Shaping up, dieting down, even paying out for liposuction, the thoroughly modern male is casting an anxious look at his torso
IT'S AROUND the age of 30 that a man's body decides to give him a gift, a large one that it is almost impossible to return. Where once was something at least approaching a waist, there suddenly appears a swelling of wobbly fat that coils with determination around the midriff. To begin with men try to ignore it, some even pat it proudly and boast of how many beers it took to grow their spare tyre. But as that tyre grows over the years to lorry-wheel proportions, it becomes the cause of depression and angst. Soon even girlfriends and wives can no longer be depended on to say it doesn't matter, that they love their fella just the way he is.

Men's disillusionment with their tummies has been highlighted by a slew of recent reports. First the Harley Medical Group, which runs six cosmetic surgeries across the UK, said that liposuction is now the most popular form of cosmetic surgery for men. Where once men were only attending clinics to have their noses reshaped, they are now desperate to have the fat sucked from their bodies (even though this can cost several thousand pounds). Then the British Dietetic Association (BDA) published a survey looking at the eating habits of 500 boys aged 16 and 17. This showed that one in 12 was restricting food intake in an attempt to lose weight. And press reports stated that 60 per cent of all fat-reducing machines (those scary- looking contraptions which supposedly zap off the fat with the aid of electronic pads) are being bought by men.

In the past year there have also been instances of men who were rejected by adoption agencies for being overweight, and even Tony Blair was mocked for piling on the pounds during his summer holiday last year. One way or another men's stomachs have become a key battleground in the war being waged in the name of bodily perfection.

But while men are worrying about their paunches the action they are taking to win the battle of the bulge is often half-hearted and even dangerous. That results in more men getting fatter every year but leaves them demoralised about their out-of-control bodies. The Health Education Authority, the organisation that provides health-promotion information to professionals and consumers, says that in 1996 58 per cent of men were overweight, and 16 per cent of that group were obese (a rise from 13 per cent in 1991). What is more, all the trends indicate that British men are going to get fatter and fatter.

THE difficulty lies in men's attitudes to eating and diets. In the BDA survey, for example, the teenagers were attempting to lose weight by cutting down on their food intake, not on fatty and unhealthy foods. So instead of saying no to chips, they were having the chips but skipping fruit and green vegetables. "The dieters ate less food overall compared with the non-dieting boys, but they didn't cut down on chips, meat or beer," the report concluded. "All of the males ate few fruit and vegetables, but the dieters had the lowest intakes." The diets meant that the boys were getting insufficient calcium and vitamins to protect their health. Having brittle bones later in life was one of the risks.

Lyndel Costain, BDA spokeswoman and a dietician, points out that 20 per cent of the boys said they wanted to lose weight but that only 12 per cent were actually overweight.

Men are eager to discover a quick fix (hence their love of gadgets and surgery) and most research finds them starving themselves until they see some positive results then, as soon as they have reached an ideal weight, returning to their old habits. The potential dangers of this starve-binge cycle are all too obvious, but why has the male tummy become the cause of such fear and loathing?

Phil Hilton, the editor of the booming Men's Health magazine (the journal that carries before-and-after pictures of men who have shed their slobby blobby former skins and become lean and muscle-packed athletes), thinks it is the consequence of men and women becoming more equal. "It's women that have changed it all, as our roles have evened out. In the past men went out to be the bread-winners and women stayed at home making themselves pretty. I'm really glad it's turned round. Who wants to be a fat money- making machine?"

With men marrying later in life - and often having to replay the field as relationships fail - there's also the need to stay looking attractive for longer.

Then there's the pressure from advertising and magazines (Britain has more men's journals than any other European country) adorned with taut six-packs. Peter Cole, a director of the Harley Medical Group, says that the boom in male cosmetic surgery can be linked directly with the launch of men's style magazines. Indeed, when you re-read Naomi Wolf's Beauty Myth - which postulated a kind of conspiracy theory with men, magazines and cosmetics companies forcing women to stay thin and hungry - you realise that men are increasingly subject to the same pressures.

PHIL HILTON agrees that magazines like his need to help prevent men becoming unhinged about their figures. "Looking around on the Tube, I think a lot of men should feel dissatisfied with their bodies. But you don't have to be so slim or so muscley - and you don't have to have the same weird concerns as women who seem to want to look like skinny 16-year-olds who never take any exercise."

The results of a MORI poll also indicated that men needed to be calmer in their approach to dieting (admittedly, the research was commissioned by the Butter Council). The report showed that 27 per cent of men wanted to lose weight and another 27 per cent wanted to "change their proportions". One in four men said they thought that if they could change the shape of their bodies it would make them more confident, while one in 10 believed it would make them more sexually attractive. However, the poll also found that what it labelled "plate-watchers", people who worry about what they are eating, were also the most likely to feel bad about themselves and their lives.

If men are ever going to take control of their tummies, it seems that moderate exercise and some basic understanding of healthy eating are needed. And there are some signs that this may be happening.

Laurence Isaacson, deputy chairman of the restaurant company Group Chez Gerard which serves more than a million meals a year, many of them to London's businessmen, says that in recent years he has noticed a trend towards drinking less at lunchtime and a decline of the traditional three- course meal. "People are tending to have a couple of glasses of very good wine, rather than a bottle of average wine. They are also drinking a lot more bottled water. We haven't seen a fall-off in meat sales - sales of beef are higher than before the BSE crisis - but the conventional three- course meal has become a two-course meal. Our fish restaurants are also doing very well."

Sainsbury has also noticed some encouraging changes. Men are at last reading the labels on the food they buy: 48 per cent say that they check the fat content, 29 per cent look out for sugar, 26 per cent survey the calories and 22 per cent keep an eye out for saturated fats.

Gym memberships are also booming.

But more support is still needed if men are going to stay sane while stopping their stomachs expanding. For example, in the UK slimming clubs are still primarily for women, whereas in Australia there is an organisation called Gutbusters which is for men only. That group concentrates on inch- loss, not weight-loss, and acknowledges that men should be able to have beer and steak in moderation. Without such back-up, men will be doomed to a life of undoing the top button on their trousers after lunch.

Stomachs, thighs and butts: measuring up

ARE YOU fat? Professional dieticians use the Body Mass Index to gauge whether someone is larger than they should be. Your rating on the index is worked out by taking your weight in kilos and dividing that by your height in metres squared. You then get a double-digit figure. If that is between 20 and 24.99 you can relax; 25 to 29.99 means you are overweight; 30 plus and you are obese; 40 plus means you are severely obese.

However the Health Education Authority has some good news for men in the habit-forming 16-24 age group: 56 per cent are active enough to benefit their health, while only 32 per cent of women can claim the same.

The MORI report for the Butter Council discovered that 46 per cent of men wanted smaller stomachs, 4 per cent did not like their thighs, and 5 per cent had had enough of their bottoms.

The Harley Medical Group says that 10 years ago 5 per cent of its clients were men. Today the figure is closer to 45 per cent. To have liposuction, where the fat is drained out of your body, costs pounds 2,000-pounds 3,500, depending on the number of areas you want treated.

About 25 per cent of the population are dieting at any one time.

Men's Health sells 225,000 copies an issue, up 40 per cent year on year. The majority of readers are in their thirties. Phil Hilton, its editor, says that he goes to the gym four times a week.

A report by the market researchers Mintel found that 9 per cent of men described themselves as panickers - people who worry about how healthy their diet is and who do some exercise. The panickers are most common in the 25-34 age group (14 per cent) and least in the 20-24 and 60-plus categories.