Barbie gets a lot of shit for having a body that’s simply impossible to reconcile with good health. Since she came onto toy shelves in 1959, Barbie’s gotten thinner and thinner and her boobs have gotten bigger and bigger. I think it’s pretty well known that if Barbie were human-sized she’d be a freak. She’d be incapable of lifting her head, would have to crawl all on fours because her tiny ankles wouldn’t hold her weight, and her miniscule waist would only leave room for half a liver and a couple inches of intestine… It’s totally outrageous. But, what about Action Man?
Last year I visited the in-laws for Christmas. My son and I had a great time searching through troves of toys packed away in the cupboards, from when his father and uncle were little. Buried among too many matchbox cars to count, there was a pretty impressive collection of Action Men. And they were jacked. I was actually quite astounded by just how ridiculous their proportions were. So hulking, so muscular, that if he were real he’d probably have to go through doorways sideways. And it didn’t stop at Action Man, either. Here’s a little snapshot of what has happened to Batman toys over time.
The difference between the 1966 and 2021 Batman toys is stark, and I think reflects the pressure that many young men feel. The most common question I get from young male athletes is, “How can I bulk up?”
When people ask me how they can lose weight, I always probe deeper. I want to know the why behind it. If they’re only focused on aesthetics, forget it. What’s the real desire, if there was no societal pressure? There’s usually something: keeping up with their kids, feeling more energized, sleeping better. I tell them to forget about weight, and focus on that instead. But what about when it comes to young men wanting to get big?
I will absolutely put my hand up and say that as a young, inexperienced dietitian, I probably did more harm than good when it came to young men asking how they could action hero-style muscles. I wrote them a food plan for what seemed like a billion calories a day and left it at that.
But messed up eating and exercise habits aren’t solely the domain of women. When I look around my gym, I see a guy who literally can’t rest his arms by his sides because he’s so jacked up they stop in mid air. And there’s that other dude who is there All. The. Time. It doesn’t matter if I go in on a Wednesday morning or a Saturday night, he’s there without fail. Muscle dysmorphia, aka bigorexia, is a huge problem. To put it simply, it’s when someone feels they are never muscular enough. It’s the same kind of body dysmorphia that people think of when they think of anorexia, only about giant muscles. They may work out obsessively, even missing work or important events if it conflicts with their muscle gain schedule. They might check themselves in the mirror up to 12 times a day. They never feel good enough.
For every client I see that is eventually diagnosed with anorexia, I see dozens more with disordered eating habits that aren’t quite bad enough for them to labelled as having an eating disorder. And it’s got me wondering, for every case of bigorexia, how many (predominantly) young men have unhealthy disordered eating and exercise habits that won’t quite meet the definition? Scarily, a study from 2019 found a whopping 22% of males between the ages of 18 and 24 reported muscularity-orientated disordered eating behaviours.
And just like society flatters women for losing weight, it hails men for gaining muscle. Not for being healthy. Not for being strong. For how they LOOK. That’s messed up. I remember reading an interview with Jacob Elordi, the star of the mega-popular Netflix film The Kissing Booth. He spoke of the massive pressure he felt to look insanely fit for the role of the high school jock. He worked out twice a day, seven days a week, entirely focused on muscle development. And the reaction of fans was, well predictable. The lauded his body, not his acting skills. I was so happy when he explained that he didn’t do that again for the sequel.
“I wanted to be a blank canvas and be more concerned with my health,” he explained. “I wanted to be able to walk and run with my grandkids when I’m eighty-something, you know? It’s more about being functional as opposed to actual aesthetics.” I think that’s how it should be!
When I see skinny teenage boys at the gym, I hope with all my heart that they’re there for a much healthier reason than to get jacked. And these days when young male athletes ask me about bulking up, I try to probe deeper. Do they want to be stronger/faster/jump higher for their sport? Or is it that they want to look a certain way? If it’s just aesthetics, forget it. Let’s focus on their sport and, most importantly, their health for the rest of their life. Not their looks.
Yes, I let my son play with the old Action Man dolls from the 80s on our visit. He had a blast making the scuba one swim in the bathtub. But I was secretly glad to bury them back underneath the matchbox cars when he was done.