Home Bollywood From the archives (2007): Bollywood’s craze for abs

From the archives (2007): Bollywood’s craze for abs


There stands the king. He looms above the city skyline, his usual perch, sending out special vibes to the brotherhood of the metro man below. For the first time, he poses in bare-chested glory: a white shirt slipping off his shoulders, slab-like pecs glistening, six-pack abs rippling, biceps bulging. His tummy is so washboard, it’s almost unreal. His body is so lean, it’s almost an anatomy chart. And the bubbling crowd under the billboard is abuzz: is the Emperor without his clothes, or most of them, for real or is this just an illusion?

Whatever the truth, the new Shah Rukh Khan-look sends a clear signal: masculinity has turned a corner. And a new body approach is doing the rounds. In television ads, on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, everywhere, there’s an Adonis—all chiselled muscle and washboard abs. Urban Indian men are not just pumping iron or downing steroids to look better. Now, surgeons say, a rising number are asserting their manliness by taking recourse to new, and even controversial, procedures in cosmetic surgery. “Masculinity is no longer what you thought it was,” says psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. Body perfect is now the credo and vanity the overriding motive.

And right now, the King of Bollywood is the role model. Shah Rukh Khan always makes headlines. But few could have predicted the squall of gossip, speculation, admiration, criticism and racing pulses that would follow after he stripped off his shirt for his forthcoming film, Om Shanti Om. While Khan and his trainer mention a tough regimen— cardio and weight training, special low- carb, high protein diet, amino acid supplements and fat burners—the shadow of cosmetic surgery refuses to fade away. The media still can’t get enough of the superhero abs (“What’s the story behind Khan’s six-pack abs?”). Bollywood-watchers are busy guessing the message his pictures might send (“After all, he spent two decades proclaiming he was an actor, not a bodybuilder”). And fans are in a frenzy: “If SRK undergoes plastic surgery, how would you react?” asks a fan blog. “What has taken people by surprise is the unexpectedness of it,” says Jamal Shaikh, editor of Men’s Health. “Stars with stomachs of steel have been around for years. But when the leading actor suddenly shifts from an athletic to a super-sculpted look at the age of 42, many an eyebrow is raised.”

Doctors are not surprised. “There is a perceptible change in the male attitude towards reinventing their body image through cosmetic surgery. And it’s a made-to-order macho image,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar Sharma, who heads the department of plastic surgery, Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh. At the institute, a decade back, patients were mostly women.

But the number of male clients has rapidly gone up in the last three to four years. “They now form one-fourth of the clientele,” says Sharma. Dr Narendra Pandya, consultant at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai and a pioneer in plastic surgery in India, agrees: “I see at least three times more male cosmetic surgery patients than I did five years ago. Men have become more demanding and aggressive. They believe they have to look presentable to make the cut.” Dr S.S. Saha of Gangaram Hospital in Delhi, which gets about 40 such patients per month, notices the same trend. “Three years back, 90 per cent of our patients were women,” he says, “Today, 40 per cent are men.” At the Sagar Apollo Hospital in Bangalore, the ratio of men to women has increased in favour of the former. Dr M.S. Venkatesh, head of plastic surgery, says, “Men are taking over women in a number of procedures.” Dr Jyotsna Murthy of Ramachandra Hospital in Porur, Chennai, meets software professionals, engineers, businessmen, sports people, film personalities and media professionals. And they all have the same, insatiable desire to look good. “They belong to middle and high income groups, socialise everyday and the moment they gain weight, their confidence level dips. They will do whatever it takes to get back in shape.” Recently, Murthy performed a pectoral implant for a 28-year-old upcoming Tamil actor, increasing his chest size and shape by inserting implants made of solid silicone under the muscle.

Indian males seem to be on the verge of a seismic shift. And they are willing to spend any amount in pursuit of their personal look. Check out the numbers: over 70 per cent of India’s urban males visit a salon at least once a month for hairstyling, facials and skin-lifting treatment, says an AC Nielsen survey on 1,000 men in four metros, published last month. Three in five single men claim they try to look stylish at all times. An ASSOCHAM survey on 5,000 consumers in August revealed that men’s spending on grooming is up by as much as 20 per cent in more than half of Indian families, thanks to the money spent on cosmetics, apparel and mo- bile phone bills. This does not surprise Sahil Shroff, 28, a Mumbai-based model who runs his own clothing store. “There’s a new premium on the body now,” he says. A fitness freak, he is now concentrating on developing his abs. “I’m in good shape and I am proud of it. Abs make everything in modelling,” he says.

In movies, heartthrobs—Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham—are seen shirtless, with rippling pecs and lats; on fashion runways, male models in skin-tight tanks and jackets, unbuttoned to flaunt washboard bellies, pace before cheering crowds. “The male body is being offered up for scrutiny,” adds Kakar. And men are scared of losing their hair, their muscle mass, their youth. Cosmetic surgeons, too, feel there’s a greater tendency to show off muscles among men these days. When Amit Sandhu, 25, moved to Delhi from Panipat, Haryana, “to become a model”, he faced a tough time. From “healthy”, he became “bulky”. “Suddenly I was no longer proud of my body.” The spectrum of new cosmetic procedures available to men reflects the trend. If the earlier cosmetic procedures sported functional names and provided useful services, new methods are now modelled on male anxieties and have fancy feel-good names. “Muscle sculpting” and “body contouring” are the buzzwords now. Go for “abdominal etching”, if you want a washboard-flat stomach. “Fat transfer” will augment various parts of your body—buttocks, biceps, calf muscles, hands—by surgically rounding them out with your own fat. A “facial rejuvenation” will build volume, filling, lifting, repositioning, and reducing inelastic facial tissue. With “body contouring”, you can remove unwanted skinfolds surgically. “The male body image is going beyond a mere doing away with excess fat,” points out Murthy. She is increasingly facing more demands for such treatments, which include nose correction, breast reduction, hair restoration, eyelid correction, facelift and facial rejuvenation.

Consider Jugal Bansal, 60. He was working for a public sector unit in 2001 when his wife noticed a crease between his eyes that made him look “angry”. He got even with his wrinkles—he went to a plastic surgeon to get the first of six Botox injections. “I felt more confident after I had it done,” says Bansal, who is now retired and about to have a facelift. “If there’s a nice way to remedy the effects of ageing, then I say, ‘Why not’?”

Life is looking good all over again for Sriram Iyer of Chennai. Early this year, the 31-year-old software professional had to travel to Chicago to make a technical presentation to an American client. With a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Iyer wasn’t worried about impressing the client with his technical prowess. But he was seriously concerned about his expanding waistline, gaunt face and the dark rings under his eyes. Four weeks before the trip, he decided to take matters in hand. “I was a bit apprehensive initially,” reveals Iyer, who underwent an abdominoplasty (to deal with localised, exercise-resistant fat deposits, loosened and excessive muscles) and a fat transfer (to correct the nasojugal groove under the lower eyelids). “But I was sure I wanted to look good.” Becoming 70 kg on a six-foot frame, Iyer is now flaunting a perfectly ironedout face and stomach. “I love wearing T-shirts, but my girth used to make me feel terribly self-conscious,” he remem- bers. He is once again adding to his collection of Tees and is now looking for a life partner.

In a fast-evolving world of demand and supply, statistics are rare. But Dr Sunil Choudhury, who heads the department of plastic & reconstructive surgery at Max Healthcare, Delhi, is painstakingly building up the patient profile. Sharing with INDIA TODAY the first-of-its-kind study on aesthetic plastic surgery trends, he says, “Delhi being a melting pot, the results of our study on 600 patients between 2004 and 2007 can be considered a true reflection of the Indian scenario.” Check out the data: in 2004, there were 25 per cent male vis-à-vis 75 per cent female patients. Male footfall today is 30 per cent, while female pace has slackened to 70. The surge in demand was fuelled largely by the age group of 25-45 years. “This is when one is most active and appearance matters a lot,” he says. About 84 per cent men are from urban areas and 88 per cent unmarried (as opposed to 43 per cent of unmarried women); 70 per cent are socially and financially independent (plastic surgery textbooks use the acronym SIMON for Single, Immature, Male, Overly-expectant, Narcissistic men). “If one were to believe the tabloids, plastic surgery would appear to be a luxury indulged in mainly by the elite,” men- tions Choudhury. “In reality, 67 per cent of our patients come from the middle class. Consciousness of appearance, obviously, knows no class boundaries. The middle class is clearly driving the boom.”

And it’s not just the metro male. Young males are making a beeline for plastic surgeons in small towns too. Ahmedabad hardly had eight cosmetic surgeons till the mid-1990s. Today the number has crossed 50. So what’s sending the Ahmedabad male to plastic surgeons? “In most cases it is the girlfriend who tells the man to get an acne mark removed or to straighten out his nose,” says plastic surgeon Dr Hemant Saraiya. “Earlier men would try yoga to look better. Today they don’t hesitate to go for surgery and are also pretty clued-up about it,” observes another surgeon, Dr Shrikant Lagwankar. Earlier this year, Saraiya operated on Dilip Rana for flattening his belly. Rana had a lucrative job offer in the pipeline, where he needed to bare his torso. “Initially I felt I would lose the offer because of my belly bulge,” he says. “Finally a friend advised me to go in for an abdominoplasty.”

What do men want? Unlike their female counterparts, the male clients are more clear about the new image they want, say medics. Enlarged breasts (gynecomastia) is a big issue for Indian men, and across all age groups. In PGIMER, 50 per cent male patients come for this. Another set of younger males need ‘body contouring’ surgery for loose skinfolds, left as a result of excessive gymming or dieting. Nearly 60 per cent of men between age 35 and 45 ask for this at Gangaram. Others opt for liposuction to get rid of excess and stubborn fat in lower abdomen. Men also going for tightening of abdominal muscles for a stronger tummy. Making the chin more prominent and, thus, giving the face a more chiselled look is yet another demand for the 35-plus brigade. Removing frown lines, wrinkles around the eyes and lifting a sagging face are age-related problems, with patients in the 45-plus age bracket. “Most men want to get a sharper look,” says Kolkata-based aesthetic surgeon Dr Manoj Khanna. And they are ready to go in for minor procedures to remove the slightest of defects. “They would want todoawaywithamarkoramole even if those don’t look abnormal.” Says Venkatesh: “Eyelid surgery and facial rejuvenation are the other procedures commonly asked for by young men, professionals, students and aspiring models.”

Even traditional workouts have changed to meet the new demand. “India’s strongest man” Manoj Chopra trains at Steves Gym in Bangalore, one of the city’s premier fitness centres founded by Stephen S.D. Earlier, most males would do the regular treadmill-trainer-cycle routine. Today, there are more males going in for muscle sculpting exercise routines than those on the machines. Most of them want to take advantage of the several scientific methods available for shaping up the body.

But self-image is just a starter. “There’s no end to the compulsions that make men seek a cosmetic procedure,” says Dr Milind Wagh, consultant plastic aesthetic and reconstructive surgeon with the Hiranandani and Bhatia hospitals in Mumbai. “From job interviews to marriage, pressure from peers and the opposite sex to the desire to follow the ways of a much-admired Bollywood hero.” Choudhury agrees: “The best candidates are those who wish to simply improve their appearance. They are usually satisfied after a surgery and their self-esteem and confidence levels visibly shoot up. Then there are those who come from the world of showbiz, where appearance counts for all. There is another category: of men who blame their present physical appearance for all personal misfortunes. Men in unhappy relationships also use surgery to save their failing ties. About 3-5 per cent men suffer from minimal deformity but have disproportionate concerns about the way they look.

Everyone is into instant abs and the SRK look. But body obsession doesn’t really pay. It’s well documented that for women, it often leads to extreme dieting and exercise. How widespread are eating disorders among men? Hard to say. Men are notoriously hesitant to seek psychological treatment, particularly for body-image disorders. “Young men with poor body image and high drive for muscularity often carry the burden of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression,” warns Saha. In addition, they may be more at risk of abusing anabolic steroids, the health consequences of which range from coronary heart disease risk, to kidney and liver damage, liver cancer, high blood pressure, reduced immune system functioning to even infertility.

The urge for ‘The Body’, however, is compelling enough for men to cough up whopping sums in pursuit of their personal look. With technology reaching new levels of sophistication, a third-generation ultrasonic liposuction machine may leave the patient with a bill of Rs 1.2 lakh. But the spiralling costs are balanced out by state-of-the-art technology and easy access. “The advent of finer suture materials, refinement in surgical techniques, the availability of good quality plastic surgery implants and simplification of surgical techniques have made a difference in the surgical outcomes,” says Venkatesh. Moreover, most cosmetic body procedures today are done as day care procedures. “A lunch time nose job and a tea time liposuction and body contouring are the makeover procedures of the present day,” he says.

In a way, men have arrived late to the party. Beauty ceased to be a myth for women ever since millions sat glued to television sets to watch the crowning of Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai in world beauty pageants in the ’90s. “Up until the ’70s, beauty contests used to be peripheral affairs, only covered by specialised women’s magazines,” wrote Madhu Kishwar, the editor of Manushi, in her 1995 essay, When India Missed The Universe. Today, Miss India clones— narrow waist, long legs, narrow hips, glossy hair, rosebud mouth, spaghetti straps—are everywhere. In glossy ads, on sidewalks, in beauty parlours, outside multiplexes, in men’s desires and their own dreams.

Having a male body is much like having a bank account, wrote novelist John Updike. As long as it’s healthy, you don’t think much about it. Clearly, Updike never met Shah Rukh Khan. Nor would he recognise this particular moment in the biography of masculinity where looking good can be counter-intuitive. Today’s buff-and- ready man stands squarely at the intersection of beauty, vanity and health. But in forging new standards for himself, he has opened up a Pandora’s box: will unrealistic images lead to greater body image dissatisfaction, mental health issues, and threats to healthy physical functioning? Will men remember to enjoy the body they have in their drive for the perfect abs? The jury is still out on that but for now, SRK reigns—absolutely.

– With Kimi Dangor, Akhila Kirshnamurthy, Nandini Vaish, Swagata Sen, Ramesh Vinayak, Uday Mahurkar and Stephen David

(The article was published in the INDIA TODAY edition dated October 15, 2007)

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