Mark Simpson probes Men’s Health – and finds it in painful denial
(originally appeared on Guardian CiF)
Isn’t it about time Men’s Health, the world’s biggest-selling ‘men’s lifestyle’ magazine, came out to itself?
I couldn’t get to sleep the other night and so resorted to flicking through last month’s UK issue: I find the pictures of semi-naked men’s perfect, sweating muscles and the droning narcissistic hypochondria of the copy in this notorious metromag strangely soothing.
Then I happened across a five page cringemakingly earnest article about ‘heteropolitans’ (complete with a deathly serious ‘Am I heteropolitan?’ questionnaire), which MH wants us to believe have replaced metrosexuals. Apparently metrosexuals were too gay and too vain. HETEROpolitans on the other hand are just perfect: they’re really, really hetero, really attractive, really buffed, really rich, really stylish and really successful. What’s more they also find the time to be really great husbands and dads, and are not in the least bit gay, vain, or even single.
Did I mention that they’re not gay already? And guess what? Men’s Health readers are all goody-two-shoes ‘heteropolitans’!
Now this single, childless, beer-bellied bum-bandit REALLY couldn’t get to sleep.
Who do they think they’re kidding with this guff? Their mother? Men’s Health, with it’s front page pin-ups of studly six-packed shirtless men and pages and pages obsessive-compulsive advice on how to get the perfect pecs/skin/low-fat soufflé has long been one of the most nakedly metro of the men’s metromags. You might be forgiven for thinking that the only questionnaire MH needs to run is: ‘Am I Gay? Or Just Bisexual?’
It looks like we’ll have to wait a while for that one. Of course most of its readers are not card-carrying homos like me (though most of them probably have a Boots Storecard). Or closeted. Or even particularly bisexual. Though I’d take a wild guess that a fair percentage of them are. But even the majority hetero readers of MH and other men’s shopping and gyming ‘men’s lifestyle’ mags are not that hetero – they’re clearly metro. Even if MH is in massive denial about this.
The prissy pretence that that any suggestion of gayness is utterly inconceivable between their pristine pages can lead to hilarious results: such as the recent MH sex guide which encouraged readers to get in touch with the hidden pleasures of their prostate gland by ‘getting your girlfriend to massage it for you with her finger’. Or maybe your boyfriend could do it with his penis? (In fact, it’s MH and consumerism in general that is really ‘massaging your prostate’, no vaseline.)
I haven’t been exactly what you’d call a devoted reader over the years (the UK edition of MH was launched in 1995), I tend to dip in when I’m feeling in need of masochistic motivation at the gym or just some eye-candy, but I don’t recall MH always being so comically keen to insist on its Totally Het credentials. Yes, like almost all men’s glossies, the copy didn’t openly acknowledge any of its readers might be homosexual, bisexual, bi-curious, or even just straight but-not-narrow. But then, with those covers it didn’t need to.
Obviously there’s been a rethink at MH Towers. MH is published by Rodale, an American-owned company and I suspect they’ve been influenced by all that mendacious ‘menassance’ marketing twaddle in the US last year in which manly manliness and old-time real-guyness supposedly made a comeback knocking that faggy metro back into the closet. ‘Reclaim your manhood – go shopping for moisturiser in a Hummer’, that kind of thing.
Maybe this faux-macho Hummersexual over-compensation works in God-fearing, Bush-voting, fag-baiting America – after all, as Gore Vidal once observed, Ernest Hemingway was a joke that only America couldn’t get. But it just looks as camp as a row of camouflage print tents over here. When it doesn’t come across just plain creepy.
Every month gets more surreal in the flawlessly worked-out world of MH. In addition to the usual advice on how to achieve the most desirable body on the dance-floor, the May issue of MH includes an oh-so butch ‘Spartan warrior workout’ based on the Chippendale epic ‘300’, random expressions of disgust at male homosexuality in the Dining Out section, and a ‘welcome aboard’ piece on the Contributors Page in which the editor chastises a new boy from Total Film for spending too much time reviewing films ‘in darkened basements with other men’.
Not to worry though lads, nothing queer about the new grooming editor: he’s a fan of Rocky movies. (I kid you not.) ‘We’re now ensuring he spends as much time in daylight and in the company of women as possible,’ smugly assures the – rather gay and grey looking – editor. Which means, I guess, that he won’t be spending much time in the gym. Or reading Men’s Health.
After taking rather a lot of paid advice from MH over the years, I have some advice for them I’ll offer gratis. The editorial staff at MH should give some serious thought to all those nasty stress hormones released into the bloodstream by having to live a lie, and the terrible things they do to complexions, hair and muscle tone.
Not to mention looking absolutely bloody ridiculous by being so nancy about mansex and so coy about something as natural and irrepressible as good old male vanity.
Especially when your business is built on it.
This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story