The return of the thin man

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

When Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, proclaimed, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” it was generally accepted that she was referring to women.

But two decades years after the socialite's death, men are suddenly heeding her words. They are abandoning the quest for supercharged pecs and abs in favour of a look as lean as an exclamation mark.

“That bulky body,” declares Toronto native Ian Hylton, “is almost as out of fashion and déclassé as smoking.”

Mr. Hylton certainly knows what's fashionable. His peripatetic career has included wardrobe styling, magazine editing, brand building and clothing design and now, from his base in Xiamen, China, he is the vice-president of men's wear for Canadian-owned fashion retailer Ports International.

But the ban on bulk is also something he takes personally. Although never overweight, he started running and in just over a year has lost 30 pounds. Now that cutting-edge designers are churning out super-skinny suits, he needs the physique to match.

“I don't have a stomach at all,” he says. “And because I run up a mountain, my ass is really tight and my legs are really tight – and there's nothing that feels better than a pair of pants that fit right.”

Men preoccupied with style are hardly the only ones to notice that the new male silhouette no longer accommodates bulging biceps. From the impossibly wiry Tour de France competitors cycling across TV screens this week to the latest crop of scruffy indie rockers to Entourage heartthrob Adrian Grenier, less is more. Rumour has it that even man's man George Clooney has shed 20 pounds in recent months.

The big question is why: Is society simply bowing to the latest fashion dictum? Or, in an era of epidemic obesity, aging boomers and buff men fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, does getting slighter have a heftier significance?

Cyclical culture

Of course, like fashion, popular culture is cyclical. Just as the Mods did in the Sixties, today's hip recording artists – Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine and bad boy Pete Doherty – bring together youth, fashion and thinness.

The oldest of the bunch is 30, but that makes them ancient by fashion-industry standards. Just as many female models are still girls, their male counterparts now seem barely out of adolescence.

As a result, their bodies have not yet filled out – much to the delight of designers who have streamlined the suit so dramatically that nothing short of a diet overhaul would allow men to buy off the rack. Go into any mass retailer and the selection of men's denim will inevitably include a skinny jean. And the latest shows in Milan and Paris suggest that fashion's immediate future will be more boyish and androgynous than ever.

“If you've got quads,” says George Chaker, referring to the upper leg muscles, “you can forget about wearing a cigar pant.”

As a popular DJ and co-owner of Diesel Fitness, a sleek boutique gym in downtown Toronto, Mr. Chaker, 34, can't avoid being exposed to the latest trends. His fitness clients range in age from 26 to 62, he says, and “one of the comments I hear most often from men is, ‘I want to get lean.' ”

Even he has changed the way he works out. “I like stylish clothing, but I couldn't fit into it. And if you want to look fashionable, you can't build as much bulk any more.”

The trend may help to explain why yoga continues to convert men who never before considered intense stretching an effective workout. Weightlifting produces larger-looking muscles, but yoga makes you more sinewy as well as stronger (Sting is the poster boy).

And the desire to downsize appeals to heterosexual and gay men alike. A recent article in a journal published by the American Psychological Association compared what 253 Australian men of both sexual orientations consider the ideal body and found that being both thin and muscular is the ultimate. (Gay men prefer a slightly thinner and more muscular physique.)

One apparent holdout is the business world. “We're not getting a lot of executive types,” says Campbell McDougall, owner of Komakino, an avant-garde men's wear shop in Vancouver that no longer carries much of a selection in large and extra-large sizes. “But we're not actually interested in those men. We do it to some extent, but it's challenging to help them.”

Komakino's “aesthetic,” he explains, “is skinny, black and edgy. … It's all about being smaller, smaller, smaller.” However, Mr. McDougall also points out something paradoxical about slim fashion: “If you have money, you're not super-skinny because you work in a business that typically requires meetings and lunches. But if you're too young, you can't afford the slim suits, even though you can probably fit into them.”

One exception to the theory is Galen Weston Jr., executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., who at 34 is lanky and always exceptionally attired – not surprising, perhaps, given that his family also owns Holt Renfrew, which happens to be ground zero for the leaner ideal.

However, from the company's corporate office in Toronto, Alon Freeman, who helps to identify industry trends as the store's “men's wear market editor,” notes that there's a fine line between being fashionable and not alienating long-time customers. “You don't want to be known for dressing one particular guy,” he explains. “We're not the ‘skinny store.' ”

Perhaps that's because “skinny” is not something men want to be called, even if they are. In her book She Loses, He Loses, Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers, says women don't mind being described as thin, but men feel it somehow implies they're not healthy. They would much rather hear that they look “fit” or “in better shape.”

James Bassil, editor-in-chief of the Montreal-based online portal, suggests using “natural” because it also speaks for a total lifestyle – organic food, hybrid cars, greener living, etc. — and it's light-years away from an apt description of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.

Mr. Hylton sees it almost as a class distinction. “Honestly, when I see a bulked-up guy, it's like seeing a girl with big silicone tits,” he says. “It's so disgusting, and it's really like a social-status thing. You'd never find a guy with good breeding with a body like that or a girl from good breeding with silicone tits.”

At the same time, men are loath to be described as “metrosexual,” a term that is, according to Mr. Bassil, “archaic” but not totally off the mark. The word may be passé, he explains, but “the residual effect is that average guys started buying male-specific cosmetics and clothes and thinking about how they look and acknowledging that they put extra time into their presentation.”

Ben Barry, who runs a Toronto modelling agency, calls the drive to be thin a “destabilizing concept of masculinity” that is actually more inclusive. “You can be healthy and toned, but you don't have to be in the gym every day pumping iron. It's more of a balanced approach.”

On the other hand, the 24-year-old author of the recent book Fashioning Reality concedes that persistent images of perfect, youthful men could lead to increased body dissatisfaction and, contrary to popular belief, anorexia is not strictly a women's issue. The term “manorexia” may sound trivial, but the desire to be thin can be just as dangerous for men.

How dangerous? Male silence makes it hard to say. “By talking about it,” Mr. Barry says, “men think they're jeopardizing their masculinity.”

But by refusing to talk, they also make it difficult to pin down where the influence of fashion stops and thin takes on a deeper meaning.

Professor Michael Kimmel, a specialist in men's gender studies at State University of New York, sees political factors at work and calls the new leanness a “critique” of the status quo. Clearly, it has yet to reach the mainstream, he says – witness summer blockbusters such as Transformers and the latest Die Hard – but “we're looking for some alternatives.”

According to Prof. Kimmel, “The kinds of models of masculinity that have been held up to us over the past decade or so” – steroid-fuelled archetypes from Rambo to baseball's Barry Bonds – “have been completely discredited,” and the backlash even reaches the White House. “It's a reaction against the Iraq war and against militarization of culture, and it's looking to Europe rather than away from Europe, which is, after all, what [George W.] Bush keeps telling us to do.”

However, the president of the American Men's Studies Association credits a much more basic instinct for the rise of the thin man: sex. Lean men, says Robert Heasley, who teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, are inherently more “sensual” because too much muscle interferes with male-female interaction.

“If you're a machine body, you can't let yourself relax and move,” he says. “I find men are increasingly making conscious decisions not to give into it and women are seeing what happens to them when they buy into a mechanized masculinity and the person that goes with it.”

So skinny is what women really want?

Not as far as SUNY's Prof. Kimmel is concerned. “Guys are confused as hell,” he says. “The message we think we're getting is [women] want us to be kinder and softer in presentation – and more fashionable – but when we are, what women fear is that we will also sacrifice masculine sexual passion.”

But Phillip Jai Johnson, a doctoral student in psychology at McGill University, says that in reality people are much more realistic.

“Studies show that women feel men expect them to be thin and men tend to feel that women expect them to be muscular – and it's not actually that way for either of the sexes. Normal ideals are more appreciated.”

Besides, Prof. Mr. Kimmel says, men are now expected to play a bigger role in the family, which eats into their personal time. It's assumed “that men will participate in child care from the get-go,” he explains, “so if they're not getting to the gym as regularly, there's a reason.”

But that's not necessarily a good enough excuse, says Rick Marin, author of the 2003 cult hit CAD: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. While dropping off his son at preschool recently, he saw a dad in a “full Tour de France outfit” and felt badly that he wasn't in such top form himself.

Mr. Marin says North Americans won't equate being thin with being healthy until enough of them spurn fast food and rediscover walking as a means of transportation. But the aging population's desire to stay young could speed the process.

“People are postponing their lives longer,” he says. “I think that's how you look young is by being skinny.”

It's a rationale that works for Mr. Hylton, the Ports exec who dropped 30 pounds.

While he was back in Toronto, he ran into an old friend who could hardly believe his eyes. “You're like Dorian Gray – you keep getting younger,” he said. “Man, you look fantastic.”

At 42, Mr. Hylton gets his motivation by considering the alternative.

“I see these guys from high school that look like a freakin' heart attack waiting to happen,” he says, “and I'm single and I intend on having more children [he has a 10-year-old son] and I want to be able to run around behind them.”

With that in mind, he sticks to his daily regimen and refuses to let down his dietary guard. When tempted by forbidden foods, he thinks: “I didn't run for you this morning.”

He has also invested in a new wardrobe. “One day, I just emptied my closet, literally every single piece,” he says. “It means that this will not be temporary; this is the way it's going to be.”

An expensive incentive to keep the weight off, but his new suits don't have enough room for deep pockets anyway.

Amy Verner is a style reporter with The Globe and Mail.