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The Disease of the Demigods: Male Body Obsession

By Owen C. Franklin

"Some men sacrifice careers, friends and family to add a few more inches to their biceps."

One May afternoon, "Cliff" left a desperate cry on an online support group.

"Need a real intense workout that will make my biceps huge!!!!!!!"

After two days of fruitless waiting, Cliff submitted another, humble plea.


These words, along with countless other calls for muscular magic, blanket the message boards at Bodybuilding.com. Their authors, with names such as "StudFox", "six pac" and "buff", seek the workout tips, diet plans and simple words of encouragement they need to carve themselves a better body.

These message boards, while part of a supportive online community, offer a glimpse at a dangerous cultural trend. Our body-obsessed culture may be maxing out. The siren calls of underwear models, movie stars and even action figures are growing louder and louder, pulling herds of people to near-impossible goals.

The pitfalls of body image obsession have been discussed for decades, but almost exclusively in regards to women. Today, however, experts recognize that such problems span the gender gap. Now, men must share the risks of beautiful bodies.

Spotting men

"Even 20 years ago, body image with men was basically unheard of," said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinic fellow in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, "But there has been a dramatic increase in the issues that men have with their bodies."

Dr. Olivardia has watched these issues take shape for more than a decade. He worked with two physicians, Harrison G. Pope, Jr., M.D. and Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., to compile more than 15 years of research about men and body image issues in a new book entitled, The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession.

"The lack of awareness about this is really amazing," said Dr. Olivardia. "I would tell people that I do this kind of work, and they'd say 'wow, you mean there are men out there who have issues like this?'"

Manly media

It seems that most body image buzz hovers around breasts, cellulite and long, long legs. Critics constantly attack the ideal hourglass figures found on magazine covers and movie screens. A great deal of media attention highlights the dangers of waify models, silicon-laden superstars, and anatomically impossible Barbie dolls.

But while the changing shape of female bodies held the limelight, male bodies underwent their own transformation. James Bond trimmed down, G.I. Joe buffed up, and male models took it all off. Today, men face a challenging ideal that hasn't undergone the same scrutiny as their female counterparts.

"More and more women realize that the celebrities they see might have cosmetic surgery or be computer generated," said Dr. Olivardia. "But I don't think that men are as aware of what the discrepancies are."

Guarding the glass ceiling

According to Dr. Olivardia, the relatively recent onslaught of buff male bodies delivers a one-two punch. Not only are the ideals hard to live up to, but some see them as an omen that the "gender balance" is starting to shift.

"A lot of the milestones that highlight changing male body image match feminist milestones," said Dr. Olivardia. "Before the 1970s, the idea of something such as 'Chippendales' was basically nonsensical."

The feminist movement of the past two decades brought women into positions that were, for centuries, only available to men. Today, women are starting to catch up to men — they earn more money than ever before, manage companies, and serve in the military. For many men, these landmarks of masculinity were critical to their identities as men.

Stripped of these advantages, many men turn to their muscles.

"I remember one man said that, no matter how much parity occurs, no woman will ever be able to bench press as much as he could," said Dr. Olivardia. "For a lot of men, muscles are a very concrete was of expressing masculinity."

Pills for pecs

Unfortunately, muscles are easier to come by these days. Some practically come in a bottle.

Twenty years ago, steroids were rarely found outside professional body building circles. According to Dr. Olivardia, these drugs have spread from Mr. Universe's universe to office buildings and high schools. Dr. Olivardia adds that some movie stars and models get an anabolic leg-up as well.

"Today, men can achieve a much more muscular body build, and that build has become the standard," said Dr. Olivardia. "Many men don't realize that they are measuring themselves against something that is steroid induced."

The shape of the problems

Men pursue the ideal body in different ways. According to health experts, it all depends on their perceived physical stigma.

"Men with these issues usually consider themselves either underdeveloped or grossly obese," said Kevin Steele, Ph.D., Vice President of Health Services at 24-Hour Fitness. "They'll do whatever it takes to get that ideal that they have in their heads."

Dr. Steele says he's seen many men with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Studies estimate that 1 million men and boys suffer from eating disorders (Crowther et al., 1992; Fairburn et al., 1993; Gordon, 1990; Hoek, 1995; Shisslak et al., 1995). These men continue to strain for a leaner body despite the fact that they have a healthy amount of body fat. The other side of body obsession, he says, plays out through near compulsive visits to the barbells.

"One dangerous sign is if a person is at the gym multiple times a day for extended periods," said Dr. Steele. "Serious professional athletes don't even work out that much, and if they do it's only for a certain amount of time."

A tough workout

This body image obsession can develop into a crippling disorder. Some men sacrifice careers, friends and family to add a few more inches to their biceps.

"I know of one man who was an attorney," said Dr. Olivardia. "He had to have his protein shake every hour, and he had to get to the gym on his lunch hour. That turned into two hours, then two and a half. He was told that, to keep his job, he'd have to get rid of his blender and shorten his lunch hour. He couldn't do it."

Such a blatant compulsion seems hard to miss, but many men do. Many men still consider themselves immune to such a "female problem" such as weight obsession. For these people, repeated trips to the gym are part of being a man, not a red flag for pathology.

Those men who do notice a problem may avoid treatment. Many compulsive weightlifters, though virtually swimming in excess testosterone, may harbor a fear of being too feminine. Dr. Olivardia says these men feel plagued by a "girly" illness.

"Iíve asked a lot of men why they havenít sought treatment for these issues," said Dr. Olivardia. "A lot of them said that they couldnít go to a doctor and say that I have this issue which is labeled as feminine. For them, there were all these fingers pointed at them as an assault on their masculinity."

Owning up

These problems are still very new ideas. While friends, family and coworkers might notice problems with social anxiety, they might not be on the lookout for male body obsession. The only person who recognizes this debilitating problem may be the sufferer, himself.

"When you notice that a preoccupation with your body is causing you a lot of anxiety, itís time to seek some help," said Dr. Olivardia. "People have to be aware that they are dealing with these issues, and then seek a professional who knows a lot about body image disorder."

These problems arenít bound to any age group. While most of the men Dr. Olivardia has studied are between 18 and 30 years old, high school students may fall vic

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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