By Peter Lloyd For The Mail On Sunday
When John Prescott revealed he had bulimia, the world laughed. Yes, eating disorders are funny. Who knew? The former Deputy Prime Minister had revealed his struggle, no doubt hoping to help others blighted by the condition.
But one award-winning political commentator declared a misdiagnosis, saying Prescott was ‘more likely just a greedy incompetent, who gobbled every treat going’.
This wasn’t an isolated jibe. Feminist website Jezebel produced a What Prezza Was Eating… Daily Guidelines For Men – complete with fat and carbohydrate content. Would women be spoken about like this? Would it be tolerated? No way.
I thought back to Prescott’s revelation in 2008 during the recent uproar over Victoria’s Secret, which launched an advertising campaign called The Perfect Body, showcasing the variety of underwear it sells.
Women were outraged, it seems, because all the models were lithe and toned. US advertising trade publication Adweek reported that within days of posters going up, 10,000 people had signed a petition demanding the company ‘apologise for and amend the irresponsible marketing of your new bra range’.
Complainants said the advert played on women’s insecurities, sent out damaging messages, and failed to celebrate diversity.
Can you imagine if men made a similar response to the David Gandy posters for Marks & Spencer?
Many of the same women who later went on to denounce Victoria’s Secret used their newspaper columns to leer at the images in ways that would make a builder blush. ‘Well done M&S on that autumn ad campaign. I’ve spent most of the past fortnight alternately lusting over David Gandy in his pants and that orange coat. But mainly David Gandy,’ said one.
A broadsheet interviewer spent an entire article making jokes such as: ‘I’ve just buried my face in David Gandy’s underpants… it was heaven.’ And one famous feminist added: ‘It’s nice to see that objectification sometimes runs both ways.’
But a diet of David Beckham and Gandy, or whichever Hollywood muscle man of the moment is gracing the cover of Men’s Health, is unarguably as damaging to male self-perception as The Perfect Body is to females.
More than 1.6million Britons suffer an eating disorder, ten per cent of whom are men. We have to contend with ‘bigorexia’, which sees men pump their bodies with hormones and protein shakes to get a bigger chest and arms.
One leading rugby coach told me that anabolic steroid abuse was endemic among teenage players, desperate to emulate the muscular physiques of their sporting heroes.
And at least two British teenage boys have died over the past few years after taking the banned slimming pill called DNP. One was apparently trying to get a ‘six-pack’.
Ultimately, there is a wider malaise surrounding male health in general. Not only is there a lack of empathy for our health concerns, there is also a lack of medical care. For example, women are screened for breast, ovarian and cervical cancer, which is great. But there’s no screening programme for prostate cancer, even though it kills four times more men than cervical cancer does women.
Research from Cancer Research UK illustrates that men are 16 per cent more likely to develop every form of unisex cancer in the first place, then 40 per cent more likely to die from it. Despite cases of oral cancer having risen by 50 per cent among UK men since 1989 – accounting for almost 2,000 deaths annually – there is no vaccination for young men against HPV, which causes it.
Between 2007 and 2012, NHS Primary Care Trusts in the London boroughs of Haringey, Hammersmith and Fulham, Brent and Camden ‘spent £4,830,095 commissioning women’s services outside the NHS… and nothing on men’s’. It’s a trend that is visible nationally, with female care almost constantly ranked above that of men.
Rather than being the subject of sympathetic public concern or the odd fundraising gala, men are repeatedly told it’s all their fault. But in truth, men aren’t dying sooner because they’re ignorant or proud.
When men don’t discuss their health concerns it’s not because they’re wired this way – it’s because if they say anything, they’ll be greeted with shaming tactics to stop them, just like Prescott.
I shall leave it to Dr Timothy Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at London’s King’s College, to summarise: ‘Compared to women, men have shorter markers of longevity, called telomeres – suggesting there’ll always be a biological difference [which justifies the need for men to get greater care]. The state needs to realise men are discriminated against by the set-up of the current UK system.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Stand By Your Manhood, by Peter Lloyd, is published this week by Biteback, priced £16.99.