“The six-pack’s back!” the Mirror said. “Exclusive!” And so it is. Nightly at 10, cage fighter Alex Reid exposes the swells and wells of his muscular belly on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother, while film critics are still helping each other to their feet after the shock of seeing a six-pack on Sherlock Holmes. Over Christmas, X Factor winner Alexandra Burke was papped on holiday in her bikini, sporting a rippling abdomen, and Armani’s new ad campaign stars football’s Ronaldo, vogueing, in knickers and comprehensive six-pack. In 2009, Men’s Health became the top-selling men’s magazine in Britain, with around 250,000 people buying it every month for its covers’ bold type promises of an instant six-pack, or at least a high-res photograph of one that you can cut out carefully with nail scissors and stick to yourself with eyelash glue.
I’ve never seen a six-pack in the flesh, or even been knowingly pressed against one on the tube. My experience of the male belly is of soft plains and rumbles, a contented swell over the waistband of an elasticated slack, not the frightening and rocky waves of a body builder’s stomach, smooth, like stone shaped by the sea. To get a six-pack, you have to really, really want a six-pack. The muscles won’t just jiggle themselves into that folded landscape through a bit of power league five-a-side; they require cultish devotion, often pre-dawn. Though, sweetly, physiotherapists agree that one thing that engages the transversus abdominis muscle (key to a toned torso) is laughter.
Luckily, pecs are intrinsically funny. Partly because they look and feel like awkward breasts, partly because they make a body look like a cartoon face, with big, round Simpsons eyes, partly because of the way they look under a tight Topman T-shirt and partly, too, because of their name, “pecs”, which sounds simultaneously smug and shameful, like foie gras or a Burberry check.
Looking online at topless pictures of Peter Andre (who, incidentally, has spoken of his pride at having rebuilt his six-pack after public heartbreak melted it), I see only months spent in a windowless gym. I smell Lynx Fever. I hear wet, heaving grunts and a happy, hardcore soundtrack; flickers of oily breast from music videos repeated on a hanging TV behind the running machine.
I also see a funny little man with a series of teacakes strapped to his belly. A moisturised clown, a social satirist, flinging a middle finger up to the body issues of generations of women with his own obsessive and comedic take on fitness. Do men think six-packs will attract women? Will they? Or are they the male equivalent of a catwalk model’s sunken clavicles or skinny thighs – a look coveted by its own kind, but considered a curiosity by suitors?
Poor men, being thrown, moob first, into the mire of dysmorphia in which we women have learned to paddle. Asda’s fastest-selling product ever sold out as the new year broke and it was a vest – a £7 men’s Body Sculpt vest that promises to banish love handles and give wearers an instant six-pack. Confusing, certainly, when the wearer’s partner removes this mendacious Asda girdle and a cascade of bellies tumbles out, but no more so than when a Wonderbra comes off and, with it, a bosom.
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