Chapter 9 of the book Looks
Have you ever seen the billboards by the side of the road glorifying a sculpted male body? Or the covers of Men’s Health magazine… or the washboard abs perfume by Abercrombie and Fitch… or the steroid pumping body builders…
Men have their own set of problems. These are termed the Adonis Complex. Due to the slew of idealized male physiques everywhere they look, many men are insecure about their appearance.
Harrison J. Pople, Jr. and Roberto Olivardia of Harvard Medical and Katherine A. Phillips of Brown studied anything from action figure toys to Playgirl spreads to body builders and concluded that the U.S. media presentation of the male ideal is a very very muscular body.
Our very own GI Joe
It started with our familiar G. I. Joe. These researchers noted that the action figure in 1964 was unremarkable. Sure, he was trim and athletic, but rather ordinary in that respect. By 1991, he became pumped up like a body builder. Sadly, this also happened with the Star Wars action figures of Han and Luke. In 1978, they appeared unexceptional but trim. In 1995, they appeared to have been drinking a morning cup of steroids with their breakfast cereal. As a Star Wars fan, I was horrified to hear about this development. What’s next, bulked up Wicket?
15-20 years back, if you wanted a current issue of a fitness or body building magazine, you would have to live in the big city. Even so, you were limited to two or three publications. Now, just run down to the nearest convenience store and you’re bound to find at least five. As any freelance writer for magazines will tell you, fitness and health are big topics nowadays. People want to read about how to get healthy, but they also want to read about how to gain muscle. As a result, this is the holy grail of freelance writers.
What about the billboards? This Abercrombie and Fitch billboard is an excellent example of what you might find.
Dr Patzer says,
Buy a copy of almost any general-interest magazine and you are treated to bare male chests, rippling muscles, and tanned, chiseled, hairless forms.
Don’t forget the romance novel covers! Some time ago I published something mocking this trend. You may find it here. You’ll see that shaved pits really are the way to go.
Rich Herrera, a male model for Cosmo
Cosmopolitan magazine is one of those magazines that seem to be mainly about sex from their front covers. They offer tips on how to do it right, how to get good results, and how to get a good man. They also illustrate their articles with pictures. All the male models are happy, hairless, and naked.
They are also buff. Pope and his colleagues found that the number of naked males in Glamour and Cosmo had tripled from less than 10% in the 60s.
Along with these findings, Pope and his researchers interviewed men suffering from what they call “muscle dysmorphia,” which is sort of like “reverse anorexia.” While an anorexic girl looks at herself in the mirror and sees fat even though she is shrinking, a male with this disorder looks at himself and says, “Not buff enough,” even though he may have muscles where no man should have muscles. A fellow whom they called “Kevin” believed his own arms were sticks even though his body bulged with muscles in strange places. He became a near recluse because of this disorder.
These three researchers concluded that American men are being manipulated. They are exposed to more supermuscular images, all in service to diet aids, fitness programs, hair-growth remedies, and anything in between. These industries prey on men’s insecurities, and can be compared to how women are being preyed upon by the media.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is an intense preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance. It seems to arrive during adolescence or young adulthood. It may also coexist with other conditions, like social anxiety or OCD. The only effective course is psychiatric or psychological counseling, along with anxiety medications.
Those with this disorder are only a small fraction of the population, but millions more devote an inordinate slice of their time to worrying about appearance, notes Dr. Patzer.
Barbara L. Frederickson of the University of Michigan did two experiments to document the psychological costs of raising girls in a culture lik eours.
One study revealed that what a woman wears can heighten her preoccupation with how her body looks. This is at the expense of her mental performance skills. It’s not just low-cut dresses or bikinis that may cause this preoccupation. Any clothes or circumstances that make her feel self-conscious have this power. It reduces the mental energy that she could use to solve calculus.
According to this researcher and social psychologist Tomi-Ann Roberts, the tendency to value physical appeal and sex appeal as body identity rather than their health, strength, energy, etc leads to more than an eating disorder or diminished mental performance. It could be linked to high prevalence of depression and sexual dysfunction among American women.
As we have seen, the mass media has had a huge effect on fostering attitudes about physical appeal. They’re enormously influential in governing what we say and feel about ourselves and our appearance.
From Kurt and Gladys Lang’s essay “The Mass Media and Voting”:
The mass media forces attention to certain issues. They build up public images of political figures. They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the masses should think about, know about, have feelings about.
So my theory that we also listen to what the media tells us to do wasn’t so far off after all.
Dr. Patzer concludes that ill health offsets beauty benefits. However, people would be willing to sacrifice their health or money to improve their physical appearance.
As an anorexic acquaintance wrote on her blog, “I don’t care if this kills me. At least I’ll be beautiful.”