Six-pack culture has made the male belly taboo. ShortList’s Tom Bailey laments the loss of our fond friends
Gentlemen, if you want to attract a beautiful girl with a penchant for that sexy lip-biting thing, you’ll need two things: a landscape-gardening job and blister-pack abs. At least, that’s what we can glean from Diet Coke’s latest TV ad, picking up where the shirtless 1994 original left off.
However, whereas the first version rightly held up an uncomfortable mirror to the concept of men brazenly ogling women, the remake has lit the touchpaper on the increasing cultural fetishisation of the male six-pack.
And by six-pack, we’re not talking about a bit of definition. The new Diet Coke guy, played by 32-year-old British model Andrew Cooper, sports satsuma-sized abs and marshals an unfeasibly shiny lawnmower.
Still, despite being ‘blessed’ with a cheesegrater stomach, he’s door-knocker dumb enough to not grasp that a can that’s just bounced across the grass will be very fizzy. Fair play, we’ve had this coming for forever. Objectifying women? You’ve watched Mad Men? Yep, offices were actually like that because, for the most part, women were confined to the typing pool. Meanwhile bourbon-guzzling male executives could allow themselves to go to seed – safe in the knowledge a woman wouldn’t be determining their career trajectory.
Thankfully, the company’s under new management now. And the thing is, Diet Coke, it’s not the Nineties any more – let alone the Fifties. In the intervening 18 years, a generation of right-thinking men have (belatedly) got the message, stopped objectifying women and woken up to the pressure heaped upon their other halves to look like Scarlett, Cheryl and Gwyneth.
Something else has changed, too. Back in ’94, sculpted abs were the preserve of Smash Hits stars and Peter Andre – who somehow built an entire career out of showing up at holiday camps and lifting his Ellesse polo shirt. The only other time we remember seeing that kind of body was in an infomercial exalting the powers of the Abdominator™.
Today, it’s a different story. Six-packs are a mainstream must-have, gleaming from every underwear ad and fitness magazine cover. They’re the height of male achievement and only one miraculous 12-week plan away. Anything less and you’re a failure, son.
So with that in mind, surely it’s time we revived the stout physique. As long as you’re healthy (more on that later), what’s wrong with a fatherly paunch? A cheeky breadbasket? Would One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest have been any better if Jack Nicholson had spent less time perfecting the art of wigging out and more time getting a washboard?
Gentlemen, it’s time we brought back that cheeky hint of gut. A cuddly bit of heft that says, “If I want to spend £18 on a lobster roll or order the largest steak on the menu, I will. And I’ll tweet a picture of myself wearing a napkin like a bib while I’m at it.”
It’s time we turned the well-checked gut into a symbol of defiance and took a stand on behalf of those unwilling to be swayed by the media. It’s time... hang on, we’re starting to sound like Smithy from Gavin & Stacey.
Let’s pause that for a moment and, in search of an honest opinion, turn to our colleagues on Stylist magazine. The question we asked was, ‘Is there something comforting about a squeezable paunch?’ A surprising number identified with our cause.
“I’ve seen six-packs on billboards but not in real life, so I’m of a mind that they’re a modern myth,” says Stylist’s features editor, Lucy Foster. “This may sound a bit odd, but six-packs always look like an insect’s exoskeleton to me – like the shell of a woodlouse.”
The acid test? That’ll be David Beckham – specifically, the 20-storey poster erected in New York’s Times Square last year, which depicted Golden Balls in ‘budgie smugglers’, looking like a heavily manscaped King Kong. “No woman wants to be with someone who spends three hours in the gym every day,” contends Foster, “especially one whose idea of a solid meal is steamed broccoli, a handful of nuts and a protein shake.”
Sara Rourke, a fashion model and trainee psychologist, agrees. “Contrary to popular belief, the jiggle of a belly can be an attractive proposition,” she admits. “A well-groomed and well-heeled man is, of course, naturally attractive. But there are so many other qualities that are of importance. Humour, intelligence and success are first on my checklist, and an aptitude for fun and relaxation are by far the most attractive [characteristics].”
DRAWING A LINE
Of course, there’s a more serious side to this argument. Clearly, drinking 20 pints of cooking lager a night is a bad idea, and we are not in favour of the distended ‘Spacehopper’ bellies cultivated by heroic-but-often-sedentary logistics drivers. There’s a line – a waistline – that timber-carrying hedonists shouldn’t cross.
“A waist circumference of more than 40in is bad,” explains Professor David Kerrigan, surgeon, expert in central obesity (technical name for a beer gut) and founding member of the British Obesity Surgery Society.
The cause of central obesity is excess visceral fat. This stuff doesn’t simply accumulate in a layer just under your skin, it’s actually found packed between your internal organs. Thus, when this fat releases metabolic by-products, your bloodstream carries those by-products straight to your liver, where they accumulate.
Hence why, explains Kerrigan, “visceral fat carries a much higher association with illness – heart disease, diabetes, early mortality and Alzheimer’s disease – than other kinds of obesity. That’s why men are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease than younger women.”
However, contrary to popular belief, there is little scientific evidence to link beer consumption alone to the development of a beer belly. “Central obesity is caused by an imbalance in calorie intake and burn-off, just like other causes of obesity,” says Kerrigan. “Alcohol contains calories, so if you drink too much and don’t exercise enough, chances are your gut is going to spiral out of control.”
Nutritionist Dr Kathryn O’Sullivan, author of a recent study entitled ‘Beer & Calories; A Scientific Review’, goes further. It turns out a pint of beer has fewer calories than an equal measure of wine, spirits or even orange juice: “Enjoyed in moderation, beer, like wine, can provide many essential vitamins and minerals,” she concluded.
But if you’re worried about nearing that 40in-plus danger zone, there are a couple of ways to assess whether you’re hitting the cushiony sweet spot between washboard-flat and Bertie Bassett. As the good professor says, take a tape measure to your waist (though 40in is only a guide, and it depends on your height and BMI).
Alternatively – and less scientifically – you could brave the ‘Lulu’ app for a brutally honest opinion. The news-making, private, girls-only social network allows women to rate men via no-holds-barred report cards, judging everything from emotional intelligence to their, ahem, ‘#Bangability’. Backed to the tune of £1.6m by the likes of lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman, it’s been gleefully billed as ‘Sex And The City meets Facebook’.
Personally, we can take it or leave it. The whole point of rocking a slight beer gut – as far as we can see – is to free ourselves from the anxieties that have wrongly been imposed on women for years. Provided we keep that bay window nice and neat, it’s just a licence to be happy.
Oh, and one last thing. The next time you see that Diet Coke advert and hear the ‘BA-BA-BABA-BA-BA’ of I Just Wanna Make Love To You, you can permit yourself a little smile. Etta James may have sung it, but she didn’t compose it. No, that was Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, writer of such classics as If The Sea Was Whiskey. The dude was 250lb of Grammy-winning, bass-plucking, trilby-wearing class.
A six pack, indeed.
(Image: Rex Features)