For fans of the blockbuster movie Guardians of the Galaxy, last week’s teaser trailer brought with it the promise of an even more spectacularly sculpted Chris Pratt sans shirt. This is par for the course for the Summer stock of superhero movies: each year, the leading man comes to the rescue in a polymer-blend outfit that reveals every muscle in Bodies:The Exhibition-level detail.
Achieving swole status, the exemplar of hypermasculinity, has become an obsession among non-superstars as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, steroid use among middle aged men has shot up. In fact, since the early ‘90s, researchers have documented an alarming rise in unhealthy behaviors around male body image.
This isn’t to suggest a causative link between Marvel’s casting choices and the insecurities of 50-something British men, but the dramatic changes in the ideal male body at least provide insight into these trends.
How did we go from Newman, Brando, and Redford to “The Rock” Johnson, Hemsworth, and Tatum? Once, a vague, v-shaped silhouette by itself conveyed the virtues of masculinity; now, the male figure must be cross-hatched and contoured by intercostal grooves and inguinal creases. Men even have a highly-specific (and evocative!) vocabulary to refer to their previously under-publicized anatomical features, including “cobra back” and “horseshoe triceps.”
“I think a shift started to occur in the early eighties,” Dr. Roberto Olivardia, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and co-author of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, tells me.
“In the seventies, it was the more slender, Mick Jagger, David Bowie kind of look,” Olivardia says. At the same time, though, “you had the emergence of a more masculine ideal—the kind of Marlboro man.” This decade saw the emergence of two competing male forms: androgynous and hyper-masculine. On one side, you had gender-bending men (mostly musicians) like Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, and on the other side, you saw men with exaggerated masculine traits (mostly movie stars) like Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery.
Following the Rock ‘n Roll and androgynous Free Love of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the 80’s brought a new emphasis to a man’s body. Muscles became increasingly important as signifiers of masculinity during the Reagan era, according to Olivardia. “The country had this very strong notion of being very strong and forceful, so there was this real emphasis on men being men.”
Physical transformation in the era of hammer pants and oversized blazers was swift and severe, assisted by the proliferation of anabolic steroids. The world began paying attention to the formerly niche activity of bodybuilding, and much like bodybuilders, movie stars began to remove their body hair in order to better show off their hypertrophic muscles (often slathered in baby oil.)
When Rocky came out in 1976, Balboa could hold his own. By the release of Rocky III in 1982, he was holding his own and everybody else’s.
Then, in the ‘90s, the arms (and legs, chest, and back) race escalated. Muscles became leaner and more defined. Around this time, journalist and social commentator Mark Simpson introduced the term “metrosexual” to describe the trend towards male self-sexualization.
“Metrosexuality was about the male desire to be desired—but mostly mediated through fashion and accessories,” he emailed me.
But more broadly, outside of centerfolds and movie screens, average men began taking part in previously niche athletic pursuits. Gym membership exploded around this time, as Dr. Olivardia points out in a 2001 study entitled, “The Growing Commercial Value of the Male Body.”
To explain this, Dr. Olivardia again looks to the Reagan era. Men turned to an exaggerated version of masculinity as “women were entering the workforce and were starting to enter into the military and politics.”
This was no coincidence. Along with other sociologists, Dr. Olivardia argues that there was a real emphasis on a building a hyper-masculine body “as a reaction to the idea that gender roles were becoming more blurred.” This perceived threat to gender norms began as far back as Seneca Falls, but it accelerated when women flooded the workforce in World War II.
By 2014, Mark Simpson felt the need to coin a new term, distinct from the metrosexuality of the ‘90s: Spornosexuality. Although it sounds like an awkward fungal infection, it describes “second wave, ‘hardcore’, body-centred metrosexuality.”
“In spornosexuality,” Simpson says, “the male body itself is the hot, highly sexualized accessory.”
The resulting juiced-up torsos now vie with starlets’ waistlines as objects of public scrutiny.
“I think what’s happening is that the bodies are becoming more muscular and also more cut. They are much more ‘aesthetic’—that is, beautiful, pleasing to the eye—than eighties Hollywood bodybuilders.”
Dr. Olivardia’s clinical experience confirms Simpson’s observation. He’s seen a rise in muscle-building clients, though he notes that the modus operandi has been modified: while steroids have declined in popularity, the use of “legal fat burners” has exploded.
Aside from a drastic uptick in the sales of douchy muscle-tees, the most concerning consequence of our current obsession with the buff, male body has been the concurrant rise in male eating disorders.
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a “clinically significant” eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. According to figures from 2007, gay men are three times more likely to develop an eating disorder as straight men.
Stigma often prevents men from seeking treatment, Olivardia said. “If you look into patient populations, about one in 16 patients with eating disorders are male,” he explains. “But in studies that look at men and women who are in the community and not in treatment, one in four are male. That is a ton of men that are never showing up in treatment.”
“I’m not minimizing the impact of an eating disorder for women, but I’ve never treated a woman who has said to me, ‘I feel less of a woman by having an eating disorder,’” he tells me. “Whereas every single male I’ve treated with an eating disorder at some point brings up the issue of gender, of sexuality, of what does this mean for them to be a male and to worry about this.”
The switch from a goods-based economy to a services-based economy in the ‘50s untethered a central mooring of masculinity, according to Mark Simpson. In the former, the male body found purpose in labor and production; in the latter, following the decline of industrial jobs, the male body went from functional to decorative.
Simpson refuses to dismiss the change as superficial or vain, arguing it allowed men to redefine their relationship with their bodies. “Instead of seeing their bodies as merely instruments of work, war, sport or reproduction,” they could enjoy traditionally feminine ways of being.
“Social media brought body image issues into a whole new dimension,” Dr. Olivardia explains. He sees the ubiquity of photography and the paranoia of constant surveillance as contributing to an out-of-balance emphasis on appearance. “Any moment, your picture could be taken and plastered all over the internet,” he adds.
While this ”hyper-visual culture” is bound to create new pathologies and neuroticisms, Simpson stops short of labeling the phenomenon as entirely negative. “Obviously I’m a tad biased, but I think it’s mostly a good thing that men now have bodies and are allowed to enjoy the pleasures—and powers—of being looked at.”
But Dr. Olivardia looks to the future less optimistically given the proliferation of social media. “I’m in my mid-40s and I would not want to be an adolescent today,” he says. “My son is 11 and I’m already worried about being conscious as a parent. Puberty was hard enough when I was growing up. I just can’t imagine nowadays with that kind of pressure.”
“People ask me, ‘Do you think these problems are going to get worse?’ Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.”