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You, too, can’t have a body like this
To get the abs, male models have to starve, binge, booze, suck sweets, slap on fake tan and be Photoshopped
Daniel Martin 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 like an Olympian 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 Adonis-like beauty is seen as somehow attainable through hard work and a sensible diet. While female models are criticised for fuelling the rise in eating disorders by looking underweight, their male counterparts have largely escaped such adverse scrutiny. 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.
Last week the male fashion industry was criticised when one mannequin manufacturer brought out a super-skinny model with highly defined abs and a tiny 27in waist. According to Beat, the eating disorders charity, such unattainable images pile on the pressure that can cause low self-esteem, body-image issues and eating disorders in vulnerable young men.
Yet Martin’s modelling career depends on the pursuit of that ideal. 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,” he 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.”
Many male models drink alcohol — brandy and gin are favourites — to speed dehydration. “I open a bottle of red wine the night before, and on the morning of a photoshoot I have another glass of wine and some wine gums,” Martin says. “The sugar in the sweets and the alcohol draw more water from the skin, leaving you looking as lean as possible.”
Among models and many others in the industry, Martin says, there is an unspoken acknowledgement that the pre-shoot regimen is standard. “There is definitely a sense that magazines expect you to turn up dehydrated and dizzy,” he says. “I’ve been on castings for fitness magazines where there are six or seven models who are so groggy and out of it that they need to grab a chair to sit down and literally can’t speak.”
James Fricker, a 22-year-old sales executive from London who has also modelled for several magazines including Men’s Health, agrees that the expectation to arrive at a shoot in a hypoglycaemic haze is immense. “Everything you put in your body immediately before pictures are taken is aimed at making you look as lean and muscular as you can for the camera,” he says. “Before a shoot I would often eat jelly beans, as the sugar improves blood flow and vascularity. Having your veins stand out is desirable because it makes you look as if you are in the best shape you can be.”
Such techniques have been used by bodybuilders for years, and many claim that they are highly effective in achieving a temporarily “pumped up” appearance.
“Depleting carbohydrate in this way is a process known as ‘cutting’,” says Dr Stewart Bruce-Low, a sports scientist who has researched strength-training approaches at Southampton Solent University. “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.”
Jon Lipsey, the editor of Men’s Fitness magazine, says that he is unaware of models going to such lengths to hone their physiques. “That’s just not how the people we use do things,” he says. “Everyone who appears in our magazine is in very good shape — they train hard and pay attention to their diet to achieve that look, but not to that extreme.”
Fricker says that tricks are sometimes used to create an unrealistic illusion of abdominal perfection. Last year, one publication featured him in an article entitled “Scrawny to Brawny” in which it was insinuated that readers could transform their bodies into something resembling his rock-hard physique in eight weeks. “But the ‘before’ picture they showed of me was one from five years ago, not two months previously, so it was misleading,” he says. “Quite often, ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures are taken on the same day. Models are asked to slump their shoulders and un-tense their abs in the ‘before’ shots, then art directors use lighting, better posture and Photoshop to get the ‘after’ effect they want.”
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 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. Professor Heather Hausenblas, the exercise psychologist who carried out the research, said: “If you look back at the ideal male body, 50 years ago it wasn’t this hyper-muscular physique that we see now,” she says.
“We have seen a significant rise in the number of men who are dissatisfied with the way the look and want to be more muscular.”
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.”