Today, shifting values have forced younger generations of men to re-evaluate their masculinity and find a new respect for a well-groomed and chiselled physique. Sound diet and exercise are the foundations of good physique, but what may be more important is understanding that we are valued for what we do, not what we look like.
Few men admit their desire to be physically attractive. Beauty, in its aesthetic sense, has long been pejoratively classified as effeminate. Yet this was not always so, and increasingly may not be again.
The ancient Greek forebears of Western civilization had a fundamentally different perspective on male beauty than we hold today. The Greeks revered the well-proportioned, athletic male physique. They considered it a step closer to the gods and saw the health of the body as inseparable from the health of the mind and soul.
Today, shifting values have forced younger generations of men to re-evaluate their masculinity and find a new respect for a well-groomed and chiselled physique. Young men today want the rippling abdominals and dense pectorals of a Fight Club body double.
No group of young men strives harder to reach the ideal body image than the young bodybuilders working out daily at the local gym. In fact, these young men are obsessed with their appearance and “self-objectify,” meaning that they constantly monitor their appearance, reports an Australian study in 2005 in the British Journal of Health Psychology. Three samples of men–bodybuilders, weightlifters, and non-athletic controls–were asked to complete a questionnaire measuring levels of body shame, appearance anxiety, and four outcomes (body dissatisfaction, drive for muscularity, bulimia, and depression). As predicted, bodybuilders–though physically closer to the standard of male physical beauty than weightlifters and controls–had higher levels of body dissatisfaction and drive for muscularity than controls.
Rising to the physical standards of cultural expectations for muscularity may be a tall order in today’s fast-food culture. Many young men condemn as uncool anything that requires the time commitment necessary to get and stay fit. Yet others turn to advances in science in the form of bodybuilding supplements in hope that they will overcome obstacles that range from apathy and lack of time to media and peer pressure.
Illegal substances such as anabolic steroids that claim to enhance sports performance are all too common a part of bodybuilder and weightlifter training regimens. The results of a detailed online survey on steroid use among 207 bodybuilders reported in 2005 in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine showed that recreational bodybuilders not only take an average of 3.1 different bodybuilding agents, involving cycles ranging from five to 10 weeks, but that these men take them at doses five to 29 times greater than would be used for therapeutic purposes. That’s simply not healthy, especially because steroid abuse leads to adverse effects on the liver, heart, and reproductive system.
Style Over Substance?
How do men who have taken the cultural standards of bodily perfection to the extreme, using unhealthy behaviours such as severe food restriction, excessive exercise, and steroids, break their addiction to an illusive body image ideal?
Finding balance between body image and a sensible health and fitness regime is really a matter of awareness of whether our daily choices are driven by personal choice or by societal demand, suggests Dr. Michael Atkinson, a sociologist at McMaster University. “There are indications,” says Atkinson, “that, as a society, we are imposing ideals of beauty that most people simply cannot attain, that we are privileging form over function and style over substance. This raises hard questions about the values and priorities we unconsciously learn from the society in which we live.”
Sound diet and exercise are the foundations of good physique, but what may be more important is understanding that we are valued for what we do, not what we look like.
Social standards for male muscularity are set at a very young age, and this ideal has become more muscular over the past 30 years. Researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, gathered a range of action figures produced since the 1970s, measured the waist, chest, and bicep circumference of each, and scaled these measurements to the height of an actual man (1.78 metres). The results, reported in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 1999, showed that many contemporary figures far exceed the muscularity of even the largest human bodybuilders. Researchers concluded that, just as with female dolls such as Barbie, the toys children play with suggest cultural expectations that may contribute to body image disorders.