constellations #81: ode to diet coke
When I was a kid, we lived down the street from this woman who was the first woo-woo person I ever met. Maybe that’s not quite right; mostly, what I remember is that she had a very particular relationship to nutrition. She fed her family all-organic everything, though the kids snuck junk food from my parents’ cabinets when they hung out at our house. She tried to sell us supplements on various occasions. She once plugged my sister into a machine that read some kind of electric current in her body — we can’t remember why, exactly, but I think it led to some dietary recommendations. Anyway, one time this woman told my mom that, despite all her healthy living, she did have some vices: like, for example, she’d drink a little seltzer now and then. In retelling the conversation to me and my sisters, my mom could not contain her laughter: Seltzer?! Imagine saying your biggest vice is seltzer.
By that logic, my biggest vice is Diet Coke. I deeply and truly love Diet Coke, a fact about me that has held true for many years despite bringing me a good deal of personal shame and/or defensiveness. I love the way it tastes, and always have, and genuinely find little else in the known universe as refreshing. It started when I was a teenager — my parents, unlike that neighbor I mentioned, did indeed let us drink soda in moderation. The moderation wore off by the time I got to college, though, where my newfound sense of freedom manifested, most days, in me drinking at least two fountain Diet Cokes from the dining hall and a couple cans from the mini-fridge in my dorm room every day. I no longer consume on that level but it did go on like that for a while, and the habit never fully disappeared. If you’ve been to my apartment in the last few years I have definitely offered you a Diet Coke. I am drinking a Diet Coke as I write this.
The first diet sodas were introduced in the 1950s. The earliest were called No-Cal and Diet Rite Cola — both originally marketed not for people trying to lose weight but for diabetics and other consumers who might need to limit their sugar intake; they were actually stocked on the medicine shelves. But once they became popular with weight loss dieters, diet sodas really took off. In 1963, Coca-Cola and Pepsi both launched diet sodas — respectively, Tab and Patio (which they named “Diet Pepsi” the next year). Diet Coke itself didn’t launch until the summer of 1982. By that point, Coca-Cola felt like Tab had become seen as a drink for women — Diet Coke, the company figured, was its chance to market diet soda to everyone.
I suppose I’ve always passively associated Diet Coke primarily with women who are obsessed with getting, or staying, thin. But, given all the cultural histories of Diet Coke I’ve consumed as I’ve been writing this, I’ve realized that isn’t everyone’s impression. In the New Yorker a few years ago, Nathan Heller dug into the soda’s rise and fall, dubbing Diet Coke “the elixir of soft-bodied plutocrats desperate to shed their shady pasts and, possibly, a few pounds.” He goes on: “During the late eighties and nineties, Diet Coke seemed less fussy, less patrician, less ‘Frasier’ than second-wave coffee. It helped define a novel archetype of masculinity — the bootstraps kid who’d made it big, who was cool and modern, in a suit.”
Maybe I hadn’t previously given enough thought to the paradigm of the male Diet Coker drinker. (The drink’s biggest celebrity endorsers of late have formed an, uh, interesting group of men: Harvey Weinstein’s a big fan; Trump allegedly had a button in the Oval Office to order a Diet Coke whenever he wanted one; Karl Lagerfeld reportedly drank ten cans of it a day.) Nor did I really understand its association with the power brokers of the Clinton era. In that New Yorker story, Heller positions it as a drink for corner-cutters, all the luxury of soft drinks with none of the downsides — perfect for a time when an “emerging entrepreneurial class … realized that great work could be done if you just left behind the niceties and red tape of the past and played — well, not dirty, certainly not, but, you know, not quite by the rules, seizing loopholes as you saw them and leveraging the way that celebrity, business, culture, creativity, and power were flowing together.” (To be fair, I was a baby during this era, which is perhaps why my associations with the drink exclude all this.)
Recently I also saw, for the first time, this famous Diet Coke ad from the mid-’90s where a bunch of working women gather around an office window to watch a hot construction worker outside take his shirt off and chug a Diet Coke. Wow. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
They don’t make diet sodas like they used to, either. For example: Early versions combined two artificial sweeteners, cyclamate and saccharin. But in 1969, the FDA banned cyclamate — studies on lab rats linked the chemical with bladder tumors. Research over the last fifty years has shown further not-so-salutary effects of diet soda: It screws with your blood sugar; it can increase the risk of stroke. Aspartame, the artificial sweetener du jour, isn’t exactly great for you — a 2021 review of the scientific literature on its safety showed links to mood disorders, mental stress, and depression, among other things. Plus, soda — diet and non-diet alike — breaks down the enamel on your teeth; the phosphoric acid in it is bad for your bones.
So, okay, I don’t love knowing all that — in the face of that information, it does feel irresponsible, almost childish, to choose to rot my body from the inside with sugar water. On the other hand … Isn’t that just the nature of a vice? Exercising your free will to make an obviously bad choice? Still, while diet soda certainly isn’t the worst habit I could have wound up indulging, I’ll acknowledge that in no way is it a defensibly cool vice, either.
(I’m grossed out, too, by the larger context it’s all tied up in: diet culture, fatphobia, thinness as an impossible and inescapable cultural ideal — in other words, all the reasons I started drinking Diet Coke as a teenager, when an outrageous percentage of my mental bandwidth was tied up in hating my body. I’ve disentangled myself from a lot of that by now, but the whole diet soda thing feels like a bad hangover from it.)
Sales of Diet Coke have been declining for years: Soft-drink consumption overall is down, plus it’s gotten harder to fool anyone into believing diet soda’s main selling point — that it’s somehow a healthy choice. More people are buying bottled water than anything these days, and energy drinks ate up market share for the late-afternoon caffeine crowd. And I feel like the diet soda marketers of yesteryear are now just dressing up the same tired tropes in the language of wellness, pushing oat milk lattes or matcha or juice cleanses — or maybe a little sparkling water if you must lean into your vices.
Maybe my consumption will follow the downward trend eventually, but probably not yet. I keep thinking about this tweet I saw recently:
I can’t entirely parse this tweet, or tell if the writer is joking. But part of me wants to read it sincerely: “a testament to the spark of divinity in man”! That’s great. It’s not that vices need a rationale, I guess, but still: That’s as good an excuse as any. Cheers.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Quantum Criminals by Alex Pappademas and Joan LeMay (which I wrote about here); Big Swiss by Jen Beagin; Run Towards The Danger by Sarah Polley; Greg Mendez by Greg Mendez; You Can Do It All by Cusp; Fever Ray at Terminal 5; Four Tet at Avant Gardner; Caroline Polachek at Radio City Music Hall; six really lovely days in Manchester, England, including a lot of iced Americanos and quality time with my brother listening to Steely Dan and Pepsi Max instead of Diet Coke; That Thing You Do! (Extended Cut); a whole lot of Trenary Toast, a birthday gift from my pal Lars; the deep dread of the freshly unemployed; a nice reminder that most crushes are indeed survivable
Thanks for reading. May your vices be delicious this month. Talk to you soon.