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PITY THE PEACOCK
What's wrong with how men see their bodies?

The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession by Harrison G. Pope Jr., M.D.; Katharine A. Phillips, M.D.; and Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. (Free Press, 288 pages, $25).

BY NANCY ETCOFF '76

Male supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg is paid to advertise clothing, but he is usually photographed wearing little of it. Before a recent photo session for a Calvin Klein advertisement, for example, a photographer told him, "Youre not going to actually wear the pants, Marcus... maybe youll take them off and cover yourself." Impossibly lean, muscular male bodies are increasingly on display in magazines, on billboards, and even in such toy action figures as G.I. Joe. A recent Salon article applauded this newly revealed, gorgeous masculinity. "They are making men feel good about being men. And the pages say to them, You, too, can be a god...

But what if physical godhood just isnt in the cards? Not everyone can possess Schenkenbergs perfect proportions, but a growing number of men feel as if they should. In The Adonis Complex, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Katharine Phillips, along with coauthors Harrison Pope and Roberto Olivardia, vividly demonstrate that the increasing public visibility of male beauty has been accompanied by a torrent of private fears, doubts, and obsessions. The authors describe a range of psychological obstacles some men navigate when they look at themselves in the mirror from mild feelings of dissatisfaction to devastating disorders such as anorexia, compulsive exercising, steroid abuse, and body dysmorphic disorder (a tormenting preoccupation with an appearance defect, either imagined or so trivial that others do not notice it).

Of course, male vanity did not spring up de novo at the turn of the millennium. In Elizabethan times men stuffed and padded their doublets to get what we now call the Calvin Klein look. When cavalier high boots went out of style in the eighteenth century, thin-legged men wore two pairs of tights with calf pads tucked inside. But as Pope, Phillips, and Olivardia point out, there is a difference between vanity and obsession and despair.

The book cites a 1997 survey in which 45 percent of men said that they were dissatisfied with their physique almost double the percentage found in the same survey in 1972. "We can calculate that there are... well over fifty million muscle-dissatisfied men in our country," the authors write. The male obsession with appearance has escalated so rapidly, in fact, that it is no longer taboo for men to use many of the appearance-enhancing tools women have been using for years, from hair dyes to tummy tucks. Few people are surprised to learn that even presidential candidate Al Gore has been known to spray a fine mist of makeup onto his face while on the campaign trail.

What has caused this surge of interest in male appearance? The authors shift most of the blame onto popular culture, particularly advertising: "Vast body-image industries, hawking everything from exercise machines to diet aids to nutritional supplements, stand to profit from convincing boys and men that they should be uncompromisingly fit and lean." The sheer number of images of physical perfection that men and boys confront in daily life from G.I. Joes washboard abs to Stone Cold Steve Austins massive deltoids contributes to an ideal male body, the authors write, one that "has not only been putting on muscle, but has also been dieting."

The growth of this "Adonis complex" has been aided by the widespread availability of anabolic steroids. The authors argue that this crisis in male body issues could not have reached its present proportions without these drugs, which increase muscle mass in mens upper bodies. According to a 1999 survey of drug abuse among U.S. adolescents, just under 3 percent of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders have taken anabolic steroids at least once.

The desire for beauty is part of our natural inheritance, and modern science has given us plenty of tools for achieving our ideal. Thanks to a combination of tummy tucks, steroids, and the increased social acceptance of men who have undergone hair transplants and cosmetic surgery, men look in the mirror and see not what they are but what they can be. Trouble arises when the pursuit of what can be leads to narcissistic obsession.

The Adonis Complex makes a thorough, compelling argument that body-image disorders are no longer (and probably never were) the exclusive problem of women or teen-aged girls, and that there are treatments for them. Its a fascinating book that will raise public awareness of steroid abuse, among other things, and it could change how everyone thinks about the male body.

Nancy Etcoff is the author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KATHARINE A. PHILLIPS

There is a big difference, says Katharine Phillips, between men who get annoyed with themselves for eating that extra scoop of ice cream and men who suffer from the Adonis complex. The term was coined by Phillips, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and her coauthors as a way of distinguishing normal insecurities from pathological ones. "If its something you think about once or twice a day," she says, "Im not sure we would include it under this rubric." Phillips first looked at people with self-image problems in The Broken Mirror: Understanding and Treating Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which was published in 1996. In The Adonis Complex she has focused her attention exclusively on men, but, Phillips adds, the central message has remained the same: "Our point is...its okay to be ordinary."
Chad Galts

 


THE LEGEND OF UNCLE JOE
Searching for the true story of a family hero.

Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South by Hugh Pearson 79 (Free Press, 249 pages, $24).

BY RHETT JONES 76 PH.D.

Joseph H. Griffin was a remarkable man. An Afro-American doctor in Bainbridge, Georgia, from the 1920s through the 1950s he built a thriving medical practice and opened a $250,000 hospital for black patients all this while Jim Crow ruled in the South. Ralph McGill, a longtime antiracist editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gave a speech at the 1950 dedication ceremony for Griffins hospital and later wrote: "Deep in southwest rural Georgia...I found a meaningful American story."

Hugh Pearson sets out to do the same in this biography of Griffin, who was his great-uncle and, needless to say, a family legend. But, as with most legends, there was a dark underside to Joe Griffins success. Throughout Under the Knife, Pearson grapples with conflicting loyalties, on one hand to his relatives most of whom would like to keep Griffins legacy much as it was and on the other hand to his desire to provide an objective account of Griffins life and character. In the end, Pearson writes, "loyalty to family must take a backseat...too often, [black] families refuse to step back and attempt any objective analysis of their place in society."

Under the Knife is one of those rare books that can be appreciated by both readers who are familiar with the Jim Crow South and those who are not. Historians of the South and of Afro-Americans will find the book a rich, almost folkloric supplement to their knowledge, while novices will find Pearsons easy-to-read account a fascinating introduction to southern black life before the 1960s. But Under the Knife is not a conventional history. It lacks a clear chronological framework, and Pearson skips back and forth in time in a sometimes bewildering fashion.

In his attempt to reconstruct Joe Griffins life as fully as possible, however, Pearson provides a good deal of useful background. For example, he discusses how black colleges in the South were divided into those that trained blacks to serve whites and those that educated blacks to think for themselves. He provides a wealth of information on the two black medical schools in the South, Meharry and Howard, which, until recently, trained the majority of black physicians in the United States. There is a lengthy section on relations between Jews and blacks in the South, as well as numerous mini-biographies of Griffins and Pearsons family members.

While describing a man who was a dedicated doctor and a powerful figure in southwest Georgia, Pearson returns again and again to the theme of self-conception among Afro-Americans and the social strategies they use to cope with oppression. Griffin coped by being relentlessly "economic-minded," according to one of Pearsons sources outside the family. He became one of the biggest property owners in Decatur County, Georgia, by persuading patients to sign over property deeds as collateral while they paid off their medical bills and foreclosing when they missed payments. He also earned a reputation for performing illegal abortions on a sliding scale from $400 to $200 when few other doctors would.

These kinds of facts werent part of the Griffin legend Pearson heard while he was growing up. Just as Joseph Griffin had his ways of coping with racism, his descendants have coped by passing down only the heroic stories about him. Its a process, Pearson writes, that has "grown especially important to middle- and upper-class Afro-American families as we attempt to dress in enough armor to withstand the daily onslaughts to our pride."

Rhett Jones is a professor of history and Afro-American studies at Brown.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HUGH PEARSON '79

Joseph Griffin was not the only strong figure in Hugh Pearsons family history. "All of my family members defied the stereotypes," he says. But when Pearson got to Brown, he experienced what he calls a culture shock. "They acted like [African Americans] werent supposed to be there like we were all on scholarship," he says. A biomedical-ethics major originally interested in pursuing a career as a doctor, Pearson did not return to his high-school love of writing until after graduation. His first book, The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, received praise for its thorough look at the founder of the Black Panther Party. Pearson was not afraid to employ the same rigor when he turned his attention to a member of his own family in Under the Knife. Some of his relatives, he says, appreciated the honesty: "My aunt told me, Its time for the truth to be told about Uncle Joe." Sarah Olinger-Stout 02


COPING SKILLS
An imaginative way to deal with loss.

The Fly-Truffler by Gustaf Sobin 57 (W.W. Norton, 155 pages, $19.95).

BY CHAD GALTS

Losing a loved one is never easy, but the main character in The Fly-Truffler has found a way to deal with it. He dreams. In his nighttime ruminations, Philippe Cassabacs beloved wife is still alive, the miscarriage shortly before her death has been magically reversed, and the world is bright with promise. But a person cant live two lives at once. The increasingly vivid luster of Cassabacs dream world is accompanied by a comparable dimming of his attention to worldly affairs: he loses his job, his telephone and electricity are shut off, and he is forced to sell off his familys estate in Provence, France. To the dreamer, of course, none of this matters. His real life, or at least the one he wants, remains perfectly intact when he goes to sleep.

Gustaf Sobins delightful, slender second novel is a little like Cassabac ethereal, suspended just out of touch from the real world. The author of several volumes of poetry, Sobin is a gifted stylist. His prose is seductive and muscular in the intensity of its details. Cassabac, who depends on a diet of truffles to "leave him feeling perfectly disposed to receive whatever rich, flickering images [his] dreams had to offer," could be sustained nearly as well on Sobins descriptions of the subterranean fungus. When Cassabac discovers one of the last truffles of the season, for example: "its ripeness bordered on putrescence ...its scent, indeed, was overwhelming. Far more animal than vegetable, it smelt in turn of musk, sperm, fuming meats."

The dreamlike quality of The Fly-Trufflers language shows its limitations, however, in Sobins descriptions of Julieta, Cassabacs wife. The middle third of the novel is a long flashback describing how Cassabac, a professor of linguistics, met and married Julieta, a student from one of his classes who is half his age. The section paints a portrait of a woman with a "mineral forehead" who speaks so cryptically and is so shrouded in mystery that she is nearly impossible to understand, let alone empathize with.

Sobin delivers an antidote to Julieta in the form of Magalie, Cassabacs drunk and dissolute younger cousin. The Fly-Truffler is such a wonderful conjuring of a sleepy, poetic Provence that Magalies sudden appearance near the end of the book is like a welcome bucket of cold water. She has come to Cassabac with a problem, and the bereaved professor anxious to return to his dreams does everything he can just to be rid of her.

With Magalie out of the way, Cassabacs "dream life came to invade, and finally, overcome the impoverishment of his day-to-day awakened existence." But the novel doesnt make it easy to dismiss Cassabac as having gone completely mad. His dreams, buoyed by the power of Sobins language, are vivid enough to make his obsession with them comprehensible. This becomes especially clear when we realize even if Cassabac does not what is happening to the land he has given up to keep his dreams alive. He is completely oblivious to the bulldozers converting his former estate into a "rambling eighteen-hole, obstacle-free golf course... Le Golf des Anciens Domaines (Club Priv)."

No modern book set in Provence would be complete without some form of nostalgia. It has become a region defined (some would say ruined) by its popularity. Sobin, who has lived in the region for thirty-seven years, has written an imaginative and impressive celebration of what made the region such a hot destination, but he has also conveyed how little of that place is left. What it once was, in fact, may today be little more than a dream.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GUSTAF SOBIN '57
In the thirty-seven years he has lived in Provence, Gustaf Sobin has seen a lot of changes, none of them, he says, for the better. Sobin chose to flee New England and move to France a few years after his graduation, in the hope, he says, of escaping the stuffy American culture of the day. "Moving to Provence was like reconnecting with an archaic culture," he says. However, in recent years, books such as Peter Mayles A Year in Provence have brought about many changes in the image of the region. According to Sobin, Mayles book "paints Provence as a kind of yuppie paradise." Sobin hopes that if The Fly-Truffler brings any more tourists to the region, at least they, like the truffler, will see below the surface to a truer vision of Provence. Amy Lichtenbaum 01

 


PERSONALITY CONFLICTS
Short stories, big characters.

The Fly-Truffler by Gustaf Sobin 57 (W.W. Norton, 155 pages, $19.95).

BY SUSIE KRAMER '99

Losing a loved one is never easy, but the main character in The Fly-Truffler has found a way to deal with it. He dreams. In his nighttime ruminations, Philippe Cassabacs beloved wife is still alive, the miscarriage shortly before her death has been magically reversed, and the world is bright with promise. But a person cant live two lives at once. The increasingly vivid luster of Cassabacs dream world is accompanied by a comparable dimming of his attention to worldly affairs: he loses his job, his telephone and electricity are shut off, and he is forced to sell off his familys estate in Provence, France. To the dreamer, of course, none of this matters. His real life, or at least the one he wants, remains perfectly intact when he goes to sleep.

Gustaf Sobins delightful, slender second novel is a little like Cassabac ethereal, suspended just out of touch from the real world. The author of several volumes of poetry, Sobin is a gifted stylist. His prose is seductive and muscular in the intensity of its details. Cassabac, who depends on a diet of truffles to "leave him feeling perfectly disposed to receive whatever rich, flickering images [his] dreams had to offer," could be sustained nearly as well on Sobins descriptions of the subterranean fungus. When Cassabac discovers one of the last truffles of the season, for example: "its ripeness bordered on putrescence ...its scent, indeed, was overwhelming. Far more animal than vegetable, it smelt in turn of musk, sperm, fuming meats."

The dreamlike quality of The Fly-Trufflers language shows its limitations, however, in Sobins descriptions of Julieta, Cassabacs wife. The middle third of the novel is a long flashback describing how Cassabac, a professor of linguistics, met and married Julieta, a student from one of his classes who is half his age. The section paints a portrait of a woman with a "mineral forehead" who speaks so cryptically and is so shrouded in mystery that she is nearly impossible to understand, let alone empathize with.

Sobin delivers an antidote to Julieta in the form of Magalie, Cassabacs drunk and dissolute younger cousin. The Fly-Truffler is such a wonderful conjuring of a sleepy, poetic Provence that Magalies sudden appearance near the end of the book is like a welcome bucket of cold water. She has come to Cassabac with a problem, and the bereaved professor anxious to return to his dreams does everything he can just to be rid of her.

With Magalie out of the way, Cassabacs "dream life came to invade, and finally, overcome the impoverishment of his day-to-day awakened existence." But the novel doesnt make it easy to dismiss Cassabac as having gone completely mad. His dreams, buoyed by the power of Sobins language, are vivid enough to make his obsession with them comprehensible. This becomes especially clear when we realize even if Cassabac does not what is happening to the land he has given up to keep his dreams alive. He is completely oblivious to the bulldozers converting his former estate into a "rambling eighteen-hole, obstacle-free golf course... Le Golf des Anciens Domaines (Club Priv)."

No modern book set in Provence would be complete without some form of nostalgia. It has become a region defined (some would say ruined) by its popularity. Sobin, who has lived in the region for thirty-seven years, has written an imaginative and impressive celebration of what made the region such a hot destination, but he has also conveyed how little of that place is left. What it once was, in fact, may today be little more than a dream.

Susie Kramer is a graduate student in fiction writing at the University of Montana.

 





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