This ad starring Cristiano Ronaldo flogging body exercise electrodes called SIXPAD – or SEXPAD? – has been airing UK television for some months now, but every time it comes on it still makes me gape – pardon my French.
It’s both funny and disturbing, and in truth I had avoided writing about it until now because I hoped it was just a bad dream (I usually glimpse it on late-night TV). But it isn’t going away.
The ad itself is incredibly camp. Or kitsch. Or cheesey. Or all of the above. Likewise the voiceover intoning ‘Bwody Rewolution!’ It’s almost as if the ad seems to know that its premise – you can get a body like Ronaldo’s and grow yourself a six-pack by spending £350 on a souped up vibrator and not moving a muscle – is hilarious and just decides to go with that.
But all this is eclipsed by the crazy campery of Ronaldo apparently playing the part of a Japanese sex robot – wearing only his own brand designer underwear. Or a male Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager. Though this is perhaps the uncanny valley where spornosexuality is taking us.
Unlike Seven of Nine however, Ronaldo is entirely passive. Animated only by the pulses of electricity from the black leathery things that seem to have attached themselves like a kinky Sci-Fi leech to his abs and bis. The pulsing of his muscles in time to the music is kinda creepy – but also kinda sexy. There is something sex toy cam-show about it all.
The (post) money-shot is the bit where he wipes his abs down and grins at the camera. Or maybe he’s just advertising his easy-maintenance qualities.
Some might describe Ronaldo’s performance as ‘wooden’ – or possibly ‘silicone’. But his acting is still better than David Beckham’s in ‘King Arthur’.
And some might cite this ad as more proof of Ronaldo’s egotism. But I would rather take it as evidence that he’s a good sport.
For the right fee.
It seems SIXPAD read this blogpost and decided to actually go ahead and make a Ronaldo sex doll. Albeit one that looks like Pietro Boselli:
“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the shy and retiring usual response when you ask a chap here if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.
Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – or ‘tanks’ as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants so ‘fitted’ that might as well be compression leggings. When in the National Exhibition Centre make a national exhibition of yourself.
And why not? Shyness is overrated, especially if you’re seriously fit. And most people here – I would estimate the crowd today 80% male and 20% female and mostly under 30 – have spent a great deal of time, sweat and money turning their body into a very glam accessory and want to show it off. Club music is pumping, the vibe is good, the crowd is friendly and not at all standoffish – but everyone is sober and the lights are up, so we can all get a really good look.
Officially called BodyPower, the UK’s largest expo for the UK fitness industry might be dubbed the Ideal Body Exhibition. Or Spornosexual Pride. It’s eye-poppingly clear that the gay love of the idealised male form has been taken up by a generation of (mostly) straight guys. And buffed up even more. In truth, they’ve turned out to be rather better at it than gay men.
Held over a weekend every May at the NEC, Birmingham, BodyPower fills six halls with exhibitors from the booming gym, supplement and sportswear sectors, represented by costly, elaborate stands for brands such as MyProtein, USN, Dynamix, Aesthetix Era and Gymshark. As well as ‘healthy eating’ kitchens, a teeth-whitening booth, posing coaches and PowerPoint lectures in darkened rooms on the science of muscle-building.
For those wanting more action, there are competitions such as the ‘BodyPower Games’, a blizzard of sweaty torsos and flying abs doing furiously fast pull-ups and leg raises. And ‘Fit Factor’, a talent search for new fitness models. Onstage the hopefuls adopt their favourite Men’s Health/Muscle & Fitness poses and grins while a photographer snaps and flashes away – the results instantly projected on a big screen and totally judged.
There’s even a workout area – just in case you felt guilty about missing a training day to go to BodyPower. After all, you’re already wearing your gym gear.
Launched in 2009 by CEO Nick Orton as something of a niche show for bodybuilding and power sports, BodyPower, like our culture’s interest in in the body itself, has grown rapidly, and now caters for ‘the whole fitness spectrum’, attracting over 90,000 visitors this year. Fitness and bodybuilding has left the dank, dark locker room and come out into the light – in really nicely filled-out compression leggings.
One in every seven people in the once pie-scoffing, pint-downing, tab-smoking UK is now a gym bunny – that’s over 9M memberships with a total UK market value estimated to be £4.4B, according to figures published last month by the Leisure Database Company. And the industry shows no signs of hitting a plateau – 224 new gyms opened in the UK in the past year alone.
Likewise, the fitness supplement industry is no longer a discreet corner in Holland & Barretts – protein sales alone are estimated to be worth a ‘swole’ £8B globally by 2017. Fashion gym-wear is also busting out all over, for both women and men: the global ‘athleisure’ – or spornowear – market is estimated to be worth £200B.
But of course, even with a pumped fitness industry, BP would be nothing without pumped punters. And everyone I speak to seems to think they’re getting value for their c.£30 admission.
‘We love it!!’, is the verdict of three cheery, worked-out lads in their late-teens, early 20s, Jack, Jake, and John from Leeds, who got up early on a Sunday morning and drove two and a half hours to be here, their second visit to BP. They also love training, going 5-6 times a week.
Do they get any stick for that from family and friends? ‘All the time,’ says one, the others agreeing. ‘Not so much from family, as they’ve accepted it, but mates are always going: “What you wanna go to the gym for??” With a belly and pint in their ‘ands!’
They’re especially looking forwards to meeting their fitness idol, Calum von Moger, a preposterously handsome 25-year-old Australian three times Mr Universe social media star (2M Facebook followers). Moger, along with preposterously pretty Americans Steve Cook (31 yrs,1M Instagram followers) and Jeff Seid (22 yrs, 1.7M Instagram followers) – both also attending BodyPower, courtesy of their sponsors – represents a new wave of ‘physique’ or ‘aesthetic’ bodybuilders. The aim now is not to be as freakishly huge as possible, but as hench and hot as possible. The so-called ‘cover model’ look. Pro spornos.
Thanks to social media, these fitness idols, with their downloadable ‘bulk and cut’ diets and ‘boulders like shoulders’ exercise plans, have in many ways become more influential than the magazines that they appear on/in. The Leeds lads tell me they don’t really buy fitness mags, preferring to watch Moger et al’s motivational videos on YouTube instead.
‘You’re looking pretty shredded, man!’ says Steve Cook to a 20-something male audience member in a particularly draughty vest – who then gets up and flexes for a cheering audience. Onstage at a packed auditorium at BodyPower, ex pro American football jock Cook, with his narrow waist, dazzling smile, great hair and skin, photogenic personality and unapologetic vanity – he identifies as metrosexual – is the perfectly-formed embodiment of ‘aesthetic’.
He has real star quality. He jokes how his parents took the mirrors out of his bedroom when he was a kid ‘’cause they knew I liked them too much’, banters with a man-bunned member of the audience about a rumour that he had one himself for a while (‘It was a very dark time in my life’), before breaking into an impromptu Whip and Nae-Nae dancing display for his fans crowding round to have their selfie taken with him.
The ‘swole’ selfie moment in many ways the BP money shot – the real attendance draw. Punters patiently queue to have their selfie taken flexing with their online idol – the idealised, ‘motivational’ reflection of themselves as they hope to be.
Sometimes the mirror-image is literal. One lad waiting to meet Jeff Seid at his sponsor’s stand (Pursue Fitness) looks uncannily like his only slightly less pumped twin, right down to the high hair and the wide grin: ‘Some people say I look a bit like him!’ And indeed he does.
Jeff Seid meets the man in the mirror.
And if you happen to actually have a proper, biological twin already, that’s catered for as well. Toby and Adam, two boisterous, buffed, 20-year-old redhead twins in identical vests and caps have travelled from Herefordshire to meet UK muscle model twins Owen and Lewis Harrison (25yrs, c. 400K Instagram followers each), cover stars of this month’s Muscle & Fitness. Though at their sponsor’s stand, BPI supplements, Lewis seems to have gone temporarily AWOL, slightly spoiling the twin twins selfie moment.
A Harrison twin meets a couple of fans
With their mirror-image, colourfully-inked, sculpted physiques and hair, shaped eyebrows and perfect skin, the Harrisons are the total ‘aesthetic’ package. Pec pop stars. In fact, these ex junior pro footballers from Manchester look like the ‘totally shredded’ offspring of Beckham and Take That.
They also represent the ultimate gym-buddy fantasy: brothers in muscle, mirroring each other’s achievements. But, I ask, can working and training with your twin ‘bro’, cultivating exactly the same muscle development – part of their savvy branding – lead to some resentment? Even when he doesn’t go AWOL? ‘I bloody ‘ate ‘im’ laughs Owen.
Actually Owen, like most of the ‘brand ambassadors’ I’ve seen today, seems very good- humoured, relaxed, and endlessly patient with the fans, happily co-operating with endless, sometimes slightly breathless photographic requests (and slightly breathless questions from this middle aged journo). Perhaps because he was once a fitness fan himself, though ‘when we started it was all about the fitness mags – that was what inspired us to work on our bods, to be a cover star’.
Then again, these days one tetchy remark to a fan can get you trashed on social media.
At the next stand, protein brand Dynamix, three grinning Asian lads in their mid-twenties from Wolverhampton, Suhi, Jas, Iqqi, are having their selfie taken with a tall, especially v-shaped and of course topless muscle model called Myles Leask – ‘He’s a big inspiration!’.
Myles Leask meeting and greeting
Leask, 27, standing 6’3” tall, is exceptionally lean or ‘cut’, with your actual ‘shoulders like boulders’ giving him that hyper v-shape, and a blindingly white smile almost as wide. He’s one of the most established and versatile UK muscle models, jetting around the world for expos and photoshoots, fitness and catwalk. He’s seen a lot of changes.
‘The industry and BodyPower has grown so much since I started out seven years ago,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot more money in it now.’ How much does he make? ‘Well, let’s just say it’s not a bad living!’ Like many other pro spornos, he started off as a high-level athlete, but a shoulder injury put paid to his rugby career – before he found another, possibly more lucrative one in fitness modelling.
The rise of social media is the big change. Leask has adapted to it, and the way it means that you are ‘always on’ – not just during photoshoots and expos – but is still sometimes baffled by its intimacies. ‘I did a big glossy photo shoot for Attitude magazine recently. But that got nothing in the way of likes compared to a badly-lit selfie of me brushing my teeth with my top off.’
While prepping for my Barcelona lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent, Spectacular Masculine Revolution’, this video serendipitously popped up into MetroDaddy’s timeline on Twitter.
It’s an exploration of the meaning of being called ‘metrosexual’ by professional bodybuilder and popular online fitness guru Steve Cook, who has his own YouTube channel SwoldierNation where he offers workout tips, vlogs, and totally ‘hench’ eye candy to those who wanna be like him or just wanna be with him.
There’s a whole humpy army of these online fitness coaches/ exhibitionists today – and according to my buff and brainy Chilean stand-up chum Villouta, they are making Men’s Health magazine look lame.
Like most of these YouTube heroes, Cook is an aesthetic/physique bodybuilder – that is, one that aims to look hot rather than HUGE. Horny rather than Arnie. Cover model rather than Rambo. He is out and proud about his metrosexuality, and says he’s been called metrosexual since high school – though not always in a positive fashion. In the vlog he rather touchingly shares with us his extensive product stash.
He also gets a pedicure, enjoys the comfy pink ‘girly’ chairs and then confronts some rather terrified looking mall-goers about what they understand ‘metrosexual’ to mean. I suspect they were as intimidated by his preposterously good looks, awesome body and self-confidence as much as the questions. I think I would have fainted.
Reading between the lines, Cook seems keen to emphasise that ‘metrosexual’ doesn’t mean ‘non heterosexual’ (he’s a married, hetero father). But then he does live in America, a country which since the early Naughties has had regular nervous breakdowns about the possible ambiguity of metrosexuality – hence those very American reaction-formations ‘machosexual’, ‘ubersexual’, ‘heteropolitan’ and ‘lumbersexual’. Which were in some ways oddly ‘gayer’ than what they were trying to run away from.
So kudos to Mr Cook for refusing to run away from the ‘metro’ tag and having the cojones to embrace and pamper it instead.
Of course, Cook who was born in 1984, is more of a second generation metrosexual – that’s to say, spornosexual. He has fashioned his own body into the ultimate accessory and hot commodity. A product. A brand.
And I for one am certainly buying. Even if he isn’t so great at research. He doesn’t seem to know who his ‘daddy’ is….
As ever, though the Brits are ahead of the curve, and more relaxed about the gay thing – even if their abs aren’t always Olympian standard. The short but charming video below by Jenny Wotherspoon (accompanying an excellent piece on spornosexuals by Theo Merz in The Daily Telegraph) is comprised of interviews with self-confessed spornosexuals from Newcastle, North East England – who aren’t ashamed of their love of lycra, or much bothered their own, more traditionally-minded parents keep asking them ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’.
Britain is getting bigger. Positively massive, if recent reports are to be believed.
Last week, the World Health Organisation published some hefty, earth-shaking figures which publically body-shamed the UK as having one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and suggesting that by 2030 a whopping 74 per cent of British men and 64 per cent of women will be overweight or obese.
Both sexes are getting fatter, according to the data, but men seem to be getting fatter faster than women. Which represents yet another reversal of traditional sex roles – until recently, women in the UK, like most women around the world, tended to be more likely than men to be clinically obese. Two decades ago, just 13pc of men, a mere sliver, were defined as obese, compared to 17pc of women.
By 2010, however, the last year for WHO figures, UK men had finally caught up with women – who had also been getting larger: 26pc of men and women were now considered clinically obese. But in the next 15 years men are predicted to overtake women in obesity, reaching rates of 36pc, compared to 33pc for women. Finally, men are ahead of women in something.
How did this come about? Particularly in a world in which men are more image- and body-conscious – and increasingly gym-obsessed – than ever before?
According toLaura Webber of the UK Health Forum which helped compile the figures, the continuing rise in obesity for both sexes was down to the ‘obesogenic environment’ which ‘encouraged the overconsumption of energy dense foods and discouraged physical activity”. Which I suppose means sitting around and eating crisps and drinking fizzy soda.
Of course, this in itself doesn’t explain why men are overtaking women in the overeating department. But perhaps a clue is to be found in the fact that the phenomenon of male obesity and being overweight (defined as BMI -> 25 kg/ms) is closely associated with high-income countries, such as the UK, US and those of Western Europe – which tend also to have the highest rates of obesity for both sexes.
In low- and lower-middle-income countries – which of course make up the vast majority – obesity among women was approximately double that among men (and considerably lower overall).
Combine this with the fact that UK male obesity began to catch up with and overhaul female obesity in the last 20-30 years – when many working-class and manual jobs were being automated or ‘outsourced’ – a strongly suggestive picture emerges of male obesity being related to not just cheap, readily available, heavily advertised, highly-profitable high-calorie food, but also the decline of traditionally “masculine” jobs. Or to put it glibly: call centres replacing pits. Offices are, after all, “obesegenic environments”.
But why is male obesity now overtaking the female variety? How come men are apparently sitting around eating more ready-salted crisps than women? Perhaps because we still tend to have anachronistic ideas about “man sized” portions. In a world in which men were usually expected to put in a day’s physical, often back-breaking labour, this made a certain sense. But when so many jobs are now “unisex” and keyboard-based, and car ownership so widespread, those man-sized portions can just make you super-sized.
The calorie surplus begins early. Physical education at school today is, officially, often not terribly physical, or strenuous – and children are less likely to walk there than in the past. And then less likely to play in the street or garden when they’re home.
You can be sure that despite the advertising, high-calorie candy bars like Snickers are not usually being eaten after a game of footie. Makers of high-calorie food aimed at boys and men love to suggest that their “obesogenic” product is “man food” and masculinising – “Get some nuts!”. Or rather, that not eating their product is emasculating. If you don’t eat one, you’ll turn into Joan Collins. When the reality may be that because you’ve eaten too many Snickers you can’t run at all.
For all its calculated casualness, a lot of this kind of ‘man food’ advertising merely highlights the way that men and boys now increasingly tend to have a “relationship” to food in the way that only women were supposed to have in the past.
The irony, or possibly tragedy, for men is that at a time when many of them are putting on weight so rapidly, the world has become very visual and has got very judgy about their appearance. Men are expected to have beach-ready bodies too. Part of the reason for a growing number of men’s increasing obsession with gym-ing and dieting is that in a post-industrial digital world, their body is not something that merely “happens” any more – men no longer merely “act”, they, like women, also have to “appear”. Going down the gym has replaced working in the factory – and also, in many cases, playing sport.
So we seem to be seeing an increasing polarisation between (often middle aged) “fatties” who have given up or don’t care, and (often younger) “fitties”, who are perhaps trying a bit too hard and care way too much – though I am not complaining about the eye popping results.
Of course, quite a few men make the quasi-religious transition from being fatties to fitties – frequently sharing their “before” and “after” pics online, or in Men’s Health magazine.
Which brings us to a possible paradox. All those sweat-soaked gym sessions and protein drinks (a rapidly-growing market expected to reach £471m in the UK by 2018) may actually have contributed to those alarming WHO figures for male “obesity”.
Body Mass Index is a very blunt – flabby even – statistical instrument indeed. Calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in metres, this formula, devised in the 19th century, doesn’t actually “measure” fatness at all, merely indicates it.
Muscle is denser than fat, so if you are totally buff from all those gym sessions, then your BMI could class you as being “overweight” or even “obese” – despite being “totally shredded”. Fat, particularly abdominal/visceral fat, has a host of documented health problems associated with it – lean muscle, however, brings increased strength, higher metabolism, increased immunity and even life expectancy. Not to mention increased “sexiness”.
BMI is a statistical convention that has been useful in a generalised way – but one that may have to be changed to reflect the changing body composition and shape of men (and women). Without more precise research, it’s impossible to know how much men getting “massive” down the gym has tipped the UK’s male obesity scales, but given how much more muscular many men are today compared to 20 or even just ten years ago, it seems likely to have been a factor.
If so, the coming fatsopocalypse, serious as it is, may have been slightly over-egged.
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