It used to be that the modern male, with his passion for hair gels, facial scrubs and designer suits, was dismissed as something of a Narcissus. That was a decade ago. Now the big news from the United States is that the modern male has moved on from designer suits to steroids, from facial masks to the pursuit of serious muscle. The narcissistic peacock has been replaced by a new generation of male neurotics suffering from what is being called The Adonis Complex.
That is the name of the latest “sensational” book from the US, based on research by three psychologists, which argues that modern men have an unhealthy obsession with their body image. Where once men got a sense of self-worth and esteem through the workplace, now they’re working out in gyms and guzzling down steroids in hot and dangerous pursuit of the perfect body. According to one of the book’s authors, Dr Harrison Pope: “Millions of men are suffering shame, self-doubt and embarrassment because of this damaging emphasis on body image.”
The question is: has this book really managed to capture a neglected aspect of the crisis of masculinity or is it symptomatic of a growing victim culture, in which to make money with a book you simply manufacture a malady and give it a catchy name like The Adonis Complex? Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just some silly American preoccupation at which the rest of us can poke fun. At a time when suicide rates, depression levels and use of steroids are on the increase for young British males, many commentators in the United Kingdom are also saying the kind of things that are found in The Adonis Complex.
A central claim of the book is that today it is men, even more than women, who suffer from anxiety about the state of their bodies. The authors cite surveys that reveal that 38% of American men want bigger pecs, while only 34% of women want bigger breasts. And when it comes to acne anxiety, young male teenagers are more worried than females.
It seems we men are also victimised by what Naomi Wolf once called The Beauty Myth. Supposedly, the media and movies are awash with images of men with superb muscular bodies. All those stars with their bulging biceps and supermodel babes – with such images of perfection, is it any wonder young men feel inadequate?
But do they? Of course it was always a mistake to assume that anxiety about “body appearance” was something exclusive to women. Ever since the invention of the teenager in the late 1950s, adolescent males have been spending more of their time in front of the mirror and more of their income on products that promise to make them more attractive.
The grooming boom that really began in the 1980s has been, on balance, a good thing. What woman wants to be involved with some fat, greasy, smelly slob of a man who never makes the effort to look nice? And, yes, there are times when a man looks in the mirror and wants to weep at the gruesome blob he’s become and wishes he could swap bodies with Brad Pitt.
But that’s not some serious desire that dominates a man’s life, as the authors of The Adonis Complex would have us believe. Go to any gym and you will see men who work hard at getting the perfect body. But most men are more modest in their body ambitions: instead of a longing for a perfection they know is impossible to attain, they would be quite happy to settle for more hair, less fat, fewer wrinkles and some muscle. Mr Average Bloke does not want to be an Adonis; just good-looking enough to get the girl of his dreams.
What gives The Adonis Complex its controversial edge is its claim that men are turning to muscle because it is the one area in which they can be superior to women. “Women can now fly combat aircraft, run multinational companies and have eliminated every last male bastion,” Pope says. “Today there’s nothing a woman can’t do. What does a man have left to identify himself as masculine? Few women can bench-press 300lb, so the body remains the last refuge of masculinity.”
It seems that, these days, just about every aspect of male behaviour is explained as some kind of scared response to the growing equality of women. But it’s interesting to note that the rise of muscle-building culture occurred in the USduring the 1950s, a time not noted for its emancipation of women. Was Charles Atlas really scared of the social advancement of Mrs Atlas – or, as legend has it, was he tired of having sand kicked in his face by men? Anyone who has seen a bunch of guys in a gym pumping iron will know that they are flexing their pecs to impress other men. I would argue that the most body-obsessed people in the world are homosexual men. Are they, too, responding to the empowerment of women?
Most men do not believe that muscularity equals masculinity. Look at the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. He took the serious-tough-guy-real-man stuff out of muscle building and injected a new note of playful irony. Here was the muscle man who invited you to laugh at his image – and not envy it.
If you actually look at the images associated with masculine perfection, stars like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, you will see that they are in good physical shape, but none of them looks like a serious body builder. And what about little Leonardo DiCaprio? The world’s sexist star has far less muscle on him than Madonna.
I suspect that men today are more concerned about their body appearance than ever before, but not because they are suffering from a crisis of masculinity or a fear of women. On the contrary, they no longer fear being seen as effeminate or homosexual every time they try a new facial scrub or dye their hair. Conversely, women like Madonna who spend a lot of their time building their muscles are no longer dismissed as sad sacks trying to look like men.
We no longer live in a world in which there are such rigid divisions between feminine and masculine, heterosexual and homosexual. I have no doubt that men today are more concerned about the state of their bodies than ever before, and it is crucial to a man’s sense of self-esteem. But then our whole culture has become far more body aware. Many people have more time, leisure and income than ever before to spend on looking good. Is that new-found freedom something we should fear, as the authors of The Adonis Complex suggest, or sit back and enjoy?