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Muscle mania

The beauty myth has always been a female concern: it was women alone whom society defined by the way they looked. But now men, too, feel required to achieve the so-called perfect body. The result is not only anorexia, but its reverse, bigorexia

Ellen Goodman | February, 2004

'My first visit to a gym got me hooked. Almost immediately I started to see my body changing, as muscles I never knew I had seemed to pop up everywhere. I read up on new training methods and tried just about every diet and natural supplement known to man.

'I seemed to train harder than anybody I knew, but was at a sticking point. I longed for the type of physique you saw in the magazines. Then I heard about steroids: if this was the only way, then I wanted to do it safely. I also discussed it with my doctor, who agreed to do the blood tests for me. I had to convince him how serious I was, but after that he was fine and would often discuss my usage.

'After seven years of natural training, I had put on two stone. I planned out my first course of steroids, took it over eight weeks and put on another two stone immediately. I come off them for three months to rest my body and still kept three-quarters of the gains I had made. I'm sure this was also due to the seven years of training - my body was primed; steroids were just the missing link in the chain.

'I have been using courses on and off for the past six years. I reached a maximum weight of 15 stone 12 pounds, just short of doubling my weight. I went from a nervous, skinny kid to a guy who is confident and respected. So am I bigorexic? When I see how it changed my life, yes. But it isn't an illness; it's an addiction - and it has definitely been a healthy one for me.'

This is a man talking: "I'm always on a diet; I can't eat sweets or alcohol; I'm at the gym four times a week. It requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but it's a matter of priorities and what's important to you." This is another man: "I constantly think I'm overweight, and go into cycles of hardly eating and madly exercising."

These men aren't exceptional; this is how men are talking. What is unusual is that this used to be the talk of women. Technically, that's not such a big deal. As we strive for gender equality, men should be able to do the things that women do. But this isn't an equality that anybody wanted or fought for; it's the right to feel the heat of body scrutiny and the tyranny of objectification. Men, in other words, are being sold the beauty myth.

The male beauty myth isn't thin, however - it's big. That's big as in beefcake, not beer belly: big chest, big, V-shaped back, big biceps and a mandatory six-pack of carefully carved abdominal muscles. No longer a reference to cans of alcohol, contemporary usage of the phrase practically typifies the social transformation of the modern male. He has moved from beer to brawn; from pub to gym; from lager lout to lean muscleman.

Muscleman isn't confined to the pages of a few publications aimed at the health-conscious, either. He is everywhere. He's a movie star, action toy, model, pop star, TV presenter. He's staring at us from the sides of buses and buildings. He's on Top Of The Pops. He's a regular in women's glossy magazines; even lad mags have sections or entire offshoot magazines dedicated to him: FHM Bionic, GQ Active. His ubiquity plays a uniform, surround-sound message: these days we judge men on appearance, and muscle is the socially preferred look.

Not surprisingly, once nonchalant men are now expressing a body disaffection of the kind that women used to monopolise. A 1997 US survey in Psychology Today found that 45% of men were dissatisfied with their body appearance. The figures have tripled in three decades, and are catching up with female levels of body-related woe.

Over here, a year later, Dr Karen Henwood, clinical health psychologist at Keele University, asked a national sample of men aged 15-34 to respond to the socially circulated male body ideal.

Overwhelmingly, they spoke of pressure, anger and resentment; Henwood concludes that the shibboleths laid on men, that they should not care about their appearance, have broken down: "What's surprising is the strength of feeling and emotional vocabulary of these men. It's so similar to the body image concerns of women."

Inevitably, as men adopt the body-consciousness of women, they also take on the related disorders. In Britain, the incidence of anorexia and bulimia among boys and men has doubled since the mid-70s, and is now estimated at 10% of all reported eating disorders. No one knows if that's an accurate figure. Hidden and secretive by nature, such disorders are even further obscured in the male population. The Eating Disorders Association reports that GPs refer men for treatment late, if at all, because, perhaps, of an assumption that such illnesses affect only middle-class girls. Eating disorders are far more difficult to diagnose in men because there are no give-away symptoms, such as missed periods. Moreover, women develop disorders by cutting or purging calories, while men prefer to burn them. Bodybuilding, claims one specialist, is the male form of low fatness, and provides a useful camouflage, since exercise doesn't carry the associations of severe food restrictions, and a worked-out body doesn't look deprived.

For men to be diagnosed, they first have to come forward. Eileen Murphy, clinical director of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, believes that men are paralysed and silenced by the affront eating disorders present to their perceptions of masculinity: "I can see the agony it has taken for men actually to come to see me. It seems they have to reach a greater level of despair before they do something about it." She worries that the statistics for male eating disorders may represent only a tiny slice of a larger, more problematic pie.

There is also a new male illness to worry about: muscle dysmorphia, aka "bigorexia", first cited in The Adonis Complex, an American examination of the extent of male body obsession. Bigorexia is often described as the reverse of anorexia. People with anorexia believe that they are too fat when they are actually too thin; conversely, bigorexics think they are puny when in fact they are big, in the bodybuilder sense of the word. No matter how muscular they are, bigorexic men have a chronically distorted perception of their own size, and feel ashamed of looking too small.

Inconceivably, bigorexia exists beyond the textbook - the authors of The Adonis Complex thought that they had diagnosed a rare condition but, as they travelled the US collecting data, they found more and more confessions of bigorexia; hundreds of men dressed in baggy T-shirts to obscure supposedly small frames, their lives distorted by a misfiring self-perception. The book is replete with cases of muscular men who won't wear shorts for fear of exposing "chicken legs"; who never undress in communal changing rooms; who drop girlfriends, disrupt social lives and jeopardise careers because of a compulsive need to pump up to a satisfactory size. But the bigorexic tendency is exacerbated, not alleviated, by more sessions at the gym. Wanting to be bigger is like taking a treadmill to nowhere, because obsession breeds disaffection. Simon Waterson, a prominent London personal trainer, says: "There will always be someone bigger and better than you, so you can never be satisfied, there's never an end to it."

If the volume of men suffering delusions of smallness is surprising, so, too, is the scope of men affected.

Certainly, bigorexia is most severe among bodybuilders and fitness fanatics, but milder and still problematic muscle concerns are seemingly manifest among other boys and men: those who use and those who eschew the gym. The Adonis Complex reports 16 cases of bigorexia in a survey of 160 gym-going men, a rate of 10%. However, co-author Roberto Olivardia says that the figure does not include men with subclinical symptoms: "If we were to include all those with less serious muscle obsessions, that percentage could double, maybe even triple."

It is curious that the body obsessions of men should be named after Adonis, since, by today's surreal standards, the Greek god would be deemed a bit of a lard bucket. But this, says the book, is exactly the point: the imagery of the male physique has become more developed, more ridiculously, unattainably muscular. And the theory is that such changes aren't only down to diet, training and a bit of photo-editing. The Adonis Complex takes a look at male imagery, from action toys to playgirl pin-ups, over the past 30 years, and documents how, from around the 80s, the bodies began to muscle up. One section is devoted to action toys, because, like Barbie, their vital statistics have grown increasingly divorced from reality: Iron Man, Batman, GI Joe and dozens of other toy action heroes have morphed into impossibly hyper-muscled hunks. For example, when Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, saw a 1995 doll version of himself, he is reported to have said: "Good God, they've put me on steroids!" He hit the nail on the head with that remark. "Our research has persuaded us," says Olivardia, "that the male body simply cannot exceed a certain level of muscularity without the help of steroids or other chemicals."

The book also suggests that much of the modern male body image bank is made up of men on muscle-building drugs. That contemporary male muscle icons are "on the juice" is frequently alluded to in fitness circles, where lists of steroid-taking public figures - athletes, actors, boxers - are freely cited. Yet many of the images we see are what The Adonis Complex describes as "politely 'roided", meaning that they are still within the range that might, theoretically, be attainable without drugs, but that the combination of leanness and muscularity on display is suspect.

As the 'roided body infiltrates western culture, men are simultaneously encouraged to achieve the look by natural means. The book cites one scene in a gym, where a "juiced" trainer advises a male client. "What does it take to get to look like you?" the client asks, to which the trainer solemnly replies: "Long, hard work." Waterson isn't surprised by the story, and says that "maybe 35%" of male personal trainers take steroids: "Off the top of my head, I can think of 10, easily, who are on the juice."

Richard Palmer at the Pump Helpline, a needle exchange advertising in a London gym, tells a similar tale of deceit: "Men ask why they don't look like the guys on the sides of their bottles of supplements. I have to tell them why." There is a tendency to think that steroids - chemical imitations of the muscle-building hormone testosterone - are used only by bodybuilders and Russian athletes, but Waterson reiterates the words of many fitness professionals when he says, "Anyone involved in the industry knows that it's widespread."

A 1993 study for the Department of Health looked at 1,300 men in a range of UK gyms and found that 9% were "on the juice". While there's been no similar study since, there is indirect evidence that usage has since increased - in the past two years, GP surveys show that one in three doctors has seen steroid takers (ie, takers that they know of), while this group accounts for one third of all visitors to needle exchanges. Patrick Lenehan, director of the Sports and Drugs Information Service, qualifies that last statistic. "Unlike other drug users, steroid users get lots of needles to distribute at the gym, so this figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg."

Lenehan, compiling data on steroid usage in north-west England in 1996, found that some 70% was recreational; the rest was taken mainly by bodybuilders, only a tiny percentage of whom were competitive lifters. Steroids are increasingly taken as a quick fix. Legal to use in the UK, but not to supply, they are cheaper than other recreational drugs and widely available in gyms, over the internet, by prescription and on the street. Unlike other recreational drugs, however, steroids are not subject to a government health intervention policy.

Researchers such as Lenehan say that there are long-term risks - potentially damaging changes to the liver, heart and muscles, raised cholesterol levels, possible dependence, mood swings - but that such information does not reach the men who need it. Lenehan's 1996 survey found that two-thirds of 900 polled users had no contact with the health services. Without monitored intervention, street knowledge of steroids is necessarily anecdotal: some men seem fine; others develop acne, breasts and "'roid rage". One thing these men know for certain is that steroids work and, among practised users, the perception is that, properly taken, they are safe.

But not every male exposed to images of musclemen will take steroids, lift weights and count calories, as Olivardia points out: "It is simplistic to think that we can just blame the media." Not surprisingly, the magazines that provoke condemnation in this context are dismissive of the case presented by The Adonis Complex.

"It's an excuse for a book," says Simon Geller, editor of Men's Health. "We didn't create it, we're not that influential. We just spot trends and cash in on them." Geller and his counterpart at Men's Fitness believe in the "aspirational" effect of their magazines, meaning that the images are an ideal to aim towards, rather than to replicate wholesale. Geller adds that, in any case, such titles target a thirtysomething readership, who are old enough to know better than to indulge body hang-ups.

However, that view is countered by Professor Andrew Sparkes of the department of sport and exercise sciences, Exeter University. The editor of Talking Bodies, a compilation of men's narratives on body image, he argues that thirtysomething men are, in fact, a highly vulnerable group, reminded of the need to be toned, tight and young at precisely the time when the body sags, ages and slouches: "This may not be a machiavellian campaign to make men worry about their stomachs, but to say that it doesn't work on insecurities is slightly suspect." According to Sparkes, the lifestyle story told to men uses fitness and wellbeing to push a primarily narcissistic message.

"Health is the hook, and there are undeniable benefits to exercise, but the subliminal message is that your sex life will improve instantly if you get bigger muscles."

The promised improvements extend beyond the bedroom, says Waterson: "If you walk into a room looking pumped and hard, people look up to you, admire you, want to talk to you. It's a confidence boost, a social lubricant." Such arguments fan the flames of an already raging dialogue on modern male angst. Sociocultural commentators argue that men, undermined by the struggle to find a new, useful role in a radically altered social landscape, are readily attracted to the prospect of building bigger bodies. Susan Faludi, unravelling the roots of a male crisis in Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man, writes that this replicates the female model of social adaptation. "The 50s housewife, stripped of her connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with shopping and the ornamental display of her ultrafemininity, could be said to have morphed into the 90s man, stripped of his connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with consumption and a gym-bred display of his ultramasculinity."

By this analysis, muscleman is a commercial creation. Having squeezed the female market to saturation point, the beauty industry has turned to the untapped male sector - and it's paying off: the UK male grooming products market pulled in �452,700,000 in the year up to January, more than double the amount five years ago.

But who is driving the body commodity machine? According to men, it's women, although they cite some odd evidence to support the theory. "What do Ally McBeal and the Sex And The City girls want?" asks one. "They want a six-pack, don't they?" Other men point out that the muscle message is prevalent in women's magazines and narrated by women in adverts, which, they say, reflect female requirements of the male physique. But real women aren't saying this.

Research shows that men's perception of the ideal body is typically around 15lbs more muscular than the stated female preference.

If women do have a role in all this, it is, argues The Adonis Complex, in the context of "threatened masculinity".

Stripped of other means by which to establish maleness, men are drawn to the gym as a final frontier, as an arena in which women will never be able to exceed or even match male accomplishments. Muscularity, in this context, is important because it is so intimately tied to cultural views of masculinity, because it represents an assertion of discipline and command at a time when those qualities are no longer exclusive to men. Muscleman isn't just confident, sexually appealing and generally a big hit; muscleman is, above all, in control. Pursuit of this socially restricted body ideal is presented as a guarantee of empowerment. The trouble is that men who fall for the beauty myth aren't gaining a sense of control. Just like women, they are losing it

In a line-up of men, Chris Gallard, 26, would be at the lean and muscled end of the scale. But he isn't happy.

'I'm not comparing myself to an ordinary man. In a line-up of men in this gym, I'm nowhere.'

A fitness instructor and personal trainer, he is also a qualified accountant, but prefers to work at the gym. 'I was coming here all the time anyway, so when the chance of a job came up, I took it.'

At the moment, he is nursing a knee injury, but is still putting in four weight-training and four aerobic sessions a week.

He was, he says, a skinny child. 'If you're small, you get picked on at school.' Since then, he has gained two stone in muscle, but still wants to improve.

'I'm never content. The more I work out, the more faults I find with myself.'

He keeps finding faults with his diet, too. Four days into a rigorous detox diet, he says, 'I'm dying to eat bad food, it's amazing how strong that craving is.'

His pursuit of the body ideal - 'I'm not going to lie and say it's purely for health' - is a constant quest because, if he takes time off, he really notices the difference. As do others. 'If you look fat, everyone at the gym tells you. I think that's good. I don't need to hear people say I look great, and hearing that isn't going to change the way I train.'

Bradly Tomberlin, 25, Jason Harker, 31, have each featured on the cover of Men's Health magazine. Both American, they attribute cover looks to genetic heritage and to being sporty and healthy from a young age. On top of that, Tomberlin works out every day for up to two and a half hours, and Harker does four aerobic and three strength-training sessions a week.

Both believe that diet is crucial.

'It accounts for 70% of my success,' says Tomberlin. He avoids processed foods, bread, pasta, chips and crackers, and eats 'mostly vegetables, lean chicken and fish'. Harker follows a similarly protein-based diet.

Prior to a photo shoot, the same principles apply in overdrive. 'I do one hour of cardio a day and really cut the carbs,' Harker says. Likewise, Tomberlin 'preps hard for a shoot' with extra intensive exercise and dietary vigilance. Both say it is common to use diuretics to eliminate body fluid before a shoot. –Mail & Guardian




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