By Brian Cuban, Contributor
Have you ever noticed those pop-up ads that appear with images of incredibly ripped celebrities, humongous body builders and the same ripped senior citizen touting what can be achieved just by taking this supplement, some testosterone or replacement regime, or that mysterious powder? Like the media images that tell women they can lose 30 pounds in 30 days without exercising, these messages tell us that men can look like a “300 Spartan” or “Wolverine” just as easily without effort, tempting us to buy and attain the often unattainable. False promises–by implication of these images of men who have achieved seemingly impossible muscularity, six packs and large body proportions–play to the vulnerable and body insecure. They prey on naivety and those often born with a genetic predisposition to engage in extreme behaviors in the quest to achieve success, women, and overall better quality of life, ultimately leading to unhealthy behaviors like eating disorders and steroid abuse.
If we look at the nuts and bolts of truth in advertising, Sly Stallone may have very well used that product to get shredded for Rambo when he was 67. Of course what the ads don’t tell us is that Sly has admitted to using Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is only legally obtained through a prescription for hormone disorders. Stallone admitted taking HGH and testosterone to get in top shape for his role in Rambo. In 2008, he told Time magazine, “HGH (human growth hormone) is nothing…anyone who calls it a steroid is grossly misinformed – testosterone to me is so important for a sense of well-being when you get older.” He added, “Everyone over 40 years old would be wise to investigate it because it increases the quality of your life. Mark my words. In 10 years it will be over the counter.”
Key words: “…it will be over the counter.” What does that say about celebrities? That they are allowed to break the law? That their fans should too? That we, like the stars, should risk our health for vanity? The ad doesn’t tell us that it is almost a biological impossibility to achieve biceps bigger than an NBA basketball without anabolic steroid use. But hey, he used the product. The old guy ripped at 80 may have had the genetics all along to support such ripped features at age 50, but nothing sold over the counter or on the web can achieve such results at 80, with or without exercise.
(I look down at my non-ripped stomach and wish for a 1-pack. No genetics here.)
It’s amazing how things have changed since I grew up in the baby boomer era of the ’70s. There were no airbrushed digital images. No Internet for that matter. Ads for muscle “enhancers” were found on the back of comic books. Who, born in that era, does not remember the Charles Atlas ad on the back of your Superman or Archie comic? While less sophisticated, his ads basically played to the same frailties and insecurities that today’s ads do. If you look like Charles Atlas you will get the girl. If you look like Charles Atlas you will no longer be bullied. The male stereotypes and insecurities have not changed. Especially in how less “macho” masculinity is attacked and taken advantage of. What Charles Atlas and today’s sophisticated digital manipulations and chemically enhanced ads do is not tell us is that muscles and “perfect” bodies do not cure what ails us. I know. I abused illegal steroids heavily. I used legal testosterone replacement therapy. None of it made me feel better about myself. I had to get back to the beginning. Deconstruct how I got to a point of self-loathing and the need to equate the perfect body with societal and self-acceptance. This route took me not only through steroid addiction but multiple cosmetic procedures eventually leading me to the verge of bankruptcy. All because of Charles Atlas. Well, not really. Of course there is no one cause. Why certain people respond to such ads and images in a self-destructive or obsessive/compulsive way is still being fleshed out by experts. What we do know, however, is that many people have a lower threshold when it comes to being triggered by the media and they can be more easily influenced. What’s more, I believe that this explosion of ads promulgating the perfect yet unattainable body, whether male or female, has led more of us to express normative discontent. It has become much easier and accepted to look in the mirror and feel something just isn’t quite right and take the quick fix to get what we perceive is wrong with our bodies, whether it’s a supplement, plastic surgery or legal and illegal steroid use. That’s the route to acceptance, power, and fame, as we define it.
It’s time for product manufacturers to portray what is realistically possible to the average Joe and Josephine when using their products. Stop playing to those who may be predisposed to engage in destructive eating and workout reginmes to sell products. I don’t want to dehydrate myself for three days and eat carrots for a week to get the body you portray. The dangerous part is that when I was in the midst of exercise bulimia and steroid addiction, I would have done just that.