He asked if I was a musician or an artist.
My answer not only horrified him, but helped us both quickly decide that I was not the person to fill his empty room for rent.
"I like to cook," I answered, quite unprepared for the outrage my hobby would inspire.
His face twisted with disgust as he vividly explained how the wonderful smells wafting from my pots and pans while cooking were all of the vitamins and nutrients being sucked out of the ingredients. He described what was left behind, my homemade creation, as nothing more than "a toxic soup."
"That's why I'm on a raw foods diet," he said proudly, adding that his housemate was into raw foodism as well. He admitted, with clear disapproval, that she had a weakness for cooked pasta, and said my fondness for preparing Italian dishes made me an especially poor candidate for the room.
Even before he began swinging from what appeared to be pull-up bars attached to the ceiling -- insisting that "most people don't play enough" -- I knew our future living together was grim. I had to excuse myself and, regardless of the scarcity of housing, let that one get away.
Author Dr. Steven Bratman, a medical doctor and acupuncturist, confesses that he gave similar speeches to countless friends and family during his years as a macrobiotic, vegan (vegetarian who eats no eggs, dairy or animal products) raw foods follower -- to name just a few of his dietary habits. Others included chewing each morsel of food 50 times and making it a rule never to eat a vegetable more than 15 minutes after picked.
Now, in his new book, "Health Food Junkies: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating," Bratman creates the term "orthorexia nervosa" as a label for those who push interest in normally healthy foods to dangerous extremes. As one who was also "seduced" by righteous eating but escaped from the damaging addiction, he wants to help others trapped by orthorexia.
"There have always been recommendations regarding the healthiest food to eat, but in recent decades the obsession over healthy eating seems to have escalated out of control. In more and more people it seems to be taking on the characteristics of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia," Bratman writes in the introduction to his book. "However, unlike these other eating disorders, orthorexia disguises itself as a virtue."
He acknowledges that all vegetarians and vegans are not obsessive, and that eating low on the food chain can be extremely healthy. Still, Bratman warns against pushing restrictive diets to extremes.
"It's not that I don't support eating healthy food," he says. "It's only that when healthy eating becomes an obsession, it's no longer healthy."
Unlike other addictions and their complicated 12 steps, Bratman offers three stages in his book to recovering from orthorexia -- admitting the problem, understanding the causes and learning to eat without obsession. Basically he urges readers to get a life, not just a menu.
The Vice of Virtue
Doctor Bratman has enough horror stories to compete with any doctor who has worked with junkies trying to get clean. One of his patients, a raw-foodist who limited her diet to only include fruits and vegetables, fainted so frequently from protein deficiency that he decided to hospitalize her. She avoided being admitted to the hospital by vowing to eat protein-rich nuts and legumes, only to crash her car into a storefront and die a few days later.
"She is believed to have fainted while driving," Bratman says.
He tells of another woman, also a strict raw-foodist, who died in a hotel room while hiding out from the friends who were trying to put her in the hospital. Then there's the man who allowed his child to drink just four ounces of water a day so as not to over-hydrate, and created a state of severe dehydration for the boy.
Bratman acknowledges that such extreme, sensational cases are rare, and may overlap with other eating disorders such as anorexia.
"Usually orthorexia won't kill you. Its harm lies in what it does to your mind and spirit," he warns, "the way it creates a distorted and unhealthy view of life."
"Ortho" comes from the Greek, meaning straight, correct or true. He writes, "Orthorexia nervosa refers to a fixation on eating healthy food."
Bratman hasn't done clinical tests or studies, but insists he isn't trying to create a medical disorder that would belittle the serious problems involved with other eating disorders. "I invented the word orthorexia as a tease. I don't really believe it's as bad as anorexia, but the word has shock value to get people to reexamine their values," Bratman says. "It's like workaholism. Nobody thinks it's as bad as alcoholism. But like workaholism, people mistake it as a virtue."
And no one can deny that people become passionate about food. Bratman says he recently got an email from someone, married to a vegan, whose spouse is divorcing her for eating meat. He says that for many people healthy eating goes beyond just what they personally choose to consume. For some it's a lifestyle or an identity. The problem lies in when it grows into orthorexia, an obsession.
Acupuncturist and Chinese doctor Martha Benedict says that she hasn't read Health Food Junkies and isn't sure if the diets he describes are on the rise. However, she admits that she has treated patients that fit the orthorexic description.
"I think people use food inappropriately, and obsession is a common thing if you are emotionally starved," she says. "It's a safe obsession, compared with heroin addiction. But if they are looking for spiritual fulfillment in the refrigerator, they're not going to find it. I see a lot of it, but I'm in a position that I would see a lot of it. People come to me when they're having problems."
Even those who aren't working in alternative health care say that signs of devotion to health food are cropping up in their daily lives, even if they aren't the ones suffering from orthorexia.
Rebecca D'Madeiros worked in a natural foods store for years before taking a job as a health food shop manager. She says that at times it was difficult to meet the needs of shoppers at her former job, rattling off examples of patrons who refused to let the food they were purchasing touch paper or be microwaved, or those who grew extremely upset if their lunch was wrapped in to-go packaging. D'Madeiros also recalls how difficult it was to answer detailed questions about the types of vinegars and spices used in preparing dishes. But she says the most extreme case involves a woman who shops at her current store.
"She preys on every part of the store. She'll talk to produce [people] for at least a half-hour each time she comes in, usually about the stickers used, the packaging, where the fruit was grown. And the stickers we use on our produce are organic," D'Madeiros says. "Her food religion goes beyond the food itself."
D'Madeiros adds that she herself is not a mainstream, meat-and-potatoes type. She is mostly vegetarian and avoids shopping or eating where organic produce and free-range dairy aren't available. But she doesn't feel her diet is at the same intensity level as her persistent shopper.
D'Madeiros says, "For her, it's a lifetime, an obsession. She's there for two to three hours on each shopping trip."
Blame It on the Grain
One chef at a local natural foods store says that she's watched shoppers comb the shop with everything from crystals -- checking the life force of foods -- to Geiger counters. She declines to be identified for the story, for fear of offending customers, and adds that she's become "as paranoid as anybody" as she reads the newspapers about the current state of American food processing.
Yet she doesn't embark on a quest for total food purity as actively as some. Hannah Prunty remembers having the healthiest of intentions when she became a vegetarian in her early 20s. After she and her boyfriend decided to adopt a vegan diet, she says her energy levels and confidence in the quality of her food were better than ever before. But then her boyfriend began showing warning signs of what Bratman would call orthorexia. Never satisfied that his diet would be pure enough, he began getting upset at Prunty when she would eat dairy products on occasion. He became even stricter, adopting a fruitarian diet -- only eating fruits so as not to kill any entire plants for food.
"He eventually lost over 30 pounds and looked like a skeleton," Prunty says. "These diets were all about cleansing your body and he just believed them all. His friends and family were calling me, begging me to make him eat. He felt sick but thought it was only because his body was going through a cleansing process. I think he just lost touch with reality," Prunty says. "His fruitarianism became all about control, control over his body, what and when he ate. I think it was his way of feeling powerful in his life. I once wrote in my journal about eating cookies and he read it and got upset with me because he wanted me to be 'healthy,' too."
When they tried to intervene and hospitalize him, he insisted the diets weren't at fault for his illness. Prunty eventually broke up with her fruitarian partner and doesn't know much about the current state of his health or his diet.
Bratman says that the reasons for episodes like the fruitarian's meltdown aren't usually about food, but involve a number of hidden causes. In his book he lists a series of issues, including an attempt to create an illusion of total safety, a desire for complete control, covert conformity, searching for spirituality in the kitchen, food puritanism, creating an identity, and fear of other people.
Martha Benedict says that part of the intensity of food stems from the gaps it fills in modern society. "We are a spiritually bereft nation. An emotionally starved nation. A materialistically oriented nation. Other parts of our psyche are given short shrift," she says, soon adding, "since food is something we rarely go without, it's really easy to make it an object of obsession."
She adds that experimenting with diet needn't be a dangerous thing and may just be part of anyone learning more about personal identity.
"Some people try different diets as a form of coming to who they are," she says.
Yet for others, like Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, what you eat can also lead to an identity crisis. After professing the health benefits of fasting and living on pure air, Brooks was allegedly caught leaving a 7-Eleven store munching on a hot dog and sucking down a Slurpee.
While interviewing him a while ago about a possible new product, Fresh Liquid Air in a Bottle, I asked him about the incident. He quickly explained that the air is less pure in the city and he is used to clean mountain air.
He says, "So sometimes I need to take some food." Brooks did not return recent calls.
Mary Foley shows up for our interview armed with copies of the suggested food pyramid and statistics showing the grim reality of the American diet. A nutrition and wellness educator, Foley hasn't dealt much with orthorexia. She spends most of her time trying to break families of their fast-food addictions, urging them to rediscover unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. She points to statistics that show that 60 percent of adult Americans and up to 15 percent of children are overweight or obese.
"A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy way of eating. It is a plant-based diet, which is the base of our food pyramid," Foley says.
Gone are the days when the health department pushed the four basic food groups. Foley now supplies information and brochures produced by the Vegetarian Resource Group about well-balanced vegetarian and vegan diets. Even the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (June 2001) printed two studies detailing how children and even infants can be raised on healthy, thoughtfully planned vegan diets.
Foley says she has read portions of Bratman's Health Food Junkies and agrees that obsession is probably not a good dietary foundation.
"Eating healthy foods isn't enough. It's also having a healthy attitude toward eating," she says. "You should be consuming your food; it shouldn't be consuming you."
Buddhists and Big Macs
Dr. Bratman says that one of his patients tried diet after diet, but she kept getting a reoccurring infection. After months of not seeing her, she finally reported back that she had cured herself with a "beer and pizza diet."
She happily reported no problems, insisting, "Loosening up on food is what cured me."
Bratman came to a similar realization when he decided, like another friend, that "rather than eat my sprouts alone, it would be better for me to share a pizza with some friends."
The reformed health food junkie adds that while working at a nursing home, few people on their deathbeds were worried about eating too much ice cream or not enough kale.
People like Michelle Oppen don't see any conflict between veganism and leading a healthy social life. Oppen, a 28-year-old mostly vegan, says she doesn't see herself as an extremist at all.
"Dairy doesn't really agree with me and I don't feel I was meant to eat animals. But I think I support everyone choosing what to eat for themselves," she says. "I'm not preaching, and encourage people to eat whatever they feel comfortable with."
Oppen says that while mainstream America seems to be growing more tolerant of her diet, she often encounters confusion over her vegan requests.
"I was in Florida recently for a conference and I went to get pizza and ordered it without cheese," Oppen says. "The waitress had a hard time comprehending that and said she didn't know what to put on it without cheese."
Oppen does confess to a sense of guilt when eating processed foods or having something with dairy in it, a type of guilt, or lack thereof, that Bratman addresses in one memorable story of his book. He tells in detail of the time the Karmapa, an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, came to visit a Buddhist household here in the U.S. The residents of the devout home went to great pains to prepare a whole-grain vegan lunch complete with fresh-pressed carrot juice, only to have it waved away when the Karmapa arrived. According to the translator, the Karmapa made an announcement that shocked his vegan entourage.
"This man, this Karmapa, believed to be an embodiment of wisdom and a fount of understanding, capable of miracles on earth and of consciously reincarnating after death, this divine figure asked to go to McDonald's."
Bratman recounts, "It appeared that he was inordinately fond of Big Macs."
Dr. Bratman has created a 10-question quiz to determine whether a person's relationship to health food is a virtue or a vice. Each "yes" answer scores one point on the orthorexia self-test.
1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food? (For four hours, give yourself two points.)
2. Do you plan tomorrow's food today?
3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
7. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don't?
8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
9. Does your diet socially isolate you?
10. When you are eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?
"If you answer yes to two or three of these questions, you have at least a touch of orthorexia. A score of four or more means that you are in trouble," Bratman writes. "And if all these statements apply to you, you really need help. You don't have a life -- you have a menu."
Some people might describe D. Tim Thomas, the founder of Supermodel Vacations, as a pimp. But to his client Dean Benzie, Thomas is a coach, a guide and a visionary.
"He is truly a priest among men," Benzie writes in his glowing Supermodel Vacations testimonial.
Last spring Benzie set off for Europe on a 10-day supermodel tour, during which he stayed in five-star hotels, dined in the finest restaurants and had his own "supermodel-looking" woman to take care of all other needs. Now, in a phone interview from Knoxville, Tenn., he says that the trip changed his life--and his marriage--forever.
"In retrospect, I have found that this was a necessary phase of my evolution towards being a truly free thinker. The older and deeper your fears, the more it may 'hurt' a little, but the reward is personal expansion," Benzie says. "I am now hooked on the 'pain' of breaking free. My reward is life-changing personal growth ... I feel more like the man I was born to be but never knew how until I met Dennis [D. Tim Thomas]."
Unlike other soul-searching vacations, like trekking through Tibet or meditating at some Oprah-endorsed spa retreat, Thomas' Supermodel Vacations aims to help guys like Benzie achieve spiritual fulfillment with the help of their very own lovely female escorts.
"From a man's perspective. Well, I think of myself as a gentleman, so from a gentleman's perspective, this is one of the funnest, coolest things you can imagine," Benzie says. "I got everything I was looking for and a lot more."
Benzie and his wife of 16 years, Becky, have nothing but praise for Thomas' supermodel tours, and both say it's done wonders for the relationship between them and among the entire family--they are the proud parents of 9-year-old twins.
"I heard about it from Tim and Dean, and I saw the website and thought it was interesting," Becky Benzie says. "It was a mutual decision and I encouraged him to do it."
Dean Benzie, a technical training specialist for a gym equipment company, says that whereas before he was feeling burned out and weighed down by his fears, he now feels like he's free.
"When I tell guys about this, the response is really positive, of course, but a lot of them are like, 'What can I get for $5,000?'" Benzie says. "But that's not what it's about. It's a way for guys to get in touch with themselves."
Benzie adds, "A lot of women, they at first say [Thomas] is a pimp. But then they realize it's more of a matchmaking service. Although, I suppose, from a married perspective, it's different."
Where the Girls Are
One woman in a Supermodel Vacations ad strikes a come-hither pose, wearing only a tiny, thigh-baring tank dress that clings to every curve. The photograph doesn't show her actual face, but presumably she is one of the supportive European "supermodels" waiting to help men along on their quest toward fulfillment.
"Are you shy? Can't figure out this whole 'girl' thing?" the advertisement asks. "Let me take you to a world where everything you ever dreamed of in a woman comes true."
Thomas looks out from another photo, sporting a swanky bow tie and self-assured smile.
"I personally take you to Europe first class & put you into the arms of a super babe! who will absolutely fulfill every fantasy you ever thought of & a few you haven't!" the advertisement continues. "I'll be your personal coach, guide, protector, valet, counselor, and teacher."
Even before Thomas begins describing his latest business venture, he stands out from the crowd. At the coffee shop we meet for an interview, he holds open doors for women and politely weaves past several aging, Teva-wearing hippies.
Thomas, looking sharp in his black button-up shirt, crisp olive-green suit and bright yellow sunglasses, says that he has actually been doing his supermodel tours for three years, mainly for friends or acquaintances. But only last fall he realized he could transform it into a business venture. So far he estimates he's done about 22 trips with men, but explains that some guys have gone four or five times.
The self-described world traveler, who says he had "been around the world four times" before he stopped counting, already runs two companies, one designing the "World's Best Yellow Page Ads" as well as a web design company in Holland. He says that on one of his many trips to Northern Europe he noticed that many European women don't only date equally beautiful men.
"I'm putting guys in a position that they don't have a chance at in this country," he says. "In Northern Europe, often the most beautiful women are with total geeks. And these are educated women with class, with the best social graces in the world."
Thomas hopes that what began as a way to thrust his cubicle-dwelling workaholic friends into a jet-set world brimming with beautiful women can become a profitable business venture. Shorter vacations begin at $25,000, but he's much more supportive of guys splurging on the more deluxe $125,000 or $175,000 fantasy tour packages.
And, according to the raving testimonials of his clients, some boys are eager to invest in fantasy vacations.
"Let me tell you how my life has changed since I vacationed with Dennis Thomas. Here, when a woman identifies you as a single male with a good income, they cannot see you for who you are. They see you only as a pigeon to be plucked! Her needs are most important, and she is not looking for love, she is looking for a way out of her own daily struggle," Kenny Lampton, one of Thomas' clients, writes. "Dennis has weeded out this element. He has found the best of the best. I did not have to waste time finding the 'hidden treasures.' I would like to thank Dennis Thomas and his staff for understanding how important my time is. [He] made every minute count. Opened my mind and changed my life!"
Thomas says that the original concept for Supermodel Vacations had nothing to do with women or sex. He initially envisioned it more as a makeover vacation for geeks.
"My first idea was BeJamesBond.com. I was going to teach guys manners, social graces, how to dress with style," Thomas says earnestly. "But a bunch of my worldly friends said, 'Get to the point. These guys want dates.' So I thought, why not put these beautiful girls and average guys together?"
Now Thomas' website, www.supermodelvacations.com, still reflects his hopes for the guys to achieve personal transformations, but also makes it very clear that European women will help very closely every step of the way.
"It brings me so much happiness when I see a guy who has spent his whole life dreaming about a girl that is as beautiful as the one I put him with," Thomas writes. "The real fruits of your labors await you on your first Supermodel Vacation."
Men chosen after Thomas' interview process, which he says is aimed at screening out jerks, then surf the web and choose the type of girl they're looking for before booking their flights. (Thomas says the most popular look is Baywatch-inspired, with guys requesting their own Pamela Anderson Lee).
"I don't post photos of the actual girls on my site because they change over constantly. It's not like the Russian bride services that have had the same girls up forever," Thomas says. "But I get them a doppelganger, a 90 percent look-alike, of their dream girl."
On the $125,000 tour, for example, European women companions arrive the day the guys step off the first-class flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam. If the match is acceptable to both parties, each signs a waiver form that they will spend their time with their companion throughout the trip. They then ride on a luxury bus with the other happy couples to enjoy the sights, foods and hotels of Europe.
"You stay in only five-star hotels, castles or chateaux in Brussels, Paris, Normandy," Thomas says. "The guys even get to ride in a race car and I snap pictures of them afterward, each with his medal and his girl all over him. It really completes the James Bond adventure."
The company website makes numerous references to promising that "nothing less than the absolute satisfaction of our client's dreams are adequate." Yet Thomas says he never asks any of the women to have sex with their male companions.
"I don't ask these girls to have sex, I just say that it's up to them. But these are European women; they view sex differently," Thomas says.
He quickly adds, "I don't hire escorts or girls that were prostitutes. They all sign legal waivers saying they've never done that. So my girls were never prostitutes, they are just good, clean girls who wanna have good, clean fun. Which in my opinion involves sex."
Although Thomas won't say specifically how much the girls are paid for their time and energies, he says they are "well-compensated."
"Their expenses and bills for the trip are paid, and on top of that, whatever it costs the girls to be away from their jobs. We match the salary of work they're missing. You have to remember, the girls aren't rich, but the guys are."
If the match isn't satisfactory, his business associates in Amsterdam are there to help and will even send out another supermodel if necessary.
"If the girl doesn't work out, she's on a bullet train back to Amsterdam," Thomas vows. "The longest a client is going to go without a supermodel 'Bond girl' is four hours."
Tim Thomas says he already has two gentlemen booked for his next European Supermodel Vacation, scheduled to depart at at the beginning of June. He has four more spots to fill and expects a reporter for Playboy to partake in the adventure.
Thomas is even teaming up with a man who recently landed a 20-year-old Russian bride to add a Supermodel Marriage Vacation tour for those looking for a more serious relationship.
Dean Benzie says he would definitely consider another supermodel tour, but he and his wife, Becky, say he won't need the marriage trip anytime soon. They say his trip last spring has reinvigorated Dean's life and their 16-year-old marriage.
"It has had such a positive effect on him. He went into the Navy when he was 17 years old, and he had that military mentality. And when we took time off before it was always to visit relatives. This was the first time in his life he had the opportunity to do something for himself. And because we're so honest with each other, we pretty much knew what was going on at all times."
Apparently, Benzie called his wife every day while he was gone to update her on his adventures with his supermodel.
When asked if she would go on her own supermodel babe vacation, Becky is far less enthusiastic.
"Um, maybe I'd go," she says. "It sure sounded like he had a lot of fun. But I think it's just what he needed at the time."
She unloads two shotguns while swinging from the ceiling on an archaic, fraying rope. She wipes blood from her lip as carelessly as if it was smeared lipstick. And throughout the preview for the latest tough-chick action movie, Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie, starring as video game heroine Lara Croft, walks strong, talks tough and fights foes in a feminized version of Rambo meets Die Hard. Unlike her cinematic male counterparts, Jolie manages to pummel her enemies in the skimpiest of shorts, wearing weapon-holders that look more like garters than holsters. When she flirts with death, her sexuality is a key piece of her arsenal.
"I could never kill you," one slick gent says weakly, with the sincerity of a stranger on a bar stool.
"I didn't say you could kill me," she banters back coyly, eyebrows raised and plump lips pursed. "I said you could try."
Jolie's sex-kitten Croft in Tomb Raider, headed for theaters this summer, leaps into action as the latest addition to an undeniable trend in the evoution of today's action hero, the butt-kicking babe. Other recent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie's Angels and The Matrix have all featured women who can not only hold their own, but prevail in combat. On television, female heroes have gone the way of undead-dueling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, genetically engineered Dark Angel, historic cult-hit Xena: Warrior Princess or cartoon animated superhero trio the Power Puff Girls. Movies and TV, combined with video games like "Tomb Raider," have launched a full-frontal, multimedia assault with visions of women warriors dominating male and female villains.
Producers wouldn't continue cranking out female action heroes if audience response wasn't overwhelmingly positive. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been nominated for 10 Oscars and recently beat out Roberto Begnini's Life Is Beautiful as the top-grossing foreign language film in America--an amazing feat for a movie with subtitles. Buffy put the then fledgling Warner Brothers Television Network (WB) on the map when it began in 1997, and now the show is caught in the middle of a major custody battle with several networks vying for the viewership of the vampire slayer's millions of fans. Shopping malls and schools across America show that beloved butt-kicking preschoolers, the Power Puff Girls, are enjoying enormous success both on the air and in marketing merchandise.
Not everyone is thrilled with this trend, and many critics are calling for the heroines to drop their weapons and put on more clothes. Surprisingly, the loudest complaints aren't coming from conservatives urging women to trade their weapons for baking utensils, but rather from feminists and liberal media watchdog groups concerned about what they believe to be damaging sexist portrayals of violent female heroines.
"I am awash in a Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer glow. I have seen women kick butt in Charlie's Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, in my heart of hearts, I know this much is true: It's good for the economy," Margaret Finnegan writes in a widely celebrated article, "Sold! The Illusion of Independence" (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 2001).
Finnegan argues that, unlike battling the June Cleaver image, butt-kicking babes are much harder for feminists to fight.
She continues, "The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less obvious threat to women's struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has fewer enemies."
Since Finnegan's article, other critics have stepped forward to caution against today's heroines as scantily clad, over-sexualized male fantasies who promote barbaric shows of strength rather than women's equality--and may even be encouraging violence against women.
So why do I love these butt-kicking babes?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Danger
Within the first 15 minutes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leading ladies Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jiao Long Yu, or Jen (Ziyi Zhang), engage in a beautiful battle over a stolen sword, the Green Destiny. They spar with both strength and impeccable form, running up walls, gliding over rooftops and twisting with the grace of dancers.
Later in the film the two women square off again, this time in a much more brutal battle. Yeoh boasts the benefit of years of experience as a woman warrior; Jen holds the edge of a young prodigy with fighting spirit. They use intellect and emotion as well as strength and skill, but both fights are clearly shows of strength.
James Lull, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University, says he loved the film and its female stars.
"Personally, I love it. There's nothing more wonderful than a strong woman, one who is strong physically and mentally," Lull says. "But at one level there's a concern about any kind of butt-kicking--that there's a certain level of danger with it. We tend to glorify power, success, competition, all of the things that feed into butt-kicking. And there's a certain overall negative consequence of the way we glorify violence."
Lull has seen a bevy of international films and says that whereas European films have found ways to portray deep, complex emotional conflict, too many movies--especially American ones--rely on WWF-inspired portrayals of conflict.
"In America it's all about knock them down, kick their ass. That discredits the consumer, it takes away deeper emotional interpretation," Lull says. "We have to understand that [the concept of] butt-kicking girls reduces them to this visible male conflict. Football, Arnold, Rambo--there are media archetypes in our cultural memory in which male-dominated conflict leading to violence is celebrated. Now it has spilled over into the realm of female stars."
He admits that the belief in women's ability to conquer is nothing new. But instead of showing women as manipulators, like using The Rules to get a man and passive-aggressive guilt trips to control him, the new heroes are just plain aggressive.
"Here come the girls, they're powerful, they can be just as stupid as the guys, and with physical violence they've fallen to the level of males," Lull says. "This physical expression for women is a liberation of the body but an imprisoning of the spirit."
Rather than sword-wielding women, Lull says he worships Mary Tyler Moore as a leading butt-kicking babe.
"She could talk fast, think fast. She was not the traditional woman, and had a strong, commanding personality," Lull coos. "She didn't need to resort to violence. She showed competence and confidence."
Besides Mary, he says, many of his female heroines stem from the African American community. Not just Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, but women like Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith and Janet Jackson all get high marks from Lull because they helped give voice to black women's experiences.
"Black women have been butt-kicking by necessity," Lull says. "It's not superhuman, just a matter of everyday life."
Cleavage and Cleavers
Martial arts powerhouse Michelle Yeoh has starred in countless movies other than supernatural epic Crouching Tiger, including Hong Kong's answer to Charlie's Angels, The Heroic Trio, Jackie Chan's Supercop, and Tomorrow Never Dies, with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. But her most direct onscreen statement about women warriors comes from an obscure 1994 import, Wing Chun, a film about a legendary female martial artist.
During the film, a sleazy male villain mocks Yeoh's capabilities.
"Men are better than women, except at having babies," he sneers. "Therefore I am certain to beat you, and afterwards you can go home and get on with having your babies."
The diminutive Yeoh delivers her response, without a word, in a swift series of kicks that leave him a whimpering pile.
Critics say the trouble is plenty of butt-kicking women on the screen are ultimately most concerned with being sexy, finding a man who can make their lives complete, and settling down. They say that women heroines are less concerned with achieving female liberation than satisfying male fantasy.
Patty Miller, who researches kids and the media for Oakland-based Children Now, worries that contemporary butt-kicking heroines teach young girls that their appearance and sex appeal should be top priority. Children Now used to function as a television watchdog research group, but has recently expanded to studying movies, teen magazines, music videos and video games.
"I think that in the last few years we've started to see a lot more women portrayed as protagonists. But they are violent protagonists," Miller says. "Media are offering girls much more strong images of women, but also women who are often highly sexualized."
Miller cites Tomb Raider's Lara Croft as an example of the violent, sexual and scantily clad heroine. In December, Children Now released a report which found that nearly half of all top-selling video games in the United States contain unhealthy messages for girls, including unrealistic body image--tiny waists supporting unusually large breasts--as well as violent and provocative behavior and very little clothing.
Miller adds that many video game heroines have a disturbing habit of sighing, as if with sexual pleasure, during violent battles.
"I think it can be very confusing to young women--we want to see girls and women portrayed as strong and powerful, not strong and highly sexual," Miller says. "The message now is that it's OK to be strong and assertive, but you better be sexual and attractive."
Children Now hasn't published an official study, but it is conducting research about television and girls' body image. Miller says that two-thirds of young women want to look like their favorite TV characters, and one-third of those surveyed reported "altering themselves" to resemble the stars.
"These are strong messages to kids about who they should be and what they should look like," Miller says.
For example, Charlie's Angels starred rail-thin Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the legendary crime-fighting trio who work for a mysterious millionaire with a speakerphone fetish. In scene after scene they pummel villains, managing to look sexy in stylish outfits from trim-fitting, leather-laden wardrobes.
In a recent discussion with sixth graders at Spring Hill Elementary in Santa Cruz, many of the girls expressed mixed feelings about the popular action movie. All of the students who saw it said they liked it, but many girls felt that the Angels showed more skin than necessary.
"They could also be bad role models. Little girls would think they have to look like that," 12-year-old Amanda says. "Or that they have to be really skinny to be strong."
McWimps to Women Warriors
Before completely turning on today's butt-kicking babes, critics need to consider where they're coming from and remember the hordes of horrible female characters who have come before them.
In Thelma & Louise, considered a turning point in the realm of tough-chick movies, two friends escape an oppressively small town, one of them leaving behind an abusive husband. They go on a crime spree that includes shooting a would-be rapist in Texas and blowing up the truck of a lecherous, tongue-wagging driver, and even passive Thelma gets assertive after getting "laid proper" by a sexy young thief, played by Brad Pitt. But their liberation is so frenzied and unstable that they opt for what appears to be a suicidal dive off a cliff.
"Their revenge is neither intelligent nor focused. Naturally, they are punished for their adventure--they go over the cliff in freeze-frame," writes author Susan Isaacs in her book, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen.
Isaacs begins her book with a chapter titled, "I am woman, hear me roar ... About how I've been abused, misused, violated, and discriminated against," in which she slices through female characters with a respectable lack of mercy.
"Oh, sure, we talk a good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. After all, we've been through a television revolution in women's rights in the last 30-odd years," Issacs says. "Except even after all the fireworks, speeches and marches, our female icons seem to me a pretty pathetic lot."
The book lays out in gruesome detail examples of past portrayals of women, who are often reduced to stereotypes as helpless, weak and in need of a good man. Isaacs also argues that intelligent, sexy women in film are often shown as psychotic and evil, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
"Brilliant women, erotic women, scheming women and powerful women are so threatening by virtue of the simple fact that they exist that they cannot be allowed to live," Isaacs says. "The message to men was: Stick with your lukewarm wife. Hot sex with a free woman is perilous. The message to everyone was: Bad things happen to strong women."
Fatal Attraction may have lobbied against extramarital affairs, but it also taught that intelligent, sexy career women are a threat to marriage, children--and even the family pet.
However, butt-kicking babes have provided a portrayal of strong, sexy women who fight for good rather than use all their energy to win the object of their affections, or obsessions. Action heroines are also very different from the women portrayed as strong in many "chick flicks."
Relationships among the Power Puffs and the women of Crouching Tiger, Buffy and even the Angels are quite different from those of films like Where the Heart Is, last year's much-marketed tear-jerker starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. Heart's women are both abused by various sleazy men and seem to gain their strong status by how much horrible treatment they've endured. Their friendship grows as they experience abandonment (in the cruelest of all places--a small-town Wal-Mart), infidelity and domestic violence at the hands of scumball guys.
Isaacs calls this phenomenon the "hero-martyr," a celebration of those women who are abused but are morally above striking back.
It's not that there haven't been butt-kicking women in the past. Hong Kong cinema has long featured women in martial arts movies, including Pei Pei Cheng, a legendary star who came out of retirement to play aging criminal Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger.
In the United States most female action stars have been more campy than credible. Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, Electra Women and DynaGirl were fun to watch but difficult to take very seriously.
And for every cartoon that features female action heroes, such as Wonder Woman or the Power Puff Girls, there are a dozen Polly Purebreds, the helpless canine damsel in distress from Underdog who was constantly crying for help from her caped superhero.
It seems critic Isaacs' prime example of the weakling female character, which she calls the wimpette, is TV lawyer Ally McBeal.
"Ally McBeal is a litigator far longer on legs than brains," Isaacs writes. "McBeal proves you can send a girl to college, but not even seven years of higher education can stay her from doing what comes naturally--trying to catch a man. ... Put a woman in a CEO's chair, give her a prestigious profession, then let her act like a dumb broad."
What Women Want
The wimpettes of the past and present may fuel the popularity of butt-kicking babes like Buffy and the crime-fighting Power Puffs, but critics say the babes are just a result of good marketing geared toward selling what advertisers think women want.
"From Nike to Gatorade, American advertisers are sold on the image of independent, resourceful, kick-butt girls," Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Her article makes solid arguments about mass marketing's prostitution for profits.
"During the 1910s, advertisers routinely pirated slogans from the women's suffrage movement. Women "voted" for toothpaste, soup, crackers and dubious medical elixirs long before they elected political candidates," she writes. "The revival of feminism in the 1960s and '70s prompted a similar appropriation of feminist rhetoric."
Virginia Slims, poster child for this with its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign, has recently shifted to a newer pseudo-liberated slogan, "Find Your Voice."
While she acknowledges that butt-kicking babes allow for a greater variety of female characters, Finnegan argues that they are ultimately a threat to feminism and women's equality.
"Feminism has few greater enemies," she says of the kick-butt girls and their illusion of equality. "It breeds complacency. Worse yet, it implies that feminism is obsolete. Who needs it? Girls can do anything. They can be anything. I've seen it on TV so it must be true."
Other critics of butt-kicking heroines take the dangers they bring even further, proposing they may ultimately fuel violence against women.
"For if women can beat down men in the movies, how long will it be until the reverse becomes perfectly acceptable--first in the movies, and then in real life?" Gina Arnold asks in an article for Salon (Jan. 22, 2001).
However, violence against women has been a longtime reality for many women, long before the butt-kicking babes came along. Statistics show that up to 25 percent of college-age women have been sexually assaulted, and many of those attacks came long before the current crop of female heroines.
Rage Against the Man
Bettina aptheker, professor of women's studies at UC-Santa Cruz, says that she remembers the audience response to Thelma & Louise as clearly as the film itself.
"The women in the theater cheered when they blew up the truck," Aptheker says, "because so many women have shared that experience of being harassed and honked at. The movies, the pop culture, taps into women's feelings--the rage--and it can be cathartic."
Beyond mere marketing, she feels it's this rage that's fueling the explosion of butt-kicking heroines.
Aptheker has worked for decades with classes in women's studies and self-defense and says that many women come to those classes not only hurt, but angry.
"One of the things that comes up in self-defense is the hurt, the rage, as women are kicking ass, or I should say, using physical force," she continues. "We're so conditioned not to express anger that many women find it difficult. One woman in class couldn't do it for a long time and she finally told me, 'I don't believe I have a self to defend.'"
Aptheker believes it's women's rage that made Thelma & Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes (with its Towanda car-smashing scene) and Crouching Tiger such box office successes.
"We should never underestimate how angry women are," she warns, "and how little avenues exist for expression."
Aptheker says that while self-defense classes teach physical maneuvering, two-thirds of each series emphasize verbal sparring, being assertive, saying no and being verbally aggressive if necessary. Since many rapes are acquaintance rapes, instructors see self-defense as more than physical training.
"We do a lot of counseling. You don't want to strike out randomly with anger. You want to channel the rage," Aptheker says.
When asked if the butt-kicking babes are teaching women false lessons about equality, the longtime feminist doesn't seem too concerned.
"I don't think butt-kicking babes create an illusion of equality. If anything else, it reestablishes the existing inequality," she says. "You know you can't slay vampires. You know you'd be arrested by police--probably by a male cop."
In her book, Tapestries of Life, Aptheker devotes a chapter to imagination and fantasy. She explores the existence of women warriors and folklore about them in various cultures, including Chinese, numerous African and Caribbean traditions, and details how butt-kicking women have been in legends for centuries.
Hanging behind the desk in her women's studies department office is a full-color, signed photo of Xena, weapon in hand, surrounded by flames. It reads, "Bettina, Intro to Fem rocked my world! Battle On, Xena."
"No, Xena didn't really take my class," Aptheker laughs. "It was a gift from my daughter's partner."
Defense of Butt-Kicking Babes
During my television-addicted childhood, I often went to bed terrified for my safety after watching women victimized on primetime TV. After watching Halloween, I began building walls of stuffed animals up to the top of my bunk bed each night to ward off potential serial killers and stalkers.
When I began studying martial arts nearly four years ago, a former boyfriend was appalled by the thrill I received from practicing roundhouse kicks, elbow jabs and punches to the solar plexus.
"Why do you want to do that?" he finally asked, with a mixture of confusion and disgust. "It's so violent!"
Several weeks later, after wrestling with the image of myself as a violent bully, I ended up locked out of a friend's apartment in the middle of the night. While walking past a group of 20 men hanging out on a quiet, dark corner, drinking 40-ouncers from paper bags, my first thought wasn't "What could they do to me?" but "What could I do to them?"
It was then that I realized what training in Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art, had given me. I never have had the privilege of living without the fear of being a victim, but martial arts has taught me that I am much more than a walking target. And that, if need be, even the littlest women can kick some serious ass.
There's plenty of violence in television and movies already, but for me, women as more than victims are a refreshing change. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon says that he created super-strength Buffy as a reaction to female victims in horror movies. Whedon wanted to show a pretty, petite, intelligent blonde who was pummeling evil rather than being victimized by it. "It's a horrible double standard to have male action heroes and not female action heroes," Buffy co-executive producer Marti Nixon says.
Buffy and the other butt-kicking babes may be flawed heroines, but even teen magazines like Seventeen show that they're changing the ways young women think. I remember countless adolescent nightmares about being stalked by serial killers; the young women surveyed in an issue about dreams said they most often dreamt that they were Buffy, slaying vampires and demons.
Women wielding weapons may not be ideal in the films and television shows of a violence-free world. Until such a world exists, I would much rather watch more woman warriors kicking butt and fewer quivering, helpless waifs crying for help any day.
Last month, robbers blasted into a downtown San Jose, California warehouse, pistol-whipping the owner and filling their midsize U-Haul van with about $100,000 worth of stolen "drugs."
The heist occurred only one month after a similar bust in North Carolina, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation hauled in 17 smugglers running the same contraband goods. The group faces charges of trafficking drugs to fund gunrunning for Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group backed by the Shiite Muslim community.
And in the Italian port town of Brindisi, smugglers cornered by police slammed a battering ram, which was attached to the front of their bulletproofed SUV, into the officers' car.
The suspects escaped on foot but left their cargo behind. They weren't running cocaine or heroin, but smugglers' current drug of choice -- contraband cigarettes.
On the international black market, cigarette smugglers are proving that guns, violence and international terrorism aren't just for illegal drug dealers anymore. Some say it's due to high taxes, others say Big Tobacco companies collaborating with dealers are to blame. But from China to Columbia, California to Canada, everybody seems to agree that the burgeoning cigarette black market has become far more lucrative than selling marijuana, and safer than running illegal drugs -- except for law enforcement, which has seen levels of violence rise with the profits at stake. The SUV-driving smugglers in Italy, for example, were willing to kill for 20 cartons of smokes.
The San Jose theft at the wholesaler's warehouse may have been the biggest in a local string of cigarette robberies, but it wasn't the most violent. Four thieves who held up a 7-Eleven kicked and beat the clerk, who wound up in the hospital with a broken arm and fractured jaw. Like the Italian dealers, they only made off with about 20 cartons of cigarettes.
"At this time we don't think any of the local thefts are connected," says San Jose Police Department Detective Patrick Boyd. "The price of cigarettes has gotten real high, meaning the value of cigarettes is going up on the black market."
While the department's public information officer, Rubens Dalaison, agrees that costly cigarettes have become a profitable commodity, especially since the recent passage of cig-tax boosting Proposition 10, he says that stealing smokes is nothing new.
"Our vice unit has been going out for years to advise shop owners on risk awareness," Dalaison says. "Now, just the amount and quantity have increased."
Police have only arrested one person for a rash of thefts, and a 16-year-old suspect was released without providing officers leads on other similar incidents. Officers remain uncertain whether the crimes are organized crime or gang-related, and because the cases are still under investigation, they can't answer questions about where cigarettes may have been smuggled, or to whom.
Unanswered questions around cigarette smuggling seem to be a chronic condition throughout California. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Jack Giroud refuses to talk about local cigarette thefts, which have involved truck hijackings and a high-speed chase through the San Fernando Valley.
"I don't want to discuss it," says a frustrated Giroud. "We don't have anybody in custody, and I don't want to teach people how to steal cigarettes."
State of the Sticks
'We regulate everything that's interesting and controversial," chirps Marti McKee, public information officer for the San Francisco branch of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF). And things have never been more exciting in the world of cigarette investigators. During the flurry of lawsuits against Big Tobacco companies like British American Tobacco and R.J. Reynolds, thousands of pages of corporate documents indicated that cigarette manufacturers may have played a role in global smuggling operations. Tobacco companies, who lobbied hard against cigarette taxes like California's Proposition 10, have maintained that they shouldn't be held accountable for what happens to their product after it's sold.
Libertarians agree, blaming high taxes for the burgeoning black market and new government enforcement bureaucracy.
"Californians need to do away with this draconian, discriminatory and unfair tax," Libertarian Party state chair Mark Hinkle wrote in support of this spring's attempt to repeal the 1998 tobacco taxes brought by Proposition 10.
According to Leslie Thompson, a former employee of RJR Nabisco, his bosses knew of and encouraged global smuggling operations. This summer he told Newsweek (July 31, 2000) that his export outfit, owned by RJR Nabisco, actually worked with smugglers to import cigarettes, which were then stored secretly on a Mohawk reservation on the U.S.-Canadian border before being sold to Canadian black marketeers. Thompson's revelations may have been new, but they came as no surprise to investigators at the World Health Organization. They estimate that one-third of the 200 billion cigarettes exported in 1998 ended up in smugglers' warehouses.
Alcohol, tobacco and firearms specialist McKee says that she can't divulge too much information about the organized crime syndicates suspected in California cigarette thefts, except that they seem to exist.
"These are the same types of organized criminal networks involved in illegal drugs," McKee says. "The taxes are relatively new, but ATF has been extremely involved because of some big cases. In California this has been a newer thing because of the recent tax."
Smoke Signals/Bootleg Butts
In San Jose, cigarette thefts used to involve grabbing a few packs, or maybe a carton, and slipping out of a 7-Eleven or local tobacco shop. But as profits increased, so did the use of U-Haul trucks, firearms and violence. California tax collectors haven't yet calculated how much tax money the state government has lost to smugglers. But David Schiller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, says that one smuggling ring alone is believed to have cost the state $18 million in tobacco and sales taxes.
Monte Williams, chief of the investigations division for tax collectors at Sacramento's Board of Equalization, says they hope new laws passed in 1999 to regulate imports and exports will squelch smuggling rings. The laws require stricter regulations meant to prohibit products sold for use outside the United States from being brought back into the country, where they can then be sold at discount on the "gray market," free of state tobacco taxes.
On the web, about 2,000 sites offer discounted cigarettes. For example, the web-based smokeshop www.dirtcheapcig.com advertises itself as "the last refuge of the persecuted smoker."
But because many such websites have their stocked warehouses on Native American lands, which are free of national tobacco tax requirements, tax collectors find that law enforcement needs to become as sophisticated as cigarette smugglers.
"It has made life more interesting," Williams says of the World Wide Web.
Still, few smokers seem too concerned about cigarette companies -- or the government -- losing money due to competition from bootleggers.
"If somebody came to my house selling cigarettes, I'd buy them," Morgan Pershing, a Mountain View-based dotcom employee and longtime smoker, says. "It's not like the cigarette companies are angels or anything."
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."
Tabitha rarely left for a rave without a baby pacifier. She usually wore one dangling from her neck on a colorful ribbon while heading to the party-of-the-week. If one of her pacifiers wasn't handy, a lollipop would suffice. Her mouthwear was not only fashionable, but also helped ease the jaw clenching and teeth grinding that usually accompanied her partaking of the club drug Ecstasy.For Tabitha, a native of one of the wealthier Oakland suburbs, raving went beyond recreation. It was her way of life, her source of income and her spiritual medium for saving the world. She made money behind the bar, blending banana-bee pollen-spirulina smoothies for thirsty partiers as they danced until dawn. And Tabitha became so renowned for her dramatic dance moves that friends throwing raves sometimes hired her to inspire the crowd.This was the early '90s, and Tabitha and her circle of friends, mainly white middle-class teens and twentysomethings from Bay Area suburbs, believed that they were a reincarnated Native American tribe brought back to save the world by spreading peace, love and unity through raves. Many still see PLUR--peace, love, unity and respect--as the ideology fueling rave culture.To get into the right mental state, Tabitha and most tribe members took a tablet or two of MDMA (3,4 methylenedioxymethaphetamine), an increasingly popular club drug known as Ecstasy, or just E.At the time, many ravers were worried about what later turned out to be a myth: that E drains a frequent user's spinal fluid. When Tabitha gave up the all-night dance scene and started attending college, the only noticeable residual problems she experienced were sore jaws and troubled teeth.According to recent studies, chronic E users are experiencing various severe dental maladies, namely cracking enamel, worn teeth and jaw problems. In fact, retainers are beginning to replace pacifiers as the en vogue look at raves.Despite a newly amped-up national drug program hell-bent on proving that experimenting with E causes brain damage, a serious physical effect is being almost completely overlooked. Members of generation-E may be ruining their teeth.'I'm not your average dentist," Hal Crossley, D.D.S., Ph.D., says dryly. Crossley, a dentist and associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland Dental School, spends some of his days with students talking about common woes like gum disease and the importance of flossing. But he also travels all over North America, lecturing about the effects of drugs on users--and their teeth.Crossley just returned from a dental conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he gave a six-hour lecture on drugs, ranging from Ecstasy to more obscure substances like bufotenine, a chemical known to cause hallucinations far stronger than LSD and that can be found in the venom of certain species of toads.Crossley says conference-goers in Vancouver talked about Ecstasy more than any other drug. According to a 1998 survey, 3.4 million people over the age of 12 have tried E at least once. An average of 18 out of 100 people on the West Coast say they have experimented with E, but only about 3 out of 100 people on the East Coast report the same.Thus, Crossley says, he hasn't treated many Ecstasy users in his Maryland dental clinic. But Ecstasy is structurally similar to the stimulant methamphetamine, which also causes jaw clenching and teeth grinding in users, so he is familiar with what frequent hug-drug pill-popping can do to teeth."I've seen users who have ground their teeth down to nubs. Their molars become flat, polished stumps," Crossley says. "The back teeth go, and then the front teeth are just ground right down. The enamel in the front just dissolves away."Crossley says that, unlike heroin addicts, who experience decay along the gumline due to a relentless sweet tooth, and heavy pot smokers, who tend to neglect oral hygiene altogether, amphetamine users show tooth wear specific to hours of jaw clenching and teeth grinding.When asked why so little is known about the effects of Ecstasy on teeth, Crossley says that it's not lack of interest. "Often serious users don't seek routine dental care," he says. "The priority is getting more Ecstasy."A study conducted in Britain last year at Liverpool's Maryland Center, a facility specializing in drug- and sex-related medical problems, found that 60 percent of Ecstasy users examined had worn their teeth through the enamel and into the underlying dentine. Users' decay was nearly five times worse than that of the average Brit.On average, the users weren't dropping E on a daily basis. But all of the individuals surveyed reported taking the drug at dance clubs. Most users reported taking it four times a month, with a mean of 1.5 tablets taken per occasion."These visitors are representative of a youth culture which regards recreational drug taking as part of a lifestyle and do not consider themselves to have a drug problem," writes Dr. Alexander Milosevic, who co-authored an article in the August 1999 Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology journal. Milosevic is a professor at the University of Liverpool's School of Dentistry.Incorporating anecdotal evidence from users, researchers found that the friction involved in teeth clenching, combined with an abrasive "dry mouth," leads to extreme tooth wear, worsened by the consumption of soft drinks taken to cool off as Ecstasy raises body temperatures."Carbonated (acidic) beverages were consumed by 93 percent of the users with a mean of three cans per 'trip,' " Milosevic's study reports.Users who experienced nausea and vomiting after taking Ecstasy have greater tooth erosion, due to the decay caused by stomach acids. The study mentions that many users had tried other drugs, like cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, pot and amphetamines, but doesn't say how these other drugs affected the tooth wear found among Ecstasy users. It concludes that doctors and dentists have a lot to learn about the physical effects of Ecstasy use."Clinicians seeing cases of tooth wear in young people should attempt to ... prevent further wear," the researchers conclude. "But questions regarding Ecstasy use must be handled in a nonjudgmental and confidential manner." X-filed: A dental photo shows the effects of excessive tooth grinding in a 20-year-old patient--exposed dentine on the cusp tips which are normally covered with tooth enamel.This recent study indicating that many Ecstasy users are grinding away their teeth is only the second of its kind. But San Jose-based dentist Steven Cohen says it echoes the problems dentists have witnessed in other amphetamine users."What we've found is with any type of amphetamine it brings anxiety, tension, clenching and grinding. It can cause broken and cracked teeth, and nerve damage in the teeth, which can lead to root canals," says Cohen (who is the brother of Metro's publisher, David Cohen). "And people who use a lot of drugs don't usually put dental hygiene as a top priority."Yet in the United States it appears that no formal studies have explored just how many Ecstasy users are wearing their teeth down to stumps. Most studies and press releases briefly cite some of the suspected physical effects of the drug, which include muscle tension, involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, faintness, chills and sweating. Doctors say MDMA-related deaths at raves have occurred due to E's stimulant effects combined with hot, crowded dance halls, leading to dehydration, hyperthermia, and heart or kidney failure."Ecstasy is usually a mixture of chemicals rolled up in one pill. Sometimes it's cut with speed, which would cause you to, of course, grind your teeth [when coming down only] and quivering, feeling anxious and paranoid," says Christine, a 22-year-old raver. She is no nave user; the San Jose college student has an encyclopedic knowledge about the drug."I chose to educate myself because I have been raving for a couple of years and wanted to learn more about what I was doing," Christine says. "The death rate and long-term side effects of dropping Ecstasy [are] nothing compared to smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol."Christine is right. The number of E-related deaths in the United States is minuscule compared with those caused by more socially acceptable, legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. But for all of the talk about America's war on drugs, few studies seem to have taken Ecstasy users' anecdotal tales into account while researching its effects. Most just say research, mainly conducted on lab rats and monkeys, indicates some kind of long-term brain damage.Any raver can tell you stories about teeth-grinding woes."The first time I didn't use a pacifier, I definitely remembered it the next time. My jaw really hurt," says Isabella, a 17-year-old. A veteran raver, Isabella has seen the scene change dramatically since she started going to parties four years ago. She says that raves have never been just about drugs and sex, but more and more mainstream partiers and dealers are hurting ravers' image."It set out to be about a place to go to be yourself, have fun, be who you are and have a good time," Isabella says.Now even mainstream magazines like Details are scrutinizing rave culture."After years of Ecstasy popping and dancing till dawn, Chicago ravers are showing signs of wear and tear," the March 2000 issue of Details reads. "They're heading to the orthodontist for retainers to correct their wayward, loosened teeth--a result of the jaw grinding that accompanies Ecstasy use."Pacifiers and lollipops are so common at raves that they've long become part of mainstream fashion. Even pre-teens on Midwestern playgrounds were sporting pacifiers with their flared jeans and body glitter a couple of years back. But national studies in the United States continue to all but ignore anecdotal evidence and focus on possible effects on the brain."I have a few friends whose dentist told them to stop doing Ecstasy because their teeth are decaying," Christine says. But many ravers, in the absence of more widespread harm-reduction education, continue to solve negative effects of jaw clenching in their own way.Christine adds, "Chewing gum or sucking a lollipop is what a lot of people do."This apparently is part of the problem."If someone uses pacifiers, it can cause orthodontic problems. If you hold it in the front and it pushes on the front teeth, it has the effect of thumb sucking," Cohen says. "With all of that sugar, lollipops are even worse."
Butterflies are always the most popular guest at weddings and parties. But the commercial breeding of the beautiful insects may be extinguishing these symbols of hope and renewal.
Click here for the full text of this article on the Web site of the San Jose Metro.