science of us

The Way Men’s Media Cover Dieting Is … Weird

Photo: Ian Dyball MA/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a regular feature titled “The Real-Life Diet,” GQ interviews men about what they eat and how they exercise. Some of these men are celebrities (see William Jackson Harper of The Good Place), but most are professional athletes, like “the most jacked player in the NBA,” or Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. Last week, though, GQ profiled its own staff member, fact-checker Mick Rouse, naming him “the Fittest Man at GQ.

As Atlantic writer Amanda Mull soon pointed out, it’s difficult to imagine a women’s magazine publishing a similar evaluation of a staff member’s body, much less holding an equivalent discussion in the first place. While women are still, obviously, judged on their diets and appearance (often under fat-phobic guidelines masquerading as objective health criteria), women-focused media outlets have become, at least nominally, body-image conscious in recent years. Mainstream magazine covers don’t spotlight “11 Amazing Weight-Loss Tips” — instead, they show “11 Amazing Ways to Love Your Body.” Whether the latter is actually any more progressive is arguable, but we seem to have come to an agreement that publishing explicitly objectifying weight-loss-oriented content is passé.

Men’s magazines, meanwhile, remain free to cheerlead openly disordered eating: In his interview, Rouse says he used to eat oatmeal for three meals a day to lose weight, and while he warns readers against doing the same, his current diet (“pretty much grilled chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and rice”) is presented as healthy, “balanced,” and essential to his lean, muscular figure — the body deemed “best” by the staff’s own criteria. It might not sound like starvation, but Rouse’s diet is extremely restrictive by his own admission, and it’s the sort of meal plan that, coming from a woman, would elicit anorexia accusations, perhaps not inaccurately.

GQ’s recent interview with the Reverend Al Sharpton was even more alarming. Twice mentioning that Sharpton had more than halved his weight (he now weighs 130 pounds), the interviewer admires Sharpton’s no-days-off, 5 a.m. daily workouts and upholds the dietary advice of none other than rapper Waka Flocka Flame, who once told the mag he doesn’t think humans need food to survive. Sharpton seems to agree: He tells the interviewer he eats only three slices of bread, a banana, and a kale salad with a boiled egg each day. This amounts to approximately 700 to 800 calories, if I’m estimating generously. The lowest recommended daily caloric intake for men is 1,500 calories. Sharpton is starving.

When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey shared his own intermittent-fasting plan (which includes eating nothing at all on Fridays and Saturdays), critics rightly pointed out that his diet sounded dangerously disordered. But because Dorsey is a man, and his self-professed goals are more about abstract concepts like “mental clarity” and “sharpness,” what would otherwise be labeled anorexia is rebranded as self-improvement. Still, for every outlet that labels Silicon Valley’s emergent eating issues as disordered, there is a men’s magazine presenting extreme dieting as an effective means to an end.

Though the desired results may differ and have a different vocabulary — lean vs. skinny; jacked vs. in shape; keto vs. low carb — research suggests that young men are just as susceptible to disordered eating as young women are, but because our cultural framework positions both dieting and disordered eating as largely female endeavors, we just don’t recognize what it looks like in men. While female dieters are forced to the fringes (gathering on pro-anorexia internet forums or coding their weight-loss goals as “wellness” aims), men’s magazines are providing male dieters with national platforms on which to congratulate each other for not eating. It’s weird and sad to witness.

The Way Men’s Media Cover Dieting Is … Weird