The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but weight-loss companies have long believed that the way to a slimmer national waistline is through a woman. Over the last few decades, Weight Watchers has turned to Oprah, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Hudson and even Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, to sell the redemptive power of its points and meetings. Kirstie Alley, Valerie Bertinelli, Mariah Carey and Queen Latifah have all served tours of duty for Jenny Craig. Atkins Nutritionals (as in, the Atkins diet) had Sharon Osbourne and Alyssa Milano. And Nutrisystem went with Melissa Joan Hart and Tori Spelling.
Basically nonexistent — until now.
On New Year’s Day, music producer, recording artist and Snapchat virtuoso DJ Khaled was introduced as Weight Watchers’ new social media ambassador, publicly chronicling his personal progress. (He’s already lost 26 pounds.) And two days later, Atkins announced a partnership with actor Rob Lowe. This pair of ad campaigns could be a bellwether of progress, signaling that marketers are conceptualizing weight loss and health as they never have before: What if dieting wasn’t about the diet? And perhaps more importantly — in an industry that’s long been fraught with gender anxiety — what if it didn’t matter who was doing the dieting?
In 1989, the L.A. Times heralded the dawn of the celebrity weight-loss spokesperson: “Diet advertising, once the domain of frighteningly fat people depicted in before and after photographs, has inspired a marriage of two great American obsessions, fame and physique.” Suddenly, every brand wanted to hitch their wagon to a star, preferably one with a recognizable silhouette. “When an attractive but unknown Joan Smith, for example, appears in a bathing suit on television, announces that she’s lost 75 pounds, and holds up earlier highly unattractive photos of herself, people are not convinced in their gut,” explained SlimFast founder S. Daniel Abraham in his memoir, Everything Is Possible. To Abraham, someone like Oprah, whose pounds-shedding transformation the public had recently witnessed with their own eyes, aced the gut test.
In fairness, men were fairly well represented among the diet spokespeople of the 1980s. SlimFast hired Tommy Lasorda as the first famous face to pitch its meal-replacement shakes. The Dodgers manager with a legendary appetite bragged of eating 500 oysters in three days and had previously hawked antacid tablets and Entenmann’s baked goods. Likewise, the original celebrity spokesperson for Jenny Craig was actor Elliot Gould.
But even so, dieting was, and has remained, largely marketed to women, by women — be she Weight Watchers investor Oprah singing the praises of bread or Jennifer Hudson literally singing in the company’s commercials. After all, the practice of dieting is more closely associated with women than with men, given that female bodies face vastly different social pressures: They must be thin, yet muscular, yet curvaceous. “The sexes are enjoined to eat differently — men to eat heartily and abundantly, women daintily and sparingly,” explained Carole Counihan in a 1992 paper in Anthropological Quarterly. In a 2016 Hazlitt essay about both literal and emotional hungers, Jess Zimmerman wrote, “A man’s appetite can be hearty, but a woman with an appetite is always voracious: her hunger always overreaches, because it is not supposed to exist.”
More often than not, celebrity diet commercials have reflected these cultural norms with a hyper-feminine aesthetic and tone. Kirstie Alley became a Jenny Craig spokeswoman in 2004. In one ad, the Cheers actress, lounging in a silk gown, picks up a pastel pink phone to call Jenny. “Hey! Hey, listen, girl! I’m fat!” she chirps into the receiver. Alley points to the viewer, like a gal pal in the next sleeping bag over at a slumber party (“Hey, you’re chubby too! Let’s lose weight together!”) and enthuses over Jenny’s chicken fettuccine. As the crowning glory of her Weight Watchers tenure, Alley made a much-publicized appearance on Oprah wearing only a bikini — a uniquely female trial by fire — in November 2006. Fellow Jenny Craig pitchwoman Valerie Bertinelli would later model bikinis of her own in a commercial and on the cover of People.
But the turn of the millennium saw a profound change in the industry’s demographics, with the resurgence of the Atkins diet. Time named creator Dr. Robert Atkins to its list of “People Who Mattered” in 2002. As Amy Bentley argued in a 2004 issue of the journal Gastronomica, “Atkins has allowed men to come out of the closet with regard to dieting.” The high-protein, high-fat, low-carb program invites its followers to down meat, meat and more meat, a far more traditionally masculine option for dining than the self-conscious, light salads pushed by the low-fat nutritional guidelines of yore. Lo and behold, in 2006, Nutrisystem — which delivers meals directly to customers — hired its first celebrity spokesman, retired NFL quarterback Dan Marino, who continues to appear in their advertisements today. “When we started doing this, men going on a diet was kind of taboo,” Marino recently told Bloomberg.
Whereas Lasorda — and Mel Torme, and Frank Gifford, who costarred in SlimFast ads with his wife, Katie Lee Gifford — offered a fairly gender-neutral pitch, Nutrisystem for Men and Marino encouraged would-be customers to “man up and slim down.” Nutrisystem ads counteract dieting’s feminine stigma by framing weight loss in terms of sports and competition: “Stick to the game plan,” Marino might say, amid inviting you to join “Dan’s team” or hawking aggressively named “Craving Crusher” shakes. You could play a fun, if potentially fatal, drinking game based on how often the collective “guys” watching are addressed in Nutrisystem for Men commercials:
- “Okay, guys, let’s huddle up.”
- “Guys, are you sick of feeling fat and tired?”
- “Especially guys who don’t want to cook.”
- “Hey guys, the best reason to start Nutrisystem? The ladies.”
Real men introducing themselves and proudly stating the number of pounds they’ve lost are a staple of Nutrisystem for Men commercials, but there’s also a strong emphasis on decreased sluggishness and higher energy — not just appearance.
Then there’s the charged issue of the food itself. In one Nutrisystem for Men commercial, retired NFL players and brothers Mike and Bob Golic rep the program in front of screaming sports fans, foam fingers and all. “Nutrisystem lets you eat like a man — real food for real guys,” says Mike, over a shot of a face-painted man waving a sign that reads MAN FOOD. “And for girly men like my brother here,” adds Bob.
What, exactly, constitutes man food? The Golics are glad you asked. “Pizza, pasta, burgers, pot roast,” they shout in unison with the crowd. Chicken fettuccine doesn’t make the cut. (As something of a control group, we can look to the company’s female-focused ads starring long-time spokeswoman Marie Osmond. These, unsurprisingly, are totally devoid of sports references. In at least two commercials, we find the singer and actress on an unspecified backstage, strolling through racks of dresses and glamorously lit makeup stations. In another, she cradles her infant grandson and labels herself a “Glam-Ma.”)
Fragile masculinity-driven marketing is by no means the exclusive province of Nutrisystem for Men. NBA star turned analyst Charles Barkley became a spokesman for Weight Watchers (which has operated a men-focused website since 2007) in 2012. In one ad for the “Lose Like a Man” campaign, Barkley walks toward the camera in full drag: wig, makeup, low-cut dress and heels. “I hear some of you guys think Weight Watchers is just for women,” he says, while literally embodying the male viewer’s (assumed) nutritional castration anxiety. Through Barkley, the brand emasculation-proofs the act of dieting. “The presence of a 6’6” pro-athlete with a deep, raspy voice and a masculine demeanor is very reassuring,” wrote NYU nutrition and food studies professor Fabio Parasecoli in the journal article “Manning the Table: Masculinity and Weight Loss in U.S. Commercials” of Barkley’s Weight Watchers gig. In another ad, Barkley promises, unsubtly: “Don’t worry, guys. You can lose your weight and keep your meatballs.”
It’s worth noting that Jenny Craig tapped Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander to serve as their own token Dude — a short, stout, balding actor, not a He-Man ex-athlete like Barkley or Marino. He signed on with “Jen for Men” in 2010 and lost 30 pounds in 18 weeks, as documented in an a series of ads that couldn’t have been more different from Nutrisystem’s masculine branding. They subverted gender stereotypes, although to a result that was more depressing than empowering: Jenny Craig chose to project the body-image angst usually reserved for women onto its male celebrity of choice. Alexander shared the campaign spotlight with fellow spokesperson Bertinelli, who repeatedly taunts him about modeling a “bikini” of his own, even offering the actor a pair of revealing swim trunks to try on. The most memorable of these ads is a song-and-dance number that concludes with Alexander stripping naked and tossing his underwear onto Bertinelli’s face.
For now, we can assume that DJ Khaled and Rob Lowe will keep their boxers on in the course of fulfilling their respective obligations to Weight Watchers and Atkins. Both celebrities represent a drastic departure from the weight-loss spokespeople of recent history. For one thing, Khaled and Lowe appeal equally to men and women. And not only has the public never seen Lowe in anything but enviable physical shape, but the character with which he’s now most inextricably associated — Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger — is a relentlessly upbeat health nut.
In other words, Atkins and Weight Watchers have firmly refocused on lifestyle, not diet. “The diet industry is beginning to break the old clichés of ‘I lost this number of pounds in this number weeks,’” Atkins Chief Marketing Officer Scott Parker told the New York Post in January. “People still have a need to lose weight and improve their health, but the approach in reaching them is definitely changing.” Lowe offers this wellness-minded monologue over wholesome footage of men, women and children dining together in an Atkins commercial:
“A life well lived. it’s not measured in pounds and ounces, not around here. Not with Atkins today. Yup, that Atkins. I’ve been living Atkins for years. And there are millions of us who want to live healthy and stay well for all the right reasons. Today’s Atkins isn’t just a diet — it’s great food, it’s rich in healthy protein, and lower in carbs and sugar. So that’s how I live today. This is me, on Atkins. And you? Want to join us?”
As CNBC notes, the Weight Watchers site now features this quote from Oprah: “Weight Watchers is not a diet. It’s a way of living.” In a video posted to Instagram, Khaled performs, works out on an elliptical and dances with his son Asahd. “I just want my people to see what y’all always see me do,” he says. “Only thing is, now I’m on the Freestyle program with Weight Watchers, so now, I’m gonna be even more greater. I love doing what I love to do, and I love living. I love my son and my family.” It’s difficult to imagine one of the Golic brothers — or any male diet spokesperson past, really — taking a break from enumerating man-foods to profess his adoration for his progeny.
This isn’t to say that we should take DJ Khaled’s emoji-laden dispatches, charming as they may be, as evidence that modern dieting has been forever exorcised of its gender double standard. Culture continues to suggest that men and women should eat differently. The popular ketogenic diet — which isn’t commercially marketed by any one company — isn’t dissimilar from Atkins in its high-fat, low-carb broad strokes. Famous keto proponents include the likes of Halle Berry and Kourtney Kardashian, but it nevertheless bears a certain association with, as Vice once put it, “biohacker fitness bros.”
And then there’s Soylent, the venture-capital darling line of meal-replacement products, primarily in liquid form, founded in 2013. While it’s worth noting that Soylent emphasizes convenience and efficiency more than weight loss, to some, what’s being sold beneath that sleek, minimalist branding is awfully familiar. “Almost all Silicon Valley food innovation is just rebranding what women have been doing for decades,” wrote Nellie Bowles in The Guardian. “There’s nothing inherently different about Soylent from SlimFast at all… Because it’s made by and for men, now we call it tech.”
But this new wave of dude-fronted ad campaigns is nevertheless promising. Imagine: A weight-loss industry in which human beings are encouraged to eat like human beings, without feeling compelled to prove that our bodies are conventionally “bikini-ready” or to constantly reassert the size of our meatballs.