The Muscularity And Masculinity Myth
I have a client, let’s call him Tom. Tom has told me many times that he wants to be, ‘so built and muscular, that people will be scared of me’. ‘Why would you want that?’ I ask, before pointing out the glaringly obvious that he is already ‘built’ and very muscular.
Tom first came therapy because of his frequent low moods and frequent sleeping around behind his girlfriend’s back. It takes some weeks for his story to unfold, but I learn that he goes to the gym religiously seven days a week, training obsessively and twice daily. He avoids cardiovascular exercise as he fears losing weight. He also tells me that he doesn’t think he will ever be ‘big enough’. Tom was bullied as a child and teenager. He describes his former self as, ‘shy, thin, gawky and a bit of nerd to be honest’. Describing his school days seems to embarrass Tom, and he starts to blush, quickly brushing off the pain of his words. Despite all of the time, effort and money spent on his physical appearance, Tom still cannot see the mismatch between his adolescent self image and the reality today. It is the image that Tom thinks other people see that he wants rid of.
So I ask him, ‘What have you achieved since leaving school, that didn’t require or need all that muscle?’ He begins to tell me, ‘I got my degree, got my own home, a car, I’m doing ok at work, I could do more but this way I am free to go to the gym during the day.’ He laughs and continues, ‘and I’m in a relationship.’ He stops, ‘Although I don’t know that I would be, if I wasn’t as big as I am.’ He isn’t joking. Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD) is an increasingly common psychological problem amongst men. However, what is driving so many men to want to be bigger than they can possibly be?
The reasons are several, and very familiar to women too. For women, the message is that to be successful you need to be young, slim and toned, with big breasts and a flawless complexion. For men, it is much the same (without the breasts). As women have pointed out since the dawn of post war, second wave feminism, the ideal is impossible for all but a very few to achieve, in spite of the lies told to convince the world otherwise. In many cases, it is achievable only with chemical and cosmetic assistance. Social media is awash with shirtless profile pics, gym selfies and people ‘smashing’ exercise goals. This sends the message, ‘If you want what I have, you need to look like I do.’
However, here’s the catch. It is mostly, if not all, fake. To get that degree of musculature requires more than daily grinding and heavy weights; it takes steroids. When you see a very muscular, lean man, what you see is a chemically engineered shell. I do not doubt for one minute that the dedication and the hours of effort at the gym are real. However, the motivation behind them that has created these men is fuelled by shame, insecurity and fear. More and more men assume that muscularity equals masculinity. For Tom, masculinity means being strong and in control; but Tom is anything but in control and his behaviour reflects this. In fact, the obsessive striving after hyper-masculinity is in control of him. Just as those who suffer with anorexia use laxatives, exercise and purging to control their weight, Tom’s steroid use and gym obsession is a means to conceal his emotional vulnerability behind a formidable shell. However, you can’t change your self.
Tom talks about his steroid use. He is clearly ashamed as he describes his cycle as he can’t look me in the eyes. I tell him that I notice he seems embarrassed and I enquire as to what has got him feeling so ashamed. Tom’s answer does not surprise me. He says, ‘It’s cheating, isn’t it?’. ‘So, if it is cheating, then you are being dishonest, who are you being dishonest with?’. Tom replies, ‘Myself and everyone else. My girlfriend doesn’t even know I take gear’. What is obvious is that Tom wanted to leave the boy behind and become a muscular man. His use of steroids has made him just that, but burying feelings under synthesised muscle has only compounded his psychological issues.
It has been proposed that MDD should be classified as an addiction because one can become locked into maintenance behaviours which cause long term damage. The addiction is circular; men take steroids to boost their musculature, but cannot cope with the muscle loss, lack of libido and depressive episodes when they come off. So they resume taking them to relieve the symptoms. The more testosterone, the higher a man’s sex drive, which may lead to compulsive and risky sexual behaviours. Tom has been with his girlfriend for 18 months, yet sleeps frequently with other women, usually from the gym. This leads to feelings of shame, which compound his already distressed state, feelings of worthlessness and self loathing. He completes the cycle by punishing himself physically in the gym until he can longer feel his internal pain. Tom then binges on online pornography as being intimate with his girlfriend feels too much for him and he worries that she might see the ‘real him’. Most of Tom’s compulsive behaviour cover up the real Tom. When I ask Tom who he wants that to be, he doesn’t know. However, he can say, with genuine anger, that he doesn’t want to be the character into which he has made himself. Fundamentally, he is realising that masculinity isn’t about muscle. Muscles alone do not make a man.