I want to introduce you to an olive-skinned, weedy, dark-haired boy.
He’s 13 and was born in August – so he’s the youngest in his school year. He’s not the shortest, but he’s not tall either; he has virtually no body hair – and is destined to suffer from painful virginity until he’s 18. He’s bookish, nerdy, into Dungeons and Dragons and built like a Pepparami. To girls, he is invisible.
Now let’s take a look at his Dad, Dave.
Dave – although nearly 50-years-old, has rippling biceps, quads and a Greek sculpture of a chest, as well as blonde curly hair and the testosterone of five bouncers on a crate of Red Bull.
That boy – was me. And that was my bleak induction into the world of men’s bodies. My Dad was doing his best to toughen me up – but it just made things worse.
“Boy – you need to build up your muscles. I’m gonna make a gym in the garden shed, and you’re gonna use it. I’m gonna buy a shit-load of steaks from Makro, and you’re gonna eat them.”
Neither of these things worked for that teenager. I tried, but I failed. Still, the idea that a man needed to be muscly to be accepted by girls (or other men, same rules for gay men it turns out!) had been branded onto my consciousness by the searing force of Dave Kane.
Can you believe that we live in an age of epidemic steroid abuse? Up to one million are injecting themselves with junk that WILL damage their health to change the way they look. My own Dad went to the gym three times a week, was full of life, and as angrily vital as ever – but died early from a heart attack in 2003. Deca-Durabolin had been his poison of choice. Why? Because the meat that a man is made of is his wall against the world – and sometimes more important than life itself.
It’s not just being hench (bigorexia is the term for men addicted to getting muscly) – male eating disorders are on the rise too. Men now make up a quarter of all anorexia cases. I myself battle with orthorexia – a compulsive obsession with eating the “right” food: bleeping every floret of broccoli into a bloody food tracking app.
And men are getting worse: male body image is in crisis. We are in an emergency of masculine identity. It’s killing men, daily – through both suicide and health outcomes.
The curious thing about men’s body image is that it seems more delusional than the female equivalent. Ask straight women why they obsess over their boobs and butts – and they’ll tell you that that is what many men lust after. Indeed, ask men what they perve on… and loads will tell you the same. Yet, if you run the survey the other way round, you get different results.
There’s no denying that a man who takes care of himself – exercises, works on his looks and stays “toned” is attractive to women. But go and ask 100 women if they want a massive 16-stone man with eight per cent body fat who lives in the gym with needle holes in his thighs. To quote my cousin Lorna: “You don’t want a geezer who looks like he’s gonna shit himself if he turns his head and neck too quickly.”
So, when I go into the gym EVERY DAY (as I have done for the last five years); when I eat mountains of chicken breast, as I do each week – who’s it for? Is it for Lindsey, my wife? Or is it for the idealised Greek God toxically burned onto my frontal lobe by social media?
Instagram and Love Island culture have ramped up the problem, but the reality is, although a six-pack-Ibiza-body might get girls looking – if you’re a bell-end with a rubbish personality – you’re gonna get dumped. Basically – men, by that I mean, me, are trapped in a sort of psychosis. We are strutting and preening for other men! We’re spending hours in the gym, missing life, when we could be honing our minds and souls, making ourselves better boyfriends, husbands and, crucially, fathers.
I love feminism. I have a daughter. Could you imagine going in a time machine and saying to Germaine Greer: “Rather than women being liberated to grow big hairy bushes and have wobbly tummies, instead, men have become equally messed up and are now shaving their balls and suffering from eating disorders.”
It’s a mess – one only education can solve. I love what religion brings to people’s lives – but maybe at school we could replace it with sex and body education. This might inoculate young men (and women) against this plague of body obsession.
Because I really am bored with chicken breasts. And fries are so bloody tasty.
Most importantly lads… as nice as a six-pack is, your partner and kids will always trade in muscles for someone who simply isn’t a twat.
Right, I’m off to enjoy the rest of my day – and have some cake too.
This week I have been…
Reading…as much as possible. And by the way – I do not count an audiobook as “just listening”. I find that snobbish. A book is fully read, either way. I even got Radio 4 to help me prove it. I interviewed a neurolinguistic expert on Open Book once, who confirmed that indeed an audiobook is absorbed just as fully as a conventional book. So – down with the snobbery!
With that in mind I have “read” two books this month that Chris Morris recommended when we were chatting at Kit De Waal’s book launch (I also strongly recommend Kit’s memoir – heartbreaking, brilliant stuff). Both books Chris mentioned are perspective changing: The Ratline by Philippe Sands is the story of a Nazi whose family tried to rebrand him as “misunderstood”. It reads like a Le Carre thriller. It’s amazing. And Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild. I am proud to be British after reading this accomplished, page-turning account of our part in the abolition of slavery.
Exercising…every day – even in the tiniest dressing room or budget hotel room, I try to move or jump around for at least 40 minutes. I was born with a freakish amount of energy and starting my day by burning off some fuel, gets my turbo engine nicely purring. It also keeps my head straight. You can keep your serotonin medicines and St John’s Wort – I’ll take 100 star jumps.
Watching… We Crashed, the Apple TV creation. It’s the only way to keep sane on the road. Once your eyes (and ears) are tired of reading – it’s films and boxset time. Ahh… the exquisite pleasure of slipping into the obsession of a new series. The protean Jared Leto and the absolute mastery of Anne Hathaway bring to life the billionaire start-up Neumann couple who created the shared work space company We Work.
As with many flawed geniuses – Adam Neumann slips into messiah-complex risk-taking and Rebekah Neumann sinks under new-age wanky guff. Their fall is more compelling than watching the Titanic go down on the big screen. Binge it immediately.
Catch Russell Kane on his Live: The Essex Variant! UK stand-up tour – details at www.russellkane.co.uk
If you or someone you love wants to get help, you can contact Beat, the eating disorder charity