Beef Cake Blues
At only four inches long, it told worlds about the modern male body. And I will never forget the first time I stood, dismayed and deflated, cradling a new beefed-up model of the Han Solo Star Wars action figure in my hands.
My siblings and I spent much of our childhood playing with an army of the original Kenner Toy Company creations throughout the '70s and '80s. Now less than 20 years later, their contemporary counterparts line toy store shelves in honor of the re-release of the legendary trilogy and new Phantom Menace series, and they are barely recognizable.
With their bulging plastic pectorals, massive shoulders and beefcake thighs, both Han and Luke Skywalker seem to have spent the '90s popping steroids and pumping iron in some intergalactic weight room. And with a trainer who looked nothing like Yoda.
According to a trio of mental-healthcare professionals, these miniature models of masculinity are only one symptom of a massive body-image nightmare building among modern males. Dr. Harrison Pope Jr., Dr. Katharine Phillips and Roberto Olivardia, authors of the new book The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession aim to break the silence around what they say is a hidden health catastrophe afflicting millions of American men.
Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, says that plastic action figures actually helped inspire the book, which captured a cover spot on TIME Magazine before being released this May.
"My 14-year-old daughter was on the computer one night, and I asked what she was doing. She said she was doing her Barbie project," Pope says, launching into what Barbie's measurements would be were she a real woman. Poor Barbie, who boasts an impossible waistline, has grown even thinner over the years, and his teen set out to study how the doll is molding body image among women.
He adds, "So it occurred to me that there must be a male equivalent."
After Pope's daughter finished her research, he scanned the Internet and found thousands of webpages hosting a culture of G.I. Joe collectors. He found that the original Joe, the land-adventurer model introduced in 1964, sports measurements similar to an average male in good shape -- if he were just under six feet tall, he would have a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest and 12-inch biceps. Yet the recent G.I. Joe Extreme muscled his way into the toy scene a few years back with a bulging body that, if full-sized, would be impossible to achieve without steroids, featuring 27-inch biceps nearly as big as his waist.
G.I. Joe may be the most famous and longest-running action toy, but he is only part of America's yearly $1 billion market in male action toys. After becoming an avid action toy collector, Pope discovered they have all been buffing up over the years.
Feminist theorists devote entire theses and books to expounding on the effects on growing girls of trying to fit into Barbie's arch-breaking shoes, but the Adonis Complex authors argue that hardly anybody is exploring G.I. Joe and the beefing up of the American male. They say the secrecy around male body-image woes and their symptoms, including excessive workouts, steroid abuse, eating disorders and distorted body perception known as "bigorexia nervosa," has only made things worse for guys.
"There's a widespread crisis among today's boys and men -- a crisis that few people have noticed. Men of all ages, in unprecedented numbers, are preoccupied with the appearance of their bodies," the book begins. "They almost never talk openly about this problem, because in our society, men have been taught that they aren't supposed to be hung up on how they look. But beneath the tranquil surface, we see signs of this crisis everywhere."
Obsession, for Men
Most women who know Josh describe him as a walking poster child for the tall, dark and handsome. He has a gym membership, but with his demanding work schedule and active social life he doesn't get to work out as much as he thinks he should. But after a recent trip to the flea market on an especially hot, sticky day, the 31-year-old says he realized just how badly he needs to get in shape.
"There were all of these guys walking around without their shirts on; they were all buff," Josh says. "I was so hot, but there was no way I was gonna take my shirt off. No way."
Josh can rattle off his list of his perceived body imperfections: thinning hair on his head, growing woes with unruly back and nose hair, love handles and lack of a six-pack set of abdominal muscles. When asked if he thinks about his body every day, Josh rolls his eyes and nods.
"I think about it as soon as I look at myself in the mirror in the morning; getting in and out of the shower; when I get dressed. And when I'm out and see guys that are more attractive than I am," he says.
Josh went through an especially hard time lately, but he seems relieved that his lack of an appetite has helped him lose weight fast. He hopes to drop another 10 pounds and says he is positive that getting rid of his love handles will help him have better self-esteem.
Josh refuses to let me use his real name for the story and says that people finding out about his body image worries is "the last thing he needs."
According to Adonis co-author Phillips, professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Josh represents only one of the milder cases amid millions of men struggling with body dysmorphic disorder, or distorted body perception.
She says that the numbers for guys struggling specifically with muscle dysmorphia, extreme shame and embarrassment about their muscle tone or lack thereof, totals more than 100,000 in the United States alone. In Adonis, the authors describe one man who was fired after refusing to stop blending protein shakes at his cubicle at work, despite co-workers' complaints about the disruptive noise, and another who refuses to kiss his girlfriend because he fears that her calorie-laden saliva will lead to unwanted pounds.
Since Phillips began her residency 15 years ago, she has made it her life's work to treat men with body-image woes. She and her co-authors named guys' unhealthy obsessions after Adonis, a half-god, half-man from Greek mythology who was the peak of masculine beauty, gorgeous enough to win the love of the goddess Aphrodite and so irresistible he started an ugly cat fight among the women of the Pantheon.
"This is a disorder that affects as many men as women, yet people assume this is just a woman's problem. Men die from these various forms of Adonis," Phillips says. She cites steroid abuse, eating disorders and suicide. "This is not to minimize the suffering that women experience, but to say that men can suffer just as much."
During their research the authors found that 45 percent of American men surveyed say they are dissatisfied with their body, according to their 1997 study. That percentage has almost doubled since survey responses in 1972. They also found that straight and gay men seem equally afflicted, despite popular stereotypes that gay men are more concerned with appearance.
To penetrate verbal taboos and make it easier for guys to talk, the authors created a series of computerized body image tests involving rows of male bodies of increasing muscle size. In these tests, men picked models averaging about 28 pounds more muscle than they have -- and about 15 to 20 pounds more than what women say they look for in a mate. Authors call this syndrome "bigorexia nervosa," a disorder where sufferers believe they look like wimps no matter how muscular they become.
With the soaring popularity of the World Wrestling Federation and other prime-time professional wrestling soap operas, more than five million men working out at gyms decorated with supermale images, and an increase in scantily clad boys gracing advertisements, Pope and Phillips argue that the secret crisis is only growing more pervasive.
"Now we've come to realize that the rise of 'bigorexia syndrome' is a warning signal," Pope says. "It's a bellwether of what our society is doing to contemporary men's views about their bodies."
"Yeah, but how many men are actually dying of this?" a skeptical friend asks, rolling her eyes at the talk-show-ready title of the book.
Meaning it may be provocative to look at body image in terms of men instead of women, which explains the media frenzy surrounding the release of Adonis. But considering how many women suffer from body-image problems and eating disorders, how serious is the Adonis Complex? For example, sales of men's hair-color kits like Grecian Formula and Just for Men have risen by 50 percent over the last five years, reaching $113.5 million last year -- but even if the boys are experiencing new body consciousness, it's difficult to imagine how it could compare to the women hospitalized each year with anorexia nervosa.
One out of 100 young women between 10 and 20 years old are starving themselves, according to researchers at the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. In a 1998 survey, 58 percent of nearly 40,000 British teens said that appearance is the biggest concern of their lives. That same year more than half of American teenage women said that they are dieting, or think they should be.
"There's an increasing objectification of everybody, but it has its most damaging effects on women. Men still have much greater power in society," says Bettina Aptheker, professor of women's studies at University of California-Santa Cruz. "You can't equate men and women in this context, because for women our appearance has been a way to get access to marriage and for survival. Men may have trouble talking about body image, but they have trouble talking about most things."
Pope agrees with Aptheker that women's body-image problems are often a matter of life and death. But he argues that the Adonis Complex is both extremely common and quite dangerous, especially in terms of steroid abuse.
"A survey found that six percent of high school students had used anabolic steroids, or two to three million American men," Pope says. "And that's a conservative estimate. This is an enormous number of men using themselves as guinea pigs, placing themselves at risk in ways we don't yet understand. Steroids could lead to heart disease, stroke, prostate cancer, psychiatric effects. In a recent study. we learned it also leads to increased rates of addiction to opiates. Not to mention a huge number using legal body-building supplements that we don't know much about."
He explains that only one in 15 people who seek counseling at eating-disorder clinics are men but says most anorexic college-age men he interviewed refused to get professional help.
Pope says, "Women's eating disorders became a topic that people could talk about, while the Adonis Complex still hides in a veil of secrecy."
Pamela Anderson Lee may have shunned silicone in her much-publicized breast implant removal, but cosmetic surgery is on the rise among American men and women. No longer limited to traditional procedures like hair transplants and nose reshaping, guys can now opt for calf and pectoral implants, penis augmentations and breast reductions.
American males received a total of more than 690,000 cosmetic surgeries in 1996, according to The Adonis Complex. Still, the Plastic Surgery Information Service website reveals that, during that same year, 89 percent of cosmetic surgery patients were women.
Plastic surgeon M. Dean Vistnes estimates that 40 percent of his patients are men, who most often are looking for liposuction and eyelid surgeries.
"Most of the men that we operate on are in pretty good shape, people who work out. but as they get older it's difficult to fight time," Vistnes says. "And we see a lot people in high tech, because so much is expected of them in terms of the hours that they put in."
Since finishing his residency in 1993, Vistnes has witnessed an increasing percentage of male patients coming into his practice -- an observation backed by national trends. But he says that the men he sees are generally healthy, active types who don't seem miserable with their bodies. He says that cities like Miami and Los Angeles have higher rates of calf and pectoral implants, and surgeries to create "that six-pack look."
"I don't think it's an unhealthy thing. The group of patients that we're seeing are healthy, they're active, and from our perspective they're ideal. Because they're starting from a better point we tend to get good results," Vistnes says. "Men and women today are both concerned about how they look. I don't think it's skewed toward one or the other."
Dr. Josh Korman, another plastic surgeon, says that his male patients, who make up about one-third of his clientele, usually often opt for nose jobs, liposuction of the hips or abdomen, or eyelid lifts. He says that male breast reductions for steroid-popping body builders are also a common procedure, and that he has done close to 100 of them during his decade-long tenure. Korman also conducts occasional pectoral implants, a procedure that involves making an incision and placing a pad of silicone under the pectoral muscle to give guys a more cut look.
"The implant is about as big as a medium-size candy dish. Not as big as a fruit bowl and not as small as a small candy dish," Korman explains.
Donald, a pectoral implant veteran, knows all about slippage troubles.
"My first set looked OK at first, but then one would move around," Donald laments, recalling his initial silicone pectoral boosts. The 50-year-old electrician turned to Korman for his second shot at bulging pecs about a year ago and has been thrilled with the results.
"I can't even tell. At first when you have them it feels different, but now they move with the muscle. And they don't ever sag," Donald says. "Dr. Korman did a real good job. The thing you've got to do is sew them in place so they don't move."
Donald says that the implants weren't just an easy way to buy a better body without hard work. He lifts weights every day and dropped from 460 pounds to about 175.
"I was working out all the time but couldn't get what other people had," Donald says. When Donald had loose skin removed by another plastic surgeon, he heard about pectoral implants and knew they were the solution for him. He says that for the first time in his life he can take his shirt off and feel good about his body. The bachelor says that he gets much more attention from women these days but probably won't break the news to a potential mate until after the wedding day.
"It's not like I didn't work hard for my body. The implants just gave me incentive," Donald says. "Now I have stomach muscles and a nice set of abs. You have to work hard to make a good body stay that way. The operation hurts, but afterward you are really glad that you did it."
One of the more controversial theories in The Adonis Complex about the causes and consequences of male body obsession takes root in the arguments of Susan Faludi, author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Faludi devotes more than 600 pages to showing that contemporary masculinity has spun into an identity crisis. While some anguished New Age men are flocking to drum circles and running Robert Bly-inspired men's retreats, the Adonis authors insist the crisis has guys going to the gym in record numbers.
"As women have advanced, men have gradually lost their traditional identities as breadwinners, fighters and protectors," Pope says. "For some men, the body has become the last bastion of masculinity."
Alison, a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, says that her fiance has a pretty healthy body image. But since she recently moved in with him, Alison, who asked that her real name not be used, has learned just how much guys think about body image.
"Here's the regular routine. We go to the gym and come home, and he takes off his shirt and does this pose. It's this understated muscle pose, with one leg in front of the other, his arms are flexed, slightly rounded, hanging down in front of his legs," Alison says. "Then he asks me if I can tell the difference, asks me if he looks more cut."
Alison says that despite his positive body image, her husband-to-be is very self-conscious about his stomach and is terrified that he may be getting a beer belly.
"He regularly checks out himself in the mirror," she adds, rattling off his numerous muscle-man poses. "Always shirtless, and with this very serious expression."