My husband and I watched Split last night. It was… fine. But what I couldn’t get past was how different James McAvoy’s physical build was from other movies I’ve seen him in and I can’t help but think it’s part of a worrying trend.
If you’re not familiar with James McAvoy, he’s that strapping fellow on the left in the picture above. But he didn’t always look like that. Instead, I tend to think of McAvoy as the slender Glaswegian actor from both good movies (Atonement) and not so good movies (Wanted). Usually, he looks more like this:
According to McAvoy, he bulked up for the role in Split using a regimen of heavy duty lifting, consuming 5000-6000 calories a day (the vast majority of it protein), and cut out things like alcohol. And listen: men, just like women, are allowed to manage and modify their bodies in whatever way they see fit, even if it’s not through conventional or even healthy means. So I’m not going to suggest that there’s necessarily something wrong with what McAvoy has done, and if he’s happy then my being distracted by the change is not his problem.
However, I worry that this is part of a trend in the way male movie stars have bulked up and dropped body fat for roles in the past few years. For example, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has always been a big guy, but lately he seems so enormous and muscular as to appear almost cartoonish. Chris Pratt shocked us all when he shed his Andy Dwyer normal-guy bod for his role in Zero Dark Thirty and has only seemed to get bigger since. Hugh Jackman was fit when he began playing Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, but for X-Men: Days of Future Past, at 46 years old, he lifted his way into a newer, larger, more veiny physique. The list goes on and includes Zac Efron (always fit but now even more muscley for Baywatch) as well as Justin Theroux (I guess the apocalypse means more abs?). It’s hard not to see a trend.
Again, I encourage men to live their lives the way they want to achieve their priorities, whatever those might be. But when there starts to be a trend within a specific group of people (in this case, actors), I start to wonder just how voluntary this is. Are these men really choosing to live in the gym and eat nothing but protein for months at a time? Or, in the way actresses have often been required to lose ten or 15 or 20 pounds off an already slender frame to land a role, is getting jacked being presented as a condition for that next starring role?
And in the same way that actresses with enviable and idealized bodies have always presented themselves as either the beneficiaries of good genetics (“Oh, my gosh, I eat so many burgers and I just love drinking beer”) or simply deeply committed to healthy eating and exercise, will these actors start presenting themselves that way, too? Because just like many actresses were engaging in disordered eating in order to maintain those slender frames, those super-muscled physiques don’t come just from packing on the protein. Even that wouldn’t be particularly healthy (McAvoy says of his diet: “Instead of eating two eggs in the morning, I’d eat eight. Then a snack of chicken breast. Then two chicken breasts for lunch and a steak for another snack. Then two salmon steaks for dinner.” It should go without saying that that’s not a particularly balanced diet). Worse is that many of these men are almost certainly using other substances, many of them of questionable value and provenance, to make the muscle gain easier and more effective. Steroids and other exercise enhancers don’t just lead to things like shrunken testicles, acne, and sexual dysfunction–they can also lead to things like renal failure, liver cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and heart attacks.
Beyond these specific men who have made the choice to become larger for personal or career reasons, the bodies that we see on television and movie screens normalize what we think bodies in general can and should look like. Will seeing ripped body after jacked body make men feel dissatisfied with their own normal, perfectly healthy bodies, the same way women often feel dissatisfied with theirs? And will it drive men to pursue riskier activities in an attempt to achieve what they think is “normal”? I might sound alarmist, but I spend enough time worrying about how to make sure my daughter grows up with a healthy body image–I don’t need anybody coming along to rip my son’s down, too.
For ages, women have complained that they are held to unrealistic standards. They’ve pointed out that it’s unfair that what passes for a normal, attractive woman on television is pretty narrow compared to the wide range of body types and shapes out in the real world. And we’ve pointed out that it wasn’t fair, considering that men aren’t held to the same standards. I’m worried that Hollywood took the wrong meaning from that. We were looking for them to give women a break, to present a wider range of bodies as valuable and worthy of love. We didn’t mean that we wanted them to create new, unrealistic standards against which to hold men.