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Carved From Marble: Male Body Standards and the Myth of Adonis

Greek myths have woven their way into our lives in ways we could never have expected in our modern world, and not necessarily for the better. Bodie Greatbatch Murphy writes about a new perspective on these legendary stories


One of the persisting legends that wove its way through Ancient Greek civilization and their way of life was Aphrodites’s lover, Adonis. So magnificent in his beauty that he courted the affections of Apollo, Heracles and Dionysus, he was cruelly slain by a boar while hunting and was honoured through an annual festival and centuries of artistic depictions of his physical form. However, the classical image of Adonis and many other mythical depictions of idealised beauty has laid the groundwork for one of the most surprising issues facing young men in modern society - body dysmorphia. What is Body Dysmorphia, and how do we combat it?


Body Dysmorphia is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as “a body-image disorder characterised by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or a slight defect in one appearance”. The condition can make one overly focused on a single aspect of their body, such as their nose, skin or stomach, but it can also relate to one’s relationship with their entire body. Despite affecting around 1 in 50 Australians, it is a condition that is extraordinarily difficult to diagnose, as many who suffer from it do not feel they are suffering from a delusion.


If left untreated, Body Dysmorphia can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, depression and in extreme cases, high rates of suicidal thoughts. However, part of the difficulty with Body Dysmorphia is the medical and societal perception of it as a “female condition”. We have been conditioned to consider disorders like bulimia and anorexia through the narrow lens of teenage girls and Instagram models. In 2000, Dr Harrison G. Pope published his landmark work The Adonis Complex (2000), revealing that body image concerns not only affect women, but have now affected an entirely new and previously unaffected group: young men.


The titular “Adonis Complex” – which Pope clarifies is not a psychological term – asserts that “[The Adonis Complex]… is created by biological and psychological forces that combine with modern society’s and the media’s powerful and unrealistic messages emphasising an ever-more-muscular, ever-more-fit, and often-unattainable male body ideal”. Pope asserts that while it is important for young men to eat a healthy diet, groom themselves and have a desire to look their best; the societal pressure to push past the boundaries of health can have a “devastating impact on emotional and physical development in the young, and on well-being for men of all ages”.


This complex is compounded when we consider how rapidly the internet has changed since 2000. The “Wild West” era of the Internet has long since passed for a more curated and highly profitable machine. Now, young men searching for a way to feel better about their bodies are bombarded with social media feeds that continuously promote influencers with unrealistic body types. These influencers often portray their image as the result of hard work and a clean, controlled diet, promoting the idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve the progress behind protein shakes, workout plans and secret dieting tips. As someone who has struggled with my weight, it’s easy to be won over by the siren song of people you admire for their knowledge and dedication to their bodies. Often what is conveniently ignored by these influencers, and entirely hidden from the passive viewer is the real secret behind their performance - anabolic steroids.


Users and proponents of anabolic steroids draw their arguments clearly and simply. There are scientifically proven benefits to steroids alongside scientifically proven harmful effects. It is up to the individual to investigate and ultimately make the choice themselves if they wish to partake in steroid usage. Yet, this sentiment ignores how the choice to use steroids may be due to existing conditions such as Body Dysmorphia and media that normalises dangerous activities to achieve the perfect body. Much like a person who deeply despises their nose likely won’t be completely satisfied with plastic surgery, men suffering from one of these conditions will not be pleased with their natural growth efforts. They will likely turn to steroid usage to ‘achieve’ their perfect body. Young men who sign up for this on the advice of money-hungry influencers are likely not aware they will be signing up for a permanently increased risk of heart disease, liver damage, decreased testosterone production, and aggressive behaviour. Additionally, steroids cause permanent effects that require frequent medical attention and oversight.


Sleep deprivation is another rising problem. As workouts begin to increase in frequency and become more intensive, sleeping difficulties are being remedied with excessive caffeine consumption in the form of pre-workout. A friend of mine and my personal fitness inspiration noted, “caffeine has a half-life of about nine hours, and the ‘average serving’ of pre-workout is about 240mg of caffeine. If you’re going to do a workout at 7:00pm and use pre-workout, you’re going to still have about 120mg of caffeine or about a cup and a third of coffee in your blood at 4:00 in the morning. Not only are you fucking up your sleep, you’ll nullify any benefits you got from the workout because your muscles recover and rebuild themselves during sleep”. Unfortunately, immediate gains inevitably defeats later consequences, a sentence inflicted upon men seeking the bodies of Greek sculptures due to their lack of knowledge.


How do we begin to fix this? Ideally, we could begin by normalising the struggles men face with their own body and the battles inside their own mind. If we can craft a system that effectively supports men suffering from these conditions, we can stop many future cases before they happen.


It is critical that we take a closer look at the media we consume to stop promoting toxic double standards. The Adonis, Achilles and Heracles of the world are now celebrities and movie stars – transforming into the Henry Cavills, Chris Hemsworths and Chris Evans. These celebrities and their ‘miraculous body transformations’ hide the intensive personal training and wafer-thin margins of error in the food they eat. Instead of embracing the double standard, it is time that we should start holding ourselves to the same #METOO standards we have societally applied to female action stars like Scarlett Johanssen and Jennifer Lawrence, and stop sexualising them and start understanding them.


Instead, a more healthy approach to superhero stardom is found in the open way Robert Pattinson has admitted to his struggles with body dysmorphia and refusal to use steroids or exercise intensively for his 2022 film The Batman. Similarly, John Boyega who is casting actors of different body types stating “it’s about rebranding the way in which we are fed a false narrative of perfection”. At the end of the day, we should treat the men in our life as people, not soldiers or Ken dolls.


As I write this, my brother comes home with a friend who studies sports science. He’s a healthy young guy, six foot three, heavy from lean muscle and a resident gym junkie - the perfect opportunity for some homespun truths. I ask him some questions about body image issues and he tells me, “There are some days where I wake up and I’m a little heavier than I was before and I feel like shit, but there are always days like that. I think what social media and movies do is make it harder to celebrate the small goals, which are the ones that really matter”.


Ultimately, when we can start to celebrate our personal achievements and the length of our body’s journey over quick results, we can move on from the myths of the past. We are comfortable carving our heroes and mythical gods in perfect form, but we hold unreasonable expectations of obtaining such an idealised form in ourselves. The Greeks and other ancient people looked to the stars and saw figures in heavenly perfection that inspired them to chisel divine beauty into their art.


However, we are not statues carved from marble. We are people moulded from clay.


If you are going through an eating disorder or are struggling with your relationship with eating or your body, you are not alone. Call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

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