The Adonis complex

Huge biceps and six-pack stomachs epitomise the male ideal, as portrayed in glossy magazines. But the effect on men can be a crisis of self-confidence and a range of health risks, says Ian Mccurrach
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We have all become inured to seeing seductive images of eerily flawless women in the media, yet it is hard to ignore the growing number of advertisements and fashion spreads that show half-naked men with bulging biceps, impeccable pecs and rippling six-packs. Toned and taut, bold and beautiful, they represent what is nowadays considered to be the masculine ideal.

We have all become inured to seeing seductive images of eerily flawless women in the media, yet it is hard to ignore the growing number of advertisements and fashion spreads that show half-naked men with bulging biceps, impeccable pecs and rippling six-packs. Toned and taut, bold and beautiful, they represent what is nowadays considered to be the masculine ideal.

In the same way that women have, for decades, been made to feel inadequate and inferior when comparing themselves to images of "perfection", a recent survey has shown that men, too, are now suffering from poor body image and are hooked on attaining the "body beautiful". The self-image problems that can and do lead to illness in women (such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia) are well-researched and documented, but the health risks associated with male muscle-envy are only just coming to light.

This survey, presented at the American Psychological Association in Toronto, showed that even top male athletes are now vulnerable to having what has been dubbed an Adonis complex - believing they are insufficiently muscular and feeling compelled to exercise more. As many as one in five of the men questioned believed they did not have enough muscle bulk.

Part of the problem stems from the images portrayed in men's fitness magazines. Many professional male models use chemical enhancements, such as steroids and creatine, to gain their bulk, which is simply unachievable by putting in hours at the gym between work assignments. Most men who take steroids are unaware of the health risks, and many take them without first getting medical advice or supervision. In the short term, their use can lead to acne, mood swings, paranoia and depression. The longer you use such drugs, the greater the risk of liver failure or heart attacks. Creatine is considered unsafe by many health professionals as it can cause massive dehydration. Even protein supplements should be approached with caution, as they can lead to over-development in parts of the body where it is not wanted.

"There is much more pressure now for men to build up their bodies and to keep in shape," says Hugh Craig, a professional personal trainer. "This can lead to low self-esteem, and even muscle dysmorphia, an obsession whereby physically healthy men have a distorted view of their own body and believe their muscles are too small and underdeveloped."

Male gym membership is rapidly on the increase. Jon Giles, club manager of Jubilee Hall gym at Covent Garden in London, says: "We have always attracted more males than females, but in the last three years we've seen an increased proportion of male members, averaging 70 per cent at the moment."

In an age when former body builders are muscling in on mainstream American politics, how far are men prepared to go to achieve a fashionable body shape, and at what cost to their wellbeing?


Age 25, a public affairs and communications consultant who lives with his partner in Kennington. Duncan is 5'11" and doesn't know how much he weighs

"My main aim is to look better and be more attractive, so my gym routine is really important to me. This often means missing out on a work lunch or being late for an evening function. I started weight training at university, but only got serious about 18 months ago, mainly because I wanted to flatten my stomach and tone up my shape. I'm quite well-built, and usually work out seven or eight times a week. At lunchtimes I work out for 45 minutes and for up to 90 minutes in the evenings and at weekends.

I like my chest, shoulders and legs as they're big and muscular. My stomach and arms are not that defined, so I'm not keen on them. I don't necessarily want a six-pack, but I do want flatter abs. I used to combine cardio with weights, but since following the Atkins diet, the emphasis has shifted to weights. At first it was hard not having carbohydrates, but you get used to it. I mainly stick to high-protein foods such as chicken and fish.

When I'm older I might consider cosmetic surgery, but not at the moment. I have taken thermogenic supplements, such as xenadrine, which speeds up your heartbeat, but that made me feel terrible. I've also tried creatine, which can boost muscle strength and size, but I felt dehydrated and I heard it can damage your liver. I may try steroids at a later date if I'm not happy with my size.

I used to avoid situations where I had to expose my body, but since working out I feel much better about taking my top off in gay nightclubs where there is a huge pressure to have a good body. I still feel self-conscious about my stomach, though.

I don't think I have a body image problem, although sometimes when I look in the mirror I see a fat blob and worry that I don't look good, but that is usually after I've seen someone with a body that I aspire to, like the rugby player, Jonny Wilkinson. Sometimes I like what I see, especially if someone has just complimented me on how big I am. That makes me feel terrific."


Age 31, single, a corporate lawyer who lives in Kensington. Brett is 6' and weighs twelve and a half stone

"I grew up in New Jersey and started working out when I was 17 years old. It seemed natural for me to lift weights, as it has always been part of American culture.

I wouldn't describe myself as really toned, as I have a little layer of fat, which I'm working to shift. I go to the gym five times a week, and work out for about an hour and a half. I work different muscle groups on different days. I should do more cardiovascular exercise and work on my legs, but I don't enjoy that so much. I'd also love a six-pack, and should concentrate on my abdominals.

In my early twenties I worked on getting bigger and bigger muscles, but now going to the gym is about relaxation and switching off. I work really long hours, so fitting in 10 hours of training a week means missing out on social occasions. In the past, when I've had girlfriends, I've even sneaked out and gone to the gym. At first I thought that maybe I was obsessed, but weightlifting releases endorphins in the brain, which are a natural relaxant and make me feel healthier and stronger.

I don't read any fitness magazines and don't have a body type that I aspire to. I would never consider having surgery or using supplements as they could cause long-term damage. I'm careful about what I eat, but don't really diet. I eat mainly poultry and avoid high-calorie foods. I don't restrict my intake of carbohydrates, but I try not to eat desserts. I'd like to be trimmer and more toned. I fear that if I stopped working out I'd blow up like a balloon."


Age 39, a self-employed electrician who lives with his girlfriend in Southend. Paul is 5'7" and weighs eleven and a half stone

"My grandfather was a fitness instructor and got me into weight training when I was 18 because I didn't like football. I used to train five times a week, and really built up my muscles. It has definitely paid off, because now I only have to keep what I've got maintained. I train twice a week at the gym for 90 minutes, doing mainly weights. I also run about seven miles, twice a week.

I'm a medium build and I like most of my body, except my legs, which could be bigger. I'd never take drugs to build myself up and I'd never consider surgery. My metabolism burns up calories quickly so I never have to watch what I eat or follow diets. Maybe in the future, when I slow down, I'll have to be more careful. I'm not obsessive about training, so if I miss a session because of a social event it doesn't bother me.

I subscribe to Men's Health magazine, which has quite a few training tips, and I watch programmes about fitness and strength on television. Primarily I work out for me, but my girlfriend likes me having muscles, and it's fantastic when I'm on the beach because I often have the best body there, which makes me feel great."