John Updike once compared the male body to a bank account: as long as it's healthy, a man doesn't think much about it. Clearly John Updike never met Emanuel Ward.
Ward has the physique of a star sprinter, complete with bulging biceps and curving calves.
Yet, last summer, the 27-year-old Ward found himself fretting. How would he look in a swimsuit? Maybe not as buff as his buddies, he thought, vowing to step up his gym regimen. "I didn't want to be ashamed," he says.
Not a typical guy remark, right? Think again. Being a man these days seems, well, an awful lot like being a woman. For men, more than ever, looks count. In Vogue and Men's Health alike, modern-day Adonises sell everything from protein powder to Armani cologne. They've got washboard abs, silky skin, nipples so erect they cast shadows. The male torso reigns as the decade's most powerful "crossover image" (appealing to men and women, gays and straights alike), says Peter Arnell of the New York advertising agency the Arnell Group.
"It's kind of sad, but sometimes I see a guy on TV who's buff," Ward says, "and if I haven't been working out, I think, wow! I better get back to the gym." He admits a Hanes underwear ad usually does the trick.
If this is gender equality, then, it naturally comes with drawbacks; some surprising and potentially harmful. As men become more body-conscious and advertisers become more shameless in objectifying the male physique, men are acquiring problems formerly associated with women: eating disorders, body obsessions, low physical self-esteem. One body-image study found 45 percent of men were dissatisfied with their physiques; women were only slightly less self-satisfied at 55 percent.
Some women, like Gwynne Reynolds, say it's about time. "I think it's only fair that men get a taste of what it's like to be us," says the 28-year-old marketing executive. Meanwhile, millions of guys on StairMasters are pondering what it means to be a man.
How else to explain the success of the movie The Full Monty, a 90-minute riff on the male self-image crisis? The British comedy about six laid-off steelworkers who put on a strip show (despite considerable physical flaws) has already raked in some $80 million worldwide. Yes, The Full Monty was funny, but it revealed more than just flesh.
"You'd better pray that women are more understanding about us," says one character. "Anti-wrinkle cream there is. Anti-fat bastard cream there is not."
Osize=+3>n a busy Monday night at the Boston Body health club on Boylston Street, the after-five crowd files in to sweat off a weekend's worth of microbrews and pizza. In the weight-training area, a pack of guys grunt and heave like women in labor.
Jay Knudson, 21, is one of them. The six-foot-four, 215-pound law student works out an hour and a half a day, five days a week. "Guys who are working out in their 20s are not doin it so much for their health," he says between biceps curls. "They're doing it for the look."
What look are they shooting for? Currently, two competing body types dominate the pages of GQ and Men's Health. The first is a slender, sculpted, almost feminine look (think Brad Pitt); the second, a pumped-up but still low-fat physique (think Casper Van Dien of Starship Troopers and Tarzan and the Lost City). Both images differ greatly from past ideals of male perfection.
Not so long ago, the manliest men in popular culture were burly, barrel-chested, even hairy. Think of John Wayne in the '40s, Burt Lancaster in the '50s, Steve McQueen in the '60s, Burt Reynolds in the '70s. These guys probably couldn't even point out their deltoids, never mind sculpt them. But this indifference to their appearance only made them sexier.
Then came the '80s, the decade of aerobics, jogging, tofu Â– and two ubiquitous advertising campaigns featuring male bodies: the Soloflex guy and the Calvin Klein underwear model. They represented a whole new breed of man. Their bodies, precursors to the Pitt and Van Dien looks, were hairless and lean, feminized and decidedly self-conscious.
Asize=+3>ccording to Daniel Harris's 1997 book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, this new body aesthetic had grown partly out of trends in the gay community. For decades, Harris writes, the most attractive gay men cultivated a slender, more feminized appearance. With the dawn of AIDS in the '80s, however, gay men began to equate a slight physique with sickness, and flocked to the gym. The perfectionist masculinity of gay gym culture quickly captivated Madison Avenue Â– think of Marky Mark, smirking in his Y-fronts across billboards and magazine pages. And while Marky himself was a celebrity, most of these ads divorced men's bodies from their personalities in a way that hadn't been done before. Who could name the Soloflex guy? The Diet Coke guy? High school girls could now line their lockers with magazine ads featuring anonymous male physiques as unrealistic as the swimsuit models their male counterparts drooled over.
Meanwhile, men were eyeing those diamond-hard abdominals and thinking that maybe, with enough time in the gym, they too could look that way. The average guy, of course, can no more shape his torso into Marky Mark's than the average gal can whip herself into Cindy Crawford. But suddenly men were presented with a demanding ideal that seemed achievable through hard work.
And that myth persists. Marcus Schenkenberg, the first man to enter the stratosphere of supermodeldom, has released a new, photo-cluttered biography in which he shares his workout routine with average Joes. His gut-conditioning tip: 650 abdominal crunches a day.
If you're a man and that sounds excessive to you, count yourself lucky. As society demands a fitter body, frowning on every pinch of fat, clinicians suspect an increasing numbeof men are crossing the line into exercise addiction. Signs of obsession include feelings of acute anxiety over a missed workout and an urge to make exercise a priority over friends and family. Most trainers recommend working out no more than an hour a day.
Bsize=+3>ut men don't just worry they're too fat; many worry that they're too thin. Researchers at McLean Hospital recently defined a body-image distortion disorder that they liken to "reverse anorexia." Called muscle dysmorphia, the syndrome appears in athletes (both male and female) who, despite being dramatically muscular, are convinced that they are too small. Imagine a bodybuilder Â– 250 pounds, 20-inch biceps, six percent body fat Â– horrified to take his shirt off for fear he looks out of shape.
"What we're seeing now is the same body obsession but in a new form," says Harrison G. Pope Jr., one of the McLean researchers. "It's coming out in the '90s as a preoccupation with muscularity and size." Indeed, Pope has called muscle dysmorphia "the anorexia of the '90s." That might sound a little alarmist, but Pope says it's no exaggeration. He warns not to underestimate the power of pop culture, especially Hollywood and the flourishing men's magazine industry. (Men's Health alone has increased its circulation fivefold, to 1.3 million readers, since its start in 1986).
The pressure on men comes from another direction, too. Women run companies, fly fighter planes, and, yes, pump iron Â– leaving the boys downright anxious about the meaning of masculinity. "As androgyny and gender equality increase, it unfortunately becomes very threatening to a lot of men," says Eric Silverman, a DePauw University anthropologist specializing in the study of body image. "Suddenly, men feel like they need to re-divide the genders. They need things that are exclusively masculine, even hypermasculine."
For some men, that means more muscle. Indeed, the number of men exercising has increased more than 30 percent since the start of the decade. According to the research firm American Sports Data, nine million men belonged to a health club last year. And on average, they went to the gym 88 days a year.
Pope also adds that steroid use remains high. About one million American men have tried the drugs and up to six percent have taken them by age 18.
Indeed, teenage boys are on their way to becoming the next generation of body-conscious men. They avidly lift weights, blend protein shakes, and buy bodybuilding magazines. "Compare that to when I was in high school in the 1960s," says Pope. "No one even talked about working out."
Isize=+3>t is well documented that, for women, body obsession can lead to extreme dieting and exercise. How widespread are eating disorders among men? Hard to say. Men are notoriously hesitant to seek psychological treatment, particularly for body-image disorders.
Some sources report an inrease in these problems among men, but T. Donald Branum, a Newton psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, points out that the rise could simply be a matter of awareness. As clinical sensitivity to male eating disorders increases, therapists are diagnosing the problem with more frequency.
What we do know is that of the eight million Americans being treated for eating disorders, one million are men. According to Branum, men make up about 10 percent of anorexics and about 20 percent of bulimics. Nearly half of binge eaters are men.
Branum, who treats men aged 15 to 65, reports that many men are ashamed to suffer from a "woman's illness." Indeed, the term "eating disorder" usually conjures the image of a white, suburban teenage girl. But eating disorders among men were documented in medical journals as far back as 1649. It's even suspected that Franz Kafka suffered from anorexia, hence his short story, The Hunger Artist.
Recently, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that gay men face a special risk for eating disorders, particularly bulimia. Like women, gay men feel undue pressure to adhere to a lean look. "There's a high level of expectation in my culture," says Boston Body manager Brian Borrelli, who is gay. "A gay guy's supposed to have neat clothes, a fit body, a certain sophisticated style. It's easy to take that to the extreme."
Which he did. Ten years ago, in high school, Borrelli weighed 225 pounds. When he "came out" in college, he began dieting to fit the gay community's beauty ideal. He skipped breakfast, grabbed a salad for lunch, and ate soup for dinner. He also ran eight miles a day. In seven months, Borrelli, who is average height, was down to 135 pounds. No one recognized that he was anorexic.
"There was never any help offered to me," he says. "Let's face it, you're not going to be waiting for the 'T' [train] one day and look up and find a sign that says, `Are you a white gay man suffering from anorexia?' "
For the most part, eating disorder research has ignored male sufferers. And many treatment facilities exclude men, though body-image problems appear to have the same causes in both men and women. Branum reports that his patients with eating disorders typically grapple with issues of control, anger, and sexuality. Food becomes their coping mechanism.
Although Branum doubts a man can develop an eating disorder simply from spending too much time reading GQ, he does believe that a man with an eating disorder may look to media images to determine physical goals. He explains, "The man begins to think, `If I look like that guy in the magazine, then things will be okay inside me.' "
Fsize=+3>ajitas, cigarettes, hairspray, and beer. It's the smell of a Saturday night at the Rattlesnake Bar on Boylston Street. The women nibble chips and salsa, cautious about smudging their toffee-colored lipstick. By the bar stan J. Crew poster boys in polar fleece and khakis. Overhead, Paula Cole wails about lost cowboys.
Both sexes agree that women continue to endure greater scrutiny about their looks. There's yet to be a male model as ubiquitous as Kate Moss, and for the female of the species, objectification is old hat.
Women, then, have a choice: do they empathize with the newly exploited male or gloat that men have finally gotten what they deserve?
A 1994 Psychology Today survey reports that women are the more forgiving of the sexes. Though both men and women rank intelligence and a sense of humor as the most important qualities in a mate, men still value facial appearance and body build more than women.
But that's not to say women lack preferences. In the survey, they rated muscle-bound physiques as less attractive than men did, preferring instead a well-toned but sleek build. Few women were looking to catch the eye of Schwarzenegger look-alikes.
"We call them triangle men," says Janet Cook, 27. Tracing a triangle in the air typical to resemble a man with broad shoulders, big biceps, and a whittled waist, she explains, "It's often a sign that a guy's self-centered."
Suzanne McCaffrey, 23, offers another observation about male vanity. "Oh, sure, they say they work out for their health," she says of her three male roommates. "But the truth is, they eat all this disgusting, fatty food. Then they go and lift for 45 minutes. And they're not into any aerobic exercise. They just do what will make them look good fast."
And plenty of women are willing to insist their guy be as attractive as, well, they are. "Julia," 24, is one of them. Petite, with feline eyes and long brown hair, she tortures the lime in her rum and Coke with a swizzle stick. Behind her, a suitor circles.
"I think a guy has just as much pressure to look as good as a woman," she says. "I work out a lot. If I spend two hours at the gym, I expect him to as well."
And just what would she do if a less-than-strapping guy tried to pick her up? "Act disinterested," she says. Aware that her admirer has swooped in, she leans forward conspiratorially, rolling her eyes in annoyance. "For example," she says. The guy at her elbow is broad-shouldered and slim-waisted but a little scrawny. And is that a receding hairline?
What happens next happens quickly. With a toss of her hair and a shrug of her shoulder bag, she dusts him. The guy stands for one stunned moment, Coors Light in hand, before skulking off to be razzed by his buddies. Julia heads for fresher prospects farther down the bar.
The next one to sidle up to Julia had better be more than just handsome. He'd better be beautiful.
This service is produced by Information Please, a partner of CBS.com. This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.
Written By Alicia Potter.
Graphics by Charles Paek.size=-1>