The pollsters, those selfless seekers after truth against whom this column will not hear a word breathed, have discovered that men feel unhappy about their bodies.
According to the Men’s Health Awareness Study, 52 per cent are worried about their weight, 48 per cent are alarmed by the onset of baldness, and 82 per cent want more muscular bodies.
Inevitably, the findings were interpreted in terms of contemporary attitudes, and tiresomely predictable they were too.
Thus Dr Martin Skinner, a psychologist at Warwick University: “Gender identities have been questioned and it is less clear today what it means to be a man. The way women view men has changed, which affects the way men see themselves.”
Stifling a yawn, let us first look at the survey. The Men’s Health Awareness Study sounds weighty, even academic. But on closer inspection it turns out to comprise the responses to a questionnaire sent to 379,000 readers of Men’s Health magazine.
To the uninformed, the title of that publication is itself misleading. Men’s Health is not, as one might first suppose, a learned journal devoted to keeping an expert readership up-to-date with the latest developments in treating prostatic neuralgia; it is a fat glossy consumer magazine devoted to urging an inexpert readership to get its leg over. If it were really concerned with men’s health it would run a Haemorrhoid Hotline; instead it promises “Seduce Anyone – Ten Guaranteed Tactics”.
At any rate, 1,000 readers returned completed questionnaires. The remaining 378,000 were either too sapped by worry to put pen to paper, or were striving against the clock to master guaranteed tactic number seven and seduce someone – anyone – lest baldness rush in prematurely and extinguish all hope.
Even so, a response of 1,000 is not without statistical significance, and we must click our tongues, mournfully shake our heads and accept that many men are dissatisfied with the bodies issued to them by Nature.
That some of the unease is due to modifications wrought by time and moulded by indulgence ought neither to diminish our sympathy nor abate our concern. When half of Britain’s manhood is worried about its weight, who are we in the other half to scoff? There, but for providential immunity from neurosis and the prattling of the Health Education Authority, go we.
But wait a minute, was it not ever thus? The Men’s Health Awareness Study is fatally marred by its isolation from any meaningful context. Okay, 82 per cent of today’s young men would like more muscular bodies. Is it not a fair bet that about 80 per cent of men who were young in the Forties and Fifties would also have preferred a physique other than the one which housed their anxieties? Or one hundred years previously, for that matter?
As long as we cling to ideals of the human form as defined by the sculptors of ancient Greece, 90 per cent of us – men and women alike – are destined to live with disappointment.
For many it is a supportable burden. For them life holds sufficient interest and offers sufficient reward for the daily rebuke of the morning mirror to be shaken off with a cry of fiddle-dee-dee. But for others the anguish caused by being cast in a shape that would cause an Attic sculptor of old to drop his mallet and take up housebuilding never goes away.
And the terrible truth is that nothing can be done. Not all the cosmetics, nor all the slimming preparations, nor all the diets, nor all the exercises, nor any of the remedies yet devised by a myriad industries that prey on the afflicted can take the haphazard complement of bones, flesh and fat issued by capricious fate and make of them an Adonis or Venus. The very notion is as absurd as offering ten foolproof tips for L-plated libertines.
But if the survey’s discovery that men are unhappy with their bodies is as new as the Pyramids, what of its revelations about male insecurities? By and large, the respondents were a troubled lot. Overworked and stressed, they wanted compassion and craved happiness. Nothing much new there either, I fear. Ever since man came down from the trees, stood up straight, and tottered towards his destiny, he has time without number stubbed his toe on the truism that life is not for pleasure alone. And astonishingly each time he does, it is as though it were the first.
Viewed objectively, the present generation enjoys a measure of security, comfort and luxury unimagined by its predecessors. It is, however, man’s lot to be perpetually dissatisfied with his lot. But for that worm in his soul, there would no progress. Yet progress is not the answer. Nor is success.
Pop star Dave Stewart is so successful, “so absolutely fantastically well and inspired”, that he feels utterly miserable and calls his condition the “paradise syndrome”.
An unknown burglar who breaks into Lady Kennet’s home in Bayswater is so unsuccessful that he leaves with a pair of bruised testicles.
“I kneed him in the balls which upset him quite considerably,” says her ladyship. “We’ve all read it in our women’s magazines, knee him in the balls.”
To find out what it feels like, read the men’s magazines.