The Holiday Body Anxieties of Man
When summer holidays come round each year, many column inches are devoted to the collective anxieties of females of the species. Clothing is "up there". Footwear might be the topic du jour one day (it's sandals with heels this year apparently), the next, anecdotes about the rising tide of sunblock refuseniks in the wake of revelations that it might, not, actually, block, the, sun.
Body issues too dominate the agenda. "Exfoliate this", "depilate that", "throw that bikini away, for God's sake you're 37!". Knowing a rogue hair or muffin top will at best spell social doom and at worst render you a pariah, women folk hang on the every word of this limitless resource of tittle tattle and the cod science on offer. It's on tap from the media, your friends, your colleagues.
There is however one perennial anxiety that forever remains unresolved - that of dress code - and in particular, dress code in the locale of the pool or the beach. And when we say "dress code", what's really meant is how not to look (or feel) like a dud.
However, ruminate on this ladies. At least you have the aforementioned support network to fall back on. To whom does a man turn to quell his holiday anxieties? For men there is no reference point. DeBrett's Guide to Modern Etiquette and Manners has no chapter on the concealment of the fun-sized Mars Bar. No guidance on the relative merits of budgie smugglers over Vilebrequin swimwear in a given social setting.
Instead, we men are required to develop an innate sixth sense in order to navigate our way through this maze of social faux-pas. And sadly, this is a skill the holidaying British male is not well equipped to succeed at.
For many men, a holiday is a time to relax. We don't want to have to confront difficult decisions on couture. We don't want to feel awkward or self-conscious about ourselves. However, we do. Just as much as women. If you spy a glazed, vacant expression behind our eyes in the departure lounge, realise your man is not necessarily despondent with the state of your relationship. It's far more likely he's contemplating how to address the forthcoming social challenges that will present themselves to him in the following 14 days - and how to emerge unscathed from them. Challenges, the five of which we will be most ruing being:
Ankles are "in" this year. So says the Sunday Times Style magazine. However not if you're over 30, or have white ones. This a fashion oxymoron. Unless you bare them, your "mankles" they will be forever white.
The message from the fashionistas is clear. Keep your ghastly, middle aged, cadaverous feet hidden away beneath chinos.
What about the legs?
As if there weren't enough things to contend with in the run up to my most recent holiday, I suffered a crippling attack of leg anxiety.
Going abroad = bearing legs. If you're Scottish, this will mean yours are probably light blue in colour and won't have seen the sun since 12 months previous (during which they traversed from blue to scarlet before flaking and settling on a ghoulish white). It's often said my legs can stop traffic. Unfortunately it's not because they're like Eva Herzigova's.
Seven pairs of shorts were purchased in a fortnight to prepare for this annual examination. Cortisone levels increased fuelled by chatter on what shorts I should be wearing. Above the knee are OK in your 20s apparently (or if you're a Scoutmaster), over the knee shorts are for men in their 30's, 3/4 length are not to be attempted by anyone over 40. Luminous and patterned 20's only. Novelty shorts to be consigned to same drawer as novelty ties & socks.
Seven pairs of shorts were returned or discarded as unsuitable. As a man in his 40's I reached my conclusion. It wasn't any of the shorts I disliked. It was my legs.
Nothing bequeaths cool like a pair of sunglasses. "Without sunglasses I'm a 70 year old man. With them, I'm Jack Nicholson." So said Jack Nicholson.
Easy for him to say. I've been looking for a pair that doesn't make me look like an idiot for 30 years. Tortoiseshell wrong colour. Black too harsh. Lens too big for my face. Legs "shoogle" on my ears. Doesn't "feel" right on my nose. Mirrored finish makes me look pervy.
I look in awe and wonder at those who attain such effortless cool. I do wonder if 20 years from now I'll make the same proclamation as Jack, or whether I'll be resigned to having cornflakes for corneas and crow's feet the depth of Cheddar Gorge.
4) Tops & shirting
How can the humble T-shirt or shirt cause body anxiety in men you ask?
Well, 2014 is the year of the plunge V-neck T-shirt for men. Favoured by beard sporting hipsters from London's Shoreditch to Manchester's Northern Quarter, they've inadvertently created a new summer pastime; working out where their beards end and where their chest hair begins.
For mere mortals incapable of cultivating a beard that's marvelled by all, deciding on how much man cleavage to bare is a social dilemma. The number of buttons to be undone is crucial if you're to avoid a social faux pas.
Present yourself with a single button undone and you're probably better suited to doing emails by the pool. Two buttons undone is the optimum. If you've a penchant for undoing three buttons or more and if you look around, you'll probably find you're holidaying on a yacht with Simon Cowell and Peter Stringfellow.
5) Daring to bare
Just as many ladies deliberate on whether to go topless, it is a decision men wrestle with too.
Poolside; barrel-chested Russians parade their wares. Preening Geordie Shore-alikes flex pecs. Men in their 30's defy Mother Nature with torsos as hairless as a china doll. Southern European Adonises frolic wantonly with their equally sun-burnished lovers.
The uncomfortable truth unspoken is clear. You can be fat. You can be white. But you cannot be both. Be both and have chest hair to boot, then why did you even think you could come on holiday with such pretty people, fatty?
It's a microcosm of animal behaviour worthy of a BBC2 documentary. The intimidatory tactics on display and the insecurities it nurtures in less than perfect males should have social anthropologists frothing at the mouth. You can almost imagine David Attenborough narrating any poolside scene.
Now I'm not saying I'm fat, hairy or white, but I glimpsed an insight of these unwritten social mores during my most recent overseas sojourn. After a hard first day hammering down water slides (topless I should say!), I had an equally hard first night gorging on the diverse selection of local crisps on offer. Awaking on day two I was confronted by a bloated, scarlet version of myself from 48 hours earlier. Like most Scottish men I overdid it on the first day.
On Day 2, the pain of the sun on any exposed area of my shoulders was excruciating. Succour came only in the form of sitting in the pool enveloped in a damp T-shirt.
Water sliding was rendered joyless, the friction from the T-shirt making them dull-less, adrenaline free affairs. Far worse however were the quizzical glances from the russian, geordie adonises. In their eyes there I sat in the children's pool festooned in a Scottish burkha. A man so fat, so pasty, I dare not even remove my T-shirt for fear of ruining the poolside ambience for all others present.
It was then I realised men can be intimidated by being topless too.
The writer is now planning his next holiday in Madeira, on advice that it is the only destination in Europe where socks with sandals are considered de rigueur.