move over, schwarzenegger

He's weedy, willowy, baby-faced and doe-eyed, but the new male waif certainly has muscle in the fashion world

what should a boy carry in his handbag these days? A can of lager? A brick? A dumbbell? Nah - red lippie, spare tights and a lettuce sandwich, judging by the ultra-androgynous male waif fashion in February's The Face and Attitude. Glimpse The Face's super-skinny model Benjamin, dressed - frock horror! - as Francoise Sagan circa 1975: midi-skirts, silk blouses, a gorgeously luminous blond(e) wedge shading his eyes and no Adam's apple, and you'll do a quadruple take. Ditto the Helena Christensen lookalike (a fully made-up boy) in Attitude.

"From the late Eighties to a year ago, you couldn't conceive of male models in make-up," says Gitte Mildegaard, Attitude's fashion editor. Now these magazines' advertisers have caught on. One of this season's ads for Dolce & Gabbana's youth-orientated line, D&G, features a boy in lipstick and another with a curtain of hair cascading camply over one eye. In Gucci's ads, puny male models wear gentian violet eyeliner, while Katharine Hamnett sent boys prancing down the catwalk in stilettos for her autumn / winter 1996 collection. And Burro, whose "Butch" T-shirt with a picture of an Alsatian was a favourite last year, has produced one for this year marked simply "puny".

Today's male waif phenomenon is a continuation of a trend that started in 1990, when photographer Corinne Day used as models the stick-thin - and very young - George Clements and Kate Moss. We may have thought the emaciated Clements and Moss seemed unnatural then, but Day claims her intention was to make them look very street, very real - "not slick and airbrushed, but with bags under their eyes". Asked why the male waif phenomenon has taken off, she simply says that: "Moss's look went on to influence men's fashion."

Martin Harrison, author of Appearances, a history of fashion photography, believes male waifs are a reaction against the all-American, frankly oafish, Eighties beefcake celebrated by photographers Bruce Weber and Michael Roberts. His point - "How many pumped-up torsos can you stand?" - is even being taken to heart on the gay male scene, where for years, a no-pecs- no-sex consensus meant flat-chested boys were as risible and unsexy as Kenneth Williams' voice.

Meanwhile, at the hugely popular London nightspot Popstarz, whose flyers are adorned with geek-chic snaps of the Britpop gods, Jarvis and Damon, wafer-thin boys in satin disco pants, sunglasses perched on peacock blue hair, now easily outnumber yesterday's hunks.

And those men who are rejecting "masculine" stereotypes of appearance and behaviour can rest assured that they still appeal to women. The Benjamin fashion story in The Face was expected to shock readers but, to the great surprise of the editors, the pictures elicited a huge post-bag, crammed with letters from drooling women. Many of them begged to be put in touch with this unlikely sex symbol.

And it's not just Benjamin's charms that set female pulses racing. Our straw poll on Lee Williams, one of the top waif models and this week's Real Life cover boy, revealed a mixed response. Some, admittedly, find him unbearably weedy. "I couldn't possibly sleep with anyone skinnier than me," says Annie, 29. "I like to feel protected." Emma, 30, agrees: "With a waifish man, there's no razor burn, no being clasped in manly arms, no being snogged to kingdom come."

For many, though, it is this very vulnerability that holds the appeal. "I look at Lee and I want to cuddle him, make sure he's all right, then shag his brains out," says Katy, 26. "He looks innocent, but you never know what's going on inside...".

Inevitably, those heterosexual men who (very Benny Hill) once assumed it was their prerogative to blob out in middle age and still pull the birds are having to think again. According to Tony Cross, agony uncle of More! magazine: "Over the last five years, women have become much more demanding about men's physiques. Apart from the age-old worry, 'Will she think I've got a small willy?', men now wonder, 'Will she like my body?' " Cross also thinks the rave scene (take your top off and you risk exposing your pot-belly) has made men insecure about their figures. Even the fact that the non-aspirational lad who, for the first time, is being introduced to magazines like FHM via that other glossy, Loaded, makes Cross think that soon all men will be under pressure to look slim and presentable.

So when did the pressure start? In the early Nineties, we were rationed to skinny-minnies Brett Anderson (of Suede), Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp) and the model / singer Donovan Leitch, whose band goes by the fashionably poofy moniker, Nancy Boy. Remember, too, the "sensitive lad" posturings of stringy Kurt Cobain and Lemonhead Evan Dando in their Waltons floral frocks?

In recent months, however, such ambiguities have become more extreme. Suede's new keyboards player, Neil Codling, in his Clockwork Orange make- up, had Melody Maker reviewers at a recent gig gender-foxed. A waif, too, Codling apparently lives for months on brown rice and mineral water. Then there's Brian Molko, of the up-and-coming band Placebo, who often gets taken for a dame.

On the Britpop front, the willowy Johnny Dean of Menswear sports a fey David Sylvian isosceles fringe and carmine blusher. And the epicene Damon Albarn is dreamy-eyed, baby-faced and not yet a "man". But then who wants to be a "man"? Not the cheesy-listening Burt Bacharach scion, Mike Flowers, whose image (nylon-haired cruise-ship entertainer) lampoons all those male delusions of slimy-suave sexiness.

More than anyone, Jas Mann - he of Babylon Zoo's stratospheric hit single "Spaceman" - has brought androgyny into the mainstream in his Top of the Pops silver sarong and hair teased into Lady Miss Kier-style Sixties flick- ups. "I just don't like to blend in with the aesthetics of life," he told New Musical Express recently. Mann's androgyny is not an end in itself but one way of putting two fingers up at conformity. Gitte Mildegaard agrees: "In Attitude, I wanted to get away from the conventional homoerotic images of Man in White T-shirt and Levis which dominated the late Eighties. The Nineties are more about individuality, which is why the male waif has gone mainstream."

Individuality is a buzzword that's been taken very seriously by the influential mannequin manufacturer, Adel Rootstein. Witness its new androgynous-looking, waif-like range, Boy / Girl. One dummy is even fashioned after Zaldy, the transvestite star of the Levi's taxi ad. Michael Southgate, the company's creative director, believes that the new mannequins reflect how young people are more open-minded and "caring" than their parents: "They're not homophobic, and they don't feel they have to conform to one look. Our male mannequins never used to change much, but they now change as fast as women's. They used to have a 40-inch chest and 32-inch waist, now one of them has a 36-inch chest and 26-inch waist."

The changes at Adel Rootstein parallel the evolution of Calvin Klein's ads over the last few years. In Klein's early Nineties underwear ads, Kate Moss was pictured feebly draping one arm over chunky Marky Mark's washboard stomach - a far cry from Klein's CK One ads, in which Moss hangs out with a bunch of scrawny boys. And in the controversial Calvin Klein CK Jeans ads that outraged Mississippi Bible-thumpers last year, one male model, a vacuous boy with a Peter Frampton perm, looked remarkably similar, in pose, to his female counterpart. Knickers just visible beneath their skimpy denims, they were equally objectified, bimboid Seventies porn starlets shot against a tawdry purple carpet and stripped-pine veneer. If male models look more passive these days, Corinne Day, a pioneer of waif photography, doesn't think it's because top female photographers are projecting their sexual fantasies on to the men they shoot. Yet she, for one, says: "I love skinny men ..."

The downside to all this body-consciousness is, of course, body obsession, which may account for the recent reported rise in male anorexia. Although studies have shown that men who suffer from anorexia are less likely to recover than women, no one yet knows why male anorexia is on the increase. Cross, however, believes: "It must partly be influenced, as with female anorexia, by the barrage of images that promote thinness. Take That's Gary losing weight to look as slim as the others can't be comforting for the 16- to 18-year-olds who write to me about their poor body image."

David Thomas, male rights campaigner and author of Not Guilty: In Defence of Modern Man, doesn't believe that the male waif and male androgyny are another symptom of men's emasculation in the Nineties. On the contrary, one of the chapters in his book, Frocks Away, puts forward the view that men's difficulty with cross-dressing is a symptom of their oppression. "You have to be brave to put on a dress. If more men are doing it, it must mean they're getting more confident." Yet he also thinks the male waif phenomenon is simply a fad. "We're seeing a reaction against Loaded - it's been around for two years. Benjamin in The Face - now that's something different. He really stops you in your tracks."

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