In their quest for the beefcake look, some men try extreme measures
The year Ralph Heighton of Pictou, N.S., turned 30, he decided to lose some weight At five-foot-nine, pushing 210 lb., Heighton says when he stood in front of the mirror, he knew something wasn’t working. He joined the YMCA in the nearby town of New Glasgow, started taking nightly walks and altered his diet, cutting out the late-night pizzas and pitas with spiced beef, onions and sauce. Now, at 34, Heighton fluctuates around the 185-lb. mark, and has converted one of the three bedrooms in his new two-storey home into a gym, complete with weights and a tattered heavy bag bound by duct tape. Heighton, a wildlife technician with Nova Scotia’s department of fisheries, says he has achieved his goal of feeling better. Though still single, he says bashfully that he thinks he has never looked as good—which was one of his key reasons for getting in shape. “The magazines sort of force this body image on you of what it means to be
a physically fit person,” says Heighton. “Whether we want to admit it or not, this image is what we want to look like.”
The idealized male body image nowadays is beefy and muscled, as epitomized in the Calvin Klein underwear advertisements showcasing the bulging pecs and rippling abdomen of Antonio Sabato Jr. And like Heighton, hundreds of thousands of men in Canada are flocking to gyms and health clubs in the quest to look buffed and toned. There are signs, however, that some men are taking the image to extremes. Statistics on steroid use show an alarming number of male teenagers across the country are using the substance illegally simply to put on muscle. Men are increasingly being diagnosed with eating disorders. And plastic surgeons report a general increase in men seeking their services to improve their appearance. “This is an early warning,” said New York City author Michelangelo Signorile, whose book Life
Outside chronicles the history of body image among homosexual men. “This ‘cult of masculinity1 isn’t just in gay culture as so many like to believe. It envelops the entire culture. It is an obsessive devotion to an ideal.”
Although worshipping the body is hardly new, the emphasis on the beefcake look has evolved gradually in North America over the past 100 years. Both Signorile and Brian Pronger, a philosopher in the faculty of physical education at the University of Toronto, say that many men, straight and gay, adopted a more masculine appearance after the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s associated effeminate behaviour with homosexuality in the popular mind. Pronger and Signorile also say that women’s suffrage and, later, the modern feminist movement caused men to covet a larger appearance as a means of defending men’s status. “As women take up more space in traditionally masculine places,” says Pronger, “some men feel compelled to take up more in order to maintain their position.”
It takes a lot of sweating and spending to achieve a hard-body look. According to a 1995 report published by the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, men spend more than twice as much as women in all categories related to fitness, including clothing, exercise equipment, membership fees and instruction. Brad Whitehead, who works for one of the largest distributors of creatine, a controversial supplement that increases the energy capacity in muscles, says sales have increased 130 per cent since 1997.
Calvin Klein and other underwear merchants are not alone in using men with buffed bodies to sell products. Other advertisers include Coca-Cola, Nike and Marlboro, which has introduced a bulkier version of its original “Marlboro Man.” As well, magazine stands now offer dozens of titles devoted to health, fitness and muscle, tantalizing readers with snappy headlines like “Great abs in eight weeks.” Their pages are adorned with ads featuring big, bulky men selling muscle-building supplements.
One of the sad consequences of the push towards a hyper-masculine image is that it can rarely be obtained without the use of potentially harmful drugs. A1993 study conducted for the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport concluded that four per cent of males aged 11 to 18—as many as 83,000 young Canadians—used anabolic steroids in 1992 and 1993. In the study, which involved 16,169 high-school and elementary students, one in five reported that they knew someone who was taking anabolic steroids. Among the reasons given for their use, nearly half said it was to change their physical appearance. That contrasted starkly with previously held notions that steroids were used mostly to increase athletic performance, says Paul Melia, the centre’s director of education. “The reality is for most of these young men, even if they do get on a regimen of weight training, they are not going to look like these picture boys,” said Melia. “And sustaining that look is a full-time job.”
In a downtown Toronto gym, Mike, a 32year-old former bodybuilder and weight lifter and a longtime user of anabolic steroids, says as many as four out of five of the 18to 25-year-old men using the facility are on the illegal drugs. When he started using steroids 16 years ago, Mike says, he was part of an elite group of men who took them for competitive reasons. ‘Today it is for the body image,” he says. “And these kids stack—they add steroid upon steroid, thinking they are going to get a certain look. They take this stuff, go out to night clubs, get drunk and
mix everything together. It’s all for image.” Mike says one result of working out seriously can be that, no matter how big their muscles get, men start thinking they are still not big enough. It is a phenomenon disturbingly similar to cases of eating disorders among women who believe they are too big, no matter how thin they get. Maintaining a hard body takes not only a regimen of heavy workouts, but also a dedication to eating right and at times dieting to avoid gaining fat, says Mike. And psychologists across the country say one result of those self-imposed pressures is an increased incidence of eating disorders among men. According to Dr. Howard Steiger, a clinical psychologist and director of the eating disorder program at Douglas Hospital in Montreal, surveys have shown that five to 10 per cent of eating disorder sufferers are men. He says most people
with eating disorders have unstable selfesteem. He also says there are increasing sociocultural pressures on men to connect their self-esteem to body image. While there are no new national figures, specialists in many centres say that bulimia nervosa, characterized by binge eating and vomiting, is on the rise in men. “Whatyou find,” says Steiger, “are people who diet too much, who condition too much, and what you are doing is setting up this pressure of hunger—a constant state of undernutrition that eventually leads to bulimic-type eating patterns.”
In addition to steroid use and erratic eating behaviour, John Semple, secretary treasurer of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons, says he believes men are increasingly having plastic surgery to alter their body image. Dr. Bill Papanastasiou, a plastic surgeon in Montreal, estimates that only 10 per cent of his patients were male when he opened his practice 13 years ago. Today, it is as high as 15 to 20 per cent. In Halifax, plastic surgeon Dr. Kenneth Wilson says one of the most common surgeries he does for men is liposuction. For Nathan Estep, a 27-year-old from Detroit who spent $1,800 in Pontiac, Mich., in 1997 to have liposuction done on his waistline, the surgery has transformed his life. Since he was 10, Estep was a constant dieter, at times bulimic, and for many years tried to control his weight using diet drugs including Dexedrine, ephedrine and laxatives. Today, Estep says he can walk proudly, with his shirt off and with no hint of any fat from his childhood returning. “I was a fat kid—I had fat in the wrong places,” he says. “The first thing I did after the liposuction was go to the beach, take my shirt off and eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs. I feel like a new man.” According to Pronger, who has been studying the philosophy of physical fitness for five years, a person with a hard, fit body considers it a signal of discipline and a capacity for hard work. “When you see somebody who is overweight,” he says, “often the response is how did they let themselves get like that.” The mistaken presumption, he adds, is that the person doesn’t have the discipline to be a productive citizen. One of the solutions, says Pronger, is to teach children to look at body images in the same critical way they are told to consider art and literature—to be able to recognize what has merit. “If we were doing the same with physical education, people could learn to have a different reaction to these extreme body images,” he says. “They would say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be part of this pressure to fall in love with a highly commercialized image.’ ”
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