Liquid Lunch

Soylent is self-denial for its own sake, disguised as “biohacking”

Human flesh: the ingredient in the mysterious food product in the 1973 thriller Soylent Green. In 2013, engineer Rob Rhinehart gave his meal replacement drink the same name, though with a less sinister recipe. According to Lizzie Widdicombe’s 2014 New Yorker profile of Rhinehart, the tech entrepreneur just wanted to make something he could afford to eat on a startup budget. To save on food costs and code nonstop, Rhinehart crushed up vitamins and minerals and ground them into a goop that he hoped could supplement his frozen pizza intake. He named the goop after the 1966 novel that inspired the film, and after a well-timed Kickstarter campaign, the goop became more profitable than his startup.

This liquid meal diet was genius and unprecedented — except it wasn’t. Substances like Soylent had been sold to consumers since at least 1977, argued Guardian journalist Nellie Bowles, as meal replacement diet drinks like SlimFast. The effects are largely similar: In his blog entry “How I Stopped Eating Food,” Rhinehart noted that after three weeks on Soylent he was “two belt loops down,” and by week four he had lost so much weight he wrote that he “started getting chilly.” Vice journalist Brian Merchant documented a 10-pound weight loss in his 30-day Soylent-only diet.

“What makes Soylent unique,” wrote Adrian Chen in his 2013 Gawker profile of the drink, “is that it is the first of these ‘functional beverages’ developed for and by young, male tech geeks,” specifically Silicon Valley “biohackers,” a group that believes “every moment they don’t spend coding a world-changing app might be a loss for humanity” and that “feeding yourself is a time-wasting problem that can be solved with technology.” This group skews predominately male.

Soylent and SlimFast exist in an ad space that presumes gender is binary and nonfluid. Women are sold bodies without minds, and men are sold minds without bodies

Meal replacement diet drinks signify flirty commercials and bottles shaped like hourglasses. In 1988, Oprah attributed her weight loss to a meal replacement drink called Optifast, and dragged a red wagon full of fat onto her television stage; the world had watched her lose 67 pounds, and would later demean her for putting it back on. SlimFast ads have mostly featured women in their commercials — in 1990, baseball player Tommy Lasorda became the company’s spokesperson, but research demonstrated that he was particularly persuasive to women consumers. (He was reportedly even more credible because he was a man admitting to weight problems.) An ad from 2015 shows 12 women and two men twirling in tight clothing and bikinis while clutching and kissing SlimFast bottles. Women appear in Soylent ads, though they are rarely the focus.

Soylent’s origin story works to associate the drink with the culture that founded it. Soylent adheres to its tech roots; its commercials are about “hacking” and “maximizing efficiency” and “food product.” Its label is sleek and minimalist, and its products never filmed far from a laptop. If it’s also a weight loss drink, it doesn’t want us to know.

Soylent’s slogan “use less, do more,” implies that a body is only good insofar as it is a tool for mental optimization. Its shape is secondary, unmentioned, and because it is not named, unimportant. In contrast, SlimFast ads never mention productivity or efficacy; consumers’ professional desires or work schedules are secondary to their physical attributes. Soylent and SlimFast exist in an ad space that presumes gender is binary and nonfluid. Women are sold bodies without minds, and men are sold minds without bodies.

“I just want to look good naked,” says the protagonist of 2013’s SlimFast ad campaign, Get What You Want.” Our protagonist is a middle-aged woman, who speaks to her mother on her cell phone while wearing a pink pajama set. “Two kids ago, I was doing the reverse cowgirl with the lights on!”

“Did you say something?” her husband interjects, carrying a load of laundry.

“No,” she says.

“I heard cowgirl,” he says through a smile.

“Not happening,” she says, stone-faced, and he leaves.

She bites her lip, and grins. “Just when I’m twisted up like a Russian gymnast,” she continues wistfully, “it would be nice to actually look like a Russian gymnast.”

This commercial feels progressive, if only because it features a husband doing laundry, and a woman allowed to talk about sex — “non-traditional” sex that places the woman in a position of power. Nowhere do we see a man tell the protagonist what is wrong with her; instead, she regulates herself. Having sex with the lights on would be to allow herself to be seen in a way that she is not permitted to be seen, so, contrary to the ad’s title, she withholds from herself what she wants. The ad sells negative space — the loss of mass from a woman’s hips — as well as accusation, and instruction. If you aren’t actively working to make yourself more slender, then you should be. To be a competent woman, you must show that you are working to look better, that you are always striving. This self-enhancement is primarily self-serving: the woman only looks to embody an ideal.

Soylent’s first ad, from 2014, features Rhinehart sitting in a warehouse while clouds of chemical formulas materialize around his head. It’s half tech ad and half TED talk, casting Rhinehart as both peddler and prophet. “Everything is made of parts,” he says at one point, staring off into the middle distance.

A robotic-sounding female voice introduces the commercial. “Soylent began as an idea to create the ultimate food,” she says. Onscreen, vintage film of wheat fields, grocery shoppers, and “Nutrition Facts” move in black and white over the image of a clear glass cup. “The goal wasn’t to replace food, but to provide a better alternative to what we usually eat.”

“It takes a little bit of perspective to see that food really is made up of chemicals. It is reducible,” Rhinehart continues in a milquetoast monotone. “And we can build it back up, and make it better.”

The commercial insists that Soylent is food technology, that Rhinehart is an engineer. “Everything is made of parts,” he says, staring off into the distance

The scene switches to a sleek apartment, all chrome and dark wood. A muscular, bespectacled man wearing a mesh athletic top pours a glass of beige food product, then returns to his laptop and standing desk. The commercial insists on reminding us that Soylent is food technology, that Rhinehart is an engineer who studied electronics and computation. The commercial never calls Soylent food; rather, it’s “a sustainable food source designed to keep the body in a balanced state of ideal nutrition.” Humans become collections of cells; food becomes the intricate technology that prevents these parts from rusting. “We know what we’re made of,” Rhinehart says, “and that’s what Soylent is.”

The next scene shows a woman in an office, her glass of Soylent resting next to her laptop. A man and woman go for a run, pack Soylent in Nalgenes for a nature hike. The bespectacled man from the beginning of the video is chill, we learn; he sips his Soylent while reclining in a recording studio, bantering with a tattooed dude. The Soylent-drinking woman speaks up in the office.

“By using Soylent as a resource, you can guarantee your body gets the nutrition it needs,” the robotic narration continues, “as a low cost way to be healthy, and save yourself some time.” Bodies in this commercial are vehicles for productivity and progress, not ends to themselves. When Soylent’s consumers free their minds from the cumbersome routines of food consumption, the world profits.

Meal replacement food technology telegraphs your preferred mode of bettering yourself, upgrading your personal brand to its next glittering iteration. By emblematizing the absence of food, both Soylent and SlimFast fetishize austerity — one makes distraction a sinful indulgence, as the other does consumption — and promise transcendence through self-denial.

Soylent’s mode of optimization centers on mental enlightenment: Soylent, branded explicitly as technology, is material of the mind. Soylent drinkers have a Mission: they care about food system innovation and increased access to quality nutrition. Their goals are serious and high-minded, not carnal but utopian. “We strive to create a world where access to affordable, complete nutrition — one of the most basic human needs — is no longer a challenge, but a means of empowerment,” Soylent’s website proclaims. SlimFast’s method of self-improvement is purely corporeal: Optimization begins and ends with the body, which, unlike the mind, is burdened with bulging imperfections. The SlimFast website tracks before and after images of smiling women (and one man), and locates their transformations within personal testimonials. The outcome is personal satisfaction.

Today, the body is finite, and the mind transcendent. In either case, optimization is a Sisyphean task. The body is perpetually lacking; “improving” it is a matter of striving for adequacy. The mind, with its world-saving potential, must be perpetually upgraded.

When I danced in high school, I noticed that a few dancers in my class started substituting specific tea for their water bottles. Its packaging was distinctive; the deep green of dark moss, serious and vaguely medicinal. Three silhouettes of ballerinas arched out of a teacup. My classmates called it “Ballerina Tea,” though I had never seen my dance instructors drink it. These classmates often placed the boxes of teabags where they could be seen: atop the radiator, against the windowsill, resting above the tangled ribbons of their pointe shoes. I think I registered what this tea was before my friend confirmed it, smiling conspiratorially.

Ballerina Tea is not just for ballerinas, apparently, nor is it made from tea leaves. Instead, it’s made of malva verticillata and cassia angustifolia (Chinese mallow and senna), both powerful laxatives and diuretics. “Be sure to discuss this with your physician before using,” an article on Livestrong cautions. “Follow the directions on the box and monitor your physical reactions, because overuse, or use by people with sensitive systems, can cause problems.”

By emblematizing the absence of food, both Soylent and SlimFast fetishize austerity — one makes distraction a sinful indulgence, as the other does consumption

The name is either a dig at the ballerina stereotypes or a projected result.

In this rarified world, austerity felt necessary for excellence. “Optimizing” your body into a more muscular, sleek version of itself felt directly proportional to the kind of career you would have. I am shorter than average, my body more stubby than willowy. When straight, my knees still protrude and break the line of my arabesque, giving the impression that I am never fully stretched, or that I am always falling. At a ballet summer intensive program when I was in high school, I listened to a young dancer tell me about her time training at a ballet company abroad, about how the instructors wouldn’t let you into partnering classes if you didn’t make the weight limit for your height, lest you strain the arms of the male dancers lifting you. Another classmate professed to have a formula for success.

“You know how those dancers get so thin?” she asked the crowd of us. “They eat only a single orange a day.”

I knew this was ridiculous — you would die if you did that — but for the rest of the five-week program my classmate refused the plastic boxed lunch our program prepared for us, demurely withdrawing a single clementine from her dance bag. I watched my other classmates look at her, heard them talking behind her back. The conversations were cautionary, but always tinged with admiration. People admired her willpower in the same sentence they told her to stop.

To excel in an art form that valorizes female fragility both onstage and off, I believed that needed to maximize my body’s efficacy. I cut pictures of famous dancers out of magazines; I charted my weight in apps like LoseIt! and willed myself to want to stop eating so much. Once I scrolled through a Thinspiration tumblr. I clicked out three minutes later, face hot.

I did not want these distorted bodies. Nor did my desire to optimize my body into ideal dance equipment ever manifest into anything distinctly self-destructive. (I haven’t danced seriously in four years and I look exactly the same as I did then.) I didn’t want to be thin, I realized; I wanted a body that would let me dance how I wanted to dance without getting in my way. But more than that, I wanted the approval of the other dancers, their recognition of my diligence. I wanted anyone who looked at my body to know that I was aware of its failings, and that I was trying to improve it. If I was not demonstrating that I was making my body into what I wanted to be, then I was tacitly accepting that my body was as good as it was going to get, and that I didn’t mind it.

Body was not always “low-brow,” and mind was not always supreme. When women dominated tech in the 1940s and ’50s, “the accompanying pay and prestige were both relatively low,” according to Rhaina Cohen’s Atlantic article on “What Programming’s Past Reveals About Today’s Gender Pay Gap.” As Dr. Grace Hopper explained to Cosmopolitan in 1967: “Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming,” which is “just like planning a dinner.” When men make up the majority of the field, these same traits are considered to be inventive and societally beneficial, and the product, like the computer scientists who drink it, is considered to be innovative rather than frivolous.

In her article about intermittent fasting, Nitasha Tiku profiles WeFa.st, a community predominately made of young male tech workers who fast in order to achieve “peak productivity and readiness for a future where technology is king and the smartest man wins.” These biohackers fast in order to “do more work and generate more revenue,” according to Tiku; instead of “competing on a physical plane,” they are “competing with the rest of the world.” Skipping meals is considered “monkish,” and disordered eating a productivity hack. In this community, like my ballet classmates, the appearance of austerity morphed into austerity for its own sake. The results, in either case, were eternally projected.

Rachel Stone is a student and writer from Chicago. Her work has been published in the Awl, the Toast, the Hairpin, and others.