Over the past few years, obsessive bodybuilding and a culture of ‘fat shaming’ have insidiously entered the mainstream.
Sales of protein powders and sports supplements have rocketed and, just last month, a study suggested that 82 per cent of men “feel more stressed about not having an impressive physique than they did five years ago”.
The younger generation appear to be the affected demographic. Endless hours spent on social media fuel the fitness frenzy, as average young men constantly compare themselves to the few vain enough to post pictures of their rippling abs and pumped-up pectorals online. Subsequently, steroid abuse has become worryingly prevalent amongst young adults, with the number of teenagers using these illegal substances more than doublingbetween 2009 and 2012.
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So why are millennials the most muscle-crazed generation in recent history, and what factors have combined to create this supplement-fuelled fixation?
Well here’s one you might not have considered: action figures. If you haven’t looked at these “dolls for boys” recently, you might be surprised to see just how over-developed the average male action figure is these days.
From childhood, we are taught that strength is good: to be strong is to be successful and respected. Mass produced action figures are major reinforcers of this concept, and the designs of these toys – to which children are exposed every time they walk into their bedroom – have become increasingly muscular over the past several decades.
You need look no further than the merchandise of major franchises to notice these changes. Star Wars, for example, produced a realistically proportioned line of toys when the first trilogy of films were released in the late Seventies. But after updating the designs for a turn of the Millennium reissue, the majority of the figures now look like they’ve been bench-pressing the Death Star.
Timothy Baghurst, a professor of physical education at Oklahoma State University, has researched these physical exaggerations and the adverse effects they may potentially be having on younger generations. “We found that current action figures were statistically larger than the originals,” Baghurst tells me, “to the point where it would be unlikely to impossible that anyone could obtain these dimensions”.
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Physical power in childhood heroes is often used as a representation of both moral conviction and strength of character. Superheroes in particular are presented to young children as being righteous and principled individuals: role models. And whilst it is commendable that children are being encouraged to adopt these ideals of selflessness and loyalty, they are also, by proxy, being encouraged to pursue their idols’ physical characteristics. Characteristics which, in the majority of cases, and especially with regard to action figures, are unachievable.
The subtext of our modern superhero culture is simply: to be good, you must have muscles. It’s Batman, not fat-man.
Now, one can’t attribute the rise in unhealthy gym-addiction and steroid abuse to action figures alone, but it is true that these toys have had a contributory role in the shift towards increased muscularity, normalising over-pumped physiques to children from a very young age. You need only look at Charles Atlas, a 1940s bodybuilder who was long considered to be physically perfect, to see just how quickly society’s perception of what is considered ‘muscly’ has changed.
But could these ever-higher targets to which today’s gym-goers aspire be a consequence of their childhood exposure to caricatured action figures? For years, eating disorders and self-confidence issues in women have been attributed to a subconscious desire to emulate their childhood Barbie dolls. So have recent years seen male-aimed toys set an equally unrealistic benchmark?
The overwhelmingly popular superhero boom that began with 2000s X-Menfacilitated the further pneumatic growth of these figures, with ‘superhumanity’ seized on as an excuse forever more bulging biceps. This was given added impetus when manufacturers began to cast toys in the likenesses of actors, but wildly exaggerate their physical characteristics.
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Hugh Jackman, who has embodied the superhero ‘Wolverine’ in the X-Men franchise, has become increasingly muscular as the film series has progressed. Could it be that Jackman has felt pressurised into ‘living up’ to the over-muscled image of the character because the tie-in media and merchandise has exaggerated the actor’s physical proportions with every instalment? The image above shows the increase in muscularity of both action figure and actor.
As action figures have got ever brawnier, men who have grown up believing in the merit and attainability of these physiques during their childhood are now in pursuit of them, and thus begins a damaging cycle. For as individuals spend more time in the gym, and the population grows more muscular as a whole, toy manufacturers continue to bulk up their figures to ensure their products still stand out – and justify their ‘superhuman’ or ‘hero’ descriptions. And it is this perpetual battle of one-upmanship that is driving the unhealthy pursuit of unattainable ‘perfection’.
The most recent evidence of this cultural obsession can be found in film advertising, where the trailer for almost every major action release now contains a gratuitous topless shot of the male lead. Even Chris Pratt was told that no one would take him seriously as a hero if he didn’t shed his chub.
And as actors such as Dwayne Johnson and Terry Crews openly flaunt bodies that even action figure manufacturers wouldn’t have considered realistic until a few years ago, many long-standing franchises have felt pressured to jump onto the bodybuilder bandwagon so as not to be left behind. Just look at the progression of James Bond, who made his debut on film as a man of fairly average build, but has recently had to hit the gym hard in order to pass as a convincing 21st century action man.
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Action figures are clear indicators of society becoming increasingly ‘ripped’, and have been proven to exacerbate a condition called Muscle Dysmorphia. This disorder, dubbed the ‘Adonis Complex’ by psychiatry professor Harrison Pope, is characterised by a fear of being too small, and perceiving oneself as small and weak even when one is actually large and muscular.
Timothy Baghurst’s study establishes a clear link between the exaggeration of action figures and a drop in male self-confidence. “I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t encourage a healthy physique in the toys we create for boys, but healthy is the key term. As they are, many toy figures for boys are unhealthily proportioned and could serve as a catalyst for unhealthy mental and physical behaviours.”
And not only do unrealistically proportioned playthings damage children’s views of their own bodies, they can also negatively alter their perceptions of others. With a figure of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in his hand, a young boy could surely be forgiven for thinking of his averagely-built father as less of a man, less like a hero – and therefore less worthy of his respect. The majority of action figures that children play with today will have sharply defined abdominals, and inflated pectorals – whereas, back in 1966, the first Action Man figure had the equivalent of a 34-inch chest.
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Baghurst’s report also noted that the facial expressions of action figures seem to be getting progressively more aggressive and that this, coupled with both an increasingly violent media and unstable hormones caused by steroid injections and over-exercise, could be permanently damaging not only the physicality, but also the psychology of growing boys.
Since the turn of the Millennium, children have been indoctrinated with the belief that to become a hero, one must be strong, fierce and feared – with the result that an increasing number of our young men have become victims of an anabolic arms race; imprisoned in the gym, fuelled by illegal steroids and alienated from the very moral qualities that originally characterised their heroes.