Men are obsessed by their bodies as never before, and boys are paying the price
Ever since the days of Charles Atlas, men have at some point in their lives thought about how their bodies looked.
They typically didn’t think about them much — except as vehicles to winning over a woman or avoiding too grotesque a paunch. Yes, they’d exercise — but usually in team sports.
Bodybuilding in the gym was regarded as semi-effeminate narcissism until Arnold Schwarzenegger created an industry by revealing not a Charles Atlas physique but something more extreme — an almost cartoon-like form.
He did it in the 1970s. And he did it with steroids, when they were legal. To his credit, he is one of the few public figures honest enough to admit it. He wrote at the time that “steroids were helpful to me in maintaining muscle size while on a strict diet in preparation for a contest. I did not use them for muscle growth, but rather for muscle maintenance.”
However he used them, he set a new standard for the male physique and, far from going away, it seems to have become even stronger. A study in the medical journal Pediatrics has found that 90% of schoolboys now say they work out in some way to build muscle; 40% were doing it regularly to change their body image; 6% admitted to steroid use.
“There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard, told The New York Times. The portrayal of men as fat-free and chiselled “is dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago”, he said.
There is, in short, a literal and figurative arms race, as muscle now adds social status among men and boys as much as slimness obsesses women. A friend of mine once called it a male version of anorexia: “biggerexia” or “musculosia nervosa”. The French found the mot juste: musculation.
Just look at the male romantic leads in Hollywood movies today, and think how they looked in the 1970s. They’re unrecognisable. Robert Redford and Paul Newman would have sand kicked in their faces by today’s action men. The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen lamented the shift: “Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held.” But this argument has a limited appeal to teenage boys, whose movie idols now come in cartoon superhero form, with bodies that look like Schwarzenegger’s, only a teensy bit subtler.
More and more American men will supplement their declining testosterone with gel or a needleThe idea that these bodies are steroid-free is as preposterous as the idea that Lance Armstrong or the baseball legend Barry Bonds was not on some kind of drug in his sporting prime. Which is why, oddly enough, teenage bodybuilding contests have lost competitors as the muscle mania has grown.
“You used to get a lot of teenage bodybuilders, but you don’t get them as much any more,” said Andrew Bostinto, president of the National Gym Association in America. “A lot of these kids are juiced [on steroids], so they’re not entering natural shows . . . You get these kids now, they’re 5ft 6in, 5ft 7in, weighing 265lb [almost 19 stone] with 2% body fat,” he said. “Give me a break. You can’t put on 30lb in a month.”
No, you can’t — not without pharmaceutical help. I asked a trainer at my old gym once how many of the men around me he thought were using steroids. “It would be easier to point out the ones who aren’t,” he drily remarked.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell once wrote. So take a look some time at a game of American football. One can only observe that teams of men seem to have transformed themselves into herds of cattle. Again, the acid test is looking back at football players in previous eras. Human beings like these simply did not exist. And some wonder why concussion and brain damage have become so common in the sport.
The usual warnings don’t work. Testosterone — and its synthetic version — is not a drug like cocaine, unfamiliar to the body. It is already part of the male body. It’s natural. Yes, too much in unsupervised fashion can lead to all sorts of physical problems — high blood pressure, vulnerable hearts, worn-out kidneys. But when administered under careful medical supervision, these drugs do not irreparably harm adult men.
I know this personally because my own testosterone production has been wiped out by HIV over the past 20 years, and I now have doctor-supervised testosterone replacement therapy to keep my levels in the normal range. The difference between the lethargy, exhaustion and depression beforehand and the vim and vigour afterwards remind me of Popeye and his spinach. It is not hard to see the appeal — or the double standards.
Women in America can have almost unlimited cosmetic surgery to appease their lack of self-esteem. But the means to become like Schwarzenegger is still illegal — and regarded as a form of drug. Unlike a facelift, however, a body makeover requires physical training. It demands exercise. If you take the steroids and don’t work out, you’ll just be extremely irritable and eat too much.
The exception to this relatively benign outcome is among teenagers. Just as recreational drugs can harm their still- developing brains, so artificial testosterone can screw up a youngster’s physical development. Steroid-based bodybuilding is, in most cases, of trivial harm when adopted by consenting adults. But those adults send a message to teenagers: being a man means being big. And so, bigger they keep getting.
We might be able to tackle this problem if we admitted it, and were able to tell kids to stay away and yet allow responsible adults to feel younger longer. But Americans won’t. Even obviously steroidal movie stars will sue to insist they aren’t. I recently asked a straight New Jersey twentysomething who strutted into an apartment, lifting up his shirt to ripple his abs, whether he and his peers acknowledged they were all juicing. “Kinda,” he replied. Which means no.
Meanwhile, on television and on the internet, you see advertisements for a cure for something called “low T” — that is, low testosterone. Slowly but relentlessly, more and more American men will supplement their declining testosterone with gel or a needle, provided by a doctor. Add a Viagra and we truly are living in a pharmaceutical world — in which every man is ripped, and every man is insecure. But we can’t help ourselves. We’re men, after all: peacocks given a new splash of colour. Who could resist?