Once, women worried about their figures while men scarfed pizza and beer with abandon. Then came the Soloflex guy, male anorexia, and....plastic calves?
By Alicia Potter
DECEMBER 8, 1997: John Updike once compared the male body to a bank account: as long as it's healthy, a man doesn't think much about it. Clearly John Updike never met Emanuel Ward.
Ward has the physique of a star sprinter. His biceps bulge; his calves curve; under his green T-shirt, his stomach no doubt ripples. Yet last summer the 27-year-old Ward found himself fretting: how would he look in a swimsuit? Maybe not as buff as his buddies, he thought, vowing to step up his gym regimen. "I didn't want to be ashamed," he says.
Not a typical guy thing to say, right? Think again. Being a man these days seems, well, an awful lot like being a woman. For men, more than ever, looks count. In Vogue and Men's Health alike, modern-day Adonises sell everything from protein powder to Armani cologne. They've got washboard abs, silky skin, nipples so erect they cast shadows. The male torso reigns as the decade's most powerful "crossover image" (appealing to men, women, gays, and straights alike), reports Peter Arnell of the New York advertising agency the Arnell Group.
"It's kind of sad, but sometimes I see a guy on TV who's buff," Ward says, "and if I haven't been working out, I think, Wow! I better get back to the gym." He admits a Hanes underwear ad usually does the trick.
If this is gender equality, then the turning of the tables is not without a surprising, and potentially harmful, set of side effects. As men become more body-conscious, and as advertisers become more shameless about objectifying the male physique, men are acquiring problems formerly associated with women: eating disorders, body obsessions, low physical self-esteem. One body-image study found that 45 percent of men were dissatisfied with their physiques; women were only slightly less satisfied at 55 percent.
Some women, like Gwynne Reynolds, a 28-year-old marketing executive, say it's about time. "I think it's only fair that men get a taste of what it's like to be us," she says. Meanwhile, millions of guys on StairMasters are pondering what it means to be a man.
How else to explain the success of the movie The Full Monty, a 90-minute riff on the crisis of the male self-image? The British comedy, about six laid-off steelworkers who put on a strip show despite their considerable physical flaws, has already raked in about $80 million worldwide. Yes, The Full Monty was funny, but it revealed more than just flesh.
"You'd better pray that women are more understanding about us," one of the film's characters says. "Anti-wrinkle cream there is, anti-fat bastard cream there is not."
On a busy Monday night the Boston Body health club, on Boylston Street, the after-five crowd files in to sweat off a weekend's worth of microbrews and pizza. In the weight-training area, a pack of guys grunt and heave like women in labor.
Jay Knudson, 21, is one of them. The six-foot-four, 215-pound law student works out an hour and a half a day, five days a week. "Guys who are working out in their 20s are not doing it so much for their health," he says between biceps curls. "They're doing it for the look."
What look are they shooting for? Currently, two competing body types dominate the pages of GQ and Men's Health. The first is a slender, sculpted, almost feminine look (think Brad Pitt); the second is a pumped-up but still low-fat physique (think Nicolas Cage). Both images differ greatly from past ideals of male perfection; not so long ago, the manliest men in popular culture were burly, barrel-chested, even hairy. Think of John Wayne in the '40s, Burt Lancaster in the '50s, Steve McQueen in the '60s, Burt Reynolds in the '70s -- these guys probably couldn't even point out their deltoids, never mind sculpt them. But this indifference to their appearance only made them sexier.
Then came the '80s, the decade of aerobics, jogging, tofu -- and two ubiquitous advertising campaigns featuring male bodies. The Soloflex guy and the Calvin Klein underwear model represented a whole new breed of man. Their bodies, precursors to the Pitt and Cage looks, were hairless and lean, feminized and decidedly self-conscious.
According to Daniel Harris's 1997 book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion), this new body aesthetic had grown partly out of trends in the gay community. For decades, Harris writes, the most attractive gay men had cultivated a slender, more feminized appearance. With the dawn of AIDS in the '80s, however, gay men began to equate a slight physique with sickness, and they flocked to the gym. The perfectionist masculinity of gay gym culture quickly captivated Madison Avenue: think of Marky Mark, smirking in his Y-fronts across billboards and magazine pages. And although Marky himself was a celebrity, most of these ads divorced men's bodies from their personalities in a way that hadn't been done before. Who could name the Soloflex guy? The Diet Coke guy? High school girls could now line their lockers with magazine ads featuring anonymous male physiques as unrealistic as the swimsuit models their male classmates were drooling over.
Meanwhile, men were eyeing those diamond-hard abdominals and thinking that maybe, with enough time in the gym, they too could get cut. The average guy, of course, can no more shape his torso into Marky Mark's than the average gal can whip herself into Cindy Crawford. But suddenly men were presented with a demanding ideal that seemed achievable through hard work. And that myth persists. Marcus Schenkenberg, the first man to enter the stratosphere of supermodeldom, has released a new, photo-cluttered biography in which he shares his workout routine with average Joes. His gut-conditioning tip: 650 abdominal crunches a day.
If you're a man and that sounds excessive to you, count yourself lucky. As society demands a fitter body, frowning on every pinch of fat, clinicians suspect an increasing number of men are crossing the line into exercise addiction. Signs of obsession include feelings of acute anxiety over a missed workout and an urge to make exercise a priority over friends and family. Most trainers recommend working out no more than an hour a day.
But men don't just worry that they are too fat; many worry that they are too thin. Researchers at McLean Hospital have just defined a body-image distortion disorder that they liken to "reverse anorexia." Called muscle dysmorphia, the syndrome appears in athletes (both male and female) who, despite being dramatically muscular, are convinced that they are too small. Imagine a bodybuilder -- 250 pounds, 20-inch biceps, 6 percent body fat -- horrified to take his shirt off for fear he looks out of shape.
"What we're seeing now is the same body obsession but in a new form," says Harrison G. Pope Jr., one of the researchers at McLean. "It's coming out in the '90s as a preoccupation with muscularity and size." Indeed, Pope has called muscle dysmorphia "the anorexia of the '90s." That might sound a little alarmist, but Pope says it's no exaggeration. He warns not to underestimate the power of pop culture, especially Hollywood and the flourishing men's magazine industry (Men's Health alone has increased its circulation fivefold, to 1.3 million readers, since its start in 1986).
The pressure on men comes from another direction, too. Women run companies, fly fighter planes, and, yes, pump iron -- leaving the boys downright anxious about the meaning of masculinity. "As androgyny and gender equality increases, it unfortunately becomes very threatening to a lot of men," says Eric Silverman, a DePauw University anthropologist who specializes in the study of body image. "Suddenly men feel like they need to redivide the genders. They need things that are exclusively masculine, even hypermasculine."
For some men, that means more muscle. Indeed, the number of men exercising has increased more than 30 percent since the start of the decade. According to the research firm American Sports Data, last year nine million men belonged to a health club. And on average, they went to the gym 88 days a year. For those keeping score, that was six days more than women.
Pope also adds that steroid use remains high. About one million American men have tried the drugs once; up to 6 percent have taken them by age 18.
Indeed, teenage boys are on their way to becoming the next generation of body-conscious men. They avidly lift weights, blend protein shakes, and buy bodybuilding magazines. "Compare that to when I was in high school in the 1960s," says Pope. "No one even talked about working out."
It's well documented that for women, body obsession can lead to extreme dieting and exercise. How widespread are eating disorders among men? Hard to say. Men are notoriously hesitant to seek psychological treatment, particularly for body-image disorders.
Some sources report an increase in these problems among men, but T. Donald Branum, a Newton psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, points out that the rise could simply be a matter of awareness: as clinical sensitivity to male eating disorders increases, therapists are diagnosing the problem with more frequency.
What we do know is that of the eight million Americans being treated for eating disorders, one million are men. According to Branum, men make up about 10 percent of anorexics and about 20 percent of bulimics. Nearly half of binge eaters are men.
Branum, who treats men aged 15 to 65, reports that many men are ashamed to suffer from a "woman's illness." Indeed, the term "eating disorder" usually conjures the image of a white, suburban teenage girl. But eating disorders among men were documented in medical journals as far back as 1649. It's even suspected that Franz Kafka suffered from anorexia; hence his short story "The Hunger Artist."
Recently, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that gay men face a special risk for eating disorders, particularly bulimia. Like women, gay men feel undue pressure to adhere to a lean look. "There's a high level of expectation in my culture," says Boston Body manager Brian Borrelli, who is gay. "A gay guy's supposed to have neat clothes, a fit body, a certain sophisticated style. It's easy to take that to the extreme."
Which he did. In high school Borrelli weighed 225 pounds. When he came out in college, he began dieting to fit the gay community's beauty ideal. He skipped breakfast, grabbed a salad for lunch, and ate soup for dinner. He also ran eight miles a day. In seven months, Borrelli was down to 135 pounds. No one recognized that he was anorexic.
"There was never any help offered to me," he says. "Let's face it, you're not going to be waiting for the T one day and look up and find a sign that says, 'Are you a white gay man suffering from anorexia?' "
For the most part, eating disorder research has ignored male sufferers. And many treatment facilities exclude men, although body-image problems appear to have the same causes in both men and women. Branum reports that his patients with eating disorders typically grapple with issues of control, anger, and sexuality; food becomes their coping mechanism.
Although Branum doubts a man can develop an eating disorder simply from spending too much time reading GQ, he does believe that a man with an eating disorder may look to media images to determine physical goals. He explains, "The man begins to think, 'If I look like that guy in the magazine, then things will be okay inside me.' "
There's another way to look like the people in the magazines, of course, and here, too, men are venturing into women's territory. Rumor has it that the babes aren't the only ones on Baywatch with synthetic chests -- yes, David Hasselhoff's may be fake, too.
Last year men accounted for about 20 percent of all plastic surgeries, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. All told, cosmetic surgeries on men rose 20 percent from 1994 to 1996, which wasn't too different from the increase for women. Liposuctions for males, though, increased 30 percent, compared to 20 percent for females.
"Women come in waving Victoria's Secret catalogues or Playboy clippings and say, 'I want those breasts,' " says Barry Davidson, a Newton plastic surgeon. "Men come in and say, 'I want to get rid of this fat.' Then they grab it."
Michael (not his real name), 34, had been grabbing his waist for years. Even in high school, when he was a skinny five-foot-ten, 150 pounds, Michael had love handles. He lifted weights and played racquetball five times a week, but the extra inches wouldn't budge. "Every morning I'd put on my pants, look in the mirror, and they'd be there," he says. "I just didn't like the way I looked."
Last year, he underwent abdominal liposuction. While Michael's weight remained at 185 pounds following the operation, his waist shrank from 34 inches to 32 inches. The fat he lost (diluted with saline solution) was enough to fill two two-liter Coke bottles.
"I couldn't be happier," he says of his new waistline. "I guess I'm a vain type of guy, but if I could afford it, then why the hell not?"
Most abdominal liposuctions cost about $3000. Just because you can foot the bill doesn't mean you're a guaranteed candidate, though. Davidson warns that the operation is no substitute for exercise or dieting. In fact, many plastic surgeons won't operate on someone who has not first tried traditional weight-loss methods. Age, however, is no barrier; Davidson operates on men in their early 20s to mid-50s.
Beyond liposuction, the anatomical possibilities for men border on the bionic. Doctors can lift the flap of skin on the back of the lower leg, insert a hunk of silicone, and presto: handsome, bulging calves. There are also pectoral implants (hello, Mr. Hasselhoff), hair transplants, breast reduction, and, of course, the very rare but much hyped penis enlargement. Davidson reports that most men seek surgery to contour hereditary soft spots that exercise can't tone. Love handles, a rounded belly, or excess tissue in the breasts are common complaints.
The main reason men and women choose surgery is to improve their self-image, reports one study. Beyond that, male patients said that they also hoped to enhance their careers and to keep up with a peer who's had surgery. It's a desperate scenario: men surreptitiously checking each other out at meetings or in the locker room, trying to figure out who had a tummy tuck or a chin job.
Is this what we're coming to: a silent competition over who's got the firmest pecs?
Fajitas, cigarettes, hair spray, and beer. It's the smell of a Saturday night at the Rattlesnake Bar, on Boylston Street. The women nibble chips and salsa, cautious about smudging their toffee-colored lipstick. By the bar stand J. Crew poster boys in polar fleece and khakis. Overhead, Paula Cole wails about lost cowboys.
Both sexes agree that women continue to endure greater scrutiny about their looks. There's yet to be a male model as ubiquitous as Kate Moss, and seeing a pair of naked breasts at the movies is still far more common than seeing a naked male butt. For the female of the species, objectification is old hat.
Women, then, have a choice: do they empathize with the newly exploited male or gloat that men have finally gotten what they deserve?
A 1994 Psychology Today survey reports that women are the more forgiving of the sexes. Though both men and women rank intelligence and a sense of humor as the most important qualities in a mate, men still value facial appearance and body build more than women do.
But that's not to say that women don't have preferences. In the survey, they rated musclebound physiques as less attractive than men did; they preferred a well-toned but sleek build. Few women were looking to catch the eye of Schwarzenegger look-alikes.
"We call them triangle men," says Janet Cook, 27. She abandons her towering brownie sundae for a moment to trace an upside-down triangle in the air, indicating broad shoulders, big biceps, and a whittled waist. "It's often a sign that a guy's self-centered."
Suzanne McCaffrey, 23, offers another observation about male vanity. "Oh, sure, they say they work out for their health," she says of her three male roommates. "But the truth is they eat all this disgusting, fatty food. Then they go and lift for 45 minutes. And they're not into any aerobic exercise. They just do what will make them look good fast."
And plenty of women are willing to insist that their guy be as attractive as, well, they are. Julia, 24, who asked to be identified by first name only, is one of them. Petite, with feline eyes and long brown hair, she tortures the lime in her rum and Coke with a swizzle stick. Behind her, a suitor circles.
"I think a guy has just as much pressure to look good as a woman," she says. "I work out a lot. If I spend two hours at the gym, I expect him to as well."
And just what would she do if a less-than-strapping guy tried to pick her up? "Act disinterested," she says. Aware that her admirer has swooped in, she leans forward conspiratorially, rolling her eyes in annoyance. "For example," she says. The guy at her elbow is broad-shouldered and slim-waisted but a little on the scrawny side. And is that a receding hairline?
What happens next happens quickly. With a toss of her hair and a shrug of her shoulder bag, she dusts him. The guy stands for one stunned moment, Coors Light in hand, before skulking off to be razzed by his buddies. Julia heads for fresher prospects farther down the bar.
Pay attention, guys. There's a lesson here. The next one to sidle up to Julia had better be more than just handsome. He'd better be beautiful.
Alicia Potter is a freelance writer living in Boston.
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