Is the success of men's general interest magazines all about tits and bums or are they spreading a new message of enlightenment? Andrew G Marshall plumps for the latter
"Would you like that in a paper bag, sir?" used to be the question if you bought a men's magazine. In the past they were either so crude you would be ashamed to be seen walking out of the newsagent's with them, or so sad that you'd be begging the shopkeeper for the plain wrapping so nobody would find out about your subscription to Low Flying Aircraft Monthly.

Today, men's magazines neither have to be hidden under the bed nor built into fake leather-bound volumes - they can be left proudly lying on your coffee table. Publications such as Maxim, Esquire, Loaded and Men's Health have revolutionised the market and taken men's interests off the top shelf. The latest magazine industry circulation figures (ABC January to June) show a staggering 53.9 per cent growth for the sector.

The old publishing stereotype claimed you could not sell general-interest magazines to men - sport yes, hobbies yes, pornography certainly, but once you broke down the compartments into which men segmented their lives and treated them as people rather than model railway enthusiasts you were bound to fail. Everybody who tried a lifestyle magazine was rewarded with burnt fingers.

Yet today this kind of men's magazine is the industry's success story and Loaded, the new lad's Bible, has become a template for the magazine of the mid-Nineties: this month alone brings the debut of Minx, which has been dubbed the Loaded for sassy lassies, and Eat Soup which promises food, drink and travel from the makers of Loaded.

At first sight, big hair and big breasts appear to be the defining motifs of men's magazines: all of their covers feature almost interchangeable pouting beauties. But between the covers there are huge variations, from serious fiction in Esquire, through the myriad health and fashion pieces in all of the titles, to the semi-ironic leering of Loaded.

Men's magazines have caught our love of gadgets with consumer items about TVs that attach to your car's dashboard or your own personal electronic weather station. They know how we like to know all the facts before a shopping expedition and they include articles on the best sports deodorants and the arcane details of bespoke tailoring.

When men turn to friends for advice it is nearly always for practical information, and once again the magazines understand this. In their role of the mate that knows, they explain how to get the best table in a restaurant and how to iron the perfect shirt.

"The phenomenon of men's magazines shows that the nature of masculinity is changing," says Professor Gerda Siann, the NCR Professor of Gender Relations at Dundee University.

"Their diversity illustrates that people are reacting differently. In the past, these magazines tended to be driven by pink power, and it was women and gays who were seen to be interested in appearances. More recently, style has become gender-free, and if a man is interested in his appearance it is no longer assumed that he is gay."

Andy Medhurst, a lecturer in Media Studies at Brighton University, feels that the past 20 years of feminism and gay politics have had profound effects on our culture.

"There are more ways to be a man," he says. "These magazines offer a supermarket of different lifestyles to choose from. In the past, there was no such thing as a straight white male identity, there was no need for one because they were in control. Everybody else defined themselves in relation to them."

In his opinion, the new lad celebration of getting drunk and throwing up in a litter bin on the way home is not a retrospective move but just the most defined of these new options.

"Loaded, Fantasy Football, Men Behaving Badly are all created by middle- class men with degrees," he says. "This celebration of working-class culture is an assumed identity."

Andy McDuff, publishing director of Loaded, feels that his 87 per cent jump in circulation is because he has caught a mood.

"Men are more relaxed than they were 10 years ago about women, their jobs and themselves," he says. "They no longer take themselves too seriously. Men have not had the freedom or the permission to let go and celebrate being a man. We provide this service in the same way that women's magazines do for their readers."

Phil Hilton, managing editor of Men's Health, makes even more of a claim for the sector.

"The writing in men's magazines is of a higher standard than in women's," he says. "The ideas are much livelier. Before, there was a reluctance to buy magazines about yourself because they were seen as a fluffy indulgence. But we provide a lot of facts and useful information that you can put into practice, and the whole package is delivered in an entertaining way. It's the signature of the magazine.

"I don't believe that there has been a sea change in masculinity. Men's Health is not some weepy journalist encounter group - we've just found a way in under man's guard and are now flying."

But with all of men's interests covered in the same magazine, editors are having to think more about who they are addressing and to find a common bond among their readers. This is the beginning of a search for new male identities, and in some cases the magazines are quite conscious of this move.

"Maxim is a forum for men to debate how to have a satisfying life. It is full of men who say 'I've tried this and it worked for me'," explains the editor, Gill Hudson. Her October issue has a publishing first - a section devoted to the mid-life crisis that is informative without being patronising.

Men's magazines are now challenging the final male taboo: vulnerability. Men have always presented a stiff upper lip to the world, but in these publications they are beginning to admit that they are not invincible.

The topic is always covered with humour to sweeten the pill - so, this month you can find articles about coping with commitment (how to do it without hyperventilating) and what to do if your private parts fail (organised like a car owner's manual). It is a far cry from the Gordon Gekko approach to manhood which dominated the Eighties.

The first tentative steps are being taken: men are becoming more thoughtful about who they are. In the future, academics will chart these glimmers of progress through the men's magazines of the mid-Nineties.

There is great pressure from society as whole - and feminists in particular - for men to change far more quickly. Instead of lecturing, they could learn a lot from the success of men's magazines - understand us, provide us with some benefits and, most important, make us laugh.