Shredding the Superhero Body Myth

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel.
Spandex is so unforgiving: Henry Cavill in Man of Steel.

Photo by Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

It’s well-understood in this media-saturated age that Hollywood beauty ideals can wreak havoc on the self-image of normal human beings, resulting in negative outcomes ranging from eating disorders to addictions to extreme plastic surgery. That this is true for men—especially gay men—as well as women is still sinking in culturally, but we’re getting there. Still, even when our brains know better, it can be hard to internalize the ridiculousness of the bodies we see every day in such a way as to resist their influence on our perception of others and ourselves.

Though it’s not his primary intention, Logan Hill’s article on the superhuman training regimens actors now follow just to stay employable serves as a great prophylactic against the damaging power of these images. Titled “Building a Better Action Hero,” Hill’s Men’s Journal story goes long on the sought-after trainers and dubious man-building methods of the movie and TV industries, showing that while yesterday’s leading man just needed to be handsome, today’s must be an Adonis as well:

Male actors’ bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly’s worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man’s junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don’t need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even “serious” actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.

Hill explores the grueling two-a-day workouts, strictly controlled diets, and shots of Human Growth Hormone that actors must commit to—often under the direction of the studio—in order to obtain their jacked bodies and keep the part. As a person who is extremely proud of himself if he makes it to the cut-rate gym for a basic workout five times a week, being reminded of the time—and pile of money—that’s required to look like Henry Cavill in Man of Steel is liberating. But the biggest reality check in Hill’s piece comes when he describes how even an extremely worked-out body needs some sketchy tricks to look Ryan Reynolds-ripped on camera:

Since 5 percent body fat is nobody’s natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments. To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes.

The last-minute pump comes right before the cameras roll. Philip Winchester, the hero of Cinemax’s action series Strike Back, recalls seeing the technique for the first time on the set of Snatch: “Hundreds of extras were standing around,” he recalls, “and Brad Pitt would drop down and do 25 push-ups before each scene. I thought, ‘Why is he showing off?’ ” Then Winchester figured it out. “I realized he was just jacking himself up: getting blood flowing to the muscles. I’d always wondered, ‘How do actors look so jacked all the time?’ Well, they don’t. Now we ask: Is it a push-up scene? When I shot that Strike Back poster, I was doing push-ups like a madman, saying, ‘Take the picture now! Take it now!’ ”

And that’s before any post-production polishing. Knowing that the chiseled torso on screen is completely ephemeral—literally impossible to “achieve” in any lasting sense in the real world—doesn’t totally undermine the damaging power of male beauty ideals, but it does help disrupt them to a degree. So the next time you’re catch yourself judging a guy in pretty good shape for not being “perfect,” remember: He probably didn’t have time to dehydrate himself and do 50 pushups before your date.