Hollywood's eating and exercise plans are special effects, not diets

The Avengers: Age of Ultron topped the box office in China.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron topped the box office in China. Photo: supplied

When the first photos surfaced of Jake Gyllenhaal in boxing drama Southpaw, my reaction was less that his body looked enviably ripped and more that he looked – appropriately given he's playing a beleaguered prize-fighter – like a sandwich steak that had gone ten rounds with a tenderising mallet.

Within days, articles of the "how to" variety sprang up, and have continued to pepper the net since the trailer debuted; "How to get a boxer's body like Jake Gyllenhaal" here, "The surprising secret to Jake Gyllenhaal's Southpaw workout plan" there.  

Never mind the fact that this week Gyllenhaal described the transformation process grimly - referring to "the sacrifice that you put into your body, it's not something that you're eager to do again" - here's how to get ripped like Jake!!

Jake Gyllenhaal on getting ripped for 'Southpaw': "it's not something that you're eager to do again."

Jake Gyllenhaal on getting ripped for 'Southpaw': "it's not something that you're eager to do again."

It's the same old song at this point: movie stars alter their body in extreme ways, media shares the inside story on how you, too, can make yourself look like a superhero, professional boxer, or sexy secret agent.

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Stars and their personal trainers will spill the beans on how they "got in shape" (or, worse, lost weight) for a role, from "painful" hand-to-hand combat training for Scarlett Johansson's Avengers: Age Of Ultron appearance to "I just had to stop eating" (for the 13-day shoot) for Anne Hathaway's Les Mis prep. The information shared is equally alarming for male and female stars, even if female stars are striving for "sexy" and their male peers for "powerful".

All of this content misses a crucial point: these eating and exercise plans aren't "diets", they're special effects.

And yet, trapped as we are within the panopticon of celebrity worship and ruled by the gods of Health, Fitness and Wellness, these special effects are sold to us as diets and exercise plans.

On this International No Diet Day, it's an important distinction to make.

A scintillating Men's Journal feature by Logan Hill last year explored the lengths to which today's male stars must go to achieve action hero bodies.

"Since 5 percent body fat is nobody's natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments," Hill wrote. "To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes."

In a sign that equality has, at last, been achieved, it's very similar to what Victoria's Secret Angels go through in the immediate lead-up to the yearly Fashion Show: "Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely. 'No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that,' [Adriana Lima] says."

It is very much, as the satirical "Dangerous Body Transformation Club" poster for Dallas Buyer's Club demonstrated, not about health or fitness. And yet, what do we search for when we need a bit of "fitspo"? It's not "achievable five-minute ab workout", it's "how to get a Black Widow body".

I will freely admit I'm not immune to the lure of the on-screen body: at one point or another during my life I have searched for tips on how to achieve Cameron Diaz's Charlies Angels: Full Throttle abs or Linda Hamilton's Terminator 2: Judgment Day shoulders. (The Sarah Connor workout: three hours a day, six days a week, for a year, and smoke a pack a day.) But I do so cognisant of the fact I can't afford a personal trainer and am not being paid to work out for three-to-six hours a day for six months.

And, even guided as they are by personal trainers and nutritionists, the stars often suffer terribly: Matt Damon fainted his way through Courage Under Fire, Christian Bale ended up in hospital with a busted back from his American Hustle weight gain, and Hathaway was so weak from her Dark Knight Rises diet plan ("kale and dust", in her own words) that she could barely muster a roundhouse kick.

In an Atlantic review of Susan L. Mizruchi's 2014 biography of Marlon Brando, Tom Shone explored this requirement that actors "disappear" into the role as being a misconception of Brando's enduring contribution to cinema: rather than his series of one-picture deals serving to show up the studio system as staid and suffocating, it was read that Real Acting meant being demonstrably different in every role.

"Chameleonism has become its own form of marquee spectacle: come see the stars transform," Shone wrote. "We don't go to the movies anymore to be convinced. We go to be tricked."

If we're talking in magic trick terms, these deranged training regimes are indeed the pledge that comes before the prestige.

In this sense, you could argue that "how X got in shape" stories are just the modern day equivalent of those old late-night TV documentaries about how they made the T-1000 look like molten metal: it lifts the curtain on special effects. As Jonathan Brandis said in 1994 before The Masters Of Illusion aired on NBC, "Kids are gonna see the whole business involved, and realize how much people go through to get what's on screen. A lot of what they do seems impossible and you are totally fooled by it."

And while that's fascinating when we're talking about how to make a CGI robot come to life, when the topic is how to turn your average Nightcrawler into the muscle mountain of Southpaw, it's downright dangerous.