One night in college, a member of my four-person study group showed up with a bunch of Snickers bars from a campus giveaway. The only man in the group picked one up and casually read the nutrition label. “Whoa,” he said, “You’d never guess how many calories are in just one of these.” Without missing a beat, the women raised our tired heads from our textbooks, collectively muttered, “Two-hundred and eighty,” and then went back to solving parametric equations.
Why did we know this? Where had we learned this? None of us were particularly health-obsessed, none of us were seeking to lose weight, and all of us had chosen an empowering college where the female population of our dorm shared three nice skirts and otherwise wore pajamas. But the caloric content of a Snickers bar had, at some point, slithered from the pages of the Seventeen magazines of our youth and colonized a primal part of our brains. My male friend spent the rest of the night producing treats from a vending machine like Bob Barker in a nutrition-based game show. Yes, we assured him. We knew the exact calories in the Mountain Dew, in the Fritos, in the Andy Capp’s Hot Fries.
I tell this story because on Tuesday, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey gave an interview revealing that he typically fasted on weekends and ate only one meal on weekdays, and that the single meal typically consisted of, “fish, chicken, or some steak,” plus arugula, spinach or “sometimes asparagus or Brussels sprouts” and finally, “I have mixed berries as a dessert.”
And unless “some steak” is a euphemism for “a cow,” I can immediately tell you that Jack Dorsey is consuming fewer than 1,000 calories a day. Which is a diet no nutritionist would recommend.
Is there something odd or disordered about Jack Dorsey's eating? Maybe he's just a try-guy, on a perpetual quest to see what makes his body feel and perform the best. He's spoken in the past about dabbling in veganism, in paleo, in consuming so much beta carotene that his skin turned orange. Maybe he's just that kind of person; we don't have sufficient data to suggest otherwise.
The data we do have is this: Gwyneth Paltrow daffily praises juice cleanses and warns everyone to stay away from nightshade vegetables, and she’s viewed as a harmful crackpot. Wellness guru Amanda Chantal Bacon sells $25 “activated cashews” and some weird herbal thing called “sex dust” and is viewed as a harmful crackpot. Actresses Mila Kunis and Lily Collins talk about losing weight for roles and immediately ignite thinkpieces on whether they’re triggering people with eating disorders.
Jack Dorsey eats just one meal per day, spends Friday through Sunday staggering around in a foodless stupor (“the first time I did it, like day three, I felt like I was hallucinating,” he said) and suddenly it’s not an eating disorder. It is, as CNBC originally deemed the behavior when the site wrote about Dorsey’s interview, “a biohack.”
Immediately Twitter, Dorsey’s own platform, began parsing his eating habits, sometimes with an eye roll but sometimes praising his discipline and repeating the biohack jargon, which is the term of art in the Jack Dorsey set.
I don’t know why we’re so reverential of the eating behaviors of Silicon Valley executives, except I sort of think I know why. These men completely revolutionized the way we took photographs, paid for services, connected with relatives and moved through the world. There’s something tantalizing in the idea that they also hold the key to revolutionizing our bodies.
And so we get articles in the Guardian about a group of male CEOs who call themselves “Fast Club” and participate in a “5:2” eating plan, in which they eat virtually nothing for two days a week. “The first day I felt so hungry I was going to die,” one was quoted as saying, while simultaneously insisting that this wasn’t a dangerous result, this was just biohacking.
And so, we get articles from Bloomberg News about how “intermittent fasting is getting the start-up treatment.”
And so we get profiles in Fast Company about nutritional shake company Soylent, whose founder wanted “to create a post-food existence,” as the magazine described it, to free up eating time for more important pursuits.
Soylent received $20 million in venture capital, but some commenters pointed out that Soylent has essentially already been around for 40 years. It’s called SlimFast. And it’s marketed not to tech bros, but to women who also have important pursuits, but who additionally know, in a rapid-response way, how many calories are in a Snickers bar.
It's fascinating to watch the language of food consumption mutate as it travels across genders. For decades, "dieting" was the domain of women. It looked like Weight Watchers, it looked like Snackwells, it looked like South Beach, but whatever it looked like, it was always portrayed as something simultaneously necessary, shameful, pride-inducing, hated and ever-present.
The term became a victim of “gender contamination,” as Amanda Mull wrote in the Atlantic — which is “when a product or idea becomes so female-coded that men are no longer willing to engage with it.”
Instead men — and the companies that cater to them — found new ways to describe food restriction. Not “weight loss” but “performance-enhancing.” Not “look great” but “perform better.”
Not “count calories” but “disrupt calories.”
The most provocative tweet posted in response to Dorsey’s interview started to go viral: “Tech bros ‘discovering’ that anorexia makes you hyper-focused and euphoric is the dumbest trend of 2019.”
I don’t know whether we’re moving forward or backward or just into the upside down. It’s both remarkable and depressing to watch Jack Dorsey blithely describe a diet that would put any woman — or any non-wealthy man — into the penalty box of public opinion.
It’s both thought-provoking and aggravating to think about how tech bros have managed to hijack the whole dieting concept. To move from “you’ll never guess how many calories are in just one of these,” to “the experience I had was when I was fasting for much longer, how time really slowed down,” as Dorsey said in his interview.
One wants to grab him by the hoodie strings and bellow, “that’s not mental clarity, my good man — that’s starvation.”
What’s most interesting is how this group acts as though they’re disrupting the way we consume food. They’re not disrupting the way we consume food. They’re just doing the same crap women have been working to stop doing for years.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.