Body shape

As to how I look, I don't care how I look in a competitive or male model sense. However i am not without an interest in my appearance. I value performance first and I'm interested to see what body shape emerges from my activity regime and the diet I eat to deliver the best performance, rather than building an activity regime and diet to deliver an ideal body image. (There were no mirrors in the Pleistocene, so you'd never really know what you looked like.)

The first picture show my paunch when I'm fully relaxed. Actually, there's muscle, gut and visceral fat as well as sub-cutaneous flab, (see the other pictures taken on the same day). The interesting thing is that it has emerged from motivations quite different from those behind Art deVany's X-look.  The second photo shows me with my belly relaxed to the extent that it is when I'm standing normally.

The X-look (see below) is certainly more attractive to contemporary Western ideals (especially those driven by US popular culture and Western fashions) than what you see here. However, even a century ago, mild obesity was more widely admired (it was said to demonstrate that one had sufficient surplus wealth to over-eat). Even today, many barristers believe mild obesity gives 'carriage', an advantage in the courtroom. So, ideals can vary with fashion. Modern obesity is not, however, admired.

What's more, I don't find that surplus body fat or obesity gives any advantages (though I deliberately added around 7kg to see me through the 2003 winter in comfort).

Pictures of hunter-gatherers who live in rain forests (African pygmies, Amazonians) show similarly rounded bellies in bodies that are, nevertheless, highly effective in hunting, trekking, load carrying and other activities requiring strength, power and endurance, as well as in attracting and holding mates.

The X-look (see below) is posited as the male body shape which was the most effective in attracting females. That is, like the peacock's tail or the lion's mane, it provided an evolutionary advantage in terms of sexual selection.
(Pictures left taken in June 2003)

I have started at the other end. I have endeavoured to build a body that could deliver health, strength, power and endurance, a body that could provide food and protection, on the assumption that food, protection and longevity would have a greater survival value (for female mates) and that those females would be more attracted by what it appeared able to deliver than any other criteria. What you see is the result of my quest for performance, not for appearance. (Sorry about the stoop - I've always had that; doesn't cause a problem for anyone except my rowing coach.) There are a few more pictures of me in the gym here.

In May 2011 I had my body composition analyzed on a Biospace 520 machine. A report of the outcome is here.

Probably an ideal body shape for an adult male in his 30s is shown in this YouTube video. We know it's ideal because of what the body is being used for - with power, poise, athleticism and novelty. Only a perfect body could perform the way Erwan Le Corre demonstrates in this video. In doing so he also sets up the criteria for judging what a perfect male body should be able to do (not only what it looks like). Form will follow function. Some will run marathons and therefore have a correspondingly different body shape; others will be more heavily muscled through heavy weight training. But humans in the Palaeolithic would not have run marathons nor engaged in heavy weight training. [1]

There is also an increasing pathological obsession with our bodies. Susie Orbach writes about this in her March 2009 book Bodies. See the edited extract from Bodies below. In May 2010, the Times Online (London) reported on the artificiality of the male images promoted on the covers of men's magazines and by the manufacturers of supplements as 'ideals'. [2]



From Art De Vany's blog

There is research to back up Art's advocacy of the X-look, though indirectly, from the University of Western Australia. In a 2003 paper, Professor Gillian Rhodes showed that young men with more masculine faces had slightly better health. In 2004 Renee Firman from the same University's Evolutionary Biology Research Group, found that asymmetrical men had lower quality sperm, lower sperm counts and their sperm were less mobile. They suggest the mechanism lying behind these observations is that higher levels of testosterone needed to produce masculine characteristics stress the immune system, so the masculine-looking men must be healthier to withstand the assault.
















1. In an e-mail exchange I had with Erwan le Corre in January 2009 the following points were made - some by Erwan, some by me (and edited by me to fit this site):

Different physical activities produce different body shapes: ultramarathoners, Olympic weightlifters, champion swimmers etc., will have sport-specific body shapes. The real criterion of physical fitness is not what a body looks like, but what a body does. Beyond that, what your body does - not what your body can do – reflects your human-ness, your wholeness, your well-being. If you have a body with the potential to run up a hill, grapple, rock-climb or whatever, but you have developed that capability solely by exercising alone in an air-conditioned urban gym under fluorescent lights, just how human are you compared with the person who had developed a similar capability through their activities outside in a real forest, breathing in the aromas, the bacteria, the fungal spores, the natural volatile organic compounds from a healthy ecology (these last three vastly under-rated), listening to the natural sounds, absorbing natural sunlight under both summer and winter temperatures - and understanding their environment and sharing much of this with companions in the process? "Sport-specific body shapes" are the possession of zoo animals. Some Olympic athletes are very unhealthy, often ill, and highly strung both emotionally and physically. Slobs also have bodies that, if not "sport-specific", are certainly "activity-specific" and their owners have been training them for their couch potato physiques virtually 24/7/365. And, to some extent, the health of the brain (and hence the mind) reflects the health of the body - though not as much as I would expect. The key to survival for millions years was to possess broad movement skills, resulting in harmonious, symmetrical body-shapes.

Any modern sport-specific or exclusively performance-oriented physical training will lead to a lack of skills, robustness and general health in all the neglected areas or to injuries and usually both. Performances, records, rankings, awards and trophies are organized, standardized conventions to regiment individuals in ways that enable some to demonstrate their superiority over others, often through the physically irrelevant money and the cult of celebrity. This is the way of our society, our civilization. But whenever you're focused on the 'politics' of demonstrating dominance or on money you end up paying a price in both physical and mental health. The more you surrender to regimentation, and your quest for recognition, admiration and respect, the higher the price in terms of good health.

2. The May 2010 Times article reported on top UK male model Daniel Martin who "regularly puts his body through hell. For days at a time he restricts fluid intake so severely that the resulting dehydration causes headaches, haziness and overwhelming fatigue. Having trained for weeks with high-intensity circuits, running and weightlifting, he then cuts out exercise for 48 hours and opens a bottle of red wine to drink alone. A six-day carbohydrate-depletion diet, in which he eats little more than chicken and broccoli, leaves his muscles weak and his brain so starved of glycogen, its source of fuel, that he feels dizzy and disorientated when he stands up. He can barely walk, let alone hit the gym. And the reason for this torturous ritual of self-deprivation? Martin is preparing to bare his abs in a photoshoot for the cover of one of Britain’s top-selling men’s magazines. At 33, Martin is a veteran of the fitness model circuit, his finely etched torso having gleamed from the pages of Men’s Health, the market leader, more often than that of any other cover model. He has the body and looks that epitomise what men (and women) have come to perceive as the pinnacle of masculine attractiveness. Part of the allure is that this beauty is seen as somehow attainable through hard work and a sensible diet. By and large, we have collectively assumed that those rippling abs represent the result of the kind of gym-dedication and healthy living that can only be admired. Behind the abs, though, is a far from wholesome reality.

Two days before a photoshoot, he says, he begins to dehydrate by restricting the intake of water and other fluids to a minimum. After almost a week of carbohydrate avoidance, he also begins to “carbo-load” by eating pasta and sweet potatoes for 48 hours. “That forces the muscles to fill up with glycogen so they look bigger,” Martin says. “Being dehydrated makes your skin shrink and become taut so that it sticks to the muscles and gives a dry, vascular appearance, making your veins stick out, which is what the magazines want.”

“Depleting carbohydrate in this way is a process known as ‘cutting’,” says Dr Stewart Bruce-Low, a sports scientist. “Allegedly it helps the muscles to increase in size, as stores are replenished with carbohydrate two to four days before a competition. As every gram of carbohydrate, or glycogen, is stored in the body with around 3g of water, the likelihood is that muscle fibres would bulk up even more if someone was dehydrated, although no research has been conducted to prove this.”

But taking the body to such extremes carries a risk. Lose as little as 2 per cent of body fluids after a workout and the result can be a drop in concentration and a rise in body temperature. More severe dehydration triggers electrolyte, or body salt, imbalances that can cause cramping, chills, nausea and clammy skin as well as putting a strain on overworked kidneys. There are potentially fatal consequences. “Any imbalances in sodium or potassium levels can cause heart arrhythmia,” says Dr Martin Sellens, director of sports science at the University of Essex. “If fluid levels drop too low for too long, then potassium becomes concentrated and that can cause the heart to stop.” Bodybuilders have died as a result of self-imposed dehydration before a competition. “One man’s potassium levels had been raised by this kind of approach and when he ate bananas, which are rich in the mineral, as part of his carb-loading phase, it tipped the balance and caused heart failure,” he says. “It can be highly dangerous.”

Fake tan is popular, as the darker skin tone achieved makes muscle definition more obvious, and photographers often ask models to perform what is known as “the coughing technique” — an action that increases tension in the abdominal muscles just as a picture is taken.

Yet the fitness gains are often aesthetic rather than functional, says model James Fricker. “I took part in a Men’s Health ‘survival of the fittest’ event with four of their cover models who looked really fit but weren’t. “They finished at the back of the field, behind ordinary members of the public.”

But the pursuit of that perfect six-pack shows no sign of slowing. Recent research by the Harley Medical Group, the largest cosmetic surgery chain in the UK, revealed that the number of men aged 35 and over choosing to have a tummy tuck has risen by 55 per cent so far this year, compared with 2009. And a University of Florida study suggested that changing perceptions of the ideal male physique have triggered a wave of body-image problems among men striving to achieve a muscular look. As long as we continue to buy into the dream that such bodies are attainable, cover models will flaunt their ripped midsections on magazines proffering the irresistible notion that chiselled abs are up for grabs. “But it’s impossible to look like that seven days a week, despite what the magazines try to tell you,” says Martin. “We can’t achieve that look. Nobody can.” (The above extracts have been edited slightly from the original to focus on the issues most relevant to Evfit.) Back to text

From Susie Orbach's Bodies

New Scientist magazine on 10 February 2009 published an extract from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book Bodies, whose Fat is a Feminist Issue (1998) was a bestseller. The following is my edited version of the New Scientist extracts (my edits are both deletions and additions to bring its focus more tightly onto the themes of this page).

UNTIL very recently, we took our bodies for granted. We hoped we would be blessed with good health and, especially if we are female, good looks. Those who saw their body as their temple, or became magnificent athletes or iconic beauties, were the exception: we didn't expect to be like them. Like gifted scientists, historians, writers, directors, explorers or cooks, their talents extended and enhanced the world we lived in, but we didn't expect this beauty, prowess or brain power of ourselves.

Over the past 25 years, however, the notion of the empowered consumer, along with the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries, and the affordability and availability of their products have made us view our bodies as something we can and should perfect. Looking good for ourselves will make us feel good, we believe.

These days, inboxes are full of invitations to enlarge penises or breasts, to purchase the pleasure and potency booster Viagra, to try the latest herbal or pharmaceutical preparation to lose weight and popular science pages sing of implants and pills to augment body or brain and new methods of reproduction which bypass old biology.

Teenagers dream of new thighs, noses or breasts. Simultaneously, governments warn of an epidemic of obesity. Your body, these phenomena shout, is your canvas to be fixed, remade and enhanced. Join in. Enjoy. Be part of it. Be wary of it. But, above all, fix it – usually at no small cost.

So why is bodily contentment so hard to find? Why are body transformations, from sex change to cosmetic surgery, if not ubiquitous, then a growing part of public consciousness? What is the deep appeal of extreme makeover TV shows? What is wrong with our bodies as they are?

I wrote Bodies to explore these issues, issues I encounter as a practising psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. In my consulting room, I see the impact of calls for bodily transformations, enhancements and "perfectibility". People do not necessarily turn up with particular body troubles, but whatever their other emotional predicaments and conflicts, concern for the body is nearly always folded into them, as if it were perfectly ordinary to be telling a life story in which body dissatisfaction is central.

In an updating and marketing of the practices of past leisured classes of decorating themselves for amusement and as a marker of social standing, we are invited to take up this activity too. Something new is happening: our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.

And where it was once women's bodies who were subjects of aggressive marketing, now men are targeted with steroids, sexual aids, hair transplants and specific masculine-oriented diet products as well as gymnasiums and home gym equipment. Children's bodies, too. Photographers now offer digitally enhanced baby and child photos - correcting smiles, putting in or removing toothy gaps, turning little girls into facsimiles of china dolls. Girlie-sexy culture now entrances more rather than fewer of us.

This call for beauty wears an increasingly homogenised and homogenising form. While some people may be able to opt in, joyfully, a larger number cannot because the body ideal has not extended to aesthetic variation but has, paradoxically, narrowed to a slim, westernised aesthetic, with pecs for men and big breasts for women. Body hatred is endemic in the west and is becoming one of its hidden exports.

Like sexuality, the body is shaped and misshaped by our earliest encounters with parents and carers, who contain the imperatives of the culture they grew up in, with its injunctions about how the body should appear and be attended to. Their sense of their own bodily deficiencies and strengths, their hopes and fears about physicality will play themselves out on the child. In my consulting room, their impact on the child's body sense and the subsequent adult's body sense becomes clear.

This has made me question the whole notion of the body as something that unfolds organically according to its own genetic imprint from birth on, acted upon by the mind - and nutrition - only at key developmental stages. When need to better understand how the visual cortex is affected by our image-saturated culture, and how this has led to a shrinking of the rich variety of human body expressions. Like the native languages we lose fortnightly, we are almost doing away with body variety.

Morally, I am pained and disquieted by the homogeneous visual culture promoted by industries that depend on the breeding of body insecurity and which then create "beauty terror" in so many.

It is so ordinary to be distressed about our bodies or body parts that we now have an emerging public health emergency - showing up only obliquely in the statistics on self harm, obesity and anorexia as the most visible and obvious signs of a wide-ranging body dis-ease. Back to text

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Page last up-dated 27 May 2011