It’s fast becoming a hazy memory, but there was a time – as recently as the mid-Noughties – when a guy with leg-sized arms and a neck you could open bottles with would still turn heads. Back then, a man with a creatine-ripped physique striding into a bar would’ve been greeted with swoons, sniggers and furtive gazes. But now? Nowt. He’s just another gym junkie.
Modern British men are being buried under an avalanche of buff-guy imagery – but while women have had decades to grow wearily accustomed to unattainable beauty ideals being thrown in their faces, this is all new for men, and many of us are helpless to respond with anything other than pitiful obedience: scarfing down protein shakes, grimacing through burpees and getting as buff, tonk, swole and ripped as we can.
This has resulted in a spectacular payday for the UK fitness industry. A few random numbers: UK consumer spending on gyms soared by 44 per cent between 2014 and 2015, according to a survey by Cardlytics. One in seven Britons now holds a gym membership. A survey by market research company Mintel found spending on sports nutrition products – protein shakes, energy gels etc – rose by 27 per cent between 2015 and 2016. A quarter of us now claim to consume such products “regularly”, with one in eight doing so every day. Basically, if you’d bought shares in whey protein or medicine balls 10 years ago, you’d be reading this on a private jet.
So, what’s the problem? With Britain boasting the highest obesity rates in Western Europe (one in four adults, compared to one in 12 just 30 years ago), surely this newfound national obsession with getting fit can only be positive? Well, for starters, it’s not so much an obsession with getting fit – it’s an obsession with getting ripped, which isn’t really the same thing.
Jonny Jacobs is a renowned personal trainer, partway through a PhD in male body image: “The worrying thing about the fitness industry at the moment is that actual fitness is becoming secondary, and it’s all about appearance. My clients are increasingly less inclined to have a fitness or health-related goal. Twenty years ago they’d want to be able to run a half marathon or climb Snowdon, but now it’s, ‘I want or need to look like this.’”
And if you’re a man taking his first steps towards getting ripped, you run the risk of the fitness industry taking you for an expensive, damaging ride – offering to ‘fix’ your baseless insecurities about your body with products and services that not only don’t work, but could potentially do you harm. It’s a toxic state of affairs, and it’ll get worse before it gets better.
The online swole squad
So how did we get to this point? How did doggedly chasing buffness go from being a niche pursuit to the defining pastime of a generation?
Well, pop culture certainly played its part. The cover to 50 Cent’s 2003 album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ [fig 1]– featuring the artist as topless, greased-up, turbo-muscled eye candy – was something of a watershed moment, and we’ve since come to expect our chart-toppers to be ostentatiously swole: from Drake to Bieber to Calvin Harris, an abs-filled Instagram profile is the norm [fig 2].
Films, too, have undergone a steady embuffening since the turn of the Millennium. Consider the big male heartthrobs of the Nineties: Hugh Grant, Leo DiCaprio, Josh Hartnett. Now, their 21st-century equivalents: Ryan Gosling, Zac Efron, Chris Hemsworth. We know which team we’d back in an arm-wrestling tournament.
But – duh – it’s social media, and Instagram in particular, that’s really driving men’s burgeoning body image anxiety. “The key psychological concept at work is social comparison – that is, comparing yourself to others to figure out whether or not you’re ‘OK’,” says Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dr Jenny Cole, a psychologist specialising in social media. “A few years ago, we’d compare ourselves to celebrities and people we encountered in everyday life. But we knew, on some level, that celebrities were ‘special cases’, so most of our comparisons were made with the people around us.”
These social comparisons became warped, however, with the arrival of social media. We’re still comparing ourselves to ‘everyday’ people, but they aren’t depicting themselves accurately. “Guys are only posting pictures of themselves where they look really ripped, and some users take as many as 40 photos until they get one they like enough to post,” says Dr Cole. “So a man viewing these pictures isn’t getting a realistic representation of what these people look like; in turn, his view of what constitutes an ‘average’ body starts to become skewed, and therefore his social comparison becomes skewed, too. Instagram then becomes a trigger for his insecurities.”
Instagram is considered by many as a place where unabashed vanity is king, but, says Dr Cole, the guy posting his glistening pecs may not be doing so out of an over-inflated sense of self-worth – quite the opposite, in fact: “If you look at the accounts of some of these people, and study how and why they post what they do, you often find they’ve come to heavily rely on social media to maintain their self-esteem. People may dismiss them as vain, but these are people having genuine problems with their sense of self-worth, and are dealing with that by seeing how many ‘likes’ they can get on Instagram.”
Insecure men post unrealistic portrayals of themselves, driving insecure men to post unrealistic portrayals of themselves, and so on. And this fretful feedback loop draws in new men every day. “The social pressure on guys to look a certain way is one that’s really grown in recent years,” says Joel Beckman of CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably). “A survey undertaken by CALM last year asked men what had caused a low point in their life, and one in three men under 35 responded with ‘my appearance’ – that response came above break-ups, losing a job and issues around sex or sexuality. It’s clearly something men care about, and not always in a positive way.”
“Very few young men aren’t on social media,” says Jacobs, “and these images are in your face all day long. Men look at guys in phenomenal shape, want to look like that themselves, and those aren’t realistic goals.”
Not that the fitness industry would ever tell you that, obviously. It’s bad for business to school newbies on the cold, hard truth that getting ripped is an exhausting slog that never really ends. Better to fleece them with promises of speedy, miraculous short-cuts until they figure it out for themselves.
Take, for example, the covers of fitness magazines. “You’re telling people what they want to hear,” says a former staffer at one of Britain’s biggest titles, who now works in a different sector of the fitness industry. “If you’re fat or puny, you don’t want to feel that a) it’s going to be hard work to do something about it, or b) that you’ve been doing something wrong all these years. You want a new trick and quick fix: ‘Six-Pack Abs: See Results in Nine Days!’ No magazine would shift many copies with ‘Control Your Portions And Exercise Regularly!’
“I don’t have many positive things to say about spurious cover lines or the fitness industry. It runs on dangerous amounts of false promises and misinformation.”
But while these magazines’ covers may dabble in snake-oil sales, trying to convince you you’re the next Austrian Oak [fig 3], the articles within are, generally, more measured and scientifically sound. When it comes to the world of sports nutrition, however, naive consumers are taken advantage of in far more deceitful ways.
“Very bold claims are backed up with what are essentially junk-food ingredients,” says Warren Pole, co-owner of ‘natural sports nutrition’ company 33Shake. “There’s so much crap out there. We’re talking the worst additives, sweeteners and processed sugars used in the fast-food industry, and they’re so cheap to produce. The sports nutrition industry is a hybrid of Big Food and Big Pharma, and it uses a lot of the same marketing techniques: people want instant solutions, and so instant solutions sell. The loopholes relating to the labelling and advertising of these products are big enough to drive a bus through.”
Pole and his friends – all endurance sport enthusiasts – set up 33Shake after finding that existing sports nutrition products were causing them digestive issues that affected their performances. “We looked into what the products were made of, and it’s no wonder they were having a negative effect. We then tried to find products that weren’t laden with these ingredients, and there weren’t any.”
Sports nutrition companies can always point to scientific research to prove that their particular bars, gels, shakes and powders all really ‘work’, but much of this research is wilfully flawed. “The research comes from the manufacturers themselves, so there’s a clear conflict of interest,” chuckles Pole. “Science involves asking a question, then devising a test to ascertain the answer. But what’s invariably done with sports nutrition science is deciding the answer beforehand, then devising a test that ‘proves’ it.”
Pole offers an example of how this is could be done.
“A sports nutrition bar will claim to boost your endurance levels by whatever percentage. But then you read the study they’ve undertaken that’s backing up this claim, and what they’ve done is compare using this product to using nothing. So the test doesn’t prove that a Brand X bar allows you to train for longer – it proves that consuming some calories allows you to train for longer than consuming no calories. That’s not science, but it’s selling a lot of products to people who are led to believe that it is.”
Predictably, it’s fitness newbies who fare the worst from this rigged game. “Those guys are the most vulnerable because the majority of readily available information out there is sponsored or paid for by the main manufacturers. And they’re being guided down the path to heavy use of these products, which, for most people, eventually leads to problems.”
Even those being guided through fitness by a professional can fall victim, as gyms become overrun with personal trainers who don’t know a great deal more than their clients. “It’s so easy to become a PT now,” says Jacobs. “You get Groupon emails encouraging people to sign up for heavily discounted, very quick courses. You’ve got guys saying, ‘Well, I hate my IT job but I like being at the gym, maybe I’ll become a PT and make 30 grand doing that instead.’” You can be fully certified in as little as three days.
Of course, not every guy who sets out to get himself in shape does so out of manufactured insecurity, only to find himself fleeced and misled by the industry he’s turned to for help. But it’s certainly happening to a lot of men right now, in degrees ranging from the tragicomic to the plain tragic. Inevitably, some combination of tightened legislation, public education and consumer backlash will improve this chaotic situation – just not any time soon.
“These huge companies, they went just one degree off-course a few years ago, and now they’re miles and miles off their correct bearing,” says Pole. “But they’re like huge cruise ships, and you can’t easily or swiftly change their course. There are too many interests – shareholders and so on – driving them forwards.”
No matter what you might’ve been told, there are no quick fixes when it comes to fitness.
Words by Joe Madden
Image credit: Rex/Getty, iStock