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A Picture of 'Health'

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In the past few weeks I've come across several articles in national newspapers highlighting the terrible plight of female models. Striving to maintain their size zero frames to fit the demands of casting directors and designers, who demand ever skinnier models, it seems many are even resorting to tissue paper to stave off their hunger pangs. Alongside stories of drug and alcohol abuse, it makes for powerful and upsetting reading.

But I feel duty bound to highlight that it isn't just women who are expected to subject themselves to bizarre and often dangerous practices in order to look good on the pages of magazines.

Last year I took part in a feature for the UK's best-known men's fitness magazine, which ultimately resulted in a shirt-off, tense your abs photoshoot. (I know, get me). Much of the regime the magazine directed me through was, it must be said, very good for me. I ate vegetables and lean meat. I lost fat, and I got fitter.

However, throughout the process it was made clear that carbohydrate, in almost any form, was bad for me. I could eat all of the protein and vegetables I wanted, but if I wanted a six pack (and who doesn't?) then potatoes, pasta and rice, as well as any form of sugar, simply could not be touched. But as any bona fide athlete would tell you, carbohydrates are the fuel you need to exercise. And so, when I headed to the gym to lift my weights, or onto the rugby pitch, I had no fuel in the tank.

How did I combat this? With caffeine, of course.

I was told I could drink as much black coffee as I wanted, and pretty soon I was drinking up to 10 cups a day. With the added benefit of supressing my appetite, it was a win-win situation... so long as I ignored the racing heartbeat, and pounding headache on those mornings I didn't manage to get hold of a cup before 9am. About an hour before every workout was prescribed a large mug of the strong, black, artificial boost. Very healthy...

Just like the ridiculous procedure required before the final shoot, intended to leave you looking the dream of male health and fitness, abs gleaming and biceps bulging. Known in body-building circles as the final shred, this was intended to show off your muscles in all their glory, although I'm not sure it has much to do with actual health.

And so it was that I found myself downing several miniature whiskeys on the train to London.
Stomach empty from eating barely anything for the previous 48 hours, I was gasping for a proper, rehydrating drink, and yet apparently my body needed even more torture to look good in the magazine. Asked, as the shoot wore on, to do some press-ups to pump myself up even further, even my drink-addled and energy-starved brain knew that in order to look a picture of health, I was actually putting my well-being at risk.

And here's the most disturbing thing of all... It isn't just the casting directors, designers and magazine editors who demand this torture of the already well-muscled blokes, or already skinny girls.

No. For all the media like to portray this as the fault of the marketing men, or the industry, the harsh truth is that this is the look that we, the public, demand. On holiday shortly after the shoot, I was told repeatedly how well I looked. The sunken cheeks and defined abs that resulted from this torture meant I looked the best I had ever looked, it was almost unanimously agreed. Even I thought I looked pretty hot. Likewise the fashion industry, brutal in its pursuit of sales, would not demand thinner and thinner girls if it was anything other than good for business.

I am fortunate that my experience of this world was short-lived, and I never had to live with the day-to-day pressures that have led so many pretty young girls to drug abuse and worse. But I also believe I am fortunate for having had an insight into their world, because only when the public are educated about the reality, will they stop stop demanding this of their pin ups.

Because the reality is that the picture of health that we demand, is actually anything but.

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