Each season, the movie schedule is filled with superhero action films. And almost without exception, the male actors, whether Spider-Man or members of the Justice League, have amazingly buff bodies, thanks to personal trainers, nutritionists and endless hours in the gym.
This is a relatively new phenomenon. If we go back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the A-list action heroes and male heart throbs — Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Cary Grant — were all certainly handsome men. But if the roles called for them to take their shirts off, they were revealed as quite lean, even skinny. Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke” had spaghetti arms. Some, like Lancaster and Douglas, had defined upper body musculature for sure, but none could hold a candle to the likes of today’s Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and AARP member Sylvester Stallone. Without exception, these men have almost Herculean builds.
I remember the metamorphosis that took place for Stallone between “Rocky” and “Rocky II.” He was still the same character in the second film, but now with sculpted, vein-popping muscles. This look also served him well for the later “Rambo” movies.
Male actors are being held to an unreal body standard, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Sam Claflin of “The Hunger Games” series and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” complained, “I, as a man, am insecure … . I get really worked up to the point where I spend hours and hours in the gym and not eating for weeks to achieve what I think they're going for.” Hollywood has been telling Claflin, as well as stars like Chris Pratt, Zac Efron and even Seth Rogen, to shape up for the necessary shirtless scene or ship out.
You may be thinking “who cares?” about people who are paid exorbitant salaries just to play make-believe. But my concern is not so much for them as it is for the young men who see them as role models. Adolescence is tough enough without having to think that you aren’t living up to what it means to be a male unless you’re ripped.
Yes, I know women and girls have had to measure up to Hollywood’s ridiculously high standards since movies first captured the public’s imagination. In the 1920s and ’30s, many of them tried to look like Clara Bow and Greta Garbo, though DNA often argued otherwise. And who can forget the impact on the female body type made by the Misses Monroe, Mansfield and Bardot in the 1960s?
But for the moment, my concern is young men. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2014 that “High concerns with muscularity are relatively common among adolescent boys and young men. Males with these concerns who use potentially unhealthy products to improve their physique are at increased risk of adverse outcomes, but may not be recognized by their health care providers as having a weight-related disorder.”
To increase muscle size and enhance body bulk, some boys resort to taking dangerous anabolic steroids and growth hormones. What’s more, studies show that these subjects “were more likely than their peers to start using drugs and (engage in) binge drinking.” Perhaps the phenomenon can be traced to peer pressure, and those compelled to have six-pack abs may also be more easily pressured into consuming six-packs or taking drugs.
You’d think men and boys would have benefited from one of the insights of feminism that counsels avoiding the pursuit of the “body beautiful” and accepting all body types, but who am I kidding? Many of today’s young women also embrace unrealistic standards for how a “real” woman should look. In truth, this is far from a 20th- and 21st-century problem. A stroll down the corridors of art history reveals the perfectly contoured marble torsos of Diana and Apollo, sculpted by Phidias of Athens back in 450 B.C. Even Greek and Roman upper body armor was fashioned to give the wearer the appearance of having amazing abs.
Despite my concerns, I do find it interesting to see young men at my gym going through their body-building routines on weight benches and machines. Two walls are covered with the requisite mirrors whose purported purpose is to ensure that proper lifting techniques are followed. But in-between reps, the men can’t seem to take their eyes off themselves, even sneaking glances over their shoulders. I guess that’s understandable. Where else can you see a Guardian of the Galaxy in the making?