different ways to dine out and “stay on plan.” Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

Bonnie and Dan also discuss Weight Watchers’ online tools in entirely different terms. Bonnie engages these tools intensely. She literally sits at a desk before a computer as if at work, while Dan says, “The tools are kind of like a video game.” For men, weight loss tools are part of a game, creating distance between the work, effort, and self-discipline of weight loss.

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Weight Watchers depicts the work of weight loss differently for women and men. Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

Analyzing the difference in the weight loss experiences that Weight Watchers Online promises reveals that Weight Watchers not only reinforces a strict gender binary, but also makes limited types of self available to women and men. While acknowledging the constant dietary and physical surveillance Weight Watchers requires of women, I argue that Weight Watchers also portrays female dieters on a difficult but actualizing and empowering journey toward a new and better self. Conversely, Weight Watchers depicts male clients losing weight easily, even effortlessly, but retaining a stable and immutable masculine selfhood throughout the process. While a complicated and ambivalent distinction, this constraint upon self-making exposes how patriarchy subordinates even the men assumed to profit the most from its power, as the male weight loss promise withholds transformative potentials.

If you have access to Gastronomica, I hope you’ll read the entire article and, as always, I’d love to hear what you think. I also hope you’ll check out the other fascinating pieces in this issue:

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