“I guess I’ll have the Caesar salad,” the creative director told the waiter, “with grilled chicken.” I grimaced. We were on a first date at a cheap-and-cheerful eatery, home to a sublime fried-chicken sandwich, among other sublime non-salad things. “Could I have the avocado-and-salmon toast?” I asked the waiter reluctantly – I wanted the fried-chicken sandwich but knew I’d feel self-conscious if I out-ate my date. I was disappointed in him for ordering a salad. I was also disappointed on our second date when he ordered us a plate of radishes drizzled in olive oil. He was an advocate of what people have begun to call “biohacking”. We went on four dining dates ultimately, and I never saw him eat a carb. Biohacking is to dieting what CrossFit was to working out. It’s healthy eating for the man who doesn’t half-arse anything. The salad man was noticeably shredded, but dining with him left something to be desired. I’ve always liked watching men eat with abandon, in part because it makes me feel like I can eat with abandon. When a man pounds a plate of nachos and then goes for my remaining fries, it makes me feel dainty and ladylike.
Men like my biohacking date are up against what I call the Hungry-Man Paradigm. I was there for the launch of McCain Man Size frozen dinners. (A Wayne’s World dissolve reveals my sisters and me, three blonde girls with identical haircuts, enjoying Man Size dinners in front of the TV.) Back then there was an ad for an equivalent US product that featured men piling sandbags in a hurricane. “So what’d you have for dinner?” one man shouts to another over the din. “A pound of fried chicken! Mashed potatoes! Corn and puddin’!” the Hungry Man answers. “You?” The other man shouts back: “A sliver of trout! Spritzed with lemon! And baby carrots!” As he says “carrots,” the hurricane blows him away.
Man Size dinners may be available in a frozen-food aisle near you. The promise is more food for a bigger and better eat. They still have a hefty amount of sodium, and they’re still delicious. McCain Man Size dinners speak to the way we connect masculinity to a ravenous, indiscriminate appetite. In a 2011 study titled “Meat, morals, and masculinity”, researchers studied the differences in how participants perceived vegetarians and omnivores. Vegetarian men were regarded as more virtuous but less masculine. The researchers traced the meat-masculinity connection in recent history to World War I, when meat was reserved for warring men, and women probably fueled their delicate labours with gruel and stuff. A later study, in 2015, found that peer pressure (eg, me staring daggers at my date while he ordered a Caesar salad) was one of the main barriers to healthy eating in young men.
From what I’ve observed, it seems that many men have moved on from the belief that a burger-based diet is the cornerstone of masculinity. Or, at least, they’ve accepted that biohacking is also very manly. My most macho friend eats lunch at a salad joint every day, my father has put himself on a low-carb diet, and my swole date is nibbling on a radish. For men, being health-conscious is no longer at odds with masculinity. Intermittent fasting, punctuated by shots of a protein shake, is the new burger bacchanal.
But the popularity of Man Size meals suggests that some people still expect men to eat, and eat, and eat. Many of those people are women. (I’d hypothesise that because women still do the bulk of grocery shopping for households, Man Size dinners are being marketed to women.) In theory, women love the intermittent-fasting man. We admire his discipline, and we admire his sinewy rock-climber bod. But we still want to watch him pound a Man Size Bangers & Mash with 1900 milligrams of sodium.
Dieting has historically been a lady domain, and so has body anxiety. Neither is pleasant, but both serve as a sort of common language for women, and now men are starting to speak that language. There’s a sense that men have taken up something that is “ours” but that they don’t have the context to understand it or go about it responsibly.
If a man doesn’t dig in on a date, it changes a familiar dynamic – a dynamic that is really fun for women. When I was at university, most of my friends and I fell on various points of the eating-disorder spectrum: I remember picking the grapes out of a salad because fruits were too carby. Our meals together were fraught, so when I went out to meals with boys, it was such a relief. Early in our courtship, my uni boyfriend and I would go to an old-fashioned cafe. He would get the Bernita (heaps of corned beef on marble rye), and I would get the Fleegle (globs of Nutella and banana on challah). He would eat his sandwich in under 10 seconds. He never gained weight or fretted about gaining weight, and dining with him was anxiety-free. When I was cooking alone, I would make myself shaved-asparagus salads and other bullshit, but when he came over for dinner, I would make burgers stuffed with blue cheese. We would eat everything and then sit still for hours, like snakes digesting too-large prey.
I want men to be healthy. But I also want to have a safe space to gorge occasionally. If executed responsibly, an intermittentfasting regimen can be sexy – those abs! Just please order the burger on a date. I’ll finish your fries, I promise.