Godlike goals shatter self-image

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By Angie Damianidis

Twenty-three-year-old Luke didn’t look like one of those guys in the Calvin Klein ads in high school. He still doesn’t. But back then, the lanky teenager wanted a rippling six-pack and chiselled chest so badly that he was willing to try almost anything to get them.

“I wanted to get big fast,” said Luke, who didn’t want his real name used. “I had been working out for at least a year, and I didn’t look like the guy selling me jeans and getting all the girls.”

Luke worked out five times a week and even drank shakes that promised to add bulk. But all his hard work wasn’t paying off. When he looked in the mirror he saw a tall, thin teen, not a Greek god.

This wasn’t the case for some of his friends. They seemed to be gaining muscle mass every time they worked out. Luke asked them was their routines were. “One of them told me they were doing steroids and I could try a cycle if I wanted to,” he recalled. “I did.”

Luke’s experimentation with steroids didn’t last long. He gave them up when he learned the potential health risks associated with them. As for his less than godlike physique, Luke says he’s accepted the fact he’ll never look like the guys in the jean ads. “I’m much happier now that I don’t have to have a perfect body to be happy. Working out and feeling good is enough. And I think my girlfriend really likes that.”

But more and more young men are trying to be like those Calvin Klein guys. One of the main reasons is companies have changed the way they target men in their advertisements. Flip through any men’s magazine and you’ll see rippling abdominal muscles, waxy smooth chests, pearly white teeth and flawless complexions promoting one product or another. Clothing and cosmetic companies have dug about as deep as they can into women’s purses, but their finders have barely touched the wallets of men. It now seems as if men’s confidence in how they look is as fragile as women’s. Recent studies have shown muscle dysmorphia—an obsessive preoccupation with muscle-building in men—is on the rise.


Alan Kazamer, 53, an advertising instructor at the Ontario College of Art & Design, has worked in the industry for 33 years. He says advertisers prey on our insecurities to create a need for products that we can do without. “We are doing today to men, sadly and regretfully, what we’ve been doing to women all along,” he said. “Advertisements are making men feel insecure and not good enough.”

And yet men are measuring themselves against the images they see in the ads. Dr. David Schatzky, a psychotherapist and former executive director of the Canadian Alliance for Children and Television, says when men see an ad showing a guy with a great body surrounded by lots of girls they ask themselves: “Does that look like me? Or doesn’t it?” In most cases, Schatzky says, it doesn’t. “Every image we are exposed to, even action figures, we use to measure ourselves against and define ourselves.”

For the past 30 years, researchers at Harvard University have studied the redesign of action figures such as GI Joe and Star Wars’ Han Solo. In their study they concluded that “many modern figures display the physiques of advanced body builders and some display muscularity far exceeding the outer limits of actual human attainment.”

The researchers noted that GI Joe action figures have gained bulk and muscle definition over the years. For example, the 1998 version called GI Joe Extreme “dwarfs his earlier counterparts with dramatically greater musculature.” If the figure’s dimensions were expanded to life-size, researchers found it “would sport larger biceps than any bodybuilder in history.”

GI Joe isn’t the only action figure that has beefed up. Researchers also found that muscles on heart-throb Han Solo have grown since his debut in the 1970s, “with particular gains in the shoulder and chest area.” In addition, the study notes, action figures have become more aggressive looking.

Melaine Cishecki, communications manager for MediaWatch, a non-profit feminist organization working to eliminate sexism in the media, says the changing look of action figures has affected the way men interact with women, solve problems and deal with their aggression. “The products advertisers are selling men are not only telling men how to look, but how to act,” she said. “There are two images of the male body: one is the extreme muscle-sculpted six-pack man,” the other is the “waif-like, thin gaunt, that heroin-chic look with the dark rings around their eyes.”

Cishecki says the six-pack man continues to be the image most men try to emulate. But Barry Richardson, 35, manager of Monster Gym in Etobicoke, says while the majority of his members are males in their early 20s, he’s noticed boys as young as 12 showing interest in bodybuilding over the past few years. These boys are permitted to join the gym, but they must work out with a fitness navigator, Monster Gym’s version of a personal trainer.

Richardson says most of the young men at his gym are more interested in beefing up as fast as they can rather than improving their health. “If you want to increase muscle and look good, it takes three to four hours a week,” he said. “But young men are misinformed by flavour-of-the-month workouts, and their flavour-of-the-month diets, and they think the old way to get a better body is from the bottle or the needle.”


Remember the days when the only toiletries dads kept in their medicine cabinet were deodorant and a razor? Well, those days no longer exist, says advertising instructor Kazamer. “Hey, back then dad even smelled bad. But now the modern dad has so many products he’s using because advertisers are selling them to him, and men think they need these products.”

The Body Shop launched their men’s skin-care line seven years ago with just five products. These July, it doubled its product line because a survey by the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association showed that sales of skin-care product for men were on the rise.

Soyra Ingrid Gaulian, a spokeswoman for The Body Shop, said the company has also repackaged its men’s products to make them look sportier and more masculine. Gaulian says The Body Shop dud this because men are still uncomfortable with going to the cosmetic counter to buy skin-care products. “Men are showing a great interest in these products and we are filling that need,” she said. “But our studies show women are still buying these products for them.”

Gaulian says men like their daily skin-care routine to revolve around shaving. “This way men don’t feel as if they are buying skin-care products that have the stigma of women written all over them.”

As a result, The Body Shop has included the word shaving on every skin-care product targeted at men. “If the word shave is in it, they will buy it. They won’t think it’s for women even though it’s just like the women’s product,” she said. The company has also unveiled a bronzer for men. The only difference between it and the one sold to women is its packaging.

The Body Shop hopes these techniques will help it build a loyal following of men. At the very least, it seems to be making its move on the male market at the right time. “Just look at the growth of the men’s skin care and cosmetic industry,” Kazamer said. “This trend can tell you advertising is doing its job.”

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