Reason | November 2000
[Review of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, by Harrison G. Pope Jr., Katharine A. Phillips, and Roberto Olivardia, New York: The Free Press, 286 pages, $25]
BY THE TIME I graduated from high school, I had reached my full height-–not quite five feet, eight inches–-and I weighed 105 pounds. Much earlier, when I was about 9 or 10, I had begun to notice that I was preoccupied with certain aspects of my appearance. After one of my father’s friends made a good-natured jibe about my "nice little potbelly," I worried for months about my stomach and tried to keep it covered all the time. I would also spend long sessions in front of the mirror, using water and gel and combs and brushes to smooth out what I thought were imperfections in my hair. None of that, though, prepared me for what was to happen when I reached high school.
Today when I look at pictures of my teenaged self I see a strikingly thin but hardly hideous boy. What I saw then, however, was a monster. I was grotesquely thin. As if that were not enough, I also had bandy legs, pimples, and a mild back deformity called kyphosis that made me look slightly hunched no matter how straight my posture. I felt that my body was weird, monstrous, and also alien, something I was cursed with and trapped in. Sometimes I would fantasize about chopping off my arms and legs and throwing them into the sea, just to be rid of them.
I made sure that no one had any idea how I felt. I had no use for obtuse reassurances ("There, there, you look just fine") and no appetite to be packed off to a shrink. The isolation and secrecy were harder to bear than the malady itself. My best hope, as I saw it, was to grow up and either fill out or stop obsessing. To an extent, both happened; but by the time I graduated from college I still weighed less than 120 lbs., and although my self-loathing had ebbed quite a bit, it had not gone away. I felt freakish not only physically but emotionally, because it never occurred to me that anyone else had experienced anything like what I was going through.
What a difference it might have made if, by some time-twisting miracle, I could have been handed a copy of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, by Harrison G. Pope Jr., Katharine A. Phillips, and Roberto Olivardia. I first heard of the book from a 22-year-old gay acquaintance who had somehow gotten hold of the bound galleys and was carrying them around like a Bible. His hatred of his own appearance had driven him to a compulsive and often dangerous promiscuity (if he was having sex, he couldn’t be all that ugly). The Adonis Complex was a revelation to him, as it would have been to me, had it existed when I was his age.
So the first and most important thing to say about The Adonis Complex is: Hooray! For years, the scientific and popular literature has been full of hand wringing about eating disorders and body obsessions in women; but about men, next to nothing. The authors originally focused their own clinical work-–in psychiatry and psychology at the Harvard and Brown medical schools–-on women. Only gradually did they realize that "body dysmorphic disorders," as body obsessions are officially called, are also common in men, who almost never reveal or discuss them. "We want to tell these men and the people who love them," Pope and his colleagues write, "that they no longer need to suffer alone, that the Adonis Complex–-this secret crisis of male body obsession–-afflicts millions in our society and around the world."
They have compiled many cases. Kevin, an enormous bodybuilder, is convinced his arms look like "sticks" and sometimes won’t go outside all day "because I’m afraid people will think I look too small." Scott works out compulsively, loses his girlfriend, and refuses to go to the beach for fear of being thought too small. Joe counts every hair that falls into the sink and is so mortified by his hair loss that he drives recklessly, hoping to die: "If I have to go through life looking like this, I don’t want to live." Barry becomes obsessed with his weight and starves himself down to 85 pounds. Ben, also weight-obsessed, binges and purges twice a week, wolfing down four Big Macs, three Whoppers, six pieces of chicken, four large containers of french fries, and two milk shakes, and then forcing himself to vomit it all back up. The authors have learned a great deal about what ails these men and how to help them. Their writing is clear, personable, and unfailingly reasonable. They provide tests you can take to spot body obsessions in yourself and others. Anyone who struggles with a body obsession, or knows a man who might, could use this book.
YOU are right, though, to sense a "but" coming. Mental health professionals can rarely resist the temptation to put society on the couch. The Adonis Complex, in the authors’ reckoning, is really two quite different sorts of pathology. One afflicts individuals, men like Kevin and Joe and Ben. The other is a social disease.
In 1964, G.I. Joe sported a respectable but unremarkable physique; if he were five feet, 10 inches, he would have had a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest, and thin 12-inch arms. By 1991, G.I. Joe’s waist had shrunk to 29 inches, and his arms had grown to 16. He had, in other words, become a bodybuilder. Star Wars action figures–-Luke Skywalker and Han Solo–-were ordinarily athletic in 1978, but by 1995 they were on steroids.
Then there are the ads, and the models, and the magazines. One of the book’s most interesting charts shows the percentage of male models appearing shirtless or otherwise "undressed" in Glamour and Cosmopolitan. In both magazines, the proportion stays under 10 percent in the 1960s and 1970s, but then in the 1980s it takes off, almost tripling. And the undressed men become much more muscular.
The authors compile more evidence in this vein, but you don’t need to examine it to know that something happened in the last 15 or 20 years. Call it the Buff Revolution. Suddenly there were half a dozen physique magazines on every 7-Eleven newsstand. Suddenly buses prowled through the cities bearing ads in which, for no discernible reason, a barechested young man with a chiseled and tanned and shaved-down torso displayed a microwave oven (a microwave oven?). Suddenly there was the Soloflex man, and Calvin Klein underwear ads, and WWF wrestlers on steroids, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and GQ, and a gym on every corner. You could hardly walk 100 feet in any direction without encountering a muscle shrine.
To the authors, what all this suggests is that men are increasingly being manipulated by opportunistic advertisers and marketers and merchants. They write, "These ‘male body image industries’–-purveyors of food supplements, diet aids, fitness programs, hair-growth remedies, and countless other products-–now prey increasingly on men’s worries, just as analogous industries have preyed for decades on the appearance-related insecurities of women." Men therefore are "victims" of "what our society is doing to contemporary men’s views about their bodies." They are "indoctrinated" by exposure to more supermuscular images than any previous generation has ever encountered.
As a result, the cases of full-blown body dysmorphic disorder, cases like Kevin’s and Scott’s and Joe’s and Ben’s, are only the tip of the iceberg. "For every severe or dangerous case," the authors write, "there are dozens of less severe cases–-men who cope quietly with emotional pain about some aspect of how they look." The body image concerns of boys and men "range from minor annoyances to devastating and sometimes even life-threatening obsessions-–from manageable dissatisfaction to full-blown psychiatric body image disorders." Even minor discontents, apparently, are evidence of society’s Adonis Complex.
In at least five passages, the authors go out of their way to say that body image concerns are not pathological unless they cause distress or impairment. There’s nothing wrong, they say, with working out or dieting to look good. Yet the authors do not seem to believe themselves. They note, with italics and exclamation point, a study in which "95 percent of college-age men expressed dissatisfaction with some part of their bodies!" (Of course they did; and the other 5 percent were lying.) The authors further note that, according to one estimate, in 1997 American men "spent a shocking $3.5 billion on men’s toiletries (hair color, skin moisturizers, tooth whiteners, etc.)." (That would be about $36 per year for every adult male.) They note, not approvingly, that gyms are full of college students who pay "$400 per year out of their own pockets" to work out, even though "most could use their own college gyms for free if they wanted." All of this they see as signs that Americans are excessively preoccupied with their appearance.
The treatment for the serious cases of Adonis Complex is therapy and antidepressants. The treatment for the milder ones is consciousness raising: "It’s time for men to liberate themselves from the artificial and unattainable standards that Western society and the media have imposed upon them in the last 20 or 30 years." The authors speak more than once of "liberation" in describing their social prescription, and they are well aware of the feminist themes their book echoes. Just as Penthouse and Charlie’s Angels have insidiously stereotyped and exploited women, so the buff culture insidiously stereotypes and exploits men.
Fair enough, up to a point. Muscle marketing does indeed distort many men’s and boys’ image of the healthy male physique. Men should be more widely aware, as the authors suggest, that those big, "healthy" muscles they see in the sports nutrition ads are often unattainable without drugs. The makers of action figures and Saturday morning cartoons would do everybody a favor by taking their characters off steroids. Still, one suspects that there is a baby somewhere in the bathwater that The Adonis Complex throws out in its rush to emancipate men from hard stomachs and pendulous pecs. One wonders: Is there only something wrong with the buff culture? Or is there also something gloriously right about it?
THE muscular male physique is spectacularly beautiful, and not just to women and gay men. The appeal of big muscles to men is probably innate and universal, for reasons that an evolutionary psychologist would have no trouble explaining. Has any society anywhere exalted soft, shapeless men? Has any schoolboy, ever, wanted smaller muscles? But for many years, probably since the first colonists landed, American men repressed the explicit pursuit or adulation of male beauty with an almost Saudi relentlessness. A man could be beautiful only if he wasn’t trying and didn’t care; he could be "naturally athletic," or "well toned," but working on his body for its own sake was vain or eccentric or something even worse, something unmentionable. Men pretended not to notice other men’s biceps (someone might get the wrong idea!). Male models looked fit but safely shy of hunky. Ronald Reagan passed for beefcake, partly because his physique was so bland and sexless. The notion of pumping a man up, shaving him down, and displaying his naked torso on the side of a bus would have seemed altogether too–-well, you know, too Greek.
In the 1970s, as the cultural climate grew more hospitable to overt eroticism and as homosexuality came to seem less dangerous and more titillating, it became increasingly possible for a man to express admiration or envy of male beauty, even if in guarded terms. Meanwhile steroids, dietary supplements, and plain old sweat made muscles bloom as never before. In the early 1980s, the dam finally broke. Male hunkiness ceased to be taboo. Advertisers and marketers took full advantage of the change, and so pushed it along. I doubt, however, that they caused it. In any case, I think the great majority of men-–the ones who do not have body dysmorphic disorder–-should welcome the new climate.
Being mental health professionals, the authors of The Adonis Complex tend to regard the pursuit of beauty for its own sake as frivolous, and the pursuit of beauty at the expense of health as irrational, even crazy. They cite a survey that asked men, "How many years of your life would you trade to achieve your weight goals?" The answer so shocks them that they italicize it: "17 percent of men said they would give up more than three years of their lives. Eleven percent would sacrifice five years." Why is that terrible, or even surprising? Ambition of any sort is a kind of neurotic itch, given that we all wind up dead anyway. Celebrity and power will shorten your life, on average, but it is human nature to want to be famous and powerful–-and beautiful. When I was 16 and skinny and pimply and weak, if you had told me I could instead be muscular and handsome and strong at the cost of living to be 73 instead of 77, would I have been crazy to take the deal? Or crazy not to take it?
At last men are free to pursue beauty for its own sake, and if the pursuit is sometimes maddening it can also be (yes) liberating. American men, always intent on remaking something, are turning their restless creativity on their own bodies. This is healthier, I think, than the authors of The Adonis Complex allow. For millions of men, the gym is itself a form of therapy. When I was in my 20s, I began working out religiously. For a while the gym became my second home. Was I driven, even a shade compulsive? Maybe. But little by little my body changed, and I changed inside of it. I came to feel I belonged in a gym, sweating and flexing, and then later, more slowly, I came to feel that I belonged in my body.
I am not suggesting that my obsessive self-loathing was good for me because I overcame it. I am saying that self-loathing is one thing and the male pursuit of beauty is another, and it is important to distinguish between the two. That the one is unhealthy does not make the other so, any more than driving is unhealthy because some people die in accidents. The Buff Revolution was liberating rather than oppressive, even if, like all liberations, it enticed some people to excess or illness. Gradually, I suspect, many of the excesses will subside. America is only just learning to cope with the intoxicant of male beauty. With time, and with the help of books like The Adonis Complex, more and more men will learn to be buff without being crazy.