Semiotics in design: diets for blokes

Dieting – for girls, right? Even though obesity is more prevalent in men, and although lots of men go on diets, the culture around the weight loss industry is essentially feminine. But we see signs in the semiotics in design around dieting that indicate change on the way.

Culture has always pressured women to be body conscious and aspire to an ideal shape, far more than men. The result is that the diet industry grew up targeting women. And at any one time 40 to 50% of American women are on a diet.

But more men than women are overweight – and their surplus weight is likely to lead to health issues (being concentrated around the vital organs – in the ‘beer belly’ rather than on bum, hips and thighs). So one might wonder why were men reluctant to engage?

The idea of ‘gender contamination’ is important here: that once something becomes encoded in culture as essentially female, men won’t go near it. Some observers think this is getting more pronounced as the wider culture becomes more feminised, and as men’s traditional dominance in top jobs, universities and so on is perceived be under threat, and as traditional ‘men’s jobs’ in factories and mines are in steep decline.

And so the semiotics in design around traditional calorie counting diets might include a token man, but really – this stuff is for girls. There might be a heroic bloke and calorie counting maestro who made the papers after shedding a huge amount of weight, but we men secretly reckoned the whole process was a bit lame, even if the end result was pretty impressive.

And so we’ve watched with interest as masculine coding is invading the diet arena, and threatens to disrupt it. 

The kind of diet approaches that are getting traction emphasise technical or scientific approaches. The books men read are often written by scientists rather than influencers – like Dr Robert Mosely’s emphasis on gut health, or challenge based approaches like the 5:2 diet, or work on nutrition and blood sugar. Mosely’s’ books have sold well in excess of 2 million copies

Dr Matthew Hall, editor of the Journal of Gender Studies, believes men can be more open about dieting when they follow regimes linked to specific scientific research because it is seen as more masculine. “As a rule of thumb, dieting is coded as a more feminine activity. If men participate in feminine activities, they need to frame it in a way that gives them permission to do it. Scientific markers tend to be coded as male.” Men may also take pride in excelling at the technical challenges of dieting – the precision and monitoring involved – and see it as a sporting endeavour, he says

Coming down the pipe are even more technical and science based disruptors. Silicon Valley is now getting seriously involved in the diet business. We’re not talking step counters here, rather an intersection of cutting edge science and personalisation through technology

Examples include Viome, who are in the business of at-home fecal testing. You send in a very small package of your own poo, and the company tells you what’s happening in your gut so that you can recalibrate your diet to, among other things, lose weight and keep it off. In the company’s words, subscribers get the opportunity to explore and improve their own microbiome: Viome “uses state-of-the-art proprietary technology” to create “unique molecular profiles” for those who purchase and submit a kit. How manly is that!

23&Me want you to eat and exercise according to your genetics. Habit promises to study your personal biomarkers to tailor a nutrition plan just for you. Need a few hours of supposedly superhuman mental acuity and calorie burning? Pound a ketone cocktail and keep it moving. Can you control your body’s need for fuel through “intermittent fasting”? There’s an app for that. 

It’s easy to mock of course, but when more than two thirds of the UK male population is overweight or obese, and 75% in the US, this kind of disruption is long overdue.