The Roid Age

These posts follow our discussion of steroids and the modern male body.


Tue Nov 27, 2012 – 1.39pm:

It’s a slow news week and I guess a Washington Post columnist’s resentment of James Bond’s amazing body is not exactly an important issue. But Richard Cohen regrets what he sees as the loss of real manhood:

Maybe the best example of the unmuscled hero is Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Bogart was 15 years older than Ingrid Bergman and it did not matter at all. He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age. As he did with Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon” — “I don’t care who loves who, I won’t play the sap for you” — he gives up the love of his life because age and wisdom have given him character. These older men seduce; they are not seduced. They make love. They do not score.

I’m not sure I agree – and not only because of that cringe-inducing boomer use of the term “make love”. I know my knowledge of heterosexuality is, er, limited, but it always struck me as a function roid-1of sexism, not elegance, that older, physically over-the-hill guys routinely date much younger and far more attractive women in movies. It’s only a milder version of men in straight porn: in general, apart from the size of their member, they look much more like a regular Joe than the fantasy, plastic porn-bots they penetrate. I don’t see that as different inkind than Woody Allen casting himself as a love object for women a third of his age, only different in degree. And it’s bullshit by and large – but bullshit that flatters most male viewers, including, it would appear, Richard Cohen.

But Cohen misses something important as well: surely many superman-like movie stars are on steroid cycles, as are many of the young guys and Jersey bros detailed in this recent NYT piece. The male body changed on screen because of steroids. Arnold started it all, essentially requiring men to be as physically ravishing in movies as women generally are. Advertizing took the baton, with Marky Mark leading the charge, followed by Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber filling the airwaves and magazine ad pages (remember them?) with physically enthralling super-men. Over three decades, the increasingly sophisticated results are everywhere. Not so long ago, you’d be able to point out the guys in the gym who were obviously on roids. Now, you’re lucky to spot a body that hasn’t been transformed by steroids. So when Cohen says

Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held.

He’s not wrong. But he is over-estimating the amount of work and time needed in a gym to get a great bod if you eat right, rest well and use the right, responsible mix of steroids. I think this quiet revolution in the use of steroids explains a lot in our culture.

I think it has a huge amount to do with NFL concussion rates: go look at football teams from thirty years ago. None of them come close to the steroidal cattle NFL teams herd together today. Surely that sheer weight and heft makes collisions more damaging, even as technology prevents the skull actually breaking like an egg.

Hollywood is getting subtler, of course. Arnold is no longer the model. But all those dudes from their twenties to their fifties with ripped, lean bods? You think that’s all diet and exercize and creatine? I worked out for years with mild but decent results and then got on HIV-related testosterone therapy and everything became so much easier, and I got a hell of a lot more buff with the same amount of effort. For me, it was a medical gain. For others, it need not require much medical cost, except smaller balls, and the danger of losing your own endocrine system through abuse.

But how are you going to stop vain and competitive and sexually driven young men from trying that out? Their movie stars are now all ripped muscle comic book characters. Why would they not want to preen more around their peers, get more attention from women, more street respect from men and far more sex? The phenomenon is global, huge in places like Afghanistan and Turkey, and buttressed by Hollywood’s ancient desire to sell sex on screen.

The new male is here to stay. And that is largely because it’s hotter. Get used to it.

(Photo: Getty)


Wed Nov 28, 2012 – 11.00am:

A reader quotes me:

But how are you going to stop vain and competitive and sexually driven young men from trying that out?…. The new male is here to stay. And that is largely because it’s hotter. Get used to it.

First, let me say, blech. As a doctor, a large man who used to (before medical school) have nice muscles, and a young man, that statement is nonsense. First, muscles such as that are completely attainable without using roids. The combination of new model exercise programs, high protein/low fat/low carb diets, and improved general health and skeletal fitness allows for a relatively remarkable amount of muscular definition and tone. I’d be astonished if Daniel Craig used steroids, instead of a really expensive personal trainer/dietician combo.

Second, Arnold is only attractive to a very specific set of people. The majority of the world thinks he was terrifying looking.

Another writes:

Perhaps there is a difference between what gay men and straight women find attractive. I don’t know a single woman, of any age between my niece’s 19 and my 54, who find these cartoonish looking men on steroids attractive. None.

Yes, we like fit handsome men. But we also find men attractive who aren’t necessarily fitness enthusiasts or who aren’t conventionally handsome. I admit to being absolutely lustful for George Clooney. But my favorite Clooney are his characters from The Descendants andMichael Clayton – the films where the character matters, not what he looks like (and hell, in The Descendants, he looks every year of his actual age and he’s the sexiest he’s ever been). My niece isn’t interested in any of these ripped boys from the movies, either. She has a thing for Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day – another not-conventionally-handsome man.

I don’t like to stereotype, so I won’t say that every woman agrees with me and my niece or that it’s a gay thing to find the steroid look so attractive. So I’ll just say that, in my own social and family circle, we avoid anything with these cartoonish men. We see it in much the same way as the men we know who never found cartoonish Pamela Anderson or Anna Nicole Smith attractive in any way. In fact, it seems to us that these men have little to no self-confidence, a trait that is a turn-off rather than the turn-on they so desperately want it to be. It makes us think less of them, intellectually, morally, sexually, and as a matter of character.

Another:

I know my knowledge of heterosexuality is, er, limited, but it always struck me as a function of sexism, not elegance, that older, physically over-the-hill guys routinely date much younger and far more attractive women in movies.

Well, you said it, not me. Let me point out that the older man/younger woman thing is not just something that happens in the movies. When I was in my 20s, women my age whom I pursued were routinely dating men in their 40s – not due to how much those men worked out (this was the 1980s), but due to how much money they had. Economic power is a form of aphrodisiac; older guys could take hot 20-somethings out for meals in nice restaurants, to plays or the opera, on trips to the Caribbean. I could take them to the local bar, a movie, and travel was out of the question. I was in college or grad school, way too poor to compete with the lawyers and bond traders.

I swore then that when I hit my 40s, I wouldn’t be that guy. And I’ve been lucky in age-appropriate love, so I don’t have to trawl for women half my age: but women half my age do hit on me occasionally. I’m always momentarily baffled as to why, and then I recall: I’m single, I’ve got a career and money in the bank, and at only 20 pounds overweight, she could do much worse.


Wed Nov 28, 2012 – 2.01pm:

Dissents Of The Day

A reader quotes me:

“For others, it need not require much medical cost, except smaller balls, and the danger of losing your own endocrine system through abuse.” Are you kidding?! Read this:

Anabolic steroid use causes decreased levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, increased levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and serious liver toxicity within 12 weeks, according to a study [published in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes] that measured the effects of anabolic steroids on men with HIV wasting disease.

As a side note: I am a 49-year-old HIV positive male (16 years positive) and have known more friends to die of a heart attack in their 40s than I have known die of HIV. Your comments are potentially very harmful!

Longer HIV survival is associated with higher chance of side-effects, like heart attacks. But it’s not clear what the precise connection is, or whether it’s HIV, HIV meds or testosterone therapy. But the latter – what I’m on – is not extra testosterone; it’s replacement testosterone to bring you up to normal levels. My own bloodwork, like most others with HIV, monitors for the impact on cholesterol, and can correct for it. Another writes:

Not to hate on guys who are crushing it with their rippling abs, but I recoiled at the casualness (both moral and medical) with which you treated the increase in steroid use.

The implication of your piece is that any guy who wants to preen or whatever – and who doesn’t? – should “use the right, responsible mix of steroids.” That’s crazy. Do you think those 15 year olds in the Times story are using steroids responsibly? Hell no.

Sure, if there’s a medical need, then by all means, people should roid up. But wanting to get jacked is not a medical need, and most non-celebrities are never going to have the access to the kinds of doctors and nutritionists that would make steroid use safe and routine. Nor should they. We live in a society with too few doctors, soaring healthcare costs, and an overmedicated population.

I also think your shoulder shrug at all this steroid use – “because it’s hotter” – is somewhat troubling. The notion that guys who want to get laid should mess with their body chemistry is just as revolting as the notion a woman who wants to be thought attractive should starve herself and have silicon surgically implanted into her tits. They’re both gross, if you ask me, and worth fighting against.

Good luck with that. My reader is right, though, that teenagers using this stuff are doing great harm to their own testosterone production, and that this should be prevented for men under 25 at the youngest. It’s also true that the use of steroids is a science that is dangerous if unsupervised. But that would be an argument for relaxing prohibition on steroids, to put doctors who dispense steroids or other drugs like growth hormone on the same plane as cosmetic surgeons.

Look: I’m a libertarian when it comes to doing what one wants with one’s own body. Added to that, the desire to get laid is about as powerful a drive as anything men experience. If added hormones help get you laid, the government can try to get in the way, but I suspect it will be futile. And I shouldn’t be the one bearing the blame here. Hollywood and the NFL are the primary cultural drivers – and reflections – of this.

Is this the shallowest part of manhood? Yep. But men are shallow when it comes to sex. I wish I could say I find scrawny guys as hot as built ones. I just can’t. Like straight men with big boobs, gay men cannot resist the siren call of big chests or an ass you can rest a jager shot on. As long as that is true, and the science exists to make you hotter, you can growl with naivete like Richard Cohen or you can face reality and try to make the best of it. That’s all I’m really saying.


Wed Nov 28, 2012 – 7.09pm:

The Roid Age, Ctd

Alyssa joins the debate:

Cohen dismisses the current crop of sculpted hunks that Daniel Craig represents as “some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer,” but the standards for what makes a man sexy that he’s describing are no more natural or objective. And I’m curious if he’d identify the beauty of the women he cites in his column, like Ingrid Bergman and Mary Astor, as effortless and natural, rather than the product of beauty standards and the punishing regimes and restrictive clothes that helped women accomplish them. One of the earliest contradictions I understood as a young teenage girl reading fashion magazines was that I was supposed to look “natural” and “effortless,” but that it took an enormous amount of work and money to recreate the looks that I was told embodied those standards.

I learned that my own lip color and texture was less natural than a glossy pink, that the blush of my unadorned cheek looked less vital than a layer of foundation, powder, and blush. I’m glad I had that education so I could see the distance and the contradiction, enjoy wearing bright red lipstick for its artificiality and sense of performance, not because I believed that my own hue was an error or imperfection. But it’s not an easy education to acquire, or to shake off in favor of truly discerning what I want to look like and feel, and I don’t envy someone like Cohen coming to his own version of it later in life, or reckoning with the work he’d have to do to meet the standards laid out for him. I feel a lot more concern, however, for teenage boys who are turning to steroids or working out more than is actually healthy to meet those standards.


Fri Nov 30, 2012 – 2.19pm:

More readers vent their frustrations and personal preferences:

Wow, just digging yourself in deeper there: “gay men cannot resist the siren call of big chests or an ass you can rest a jäger shot on.” Did it ever occur to you to say “I” or use a qualifier such as “many/some” gay men? My best friend is a gay man who loves skeletally thin men and finds big chests and asses to be repulsive. While an attraction to skeletally thin might not be widespread, there is more diversity in physical attraction than is dreamt of in your barren roid philosophy. Your particular turn ons do not speak to all gay men’s turn ons.

As an additional dissent, it becomes tiresome to keep reading posts about either marijuana or steroid use without the qualifier that, due to your HIV status, you have significantly less risky access – either from a legal (medical marijuana) or safety (doctor prescribed steroids) perspective – than most of the population.

Sure: I shouldn’t have said all men or all gay men. Many. As for my unusual status as someone under medically supervised testosterone replacement therapy, I have often referred to it. Another reader:

Are you familiar with twinks? Have you forgotten they exist? Not all gay men are into muscle worship and the professional wrestler look. You’re trying to hard to universalize your erections.

I thought both pecs and an ass would cover the ground. Twinks can have great asses too. Another reader:

I’m a 41-year-old bear. My partner of almost 9 years is a slender guy. Your blog is the last place I thought I’d read the same kind of childish, muscle-worshipping stereotype that repels me from gay bars – especially bear bars. I’ve had bears in these bars look at my partner and say, “What are you doing here?” then say to me, “What are we, not good enough for you?” Please. These people need to get some therapy.

Perhaps you think this is obvious but someone has to say it: different strokes for different folks, Andrew. Not all straight men like big boobs or slender women and not all gay men are drawn to the “siren call of big chests”. I’m certainly not. To me, those aren’t sirens; they’re warning bells of someone who’s in love with their looks and will spend more time at the gym than by my side. They’ll likely be dreadful, shallow insecure messes as their bodies inevitably age. Comments like yours serve to only reinforce the completely false stereotypes that the gay community is a shallow sex-starved group of sweaty men.

I was unaware that gay men were viewed as “sex-starved”. But of course I understand that sexual and emotional attraction varies enormously and is complex. But the allure of the V-shape of healthy masculinity is, in my view, buried in our genes. Steroids just take that one step further – for good and ill. Another reader:

Speaking as a straight man, a hot body alone is unlikely going to get you laid. Women simply don’t operate with visual stimuli like men. Gay men, yes – I can get it. As a straight man, a highly visually stimulating women creates an immediate physical and primal response. Involuntary. But it is my civil nature, how I was brought up, and my general repulsiveness to being someone I am not that draws a line between pursuit and passivity.

Women simply won’t go to bed with a meathead. While casual sex is on the increase, it is still not the norm and sexual activity is typically confined to an emotional bond. And for women sexual attractiveness, while important, is just one of many factors – and not nearly as important traits such as confidence and sense of humor. A guy who can tell a joke or turn a phrase has a WAY better chance at getting laid than any roided-up jackass.

Another:

Yes, many of us of women find tights butts and bulging biceps a turn-on, but to a point (straight potential steroid-users take note). I’m pretty sure most women are are repulsed by the look of the ultra-pumped up body builder physique, perhaps in the same way some men find bleached, breast-implanted, botoxed, lip-injected, excessively made-up women unappealing.

Secondly, you are making a big, and I think, incorrect, assumption by concluding gay men universally lust after the physical characteristics that you find personally attractive, or that all straight guys are wild about big boobs. Fortunately for athletic, small-breasted women such as myself, there is a definite “market” for the skinny, small-boobed girl. There are also guys who specifically dig wobbly overweight girls, scarily tall girls, and female body-builders.

Yes, guys like boobs, but not all guys like really big boobs. Some are more interested in other body parts (curvy butts for example). Same goes for women; while I go for guys who look fit (but not ripped), some like bodybuilders, some go for big hairy longhaired biker-looking guys, and some prefer a cleancut ultra-lean runners physique. I imagine it is pretty much the same with gay men (there are a number of gay looks/types, are there not?). You overlook that there is this great diversity in what individuals of any gender or sexual orientation consider attractive (despite what Hollywood would have us think).


Fri Nov 30, 2012 – 6.11pm:

A reader writes:

Several years ago my current wife summed up for me nicely a general sense of what many women find attractive in men: status. This explanation works pretty well to tie together the responses you’ve gotten from your female readers. It explains why many women (younger and older) find mature, successful men desirable; it explains why many women find rock stars who are not “conventionally attractive”, like Billy Joe Armstrong, desirable; it explains why many women find buff and ripped men desirable.

What they all have in common is some easily discernible display of status: “I am accomplished, I have resources, I am respected”; “I am a rock star, I am the center of attention, people heap adulation at my feet”; “I am an adonis, my physical fitness is impressive, I have the resources to spend many hours a week refining the beauty and prowess you see before you”. I would also imagine that it is an explanation that an evolutionary biologist could easily make sense of.

Another writes:

Forget the mega muscles! You know what served as the equivalent of porn for me and most of my girl friends? “The West Wing”! Smart men who were also funny and wore awesome SUITS! They had the added benefit of looking like they smelled good too. It’s not just money that can make an older man attractive to a younger woman; it’s also that he probably has a job that requires him to wear a SUIT instead of ratty jeans and a T-shirt that has a stupid slogan on it or some guy who only talks about his workout routine.

Another:

I have to say that I’m a little disappointed in the simplicity presented by you and your reader about why younger women may want to date older men. It’s not necessarily a product of sexism or simple resource hunting. It’s also an issue of maturity.

I’m 25 years old and mature for my age. I have a steady job with benefits that challenges me and that I’ve done a lot to acquire and keep. I do my laundry, can cook, and can make a budget that I stick to. I’ve dated men my age, and frankly I’ve found that I need to date “up” to find someone who similarly has his shit together.

This is of course my specific experience and I’m drawing from a particular pool of young men, but I really appreciate my current partner (47 years old) for the fact that he’s housebroken! His apartment is clean and he’s a responsible and considerate human being. Those are of course not the only reasons I appreciate him – the comfort level, confidence, wealth of experience, ability to make me feel at ease, other attraction, etc etc – but it’s only now after I’ve effectively left the dating pool for men my age that I’ve realized how aggravating it is to constantly feel more adult and responsible than the person I am with. I know that my partner went through his young and stupid years too, and I’m perfectly fine with meeting him on the other side.


Tue Dec 4 2012 – 12.21pm:

roid-2

Readers continue the popular thread from last week:

What especially troubles me is how un-conservative your claims about steroid use appear to be. Since when do conservatives (under your definition of that term) celebrate unconstrained libidinal desire? Youwrite that “the new male is here to stay. And that is largely because it’s hotter. Get used to it.” Really? This is the answer? Men want to be shredded, steroids meet that want, and the only solution is simply to acquiesce? In a later post you write, “I’m a libertarian when it comes to doing what one wants with one’s own body.” Fine – it’s one thing to say that the government shouldn’t be in the job of prohibiting people from taking risks with one’s own body. But is that all there is to say?

Shouldn’t a conservative regard attempts to change the basic biological character of the human body – and for fundamentally superficial, rather than medical, reasons – with wariness rather than enthusiasm? Shouldn’t a Burkean conservative seek to mitigate potentially destructive desires through existing cultural traditions and norms? Shouldn’t conservatives direct us to the well-worn values that can help us safely and gradually adopt and manage the risky technological and social developments of the rapidly changing modern world – values like modesty (don’t show off), hard work (come by your physique honestly), and integrity (be the person you are)?

We can. But my point is that I truly do think it’s futile given the power of the substance and the impact it has on self-esteem, social power, and vanity. My own view is that a Burkean conservative starts by not deluding himself into thinking the state can stop – or should stop – a technological and social change that is being powered by far stronger forces than the law can throw at it. We do not think of banning the web, for example, because it has ensnared countless people into forms of addiction, pornography, isolation and paranoia – as well, of course, as liberating discourse from its old shackles of legacy media. I take the same approach to steroids. I wouldn’t argue for Prohibition as we now have – precisely because so many men want them and use the drugs, with relatively minor repercussions (and none if done right and under medical supervision). The abuse comes largely from the unregulated, unmonitored abuse of the drugs. If we admit that many men want to look like the steroid models we have in much of Hollywood, then we should find a way to have doctors monitor and prescribe. Yes, it’s all cosmetics – but who is proposing to shut down the breast implant industry?

Yes, in the end, I find modesty a virtue in a man – as well as hard work and integrity. Women do too. Those values and virtues are worth celebrating and encouraging – and they will endure long past the ripple of delts. And that’s also the point: my view as a conservative is that human society is adaptable. We can trust it to get things right … in the end. As we adopt new technologies, we make mistakes and learn. Leaving aside the legitimate medical uses of testosterone – for those with long-term HIV, for example – I think we’ll slowly adjust. Even now, the Jersey Shore dudes are mocked for the crudeness of their giant arms. (They remind me of the boy in The Christmas Story who can’t put his arms down in his puffy coat.) The cult of the huge bodybuilder in gay culture has also definitely shifted from the 1990s “I Don’t Have AIDS” monster into a leaner, smaller but still ripped body – which requires a sophisticated use – and non-use – of steroid cycles in the gym. I have confidence this kind of thing will work its way out, and the virtues that my reader espouses and that I believe in will slowly win out. But can we start from the same understanding that a) this drug is not that dangerous and b) impossible to stop being sold on the black market? Facing reality is the first conservative principle. Making the best of it is the second.

Another reader:

I work out at the same gym you went to in DC (I’d see you there on the weight floor regularly, but was always too shy to say hello and didn’t want to interrupt you). I also work out with a trainer at the gym. I asked her months ago how many men at the gym were on steroids, in response to one guy working out near us who had an obvious steriod enhanced body. Her response? Almost all of them.

The bigger guys, the smaller guys who are just incredibly toned and sculpted, and most of the in-between guys to some extent. (She also noted that there are many women at the gym who, while not on steroids, are on human growth hormone.) She’s a certified nutritionist, a woman who has made a career out of health and physical training, and with all of her information and advanced degrees fully agrees with your view that it’s now hard to pick out a guy who’s not on steroids. That doesn’t mean that she likes the trend or agrees with its safety; she just can’t deny that it’s there, and she fully understands the draw of taking steroids among the gym’s clientele.

As a straight woman, I second those readers who have said that they don’t like the sterotypical steroid look. But I have to admit, the bodies of most of the guys at the gym are pretty nice to look at (which I can do pretty openly, as my 30-something womanhood renders me practically invisible when I’m working out at Vida.) Low body fat, great muscle definition, and no intimidating bulk.

Another:

I’m a female in my late twenties, and maybe the “roid-age” look has affected me. Anything from a swimmer’s build to an Alistair Overeem turns me on. I told my boyfriend of four years at that time I was leaving if he couldn’t drop the gut. (He already had strike one against him since he is a decade older, but you can’t have everything you want. He succeeded and two years later we’re engaged.)But I think it’s more female empowerment than the media that drives men to try and look hotter. I did sports in middle school, high school college, and now. I’ve done team sports, individual sports, and weightlifting. Maybe back in the day, when women were judged too weak to run marathons or play five sets of tennis, we were happy with a guy in a nice suit who kept a roof over our heads and food on the table, but nowadays I can do all that myself right down to the suit. Now that I’m an equal everywhere else, I want an equal in the eye candy department.

But don’t do steroids. The health risks aren’t worth it. The average young guy has more than enough testosterone if they eat right, exercise right, and get sufficient rest/recovery.

(Photo: Man flexing bicep, close-up, by Zoran Milich/Getty Images)


Tue Dec 11, 2012 – 6.07pm:

A reader quotes another:

I’m a female in my late twenties, and maybe the “roid-age” look has affected me. Anything from a swimmer’s build to an Alistair Overeem turns me on. I told my boyfriend of four years at that time I was leaving if he couldn’t drop the gut. (He already had strike one against him since he is a decade older, but you can’t have everything you want. He succeeded and two years later we’re engaged.)

Can you IMAGINE if a male reader wrote in and said, “I told my girlfriend of four years that I was leaving if she didn’t improve her physical appearance in the following, specific bodily way.” Good lord. Your inbox would light up with outraged readers. That the reader in question then goes on to talk about female empowerment and being equal in all ways … geesh. Equal in all ways except for the double standard of it being socially acceptable for women to make conditional demands on their loved ones based on physical appearance, but such behavior would get a man (RIGHTLY) shouted down.

Another writes:

One of your female readers wrote that she “think[s] it’s more female empowerment than the media that drives men to try and look hotter.” I would argue that it’s precisely the reverse. Feminists have for decades (rightly) criticised the objectification of women. What we’re now seeing, and have been seeing for at least the past decade if not longer, is the increasing objectification of men.

In the same way that women are expected to be thin and have big breasts, men are generally expected to have a six-pack, a big chest and no visible body hair. It is entirely possible for members of both sexes to be viewed as sex objects. This should be no cause for feminist celebration, nor is it in any sense evidence for female empowerment.

I wonder what extent this trend is being driven by the increasingly mainstream place of gay culture. The male norm you’re describing is very much one taken from, as you yourself recognise, one particular gay ideal of physical attractiveness (albeit not the only one).