Male Dieter's Logic
Your Labor Day Special
Last week was too full of unexpected challenges to continue with Rotten Romance—for the moment. My computer died and was in the shop for a few days. Then a mysterious pain in my left ankle had me hobbling around until I finally went for an X-ray at the behest of my doctor (no conclusive reading as yet; I may need an MRI). But I wanted you to have something to read this afternoon, and so I dug out an old column I wrote for GQ ages ago on the difficulties of men and diets, published in the days when I was more-or-less happily married. And I still find it pretty damn funny, perfect fare for a weekend of barbecue, potato salad, ice cream sundaes, and beer.
Many years ago, when my then-husband was in his early 40s, he quit smoking. Good for him. But in less than six months, he gained roughly 20 pounds. Bad for me.
I say “roughly” because we did not know the exact difference in weight between his tobacco-stained self and the new, heftier nicotine-free version. When I threatened to buy a scale to ascertain this number, he said, “oh, no. Don’t do that. I’m on a diet.
This is a classic example of what I call Male Dieter’s Logic (MDL), which, of course, is not logical at all, but rather resembles the premise of a diet book coauthored by Tina Fey and the Mad Hatter. The premise goes something like this: If you say that you’re on a diet, then you are on a diet.
Another example of MDL: One fine spring evening, my spouse returned home from work with a big bag of popcorn. He poured half the contents into a bowl, offered me a few kernels, and then retired to the living room to scarf down the rest. I said, “What are you doing? We’re having dinner in an hour. He said, “Popcorn’s not fattening. If I eat this, I won’t eat much dinner.” Less turned out to be more: After polishing off his meal in less than 15 minutes, he reached over and speared a half-gnawed pork chop of mine.
One last example of MDL, from the same evening: A couple of hours later, I talked to a friend who had just enrolled her significant other in a ballroom-dancing class. This seemed like such a good idea that I sambaed out to the kitchen, where my S.O. was loading the dishwasher. I said, “Let’s dance,” and he took me in his arms and we did a shuffling two-step across the small expanse of linoleum. Applying pressure to his knees and groin, I tried to guide us back to the sink. He held fast, refusing to spin. Then over his shoulder I spied what looked suspiciously like an ice-cream soda. I said, “That looks suspiciously like an ice-cream soda.” He stammered. “It is. But I made it with diet Coke.”
The problem here was not that he lacked good intentions—he sincerely wanted to lose 10 or 15 or 20 pounds. Rather, the problem was that he didn’t know how to do it. And after conducting a random sampling of male and female friends, I began to suspect that this was a failing endemic to his sex. There are simply some things that girls do better than boys. And dieting is one of them.
I would like to posit that baby girls are born with a dieter’s gene, embedded deep within the DNA molecules. This is a gene that says everything you put in your mouth has the potential to go straight to your hips. (It’s possible that baby girls get colic more often than baby boys because mother’s milk is not 99 percent fat-free.)
The innate female impulse to diet is reinforced by cultural cues. By the time she’s old enough to fit in the toddler’s seat of a supermarket cart, a little girl has begun to confront rows and rows of magazine covers in the checkout line. Many of these publications show purportedly adult females with absurdly slim bodies; others have the words DIET or WEIGHT LOSS or REDUCE emblazoned on their covers. The little girl makes a simple connection, and thus is the inextricable link between dieting and absurdly slim bodies established for life.
As she gets older, the girl is presented with other models of the ideal female body, on television, in the movies, and in advertising. Some of these paradigms may feature swollen proportions above the waist, but none could ever be described as fat. The girl spends much of her teenage years calculating how to attain such a body and discovers no end of books, pamphlets, videos, and articles to help her reach that goal. By age 18, she knows at least 25 exercises to firm the thighs as well as the exact number of calories in a carrot stick, a saltine, a wedge of chocolate cake, and a glass of gin..
Boys have few such cultural or genetic advantages. In fact, the male metabolism seems to differ markedly from that of the female. Teenage boys can ingest great quantities of ice cream, French fries and Big Macs and never gain an ounce. Often it’s not till he approaches midlife that a man makes a connection between a six-pack and the mysterious bulge that’s appeared between his neck and feet. And by then it’s awfully late in the game to be learning what women have known for years: Pig out, and you pay big.
(It can be argued that our culture presents images of slender, beautifully proportioned males, too, but most guys I know dismiss these as prototypes of hard-core narcissism or followers of a different sexual persuasion.)
A man on a diet is an odd creature indeed. He goes to extremes and makes tortured bargains between his gut and his mind. One male friend who decided to shed a few pounds obsessively weighed himself five times a day and soon became convinced that his scale was out of whack. At a dinner party, he stumbled upon a state-of-the-art digital-readout scale in his host’s bathroom. To get the most accurate number, he removed all his clothes before weighing himself, only to discover that the scale back home was two pounds too light. When he returned to the table, his date asked what had taken him so long. “I told you I was determined to get weighed tonight,” he said.
Another male friend embarked on a month-long diet advocated by a then-popular manual. Week one called for him to eat nothing but tunafish and oranges. He never got to week two but stayed with the t-and-o formula for the entire month. Yes, he lost about five pounds but after 30 days he was raring to get back to his old, bad eating habits. This same dieter, when he periodically decides to take charge of his gut, “skips” dinner for a couple of weeks. After his wife and son have eaten, however, he repairs to the kitchen to raid the leftovers, the theory being, I suppose, that food ingested standing up is less fattening than food eaten sitting down.
Clearly, these guys—maybe all guys—need our help. Men don’t understand what women have known for decades. Dieting is not a head game; it’s not a game at all. Dieting is about pain. Dieting is about self-denial and mortification of the flesh. Dieting is hell.
The concerned female can do many things to help her man see the light: she can make up lists of acceptable and forbidden foods. She can prepare appetizing low-cal meals. She can set a good example herself, picking at her food and eschewing the heavy stuff. She can take up a sport, preferably one requiring a revealing outfit, and encourage her man to join in. Or she can nag and whine. These are the tactics that have worked best for me. “Sweetheart, do you really need to eat four slices of pizza?” and “Honey, did you know that a tablespoon of mayonnaise has more than a hundred calories?” and ‘HEY, FATSO, GET YOUR FINGERS OUT OF THE PEANUT BUTTER JAR!”
Or she can give up entirely and let her guy expand in whatever directions he wants. That’s the advice a therapist once gave me when I complained that my husband was more than the man I had married. She said, “We put up with their bellies, and they put up with our wrinkles.”
So perhaps I should simply have shut my trap. After all, many women claim that when a guy goes on a diet of his own volition—and sticks to it—he’s probably fooling around. It’s possible I should have been counting my blessings instead of pounds, and sought out more creative uses for those love handles.
In a fine twist of fate, though we divorced 25 years ago, my ex and I now live in the same small town (that’s a whole ‘nother chapter for Rotten Romance). We meet for dinner and streaming about twice a week, and I generally cook. He has a new lady friend, but she is a disaster in the kitchen, so I am constantly trying out new recipes. And you know what? I could care less how much he packs away or whether he shovels the remains from my plate on to his. Those love handles aren’t my problem anymore.