Mental Health and Wellbeing Matters: the ‘perfect’ body

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A few words for those who might struggle with physical self-esteem as we continue to be bombarded with the perfect bodies of onscreen action heroes.

There are a lot of ways to tell you’re watching an older movie. Hairstyles, fashion, not to mention the unmistakeable grain of film stock. Then there’s the matter of representation: whether its Mean Streets, Highlander or Police Academy II, I’m a sucker for films that depict that dangerous, sleazy vision of New York City that in reality, hasn’t existed for thirty years. 

There’s another way of figuring out that you’re watching an older film and it concerns that way in which male heroes appear onscreen. Go back to the 1960s and 70s and the heroes of that era were a different physical specimen entirely. No matter if you were Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson, you might have sported a few muscles but not in the way we’ve come to expect from our heroes today. 

The birth of the 1980s action star changed everything in that regard. The explosion in popularity of bodybuilding was mirrored in Hollywood with the rise of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and chums beefing up to ridiculous proportions to create a new breed of ‘hyper-masculinity’. It didn’t matter that many of the details in Pumping Iron, the pseudo-documentary that introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger were fabricated. It didn’t even matter that Stallone’s hulking training montages in the Rocky movies became increasingly unhinged from the way actual boxers prepare for actual fights. Male audiences were being exposed to the same damaging body images that females had been dealing with for decades. 

The 1980s may be long past, but the problem remains, not least because of the world’s ongoing obsession with superheroes. The rise of Marvel Studios have also given rise to the ‘Marvel Body’, a well-worn (and depressingly publicised) pathway which sees an inbound MCU actor going through an extreme physical makeover to transform their body into something that isn’t just difficult to replicate in real life, it’s often dangerous. 

It’s a problem that’s getting worse too. You only have to look at the way that Hugh Jackman’s body changed over the course of his time as Wolverine for a visual chronology of the increasingly ludicrous physical parameters that an actor is supposed to achieve. Despite Jackman having spoken about physically distressing the process was, it hasn’t stopped a million YouTube videos popping up, advising others how to get that Logan body.

Hugh Jackman in Logan

I appreciate that this is something women have (and still have) had to deal with for much longer period than men, but as a male, that’s not within my realm of experience. As a man though, I do know first-hand how difficult it can be to be bombarded by images of the perfect body before looking in the mirror and never quite being satisfied.  

Hopefully, this is a piece that the majority of you happen across and it’s not something you worry about. “Personally, I’m not bothered,” you might say. “Chris Hemsworth can grow his biceps to the point where they develop their own weather system and I’m not affected.” I hope so and if that’s the case, power to you. If like me though, you’ve sometimes struggled with that dissatisfying disconnect between the body you inhabit and the ones that you see on a screen, here’s a few things that I always remind myself of, on the occasions when such thoughts try to sneak into my mind.

Firstly, those bodies are sometimes manufactured in ways that are abnormal or even dangerous. In short, those results are not always attained through natural means. Charlie Sheen has openly admitted that he took anabolic steroids to bulk up for his more action-oriented return as Topper Harley in Hot Shots: Part Deux and he’s likely far from the only case. Sheen long ago gave up worrying about his public image but as William Goldman once argued in Adventures in the Screen Trade, public image is pretty much all that stars are concerned with.

As such, you aren’t going to find many actors openly admitting that they’ve taken anabolic steroids because of the damage it might cause to their career. Make no mistake though: it’s likely that some of those more radical body transformations aren’t always just the product of expensive personal training teams. (Just to note, anabolic steroid use is dangerous and can have very, very severe side effects. If you are ever tempted, do your future self a favour and find the courage to walk away from those thoughts.)

Secondly? It’s always worth considering the intentions at play here. Chris Hemsworth is one of the biggest names in Hollywood when it comes to getting into physical shape. However, the actor has also made many millions of dollars from promoting his workout regimen through his fitness brand, which you can be part of if you’re willing to cough up the cash. Even aside from the money that he makes playing Thor, Hemsworth and others like him have a vested financial interest in presenting us with bodies that sit on the very brink of being unobtainable. That’s how they can persuade us to part with our hard-earned cash to join Team Hemsworth and unlock the ‘secrets’ to the Thor physique. The same is true of advertisers and studio executives who have long made piles of cash from stoking our insecurities by bombarding us with images of the ‘perfect’ body.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, these images we see might not even be real anyway.

The process of ‘beauty work’, digital touch-ups in post-production that add in a six pack here or some deltoid definition there, is a worrying phenomenon that male actors are said to be more prone to than their female counterparts. Granted, there’s not a great deal of evidence to support that claim as NDAs are in full effect when it comes to revealing which stars might be affected. But, the odd story emerges every so often, including one from a few years back in which a female lead actor felt compelled to agree to having ‘beauty work’ done in post production when she was informed that her two male co-stars had already requested the process. In short, if what you’re seeing onscreen looks to good to be true, then maybe it is. Thus, it stands to reason that if the actor, with all of the resources at their disposal still couldn’t achieve that look in reality (and with all that fancy movie-set lighting), how could you ever be expected to do so?

Next, it always helps me to remind myself of what a functionally-fit body looks like and it isn’t the hugely brawny torso with oversized arms and hulking shoulders that you often see onscreen. Steve Buscemi was a firefighter before he began his acting career and returned to the service as a volunteer sometimes, including during the 9/11 emergency. Being a firefighter requires a high degree of physical fitness, but I’m sure the actor wouldn’t mind me saying that his onscreen appearances have never even tried to present the ‘perfect’ body. As someone who also writes regularly for health and fitness outlets, I’ve got a pretty informed idea of what a male body looks like when it’s able to to effectively perform a full range of physical activities and guess what? It doesn’t have to look like Thor’s.

Marvel's Eternals

Marvel’s Eternals

Finally, let’s talk about the why.

Kumail Nanjiani revealed last year why he transformed his body for The Eternals, hinting at the pressure actors (and subsequently us, the fans) feel to look a certain way. The Pakistani-American actor said that he wanted the sections of the audience that he represents to have somebody onscreen who looked like they could tangle with Captain America or Thor. This was despite director Chloe Zhao specifically asking him not to bulk up for the role. 

In a slightly different situation, Zac Efron has recently spoken about the mentally destructive toll that getting a body for Baywatch caused, whilst he was shooting that film in 2017. Efron was using powerful diuretics to achieve his goals, which caused him to enter depression and suffer from insomnia, not to mention the physical toll that it would have also exacted, all to shed an extra couple of percent’s worth of body fat.

The pressure that both men felt to attain a perfect body, was clearly evident, and whether that pressure was via an external or internal source is irrelevant. Ultimately, if we allow ourselves to feel that these unobtainable bodies are an aspiration that we should be battling for, then we’ve already lost the real fight, the far more important one that happens inside of us every time we look in the mirror.

Advertisers, celebrities, movie studios, all of them have lots of money riding on the idea that as men, we’re weak and insecure enough about how we look, that we’ll line their pockets to purchase the snake oil that will somehow remedy all of our worries. So pay it no mind, glance in the mirror and know that whatever you look like, you’re real in a way that those onscreen bodies can never be. Forget improving how much weight you can lift, that is a type of strength that is worth striving for. 

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