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Why Men Are Getting Fatter AND Fitter

Men are increasingly expected to have beach-ready bodies. But some men have given up. 

by Mark Simpson

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 to Laura Webber of the UK Health Forum which helped compile the figures, the continuing rise in obesity for both sexes was down to the “obesegenic environment’ which ‘encouraged the over-consumption 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 over-eating 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.

Since the 1980s “consumption” has, in most Western countries and the UK in particular, largely replaced “production” – so men are, in a sense, merely doing their duty in consuming more food and getting dangerously fat. Even the unemployed can contribute.

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 “obesegenic” 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 eyepopping 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 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 fatso-pocalypse, serious as it is, may have been slightly over-egged.

Macho Nachos: Man-Sized Oral Insatiability

Being English, and therefore by definition irredeemably effete to most Americans, I’m fascinated by the way our colonial cousins appear to love rolling hysterically hirsute words like ‘macho’, ‘manly’ and the double-furry, XXL ‘manly men’ around in their mouths.

When they’re not exhorting everyone to ‘man up!’, whatever that means.  The self-consciousness of all this man-lurve, and the ticklishness of those androgenic adjectives, tend to make us fey English just giggle and roll our eyes. Or gag.

In the UK the notion of ‘manly cupcakes’ and a ‘Butch Bakery‘ would be a Little Britain sketch.  While compiling a list of our ‘manliest cities’ could only be a Monty Python sketch.  But in the US it’s a serious business.

‘The COMBOS® “America’s Manliest Cities” study ranks 50 major metropolitan areas, using manly criteria like the number of home improvement stores, steak houses, pickup trucks and motorcycles per capita. “We’re excited to release the second installment of the COMBOS® ‘America’s Manliest Cities’ rankings,” said Craig Hall, general manager, Mars Chocolate North America. “Charlotte is NASCAR country so we’re not surprised that they’ve taken over the top spot. After all, COMBOS® has been the ‘Official Cheese-Filled Snack of NASCAR’ since 2002.”’

Now, I would like to imagine that even in the US the notion that a metropolitan area can be ‘manly’ is meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. Taken to be a bit of a laugh.  But there isn’t too much evidence of this.  The list of America’s Manliest Cities is in its fourth year.

Perhaps I’m not the best judge of these things, but I’m not entirely sure what is so ‘manly’ about this list anyway – compiled, you’ll note, on the basis of consumption: ‘…using manly criteria like the number of home improvement stores, steak houses, pickup trucks and motorcycles per capita.’

With a large, ‘man-sized’ slice of generosity we might say this list is celebrating ‘blue collar’ towns.  Without the generosity, and noting the mammoth candy producing sponsor Mars Chocolate North America and their ‘cheese-filled snacks’– and the weighty fact that 31% of US males over the age of 15 are already obese, most of them from the lower end of the social spectrum – we might say this list should be renamed ‘America’s Fattest Cities’.

Since America stopped making things its working class have been turned by corporate design into its over-eating class.  Consumption, particularly of processed food, is now its job.  In the US every other ad on the radio and TV is for processed food of some kind – reminding America to get back to work. Eating. So perhaps it only makes sense that the masculine pride that used to go with blue-collar professions has now been transferred, by Madison Avenue, to stuffing yourself with fast-food, candy and cheese-filled snacks while sitting on your broadening ass.  Man up to oral insatiability! is the real tagline of pretty much all this kind of advertising (e.g. the famous ‘Manthem’ ad for Burger King of a few years back.)

There seems to be an overlap here with bearism, the gay American cult for supersized furriness, which knows a thing or two about oral insatiability. American gays live, of course, in the same America as other Americans. Exposed to the same advertising and the same cheap, always-available fast-food, many gay men in the US are also obese.  In a sense, bearism was the gay world’s own advertising campaign to recast a shaped beard standing in for a missing jawline as ‘manly’ – and therefore desirable. Though as I like to say to bears who think that their fetish represents ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ masculinity compared to ‘those queens’, bearism isn’t about being a manly man – it’s about becoming a fatter, hairier version of your mother.

Gay or straight, empty calories are used to fill the manly emptiness inside. Mars also produce Snickers – a highly fattening product that is sold to boys as being a ‘manly’ antidote to general faginess with the tagline ‘Get some nuts!’.  (In your mouth.) Perhaps this is why San Diego, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco come at or near the bottom of Mars’ list of ‘manly cities’.

The UK for all its ticklishness about ‘manliness’, is fast catching up with the US in the obesity stakes, and similar strategies are being employed (often by the same giant US food processing corporations) to make over-sized man portions seem less about insatiability than about virility. Mars itself ran into trouble here a few years ago for making their candy bars ever bigger and contributing to childhood obesity.

Of course, supersizing yourself actually diminishes your virility. Obesity lowers your levels of testosterone, as well as causing you to lose sight of your John Thomas, while growing man-boobs.

The epidemic of obesity amongst pre-pubescent young boys on both sides of the Atlantic means that many of them never really experience puberty. Oh, their voices break, they get furrier and their genitals mature, but their body won’t really change shape.  It will be ovoid and lipid – and ‘momsy’ – forever. Until they’re put in a super-sized casket. Possessing a masculine body will always be just a dream.

But not to worry, advertising can sell them even more comforting processed food as… ‘manly’!

 

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