You've Come A Long Way, Bubba
July 21, 2000 -- What's the difference between "Look at Joe Six Pack" and "Look at Joe's six pack"? The difference is about a decade, if you take the amount of time it took for the phrase to evolve from a reference to an average guy (probably with a beer gut) to a compliment on a buff belly.
"It was only in the last 10 years that it even came into our language as meaning the way your body looks," Harrison Pope, MD, tells WebMD. "That's a testimony of the change that's happened over the last few decades."
Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, and two colleagues have written a book called The Adonis Complex. Call it inevitable, or call it payback, but many men are now suffering from the same insecurities about their bodies that women have dealt with for centuries, they say.
Men are "getting a taste of the same medicine that women have had to put up with, [as] women have had to look at perfectly airbrushed pictures of unattainably beautiful female models on magazine covers. Now, men are looking at steroid-fueled bodies of unattainably perfect male bodies and have to deal with the same insecurity," Pope says.
"Culturally, it's just an exaggerated reflection of the images that are in the media, says therapist Dina Zeckhausen, PhD, of the Atlanta Anti-Eating Disorders League, "The ideal male is big, and buffed, and V-shaped, and the ideal woman is getting taller and thinner, and so these disorders are just distortions of that, the cultural body ideal."
Pope says the Adonis complex is not about vanity or narcissism. Instead, it refers to the various body-image disorders that Pope and his colleagues say are increasing, based on their research involving more than 1,000 men over the past 15 years.
These disorders start with obsessions about body image, which lead to compulsive behaviors, some of which can be harmful, even lethal. They fall into three categories, Pope says: a focus on body fat, which can lead to anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating; a focus on excessive muscularity, called "muscle dysmorphia;" and body dysmorphic disorder, in which the sufferer is obsessively dissatisfied with a specific part of his body, like his hair or nose.
Staying fit and being well groomed are not the issue. When behavior crosses the line and impairs social or academic functioning or causes distress, it may require professional help, medication -- or, at least, serious support from family or friends, Pope says.
The Adonis complex, Pope says, has caused some men to lose relationships, forgo career or job opportunities, or train while injured. He says that among some competitive bodybuilders he's known, no matter how much they worked out, they still thought they weren't big enough. And this behavior can go beyond spending long hours in the gym to the detriment of job or family; a teen with body dysmorphic disorder, for example, might be loath to leave the house because he thinks he is frighteningly ugly.