In 1999 Michael Hirschorn wrote an essay in Slate admitting that he had been "more or less overweight for most of my life." The piece, which discussed the treatment of fat people on television, was a big deal, in no small part because it was so honest about Hirschorn's own struggle with weight. Eleven years ago, that was pretty brave.
But in recent months, more men have been talking openly, and in some cases quite eloquently, about their weight and food issues—in books, in film, as reps for diet companies, and, of course, on blogs. To wit: former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni's Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eateris in large part about his battle with bulimia. Comedian Jeff Garlin's confessional memoir, My Footprint: Carrying the Weight of the World, explores his compulsive overeating and subsequent weight loss. Lbs., a feature film about a 27-year-old, 315-pound man who moves to a rundown trailer in the middle of nowhere to try to kick his food addiction, will hit select theaters this month, six years after it was originally produced.
Even diet programs have started targeting the XY-chromosome crowd. Five years ago, NutriSystem unveiled its men's program, replete with "manly" foods like burgers, pizza, and hearty beef stew. (Spokesdudes have included macho men like football star Dan Marino and ESPN announcer Chris Berman, who was also, weirdly, shilling for Applebee's at the same time.) Weight Watchers for Men, a subscription-based Web site, debuted in 2007. In January of this year, actor Jason Alexander became the latest spokesperson for Jenny Craig.
Is this purely coincidence, or is a change afoot in our culture? Bruni sees it as an extension of the cliche of metrosexuality. "It stands to reason, in all of the ways gender roles get less stringent," he says. He notes that he probably felt more comfortable writing the book today than he would have in the past, but he still considered whether it was wise to open up about his food issues.
Indeed, while men are allowed to carry a few extra pounds without being brutally scorned the way women are, they haven't been encouraged to participate in the same, well, navel-gazing as women when it comes to weight. It was that lack of I'm-fat-and-struggling male discussions that led 30-year-old Russ Lane to launch SecondHelpingOnline.com, a blog about life post–weight loss. "Guys tend to be very overlooked," says Lane, a food writer in New Orleans who went from 350 pounds to 180, which he has maintained since October 2006. "After I lost the weight, I felt thrown to the wolves," he says. "It was extremely alienating. It was such a 'woman's issue' that I wasn't allowed to have a voice about it."
That appears to be changing. Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International and author of She Loses, He Loses: The Truth About Men, Women, and Weight Loss, believes the popularity of the Atkins diet—the meal plan that embraces such "masculine" fare as steak, steak, steak, and bacon—inspired men to talk about their feelings about their weight. "Atkins got a lot of guys out of the closet," says Miller-Kovach, who has also noticed about a 10 percent rise in the number of men attending Weight Watchers meetings over the years. "They're still a minority, but they're there."
In January 2007, 16.3 percent of the sign-ups to Spark People, an online diet community, were men. That number has since jumped to 25.8 percent. "Anecdotally, we think there may be a correlation between men's health and high unemployment [or] financial stress," says Chris Downie, founder and CEO of the site. "The uncertainty of unemployment makes people want something they can control. Improving their health and weight is one way to do that and also boost their confidence." Similarly, male membership in Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, a 12-step support group, grew from about 1 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2009.
All this masculine body-consciousness has some critics concerned. "There's a lot of evidence that men are starting to be more strongly affected by the cultural discourse in terms of fatness being less tolerated even among men than it was quite recently," says Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Obesity Myth. "We're just getting to see the internalization of the self-hatred and the pathologizing of variations of body size among men in ways we've always seen among women." he says. "This culture is so completely f--ked up about it that it's hard not to have a screwed-up attitude."
David Zinczenko, the editor in chief of Men's Health, suffered from his own weight problems before joining the Naval Reserves as a teenager. He says that the attention to weight is a good thing, and that more guys are coming forward because denial is no longer an option. "You can deny that you're heavy if you're 10, 20, even 30 pounds overweight," he says. "But more and more men are facing 50, 60, or more pounds of excess baggage, and it's really impacting their lifestyle."
And yet, as seen by the multiple factors experts cite as contributing to greater body awareness and openness among American men, their approach toward weight can't be reduced to soundbites. In that way, men are also becoming more like women, whose body issues reflect a variety of social, political, and personal battles. Of course, it's possible that men have had these issues all along, and have just been afraid to talk about them: Australian businessman Joe Cross took a video camera and a generator-powered juicer around the U.S. to spread his story after he lost 100 pounds. While making his documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, he went to truck stops, ball games, and clubs looking for guys to discuss their weight. No one wanted to. It wasn't until he showed his before-and-after pictures that guys started opening up. Women are much more likely to think about and discuss their health issues, he says. "However, once you get behind that shield, men are just the same as women."