No more Mister Fat Guy

More and more men are getting the dieting bug, research shows. And big business is ready to pounce, says Stephen Armstrong
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE'S AN incredibly important advert on display at railway stations and bus stops at the moment. You might not even have noticed it, but if you did, you probably won't have recognised its significance. It's for a magazine called Men's Health, it features a bestubbled man pulling a T-shirt over his head to show off a washboard, six-pack stomach circled in red. Various arrows pointing at the stomach carry the catchlines, "Join The Firm", "Change Here", "Lose Your Gut", and "Goal". Remember this ad. It's the first ad you'll have seen which targets men who want to lose weight but, sure as cholesterol is cholesterol, it won't be the last.

For years, it's been the same old story. Every January since the invention of Christmas, women have been bombarded with TV ads, newspaper features and magazine articles enticing them towards new diet plans or fresh ways to shed the festive pounds. Now, however it's the men's turn. Alongside Men's Health and it's recent rival GQ Active, the first diet book aimed squarely at men has just been published. No More Mr Fat Guy, by journalist Johnathan Savil and ex-paratrooper Richard Smedley, is on the shelves this month, exorting chaps to get in shape via a particularly gruelling, military-style regimen. Phil Hilton, editor of Men's Health, firmly believes this is the way forward.

"The January issue is normally our best selling issue," he says. "Men have to try harder these days. They have to keep in shape, dress better and pay more attention to personal grooming because, if they don't, then women will leave them, pure and simple. Women no longer have to stay with men, even if they have a child, because they have so much more economic independence. We have a small books publishing division and they are certainly benefiting from a booming post-Christmas guilt economy. Seven years ago, there just wouldn't have been a male market for this."

To back up Hilton's words, look no further than last year's cinema receipts. The Full Monty is, of course, a seminal film, but it's significant in more ways than simply being the most successful British film of all time. It's significant because of the character of Dave. Mark Addy, who plays Dave (the fat bloke), has received more Hollywood offers than the rest of the cast put together. He's the one who has made the impact in every country the film has played, and it's all for lines like these: "What if, next Saturday, 400 women turn round and say 'he's too fat'?... I tell you, mate, anti-wrinkle cream there may be. But anti-fat-bastard cream there is none." "I try dieting - I do try. Feels like I've been on a fucking diet all me life. The less I eat, the fatter I bloody get."

These are the plaintive cries of a man suddenly aware that he has to deliver more than a couple of one-liners to keep his woman happy. The pressure, curiously, appears to be coming not so much from women themselves as from the images of male bodies that face men in the media and advertising every day. Women readers may be forgiven, at this point, for showing no sympathy whatsoever. Screaming "Now you know how it feels, you bastard!" may be a little harsh, however. Towards the end of last year, research was published which showed that British men are becoming distinctly uneasy about the increasing portrayal of their bodies as sex objects by advertisers. Lucy Banister, an associate director at Davies Riley-Smith Maclay - the advertising research company which looked at male attitudes - says this is the first time she has seen such concern. "I suppose it first came up about 18 months ago in our focus groups," she says. "Men feel that the beautiful and scantily-clad muscle men that they have noticed more and more often in TV ads these days, offer them an ideal shape that they find impossible to achieve. It is interesting that this should appear as we notice cases of male anorexia increasing." Banister pointed to aftershave and fashion magazine adverts that use imagery traditionally associated with gay male audiences, to the Diet Coke TV ad, bands like Boyzone and just about every hot young male boy star who gets his kit off and pouts in the first reel as contributing to this male malaise.

Is the new male body image really having that much effect on the bloke in the street? Or in the pub for that matter? To find out, Real Life went down to The Spice of Life in Cambridge Circus, London, and conducted a straw poll both inside and outside the pub. In all, some 60 men were questioned about their attitudes towards dieting, how they saw their bodies and whether they'd pay over the odds for a miracle diet product advertised directly at them. The results were surprising.

What was particularly interesting was the number of men over 26 who acknowledged the issue instantly. If they were under 26, then dieting was irrelevant and if they were over 40 it was dismissed out of hand. Between the two, however, was a significant group. Simon, 31, a computer professional, confessed to having already gone on a crash cabbage soup diet with his girlfriend. "It made me nearly faint, come out in a rash and feel awful," he said. "You feel really hollow and you feel slim for about two days then, when it's over, you wolf down food in relief. The thing is, everyone knows that if you cut down on drink, eat sensibly and do a bit of exercise you're 90 per cent of the way there, but no-one does it."

"I wouldn't go on a diet as such," said Richard, 30, a civil servant. "I'd never buy anything that said 'low fat' on it, but I'd go on a surreptitious one. You know, fresh fruit, pasta and that. You know what's good for you, don't you?"

"I'd definitely diet if I didn't have to cut out the booze," said Steve, a 29-year-old postal worker. "I'd never join a gym. They cost so much money and you hear all these stories about how they make most of their money from people who turn up in January but never go again. I don't fancy paying pounds 50 a month for the rest of the year to some bastard because I can't be arsed to keep going down the road, where there's all these really muscled blokes making me look fat and stupid. Anyway, the gym is really boring, but you've got to keep your weight down, haven't you?"

Many of them blamed, or rather recognised, the role of advertising and media. "Johnny Weissmuller was a lard bucket compared to the bloke in the Obsession ad," said Roy, 28, who works for a firm of accountants. "Male beauty is much more defined than it used to be. In my dad's day, you'd just bust a gut until all your mates started keeling over from heart attacks and then you'd cut out the fags."

Even Loaded founder and international man of publishing Tim Southwell confessed to fears about his weight. He's given up alcohol for January, partly to get rid of his developing gut. "You know you're in trouble when you realise you've got the body of a dinner lady," he said. "I'm getting to the stage when I turn the light out before I get undressed for bed, so that I don't catch sight of myself. I might diet. It's a possibility. Most blokes go through this stage and they go one of two ways: they either do something about it, or they give up and go down the pub, where they get fat, drunk and stop worrying. I think more and more blokes are going for the first option, though."

It looks as though Phil Hilton got it right. Men just want to lose weight. What proved staggering is just how open to shysters the burgeoning male diet desire actually is. All of the men interviewed, in every age group, agreed that they would buy a miracle diet product if it was targeted at them, although they said the price would be a factor. None of them would even question the product's claims. They'd just fork out if it suggested they could get slimmer without doing any work. Male readers might be interested, therefore, to learn of the Armstrong Aid which guarantees pounds off with no fuss and costs just pounds 30. Contact this journalist through the paper.

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