There is nothing more likely to terrify the British male than the prospect of a paunch, says Peter Baker
Abs are absolutely everywhere. You certainly can't open a men's magazine without seeing them in the ads, the fashion shoots and, especially, on the fitness pages.

Men's Health magazine is typical. "A firm flat stomach! 15 New Fat-Busting Routines" promises the cover of a recent issue. "Most men have two stomachs: one in their imagination and one above their belts," says the article inside. "This abdominals extravaganza explains how to turn the virtual stomach of the mind into taut reality."

And there is a photo to demonstrate what the mag's "super-efficient flab- melting routines" will do for you. A man, face obscured, is pulling up his T-shirt to reveal the "perfect" torso. No hair, no fat, just the contours of his rectus abdominis and external and internal obliques. This, clearly, is how Nineties Man should look.

The pollsters confirm what magazine editors and advertisers have already sussed. The stomach now tops the list of body parts that men would most like to change, says a MORI survey, with almost half yearning for a smaller circumference.

For confirmation of these findings, visit virtually any gym. You'll see men on benches or mats, or encased in machinery, straining their stomachs in a desperate search for that all-too elusive "six-pack".

Search the back of men's wardrobes, moreover, and you will no longer find the traditional chest-expanding bullworker. In its place there is an abdominal trainer.The ad for one, Power Roller, frequently appears in the national newspapers. "Recover a flat stomach in only 4 minutes per day!" it says. "Follow our fun exercise routine for as little as 30 days and achieve a super flat stomach and streamlined waist for pounds 29.95 plus postage and packing."

And then there's cosmetic surgery - liposuction, to be precise - with private clinics now regularly advertising their body-sculpting services for men. "I had 1.8 litres of fat removed from my stomach by liposuction last year," one 27-year-old man told me. "It cost me pounds 2,500 but was well worth it - the operation took two inches off my waist."

But why? `I've always had a flabby tummy, even when I used to be very fit and played rugby regularly. It's always been an embarrassment and I felt uncomfortable on the beach or when I went sailing. I was the only bloke wearing a shirt."

But losing over three pints of blubber isn't quite enough. "I still want to lose another 20lbs and have a six-pack by the end of the year. I do 100 sit-ups four times a week, plus regular boxing and weights training."

But why have Abs become men's route to absolution? There is undoubtedly more toabdomania than a stomach-jerk reaction to the proliferation of pictures of men with washboards. The cult of the abdomen has far deeper roots.

One concerns the place where Abs are most conspicuous by their absence: on the vast majority of men's bellies. This is the era of the expanding gut. Manual labour has declined, daytime television has been switched on and we spend our leisure time driving to and strolling round shopping malls and eating burgers. The result is that the proportion of men medically defined as overweight or obese has increased by an astonishing 46 per cent since 1980. Well over half of all men are now, to put it bluntly, too fat.

But why is abdominal fatness so feared? For some men, without doubt, it is because they want to look and feel healthy. Because the abdomen is by far the hardest body part for men to get in shape, the flatness of a man's tummy has come to represent the extent of his efforts to hold disease at bay.

There is an element of rationality in this, since a big belly can kill. Because deep layers of fat inside the abdominal cavity are dangerously close to critical arteries, having a large waist circumference significantly multiplies the risk of heart disease.

For most men, however, concern about a spreading midriff is due much more to an awareness that success, even survival, in the new world of temporary and insecure work seems increasingly linked to appearing youthful and vigorous, lean and mean. Layers of fat are seen to reflect nothing less than indolence and a lack of discipline. Men feel they have to "downsize", "delayer" and "trim off the fat", just like the organisations that they are increasingly likely to work for.

Men now have to compete for more than work, however. Women, increasingly financially independent and self-confident, are demanding more from their partners. An increasing number are drawing the line at naff haircuts, the fashion sense of a jumble sale, and bodies that even Pavarotti would be embarrassed by.

Men are also only too aware that women have increasing access to - and a desire to see - sexualised images of men. It is easy for them to believe that the guy women are most likely to desire is the one with the washboard. After all, if that looks good, then everything else must be excellent.

But tummy fat is also feared because of the special significance of the abdomen. It is the site of the umbilicus, the belly-button - the evidence that we were once babies, soft, gentle, helpless. Pre-birth, the abdomen's role was to anchor the cord that connected us to our mother. Encasing it in hard slabs of muscle represents an attempt to deny or repudiate that dependence. Having a flat abdomen fundamentally distinguishes men from women, who have naturally more rounded stomachs - especially during pregnancy, a period when femininity is believed to reach its apotheosis.

This matters at a time when the male role is unclear and, it seems to many, in danger of becoming increasingly feminised. Many men are trying to hold on to at least the outward appearance of traditional masculinity through developing a lean, taut, muscular body.

The hard stomach also repudiates feeling. We talk about "gut feelings" as being among the most fundamental feelings we possess. To feel "gutted" is to feel devastated. Our belly is the part of our body that moves most when we laugh or cry. Surrounding the abdomen with a ring of tight muscle is like wearing a corset - it holds the body in, it keeps it tight, rigid and under control.

Control is key for men. It is a central characteristic of the so-called "real" man. He controls others just as he controls himself. But fat, especially around a man's belly, is soft and unpredictable. It is essentially "feminine" and out-of-control.

Flabbiness represents for men the wilted phallus as opposed to the rock- solid erection. To be flabby is to be too small "down there", impotent, weak. Men's desire for the flat, tight stomach reflects a sense that, beneath their all-too-human exterior there lurks a "real" man who is trying to get out. Men's desire to break out of their encasement of flab is like a desire to be fetter-free, to reveal the true nature of their being, to expose the iron fist in the velvet glove. Ironically, of course, the narcissistic effort involved in producing a flat, muscular stomach conforms less to traditional notions of masculinity and more to femininity or the homo-erotic.

The Ab Fad looks set to stay. The flat, muscular stomach has become just as much a defining symbol of masculinity as Men Behaving Badly, Loaded and Iron John. But the vast majority of men are, of course, unable to "turn the virtual stomach of the mind into taut reality", whether or not they read Men's Health. Despite their best efforts, their guts remain obstinately in place. This leaves them with the diminished sense of self familiar to women who grow up surrounded by countless images of female "perfection".

It is conceivable that this could lead them to reject abdomania and turn to a more emotionally and physically sustaining form of diet and exercise. It is much more likely that it will create an increasingly determined but ultimately fruitless and depleting search for what has unfortunately become defined as the "ideal" male body

This is an extract from an essay in the catalogue for `Pictures of Lily', an exhibition about men for men which opens at the Underwood Street Gallery in London on 26 September. Details: 0171-336 0884.