MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the supposed "crisis" of male body image. What was once the unhappy domain of women—weight anxiety, plastic surgery, waxing, manicures, and so on—has now been entered by our straight male brethren. (The gay boys have been there for years.) There's even a new book out, The Adonis Complex (Pope et al., Free Press), that says male vanity—and accompanying neurosis—has grown to epidemic levels. Body dysmorphic disorder, a.k.a. BDD or "bigorexia," has become the new clinical buzzword of the day, as unrealistically pumped-up toy action figures are deplored in much the same way feminists have long criticized Barbie. Last year, Susan Bordo's The Male Body drew comparable attention.
So is it just a bunch of media hype? Is the perfect male bod that important to women—and, more particularly, to this woman? I am not normally a body queen. The men I've dated have ranged in shape from emaciated to chubby. Though I certainly found all of them hot at one time or another, it's been said that I have rather odd taste.
Still, there was this freakishly handsome blonde French International Male-looking guy I once dated. He was completely foxy, with deep blue eyes and straight white teeth. And here's the kicker: Since he was unemployed, he spent all his spare time working out. He had a perfect body. And I mean perfect! Big, beautiful pecs, amazing arms, washboard stomach, ass you could bounce a silver dollar off of—the whole nine. In fact, he was so gorgeous and built that everyone thought he was gay. Or a model. Or both.
It was really cool to go out with a guy everyone stared at—and, for a change, it wasn't because they were afraid he'd steal their wallet. (It was less cool when men followed him into the bathroom and offered to blow him.) Does that make me a lookist? Does that mean the pressures of perfection are really weighing so heavily on men? I decided to launch a scientific investigation.
MY INFORMAL STUDY began at the newsstand, where it would seem that there are more topless men decorating the covers of magazines these days—Rolling Stone and Spin both featured shirtless hotties of the male persuasion this month. (Though it doesn't really appear that the boys of Blink-182 spend a whole lot of time working the bench press.) Men's Health, with its smug, grinning, well-built cover boy, had the best insecurity-inducing headlines, e.g. "Arms! Like Anacondas (That Just Ate a Pig)." Kind of the male equivalent of Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days. So nobody will mistake its preening, presumably breeder readers for gay, MH runs retarded macho Maxim-type stories alongside the diet and fitness articles.
Still, for every one magazine with get-fit-fast tips for men, there are 30 geared toward women. And the overwhelming majority of general-interest mags for men and women feature impossibly perfect chicks on their covers. I know far more men who look like Blink-182 than women who look like Gisele or Amber or Shalom. I won't even start on the male-female looks/age/body discrepancies on the big screen (think Entrapment or As Good As It Gets).
Turning my anthropological scrutiny to the culture at large, I started noticing things I hadn't before. Ostensibly straight men were wearing tighter shirts that appeared to include Lycra in their fabric makeup—and they looked good in them. Shirtless studs with abs of steel have started popping up where you least expect them—on billboards, shopping bags, and phone booth ads. I flipped on the TV one afternoon and noted that today's soap-opera stallions were about a billion times hotter than puny little Luke of early '80s General Hospital fame. Prime time is almost as good, thanks to that babely new detective on NYPD Blue and The Practice's Dylan "Do Me" McDermott—suddenly it's a beefcake smorgasbord!
Despite this proliferation of publicly displayed pecs, none of the men I systematically interviewed seemed particularly worried about their looks. One ex-boyfriend told me, "I have neither a sculpted physique, nor am I a paunchy broken-down wreck. As long as I'm not grossly one way or another, I feel okay." A musician friend also agreed that he didn't feel much pressure to bulk up. "I'm not an athlete, I'm not an actor, I'd rather sit around and play guitar than work out." My handsome but not-so-hunky pal Travis offered the following rationalization, "Women are far less visually oriented than men. That's why you tend to see ugly guys walking around with beautiful women." Hmmm.
I FELT SMUG in my assertions that women are less lookist than men, and that men get off easy in the body wars. Until I started talking to women, that is. I asked Travis' Brazilian babe girlfriend if she'd ever gone out with a guy simply because he had a fabulous bod. "Of course!" she laughed. My hairdresser informed me, "As much as I hate being judged on my body, I insist that the men I go out with be well over 6 feet tall and very muscular." Not being a complete perfectionist, she does allow for a beer gut, as long as their muscles are really big.
Another male friend—thin and in very good shape—relayed something an exgirlfriend had told him: "Women like you, but it's certainly not because of your body." Ouch. That bitch and my hairdresser aside, the majority of the women I spoke with didn't like heavily muscled men. And studies back this up. According to research done for The Adonis Complex, the bodies women prefer are generally 15 to 20 pounds less muscular than those that men think women like. Still, this male misapprehension—seemingly comic—is precisely what bigorexia purports to diagnose.
My own survey also revealed that women loathe back hair (duh!), can deal with love handles and bald spots, hate flapjack asses (so work that butt!), and find men who get their nails done a little scary. Most of the women I spoke to would consider pec implants (ew!) a deal breaker, though they aren't entirely put off by the idea of a nose job.
Of course, you can't talk about men's bodies without discussing the most important muscle of them all: the Love Muscle. Sorry, guys, but according to my ladies, size counts. I couldn't keep track of how many times Tommy Lee's name came up during interviews. And, unfortunately, there's not a Nautilus machine for that bad boy yet.
So here's the conclusion to my exhaustive research. First, the good news: Most women prefer a man who is sweet, smart, funny, fit, and good looking, but who doesn't seem like he spends a whole lot of time working on it. No girl likes to fight with her man for mirror time, and if you guys get too buff, we're just going to assume you're gay anyway, so don't bother. Here's the bad news: Being whimsical creatures, however, we are also wont to enjoy swapping spit—and other latexenclosed bodily fluids—with buff hard-bodied hotties who've never cracked a book, don't get our jokes, and consider Adam Sandler flicks the apex of cinematic excellence. So bring on the himbos!
For more on male body image, read Beauty and the Beast, a look at gay men's body consciousness and the rise of the muscular monster.