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Right Now | Bench-Press Blues

The Curse of Adonis

7.1.00

When professor of psychiatry Harrison G. Pope Jr. '69, M.P.H. '72, M.D. '74, began lifting weights in 1980, it was seen as "rare and exotic. Certainly not the kind of thing that a Harvard faculty member would do," he recalls. Two decades later, countless Harvard faculty pump iron at gyms, along with Pope and millions of others across the country. "There's been a drastic transformation," he says.

On the whole, this is a good thing: weight training has enhanced the health and fitness of most "gym rats" who pursue it. But for thousands or even millions of others, it may bode trouble. Men in particular have begun to suffer seriously from body-image problems--once limited to women's struggles with eating disorders and the so-called beauty myth. In their new book, The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession (Free Press), Pope and coauthors Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and clinical fellow in psychology Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., note that "Men of all ages, in unprecedented numbers, are preoccupied with the appearance of their bodies."

Surveys by Psychology Today magazine show that the percentage of males dissatisfied with their overall appearance nearly tripled from 15 percent in 1972 to 43 percent in 1997. (Women's rates more than doubled in the same period, from 25 to 56 percent.) Men's remedies for their perceived shortfalls go beyond their increased use of cosmetic surgery, food supplements, diet aids, and compulsive exercising. The authors estimate that well over a million--probably even two million to three million--men have taken anabolic steroids or other dangerous black-market drugs to buff up their bodies. An equally large (and very furtive) group have developed eating disorders that they hide even from intimate partners. Another million or more suffer from "body dysmorphic disorder," an irrational obsession with perceived flaws in one's appearance. ("The Unfaithful Mirror," November-December 1992, page 19, describes Phillips's earlier work on body dysmorphia.)

Perhaps the most serious development is the abuse of anabolic steroids, a class of muscle-growth-enhancing drugs of which testosterone is both the archetype and the most widely abused example. "Our research persuades us that there is a sharp upper limit to how muscular you can get by natural means," says Pope. The researchers devised a measure called the FFMI (fat-free mass index) that uses a man's height, weight, and body-fat percentage to gauge his overall muscularity. When Steve Reeves won the Mr. America bodybuilding title in 1947, his FFMI was about 25.7, according to Pope's estimate--close to the maximum he believes achievable (in the 25-26 range) without steroids. But many modern bodybuilders--to say nothing of pro wrestlers--have FFMIs well into the 30s.

Such steroid-enhanced male images are ubiquitous in advertisements, movies, and on television. "Without being aware of it, we are being saturated with these unrealistic models of masculinity," Pope says. "Steroids have changed the arithmetic of the situation." The consequences for boys are severe. Using computer morphing, the researchers devised a test that allowed subjects to pinpoint their vision of ideal male body proportions, and gave it to teenage boys at a sports camp. "More than 50 percent of the kids chose an ideal body in a range that probably could be attained only by steroids," says Pope, adding that boys today typically show a huge discrepancy between self and ideal: about 35 pounds of additional muscle. College men in Boston, Innsbruck, and Paris showed a similar pattern, preferring 28 to 30 pounds more muscle than they had. "I don't recall anyone at Harvard [in the 1960s] who worried about muscularity," says Pope. "Now, at many colleges, it's very much an issue. Guys are taking creatine and steroids, and working out ferociously at the gym." Several recent surveys have found that 5 to 6 percent of high-school boys admit to using anabolic steroids.

In addition to steroids, the authors propound a second theory to account for the growth in what they call the "Adonis complex." In a section headed "Women Fighter Pilots and Threatened Masculinity," they write, "[W]omen have increasingly approached parity with men in many aspects of life, leaving men with primarily their bodies as a defining source of masculinity." Men, in other words, have become obsessed with muscles as a reaction to the gains of feminism. "The courts can decree that girls must be admitted to The Citadel," says Pope. "But they cannot decree that a woman can bench-press 300 pounds. The male body is becoming the last refuge for men who are trying to hang on to certain masculine distinctions."

For those who fan this reaction into a full-blown Adonis complex, the costs are high. "The people at the end of the spectrum are profoundly ill, crippled by it," says Pope. "They are sacrificingrelationships, careers, happiness. For each one of them there may be 20 to 50 other men whose daily lives are compromised in at least some ways."

It is largely a silent epidemic. "Most men are extremely reluctant to admit to other men that they are concerned with their appearance or their body," Pope says. "There's a talking taboo, and also a feeling taboo--you don't want to even admit it to yourself. It creates this double bind. On one hand, society's message is, 'You never look good enough.' Yet you aren't allowed to admit you are worried about it--those who do so are branded as effeminate, not manly. By definition, the Adonis complex is something people don't want to talk about."