Two on One: The Adonis Complex

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Two on One    

Vanity Fare

by Louis Bayard and Susan Bordo


THE SETUP: The symptoms have a familiar ring — dangerous dieting, compulsive exercise, binge eating, anorexia, cosmetic surgery, a pathological obsession with appearance — except this time it’s not women who are suffering. According to the authors of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, millions of American men are in the grip of “body dysmorphic disorder.” They’re spending hours in the gym every day, they’re starving themselves, they’re abusing steroids and they’re still hating how they look — all because they’re pursuing a flagrantly unrealistic body ideal foisted upon them by an out-of-control culture. This week, novelist Louis Bayard, author of Fool’s Errand, and Susan Bordo, author of The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, sound off on Calvin Klein, consumerism and the “crisis” of masculinity.

BAYARD: L’Adonis, c’est moi. That was my first thought when I opened this book. Because, face it, I exercise six days a week, I panic if I miss two days in a row, I’m obsessed with ridding myself of tiny love handles that, thanks to my morphological heritage, will only disappear a couple of years after I’m dead, I haven’t eaten a cheeseburger since I turned thirty and I look at every other guy in my gym and think: “Fuck. Why does everyone have a better body than me?”


So I was all ready to wear my crown of thongs . . . and then I took the Adonis Complex Questionnaire. And that’s when I realized that, relatively speaking, I’m one of the healthier ones. Which is to say, I don’t spend more than thirty minutes a day worrying about my appearance, and I’ve never missed a meal or taken body-enhancing drugs, and I’ve never refused to leave the house because I’m afraid to encounter someone with bigger muscles.


But apparently millions of guys are that way and do those things. And what really startles me is how many of them are straight. When I told a gay friend about this book, the first thing he said was: “Oh, it’s about us.” And I had assumed the same thing: body consciousness is a function of being gay. (I mean, straight guys are the ones with combovers; they eat cheesesteaks, they ride in golf carts.) But according to the authors of this book, it’s even more of a problem for straight men. Why? Because they can’t admit — to themselves or anyone else — how much they think about their bodies. Why? Because they’re worried people will assume they’re gay.

BORDO: Yes, and it’s amazing the lengths that advertisers have gone to reassure straight, white guys that their products are made for real men. (African-American men, unmentioned in this book, are not so squeamish — not because they are less homophobic, but because in African-American traditions, displaying oneself with “style” is not associated with homosexuality.) Women exfoliate; men “scruff.” Women are sold moisturizers to keep their skin young and soft, while advertisers make sure to describe their creams and fragrances for men as “pre” or “after” accompaniments to that most manly of rituals: The Shave. What’s the difference between perfume and cologne? Nothing, except cologne comes in containers shaped like space ships, with names like “Safari,” “Chaps” and “Lab Series.” Are we putting this stuff on to smell good for dates? Hell no, we’re getting ready to rocket to the moon, hunt big game, rope a steer, discover DNA!


It should be apparent to anyone who hasn’t been living in a Tibetan hermitage that straight white guys have been getting more and more obsessed about their looks, but I suppose it requires the rigors of social science to turn this into a “real” cultural phenomenon. I have lots to say about this, but sticking for the moment with the gay connection (or dis-connection) that you’ve raised, I’m struck by how the authors use their data to argue that gay and straight men aren’t so different, after all. They really go out of their way (in the twelve little pages they devote to gays) to present this nice, liberal — and undoubtedly in many ways, true — conclusion. But in their fervor to dispel stereotypes, the authors don’t note the profound role that gay aesthetics played in the mainstreaming of the glamorously muscular male body. Remember gay photographer Bruce Weber’s shot of Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintinauss sunning himself in his underwear in that breakthrough 1983 Calvin Klein ad? I surely do, as I’m sure do the thousands who stole the poster off of subway walls.

BAYARD: You’re right. They’re very cautious when it comes to exploring the gay provenance of these images. Who is the true precursor of that impossibly sculpted, exaggerated-V look? In my mind, it’s Tom of Finland. Which makes this one of the larger jokes that gay culture has perpetrated on straight America.

Although I suppose if you wanted a hetero model, you could cite Charles Atlas. I vividly recall those old ads with the ninety-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face, losing his girlfriend and then reclaiming her after a crash course in isometric resistance. Which makes me wonder if body consciousness isn’t a slightly older phenomenon than the authors of The Adonis Complex acknowledge. It’s true that movie stars in the old days didn’t have anywhere near the ripped bodies that today’s specimens do (although check out William Holden or Joel McRea sometime). But they were probably still considered superior bodies, and there were undoubtedly thousands — millions? — of American men who wished they could look that way.


So while I accept the argument that male body obsession has intensified over the last twenty years (it’s fascinating, for instance, to see the truly scary transformation of G.I. Joe, from late-’40s mesomorph to modern-day nuclear accident), I think at some level, the desire to look better is not just a cultural but an intrinsically human behavior. And my concern is that by casting such a wide net over body consciousness, The Adonis Complex succeeds in pathologizing what — at least in some cases — is just a natural function of being a man (or a woman). Yes, it would be nice if, as the authors suggest, we could just stoically accept our genetic destinies. But I also think it’s natural to want to aim higher and, yes, to experience frustration when we fail. Not ideal, certainly. But human.

BORDO: Actually, although their title and some of their jargon (“muscle dysmorphia”) suggest it, I don’t find their actual analysis “pathologizing” at all — not the way psychologists used to be, for example, when they talked about eating disorders and body-image problems in women. Believe it or not, just fifteen years ago, anorexia and bulimia were conceptualized in terms of family dynamics, cognitive “disfunction” and so on, with virtually no attention to the role of cultural images. In contrast, the cluster of problems that comprise the “Adonis Complex” (“muscle dysmorphia,” steroid abuse and fear of fat top their list) are fully acknowledged to be culturally induced, affecting even very “well-adjusted men.” It’s a little infuriating that it took men developing body-obsessions to finally get psychologists to take such a firm stand on the influence of culture. But if it contributes to a more general paradigm shift in how we look at these so-called “disorders,” I’m all for it.

And yes, you’re absolutely right that there have been muscular male gods in America for some time — and if you cast your net wider, you find them in other eras and cultures, too. (The Adonis Complex certainly lacks any historical or cross-cultural dimension.) But I don’t think that it has ever been quite so respectable or widespread or coercive a norm as now — not even in Ancient Greece, which worshipped both masculinity and fitness but also advised moderation in all things. On that point, I agree strongly with the authors. And while I agree with you that it’s only human to want to be attractive (I have my own growing stock of alpha-hydroxies and other age-defying potions, I can assure you), I share the point of view of the authors that this very human desire, in today’s culture, too often tips into obsession.


Unfortunately, I suspect that, given the way the book is titled and presented in the social-science lingo of charts, graphs, “studies have shown . . . ” and the inevitable translation and absorption of the book’s idea into the pop magazine and talk-show circuit, it will turn this important social problem into just the latest, weird disorder du jour. As someone who has studied eating and body-image disorders for many years, I simply couldn’t believe the sunny naïvete of their Rx of recommendations. The first is, “Don’t buy into the media images around you.” Right. Sure. I’ll start right away. Other recommendations are equally obtuse in their blithe ignorance of the deeply systemic, entrenched practices and attitudes at stake here. “Masculinity isn’t defined just by the way you look,” they remind us; “It’s okay to look okay” rather than perfect. Thanks for the enlightenment, doc.


What the authors don’t seem to get is that obsession fuels our capitalist culture. Think of what would happen if we all suddenly became moderate in our desires — how many industries would collapse?

BAYARD: My local gym, for sure.

BORDO: Lou, didn’t you think the discussion of penis-size anxiety warranted more than just a few pages in a chapter devoted to “Other Body Obsessions”? The authors encourage men to break the “taboo of silence” in talking about their body-image problems. Are they not perpetuating the biggest taboo themselves by keeping the penis (relatively) in the closet?

BAYARD: The dick definitely got short shrift. I don’t think the authors knew even how to begin tackling it. The penis is such a complex issue, you practically need a book to do it justice. You’d certainly need more than a brief acknowledgement that “many men harbor concerns” on the subject (duh). The authors could also have talked more about hair anxiety — that’s Male Obsession #1 for many. But I was fascinated by some of the other manias they turned up, like the guy who tied his calves with rope to make them smaller (not surprisingly, they turned blue) and then, to reduce the size of his nose, smashed it with a hammer. Nothing like taking matters into your own hands. (I found it interesting, too, how sharply men and women diverge in their definition of the ideal male body: men think women want Arnold Schwarzenegger, when in fact most women find it repulsive; they prefer Brad Pitt.)


Susan, what would your own Rx be for this problem of body obsession. Can we disentangle ourselves from the web of media imagery? Or is it just too large and complicated an issue to respond to nostrums?

BORDO: I dread these questions when I speak on these issues, because the problems are indeed so multi-dimensional and systemic. How can you tell young people to “just say no” to these ubiquitous cultural messages? But after years of being asked, I’ve evolved an answer of sorts. It’s virtually the opposite approach to that of the authors of The Adonis Complex, who tell people not to buy into cultural images. I remind people that we are all “producers” as well as consumers of culture. For parents, that might mean consciously working to develop a “counter-culture” in the home; right now, many parents unwittingly collude in encouraging their children’s desperation and depression by passing on their own fat-phobias and fitness obsessions. For students, it might mean thinking about how they can use their future careers (whether in advertising, business, teaching, therapy) to bring about change.


So don’t feel bad if you can’t bring yourself to cancel your Glamour and Men’s Health subscriptions. Just power up your other muscles, too — like your brain.

BAYARD: But what is it about this creepy culture of ours that makes women want to wither away and men grow bigger? Do men bulk up because, as the authors imply, women have been invading traditionally male domains, and the only thing over which men have sovereignty anymore is their own bodies?

BORDO: Does the hypothesis have any validity? Yes, and it’s particularly interesting in the context of many other animals, for whom sexual dimorphisms (i.e., those physical differences that are most pronounced between the sexes) are the fulcrum of both mating and dominance behavior. But do I think it explains men and women’s strikingly different body-obsession patterns? No.


For one thing, bodies are symbolically much more complicated for humans than for other animals. Anorexic women often perceive their dwindling bodies as acquiring more “male” power. That idea is not unique to them. The rich and powerful of both sexes used to demonstrate their cultural capital through the expansiveness of their bodies, but since the turn of the century, the women of the upper classes have “worn” their superior status to other women by being so hyper-skinny that one couldn’t imagine a baby suckling at their breasts. In other words, here’s a context in which being skinny affords a kind of transcendence of being a female “animal.”


But now think Ally McBeal, wide-eyed and mini-skirted, sputtering before some judge or stumbling over furniture, dancing in her oversize pajamas with a toy balloon-man. Calista Flockhart’s hyper-skinniness works with the character she plays to define a female ideal that, far from transcending gender, is child-like, incompetent, inconsequential. All the things women used to be in the “good old days.” With her in the office, a man wouldn’t need to bulk up very much (and judging from the actors on the show, don’t) in order to feel powerful.


I don’t sense these kinds of nuances — as plentiful and necessary in exploration of male bodies as female — in The Adonis Complex.

BAYARD: It’s true, there’s precious little nuance in this book. But in the authors’ defense, they probably see their proper function as not to supply a cultural critique but to warn about a fast-growing and under-reported health threat. The authors have, I think, amassed compelling evidence that body dysmorphic disorder is a problem — how extensive seems to be anybody’s guess — and that, moreover, the guys who suffer from it are the last people in the world to seek help. Of course, to the average onlooker, they often look exceedingly healthy. It’s one thing to say Calista Flockhart is too thin, but who’s going to walk up to some three-hundred-pound Titan with enormous, flaring latissimi dorsi and tell him he’s sick? (If he’s on steroids, he’s not going to have a judicious emotional response, anyway.)

It’s interesting, though, to step back and note the social-sciences trend of which this book is clearly a part. I’m referring to the recently inaugurated effort to rehabilitate men. I don’t mean to simplify or even isolate feminist theory, but I’ve become so used to seeing heterosexual men described as “the problem” — the aggressors, the oppressors, the dominators of conversation, the instigators of war and famine and capitalism and professional wrestling — that it’s still a little surprising to see one theorist after another, including yourself, acknowledging that men can be victimized in the same way as women. I suspect this revisionist thinking will eventually overreach itself, as intellectual trends do, but for the time being, I have to say I find it healthy, if only for subverting some really tired gender assumptions. Now that I’ve read The Adonis Complex, for instance, I can no longer be sure which member of a married couple makes them late for a dinner party by spending too much time on the hair.

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Louis Bayard,