Much has been made of the decreased effect of gravity on female movie stars in recent decades, and how this sets an impossible standard for girls, leading to body image issues.
But a similar effect has taken place with men, with the scale moving in the opposite direction.
Charlton Heston spent most of the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes shirtless, but such a torso would never suffice for today’s action hero. That’s why the 2001 reboot had former underwear model Mark Wahlberg as the lead.
The James Bond body stayed pretty static across multiple actors, until the perfectly ripped Daniel Craig added 007 to his tagline. When Casino Royale premiered hearts went aflutter when his license to thrill physique sauntered out of the ocean blue.
There has been a shift in what gets seen while shirtless on the silver screen, and men have noticed. Schwarzenegger was one of the first, followed quickly by Jean Claude Van Damme, as guys who fit the description of, “Well, they can’t act, and their English isn’t so good, but damn, they look pretty from the neck down, so … roll camera!”
But such hyper-muscled warriors were anomalies in the 80s. Christopher Reeve may have looked good as Superman, but he was positively puny compared to Henry Cavill’s 2013 version of the man of steel.
An entire industry has sprung up around the desire to achieve the latest male movie star musculature. Stories of regular actors being transformed for specific roles have permeated the media and lead to training tales a-plenty in magazines sporting the word “muscle” in the title.
In the year following the 2006 film 300, Google Trends shows a 300% increase in searches for the term “six pack abs.” Many magazines promise to relay the secrets of the “Superman workout” or the “Thor workout” or the “300 workout” or the “Insert-name-of-pumped-up-movie-hero-here workout.” What is often left out is the explanation of how these physical transformations become tightly controlled labor camps for the actors, and how the muscle gains and rippling midsections are fleeting.
This media pressure can lead to muscle dysmorphia (colloquially known as “bigorexia”), which is an obsession with not being muscular enough. Listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it strikes primarily among men who are already lean and muscular, compelling them to quest for even more muscle mass and ever lower levels of body fat. It can lead to compulsive exercise regimens that decrease quality of life, as well as disordered eating. Sometimes, anabolic steroids are sought out to quench one’s desire to be huge. The supplement industry sure has cashed in on all of this. It’s worth noting that many of those muscle mags are owned by supplement companies and used as vehicles to hawk their mass gaining wares.
Recently I interviewed Hugh Jackman about his Wolverine transformation, and instead of dwelling on the details of his workout, I asked him about the extremes taken to prepare him for shirtless scenes. “… everything changes the month before, and I’m timed down to the day,” Jackman told me. “There is water dehydration for 36 hours before. It’s quite a scientific process to looking your best.” He also told me of how his motivation to train so hard comes from knowing he’s going to be on a big screen in 3-D, and that he doesn’t keep that shape for long.
I also interviewed the stars of 300: Rise of an Empire and learned about how training and diet takes over the actors’ lives. And in a recent interview with actor and Old Spice pitchman Terry Crews he told me about taking diuretics to lean out for shirtless scenes.
Overall, I like seeing these powerful physiques on action stars, but I also understand what it takes to achieve them. I just wish more men realized what a near-impossible standard is being set, and instead of fretting over their own lack of visual “perfection,” would just sit back and enjoy the show.