The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
July/August 2000 Volume 11, Number 4
©2000 Gürze Books

(By Harrison G. Pope Jr., MD, Katharine A. Phillips, MD, and Roberto Olivardia, PhD. The Free Press, 2000; 286 pp; $25.00)

The Adonis Complex brings in two other major themes – male preoccupation with becoming “muscle-bound,” related to obsessions and compulsions about body-building, muscle dysmorphia and anabolic steroid abuse, and the overall story of body dysmorphic disorder in men (also touched on briefly in Making Weight). Think about the old magazine advertisements aimed at men who feared being the “120-pound weakling” at the beach and who got into body-building to make certain that they were never teased or victimized for being scrawny. This book tells you what happens if they get carried away. Harrison Pope Jr. has conducted interesting research among body builders and anabolic steroid abusers, and has also researched changing appearances in male action figures, including GI Joe dolls and bulkier, hypermuscular male figures that put Arnold Schwartznegger and the hulks of the World Wrestling Federation’s “Wrestle-Mania” to shame. All of these themes lend themselves to the great illustrations with which the book is peppered.

Pope and his colleagues have developed a computerized male body-image test, described in the book, and a self-assessment test regarding the Adonis Complex that readers can take concerning body preoccupations, associated behaviors, allocations of time and energy devoted to body care, and various social and psychological impairments resulting from body preoccupation in men. Not coincidentally, Katharine Phillips, one of the coauthors, is arguably the country’s most prominent expert on body dysmorphic disorder. She has written eloquently about body dysmorphic disorder in a previous book, The Broken Mirror. In The Adonis Complex, we see the fruitful results of “muscle mania” meets “body dysmorphic disorder.”

Selected chapters also touch upon eating disorders. The authors discuss risk factors among boys that might lead to these disorders, including issues of intimacy, social anxieties, and sexuality related to body-building (including but not limited to concerns dealing with homophobia and homosexuality). Useful chapters on what men can do to overcome body dysmorphic-related obsessions, compulsions, and underlying anxieties focus primarily on cognitive behavioral approaches and an appreciation for what antidepressant medication may do in some cases. This book, too, contains useful appendices, which include resource lists.

To sum up, two is better than one. Clinicians will want to read these informative books and recommend them to their male patients and their caring partners and family members.

— J.Y.

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