Exercising demons

Before Karen Carpenter died in 1983 from complications related to her 10-year battle with anorexia nervosa, no one outside of the medical and psychiatric communities had taken much interest in so-called body image disorders. What a difference a decade makes.

Anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating were the causes celèbres of the ’90s, and it didn’t take long for scientists, sociologists and other concerned parties to imagine a link between the apparent epidemic of body image disorders in young women and the abnormally thin female archetypes presented in mass media. While no one has established any real scientific connection, the theory that rail-thin supermodels and actresses are somehow causing young girls to starve themselves to death has become conventional wisdom.

Rather than challenge conventional wisdom, psychiatrists Harrison Pope and Katharine Phillips and research associate Roberto Olivardia seek to expand it in The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys (Touchstone, $14), first published in 2000 and recently re-released in paperback. The book’s basic premise is that young men may be on the verge of a body image disorder epidemic as well.

Pope, Phillips and Olivardia bring impressive intellectual credentials to the project, which is based on research conducted at Harvard and Brown universities. But in the text, they seem even more persuaded by their visits to a hardcore bodybuilding gym in Boston, where they discovered, much to their amazement, a host of men who seemed to be abnormally obsessed with building the size of their muscles. Each bodybuilder interviewed complained that no matter how hard he worked at it, he never felt “big” enough. This struck the authors as odd, since all of the men had extremely well-developed muscles. What could account for this disparity between positive outside observation and negative self-perception?

According to the authors, in certain individuals, the cause is “muscle dysmorphic disorder,” a form of “reverse anorexia nervosa” in which individuals somehow misperceive their own image and consequently engage in behaviors, such as steroid use or extreme dieting, that can be detrimental and even fatal.

But while this behavior might seem irrational to a university professor, it makes perfect sense to a professional bodybuilder. Most bodybuilders, especially those who aspire to compete, aren’t big enough. Bodybuilding as a sport has grown almost as phenomenally as its stars during the past 30 years; current champs like four-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman are quivering masses of freakish, striated muscle. Being bigger than the other guy has become the whole point of the sport, and bodybuilders who choose not to use steroids at the professional level are known by a single name: losers.

Professional bodybuilders have decried this quest for muscle size at the expense of symmetry, but Pope, Phillips and Olivardia have no time for discussing the aesthetics of modern muscle. They’re looking for a peg to hang their theory on, and it’s handily provided by the seemingly irrational behavior of hardcore bodybuilders, who in turn influence the millions of men who pursue muscularity to a lesser degree.

What about these millions? Are some of them suffering from the Adonis Complex too? The authors are careful to point out that those with full-blown Adonis Complex are rare. Yet according to a self-test presented in the book, anyone who’s ever purchased protein powder and a gym membership may have already succumbed to a mild form of the illness, and it is repeatedly asserted that this milder form may be far more widespread than is currently known.

This reach is the most disturbing aspect about The Adonis Complex. There’s no evidence for it, and given what we know about the fitness of the average American male, who will look for any excuse not to exercise, The Adonis Complex may do more harm than good.