Opinion | ‘Huberman Husbands,’ ‘Bro Diets’ and the ‘Masculine’ Branding of Fitness Culture

Women have long been the primary market for weight-loss advertising, whether through diet or exercise, or even the indirect messaging of the fashion industry. Though overexertion and muscularity were certainly considered unfeminine, being thin has been seen as an acceptable and worthy goal for generations. Because women were the main consumers of this kind of information, it’s not surprising that marketers would look for a different approach to attract men — and that appeal has often been couched in science and statistics, which is how Huberman frames his information.

Petrzela describes the various ways that some American political figures have attempted to nudge us toward a healthier culture. When Lyndon Johnson was in the Senate, she writes, Lady Bird Johnson “strove especially hard” to separate the idea of fitness from certain “effete associations”:

In The Baltimore Sun, she wrote in 1956 of the “tricks” she had to play to nurse her husband back to health after a heart attack caused by his lifestyle, one typical of accomplished, “on the go” men: long hours at work, three packs of cigarettes a day, and meals of coffee and cold hamburgers. Once Johnson convinced her husband that counting calories and fat grams wasn’t emasculating, but could be like “following World Series scores,” he “fought every pound as if it were a political opponent.”

Over time, this perspective gained traction, and charismatic fitness leaders like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and ’80s helped convince more men that there wasn’t anything “unmasculine” about exercise — or about what we might now call body consciousness. For decades, going to the gym has been culturally acceptable for straight men, but worrying about diet was still seen as feminine, and companies had to figure out how to market “healthy” products to men.

Emily Contois, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of “Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture,” explained to me that “the power of science — like, capital-S Science — has been deployed multiple times to masculinize ideas about health, the body and particularly food.” Whereas a fitness or diet product might be given a catchy name and described in lay terms when it’s being sold to women, when something is sold to men, the pitch will sometimes include depictions of molecules. (Even if they’re molecules that don’t exist and would be dangerous to consume if they did.)

All of this really came to a head during the pandemic, when, as Petrzela put it, “we saw a huge boom” in the personal health industry for everyone, regardless of gender, “both because of social media and isolation and the presence of a major health threat” that made our “normal ways of being healthy” seem insufficient. Which is to say: For a while, you couldn’t go to the gym, but you could listen to “Huberman Lab,” start getting sun on your face in the morning and wait 90 minutes to drink your morning coffee after waking up.

There’s a dark side to the male fitness internet — as explained by my friend Amanda Hess in 2018, when she took a dive into the dark recesses of body building memes and unpacked the way some men can go from message boards about the “quantified self” to expressing fringe political beliefs. And certainly diet and fitness extremes can be as psychologically damaging to men as they can be to women, as Virginia Sole-Smith has written.


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