DJ Taylor: Madonna, the gym and the insecure British male

We've been bamboozled into accepting a particular variant on the body beautiful

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Leafing through those parts of the newspapers devoted to round-ups of the week's cultural events, I came upon a more than usually grotesque photograph of what seemed to be a giant and extremely well developed bat hanging upside down with a microphone suspended a few inches from its mouth. This, it turned out, was Madonna in her finery, pictured on stage at some climactic point in the opening night of her current UK tour.

Leafing through those parts of the newspapers devoted to round-ups of the week's cultural events, I came upon a more than usually grotesque photograph of what seemed to be a giant and extremely well developed bat hanging upside down with a microphone suspended a few inches from its mouth. This, it turned out, was Madonna in her finery, pictured on stage at some climactic point in the opening night of her current UK tour.

This physical progression was taken a stage further not only by yesterday's pictures of a massive biceps vision in evening satin, but also by the revelations of the diabolical exercise machine on which she is said to practise her art. The general opinion of the critics, though still enraptured by the performance, was that Mrs Ritchie's muscular physique was - how do I decently put this? - not quite what one expects from a 46-year-old mother of two bent sedulously upon her professional tasks.

Curiously enough, reading these anatomical critiques, one got a whiff of a similar criticism ventured in an arena light years distant from Madonna's gladiatorial bump and grind. Watching an athletics programme last summer, I heard the former US World and Olympic champion Michael Johnson appraising the chances of the then British number one 100-metre man, Dwain Chambers. No doubt about it, Johnson observed, as what looked like a gigantic bullfrog limped in fifth in some race or other, Chambers had been overdoing his hours among the bench-presses. It can only have been coincidence that Chambers was shortly afterwards detected in the use of one of those illegal performance-enhancing substances that athletes so unaccountably find in their bloodstreams, and promptly banned from the sport.

Doubtless, as I write this, some social historian at one of the newer universities is hard at work on a thesis entitled The Gymnasium and British Cultural Life 1980-2000. Exactly when the obligation felt by large numbers of people under the age of 35 to spend much of their leisure hours pumping iron and doing press-ups kicked in is uncertain, but a measure of its effect can be found in the portrait galleries of bygone pop stars that appear in oldster magazines of the Mojo school.

The Small Faces, pictured in their East End stamping ground circa 1965, looked like nothing so much as the Artful Dodger and his sidekicks - not one of them over five foot five or more than nine stone in weight. Three of the Beatles may have been an inch under six foot, but to glance at their early photos is to register (the exception being John, who was famous for letting himself go) how fundamentally skinny they were.

But suddenly, there we were in the steroid-ingesting, anaconda-armed late Eighties, where even the members of boy bands resembled the villains of those pre-war magazine advertisements just itching to bolt down on to the beach and kick sand in the faces of the less well endowed. Back in the days of Britpop, I once had occasion to interview Damon Albarn. He looked pretty fit, I proposed. "You have to be in this game,'' Damon remarked, before launching into an account of his punitive early morning keep-fit regime.

Unsurprisingly, most men's magazine surveys of "ordinary blokes'' - those craven hordes of five-foot-10, 150 pounders - reveal a desperate unease in the presence of these jumbofied corn-balls. For the average male cinemagoer, even watching a Hollywood actor pull off his shirt preparatory to ensnaring the female lead can be a deeply chastening experience.

This sense of insecurity is rendered yet more disquieting by the fact that, by large, the British male physique is not the best foundation on which to construct these exercises in human architecture. Retarded by centuries of bad food and inadequate exercise - five foot nine was considered tall well into the post-war era - the specimen British man, if left to his own devices, tends to be either short and fat or tall and thin. Send the former to the gym for a couple of months and he looks merely unnatural. Send the latter and he looks faintly uncomfortable, as if the muscles had been somehow glued on and might all too easily be prised away.

Ultimately, the whole thing reduces itself to a question of aesthetics: the public having been bamboozled into accepting a particular variant on the body beautiful and dutifully tolerating it whatever the evidence to the contrary. Just as, 150 years ago, Victorian novels were aswarm with wasp-waisted five-foot-eighters, so the acme of the modern male figure would appear to be someone like Peter Andre, whose massively over-exercised arms in I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here seemed ready to part company with their owner and go slithering off to the jungle.

Happily, though, there are practical arguments in favour of slim-line elegance. Kim Collins, the reigning world 100-metres champion, is a lissom 11 stoner of average height. Or perhaps I am merely underestimating Madonna's versatility, and what she really fancies is a new career in field sports.

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