It was at the age of 15 that I remember thinking for the first time, while standing shirtless in front of the mirror, that I wished I had pecs.
I was reminded of this moment recently when I saw some pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a historical-action film that opens Friday. At least, they were pictures of the guy I used to think of as Jake Gyllenhaal, but who had been transformed into a ludicrously muscular version of the actor.
Online bulletin boards are filled with females swooning over the shots, but he really does look absolutely ridiculous. And okay, as beach volleyball weather approaches, I might just be a little bit jealous.
A girl I dated in university used to complain about the guy who came before me, who she said was so into sculpting his body and spent so much time at the gym that he rarely made any time to see her. It seemed moronic – what's the point of looking good if you're only ever spending time with yourself? (This is also a guy who, she once told me, invented a way of walking that she described as "dick forward.") I vowed never to be that concerned with my image.
Still, any guy who has spent periods of time working out and has witnessed – as he happens to be passing a mirror – even the slightest improvement, will admit this is attended by an ego boost and a sense of raised confidence. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing, but I've often wondered where exactly is the line between feeling good about that guy in the mirror and being obsessed with him.
Michael Atkinson, an associate professor of physical education at the University of Toronto and author of the forthcoming Deconstructing Men and Masculinities, tells me I'm not the only teenaged boy who was ever concerned about his physique. He's interviewed hundreds and found that, despite the common assumption that only girls worry about body image, boys as young as 10 are concerned with whether their form will appropriately express norms of masculinity.
"They always say: 'I don't want to be a huge guy. I don't want to be a fat guy. I want to be thin and muscular but not too big,' " he said. "And they worry about this stuff from a really early age."
It's this relationship between the ideal image of a man and the individual's body that can be problematic, he says.
"Masculinities are very difficult to maintain, which lends itself to a sense of ongoing perpetual work," Dr. Atkinson explained, noting that the modern fitness industry banks on this. "We're never told in our culture to be comfortable in your skin and be comfortable with what you've achieved. … And if you never finish something, you become preoccupied. And that's a really dangerous pathway into being narcissistic."
Interestingly – or maybe obviously, to some – the guy who's sucked into the goal of being the paragon of male attractiveness often succeeds with women, at least in the short term.
W. Keith Campbell, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, laid out for me how this usually goes.
"If you're a person in a relationship with a narcissist, the pattern is you find yourself attracted very quickly," he says. "They're exciting and you get involved. It feels really good for a while, and then you find that a bunch of negative things happen. Typically, when empathy should develop in the relationship after a few months, that doesn't really happen. The person can be controlling and sometimes even aggressive."
For guys worried they might be narcissists, Dr. Campbell's co-author Jean Twenge pointed me to something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a list of statements that you answer "yes" or "no" to in order to identify your self-love tendencies.
I found it online and one of the statements is, hilariously enough, "If I ruled the world it would be a better place." (I mean, of course it would.) The three statements related to vanity are: "I like to show off my body"; "I like to look at my body"; and "I like to look at myself in the mirror."
As well as guys using these as a guide to keep themselves in check, I was thinking, women could turn them into questions for a first date, and then add one more: "How large is your penis?" (Dr. Campbell told me that narcissists have been found to exaggerate their size. Yes, even more than the average guy.)
But enough about narcissism: Back to me and my concern about getting confidently fit without being vain.
Dr. Atkinson says the solution is not to stop caring about your body.
"For a lot of people, developing their body can bring them out of their shell, make them more social," he said, explaining that improved physical fitness raises one's mood, which in turn "makes you a better partner, a better employee and a better person in the community."
But the key, he says, is to make fitness a part of your lifestyle without approaching it as a sculptor trying to attain some form of perfection. The irony here is that the more you're concerned with creating a shape that will attract other people, the more you'll drive them away with that annoying tendency not to notice there's someone else in the room besides you and your reflection.
"But if you're active all the time," he said, "the body – the natural body, the healthy body, the balanced body – will come."
This sounds pretty good to me. And maybe it means I still get to have those Prince of Persia pecs, if it's part of my "natural" form. Right? Oh, never mind.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.