From expensive pectoral implants to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, we unpack the pressures surrounding male body image and the lengths some go to in order to get the "perfect" body
Maybe it’s because Burger King wasn’t a thing back then, but in Michelangelo’s historical depictions of man, everybody seemed to have a really fire bod. In his sculptures and illustrations, a bloke’s pectoral muscles, topped with tweakable nipples, protrude out over a wash-rack torso; their knife-sharp V-lines pointing down towards to their bits.
It’s an image that has, for so long, dominated Western culture’s perception of archetypal masculinity and male beauty: the ultimate, almost unattainable look. And yet some 500 years on, we’re still obsessing over it. Now though, it manifests less in the art world – where frailer frames are more likely to be fetishised – and more on our TV screens every summer, as we tune in to watch the ripped permatan guys of Love Island on ITV2.
Recent statistics show that one in seven Brits – that’s 10 million people – pay for a gym membership, and the personal training industry in the UK alone is worth somewhere in the region of £630 million. The general consensus is that the vast majority of the women within those numbers are heading to the gym to stay in shape and improve their mental health, overwhelmingly through holistic kinds of exercise like yoga. The vast majority of men, on the other hand, have a far more regimented approach: one designed to make them bigger, or more ‘hench’, as some gym bunnies may put it.
There’s a basic biological yearning for all men to be dominant creatures, but their desire to beef up and express their strength nowadays is a byproduct of their culture more than anything. That’s something JR – a straight man who goes to the gym four times a week training with weights – will attest to. “These days, just like with women, men are discriminated upon based on their figure – especially with all the men on social media looking jacked,” he tells Dazed Beauty. “That puts a lot of pressure on guys to look a certain way, especially if they want to get the girl.”
"Where does this pressure to beef up actually spread its roots? Is it men’s perception that women want to sleep with conventionally attractive men that’s doing the damage?"
That raises an interesting question: where does this pressure to beef up actually spread its roots? Is it men’s perception that women want to sleep with conventionally attractive men? Is it fuelled by social media and ITVBe beefcakes? It is internalised in the locker room, as lads size themselves up against each other to be the ‘bigger’ person? Realistically, it’s a combination of these things and more that’s leading men on their journey to beef up. Life, to straight men who don’t have flawless bodies yet, seems better from that perspective: you expect girls to come easier; friends to respect you more, and the love heart-eye emojis to start rolling in in response to your IG stories.
The idea of straight men getting bigger to get sex is something that seeps into, and practically dominates gay culture too. As a more fluid, typically ‘queer’ culture takes hold, that carnal obsession with bodies and perfection is something gay men might start to dismiss in lieu of celebrating body positivity movements. But in reality, that notion of being a gay man who’s widely embraced regardless of his shape and weight is pretty farcical.
Devis is a gay, 25-year-old personal trainer from London who sees through the bullshit. “Gay culture is indebted to idolising the classic, [archetypal] man,” he says pointedly. It’s true. The way gay men are divided into subcategories (hairy, ‘daddy’ types considered bears; slender, hairless young lads labelled ‘twinks’) is a prime example of how body image dominates the way gay men see each other, and that labelling also comes with a generalised hierarchy. While some people may have “types”, the cis homosexual men who can navigate gay culture bearing the least amount of stigma, based on the oppressive homophobia fuelled by people’s disdain of flagrant queerness, are the ones who have the ability to assimilate into traditionally straight or masculine culture: these guys are the ‘jocks’. The jocks are, for most, the kind of men we all find inarguably attractive: chiseled jawlines, filling out tight fitting t-shirts with bulging muscles, potentially “passing” as straight out in public. It might be something to do with our innate desire to be flagrantly sexual beings, thus attracting a wider amount of people, but the idea of being built out of necessity, as a defence mechanism, is pretty damning too.
But that pressure inevitably stems from within the community, where images of topless lads with rock hard bodies – “the Mykonos gays”, Devis calls them – still pull in the most traffic and attraction on Instagram and dating apps. “The gay community are super judgemental,” he claims. And as for the apps, where there’s a liberated approach to nudity and topless pics? “They fuel the fire.”
It’s a fire that’s spreading far faster and with more collateral damage than most expect. To be clear: beefing up is by no means a bad thing. It's only when that desire to do so, exacerbated by the proliferation of images of men with rock hard bodies in the media and on social media, and societal expectations pertaining to male body image, leads men down extreme and dangerous paths. Like when men feel they have no other option than to go under the knife. As a result, procedures like pectoral implants are on the rise, with some surgeries, according to statistics acquired by MensHealth.com, seeing over a 400% surge in queries over the past five years in the US alone.
Plastic surgeon Paul Wigoda MD is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida: the home of shirtless, perma-tanned men by the pool. “Every year, the number of [pectoral implant] procedures in my practice has increased,” he claims, a byproduct of men realising that “there is less stigma attached to having them.” The most common client for Paul’s pec implant surgery tends to be “men who are not particularly muscular – even if they exercise – and who are embarrassed about it.”
The procedure begins with an incision underneath each armpit, through which a silicone implant is placed beneath the pectoral muscle to elevate it. Two hours later, patients are sewn back up and most are ready to leave by the end of the day. It might be over and done with relatively quickly, but prices vary: anywhere from £5,000 to £7,000 seems to be the going minimal price. For those who are striving to get bigger and can’t afford the expensive procedures, the limits of biology can push you towards shady practices.
In an NHS survey conducted in 2017, it was estimated that almost 1 million people in the UK, 94% of which are men, use steroids or other IPEDs (Image and Performance Enhancing Drugs) to propel their muscle growth to dangerous levels. Most of that demographic were between the ages of 20 and 24, and over half were doing so for aesthetic reasons. There’s a wider health risk that few of these really consider, including risks of cardiac issues later down the line. What’s more, many reuse syringes and share multi-dose vials with friends, increasing the risk of infection and blood-borne viruses.
Dan Hancock is a personal trainer who cites shows like Geordie Shore as the main catalyst for men wanting to beef up. “They would see these guys on TV getting girls and thought that’s what they wanted to look like too,” he tells Dazed Beauty, “and so bodybuilding and getting as big as possible started to become more and more common in guys aged between 18 and 30.” That, in turn, lead many men down the steroids route. It goes beyond being merely present in young bodybuilders nowadays; it’s commonplace and has catalysed an epidemic fuelled by naivety. “A lot of these young guys would take them and not actually know a whole lot about them,” Dan says. “Sometimes, they’d be taking three or four different ones at once. I spoke to a boy in the gym once who was injecting testosterone (a normal male growth hormone), tren (short for Trenbolone, a potent steroid), and taking DBOL (dianabol, a steroid in pill form). Basically, with that combination, you retain water and ‘look’ the part but without actually a huge amount of muscle growth. [That guy] was also taking Anavar which shreds you, basically doing the exact opposite of DBOL. It was totally pointless, and it’ll fuck your liver and kidneys. My advice would be to steer clear: the health implications outweigh looking good for a few years.” But it’s not just steroids that are leading people down dangerous paths to look better. The chemical DNP, designed to prevent energy from being stored as fat, has become commonplace amongst dieters and bodybuilders. In the UK alone, five people died from the complications it causes between January and June last year.
It's an infallible truth that men, despite what they argue, are products of society when it comes to their body image. Be it baldness, dick size or the physique they try to attain, the lengths many are expected to go to are veering into dangerous territory. Sure, the healthy lives that personal trainers like Dan and Devis help people lead are perfectly normal and totally encouraged, but the source of the problem that pushes people over the edge – from healthy to self-obsessed and addicted to steroids – is still something we’re struggling to address.
Perhaps we need a body positivity movement for men that shows the kind of healthy bodies many of us have in a new light, instead of the rippled six packs we obsess over? Or maybe, we need to reconsider the kind of blokes who become idolised and gain weird kinds of agency in 2019. Is the laddish behaviour of beefcakes like Gaz from Geordie Shore the best narrative that men can strive to match when our lives don’t revolve around ‘pulling lasses’ in Zante nightclubs thanks to our A* bodies all the time? The fantasy of perfection is reaping violent results, and as much as men are seldom hard done by, the pressure they put on themselves to look like Michelangelo’s David will literally be the death of us.