The Bully in the Mirror
Stephen S. Hall
August 24, 1999
The New York Times Magazine
On an insufferably muggy afternoon in July, with the thermometer pushing 90 degrees and ozone alerts filling the airwaves, Alexander Bregstein was in a foul mood. He was furious, in fact, for reasons that would become clear only later. Working on just three hours of sleep, and having spent the last eight hours minding a bunch of preschool kids in his summer job as a camp counselor, Alexander was itching to kick back and relax.
So there he was, lying on his back in the weight room of his gym, head down on an incline bench, earphones pitching three-figure decibels of the rock band Finger Eleven into his ears as he gripped an 85-pound weight in each hand and then, after a brief pause to gather himself, muscled them into the air with focused bursts of energy. Each lift was accompanied by a sharp exhalation, like the quick, short stroke of a piston. The first thing you need to know about Alexander is that he is 16 years old, bright, articulate and funny in that self-deprecating and almost wise teen-age way. However, about a year ago, Alexander made a conscious decision that those weren't the qualities he wanted people to recognize in him, at least not at first. He wanted people to see him first, and what they see these days are thick neck muscles, shoulders so massive that he can't scratch his back, a powerful bulge in his arms and a chest that has been deliberately chiseled for the two-button look what Alexander now calls "my most endearing feature." He walks with a kind of cocky gravity-testing bounce in his step that derives in part from his muscular build but also from the confidence of knowing he looks good in his tank top and baggy shorts.
As his spotter, Aaron Anavim, looked on, Alexander lifted the 85-pound weights three more times, arms quivering, face reddening with effort. Each dumbbell, I realized as I watched, weighed more than I did when I entered high school. Another half-dozen teen-agers milled around the weight room, casting glances at themselves and one another in the mirror. They talked of looking "cut," with sharp definition to their muscles, and of developing "six-packs," crisp divisions of the abdominals, but of all the muscles that get a workout in rooms like these, the most important may be the ones that move the eyes in restless sweeping arcs of comparison and appraisal. "Once you're in this game to manipulate your body," Alexander said, "you want to be the best." While we talked between sets of Alexander's 90-minute routine, his eyes wandered to the mirror again and again, searching for flaws, looking for areas of improvement. "The more you lift," he admitted, "the more you look in the mirror."
In this weight room, in a gym in a northern New Jersey suburb, the gym rats have a nickname for Alexander: Mirror Boy. That's a vast improvement over the nicknames he endured at school not long ago. "I know it sounds kind of odd to have favorite insults," he told me with a wry smile, munching on a protein bar before moving on to his next set of lifts, "but Chunk Style always was kind of funny." And kind of appropriate. Until recently, Alexander carried nearly 210 pounds on a 5-foot-6 frame, and when I asked if he was teased about his weight, he practically dropped a dumbbell on my feet. "Oh! Oh, man, was I teased? Are you kidding?" he said in his rapid, agreeable patter. "When I was fat, people must have gone home and thought of nothing else except coming in with new material the next day. They must have had study groups just to make fun of people who were overweight." He even got an earful at home. "My parents God bless them, but they would make comments all the time. My father would say, 'If you eat all that, you'll be as big as a house.' And I'm, like: 'Dad, it's a little late for that. What am I now? A mobile home?"'
The day of reckoning came in April 1998, during a spring-break vacation in Boca Raton, Fla. As his family was about to leave its hotel room to go to the beach, Alexander, then 15, stood in front of a mirror and just stared at the spectacle of his shirtless torso. "I remember the exact, like, moment in my mind," he said. "Everything about that room is burned into my head, every little thing. I can tell you where every lamp was, where my father was standing, my mother was sitting. We were about to go out, and I'm looking in this mirror me, with my gut hanging over my bathing suit and it was, like: Who would want to look at this? It's part of me, and I'm disgusted! That moment, I realized that nobody was giving me a chance to find out who I was because of the way I looked." And so Alexander decided to do something about it, something drastic.
There is a kind of timelessness to a teen-ager's battle with body image, but in most accounts the teen-ager is female and the issue is anorexia or bulimia. Yet as any psychologist knows, and as any sufficiently evolved adult male could tell you, boys have body-image problems too. traditionally, boys have felt pressure to look not thin, but rather strong and virile, which increasingly seems to mean looking bulked up and muscular. Hearing Alexander give voice to his insecurities and imagined physical flaws, reminded me all over again of my own tortured passage through adolescence, my own dissatisfaction with a body that seemed punitively untouched by any growth spurt and my own reluctant accommodation with certain inalienable facts of nature.
Like me, Alexander had been teased and harassed about being short in stature. Like me, he had struggled to overcome his physical shortcomings as a member of the high-school wrestling team. Unlike me, he also battled a severe weight problem, but at a similar moment in life, we had both looked in the mirror and hadn't liked what we'd seen. Still, a lot has changed since I was 15. Consider the current batch of cold messages from the culture at large. The new anabolic Tarzan. Aggressive advertising campaigns showing half-naked men in which the Obsession could just as easily be about your own very toned body as about someone else's. And Littleton. (Buried beneath a ton of prose about gun control was the report that Eric Harris apparently felt dissatisfied with his height, repeatedly complaining that he was smaller than his brother.) You would never know that for the past quarter-century, feminist thought and conversation has created room for alternatives to traditional masculinity, in which toughness is equated with self-worth and physical stature is equated with moral stature.
A number of psychologists with whom I spoke returned to the same point again and again: The cultural messages about an ideal male body, if not new, have grown more insistent, more aggressive, more widespread and more explicit in recent years. Since roughly 90 percent of teen-agers who are treated for eating disorders are female, boys still have a way to go. Young girls have suffered greatly from insecurity about appearance and body image, and the scientific literature on anorexia and related body-image disorders depicts a widespread and serious health problem in adolescent females.
But to hear some psychologists tell it, boys may be catching up in terms of insecurity and even psychological pathology. An avalanche of recent books on men and boys underlines the nature of contemporary boyhood in America. A number of studies in the past decade of men, not boys have suggested that "body-image disturbances," as researchers sometimes call them, may be more prevalent in men than previously believed and almost always begin in the teen-age years.
Two years ago, Harrison G. Pope Jr., of Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues published a modest paper called "Muscle Dysmorphia: An Underrecognized Form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder" in a relatively obscure journal called Psychosomatics. The study described a group of men and women who had become "pathologically preoccupied" by their body image and were convinced that they looked small and puny, even though they were bulging with muscles. The paper got a lot of attention, and it led to an even more widely publicized study earlier this year from the same lab reporting how male action-figure toys such as GI Joe and the "Star Wars" characters have bulked up over the years. Recent figures on cosmetic surgery indirectly confirm the anecdotal sense that men are going to greater extremes to improve their appearances. Women still account for about 90 percent of all procedures, but the number of men undergoing cosmetic surgery rose about 34 percent between 1996 and 1998, with liposuction being the most sought service. "Basically, men in general are getting the same medicine that women have had to put up with for years, which was trying to match an unattainable ideal in terms of body image," says Pope, who has focused his studies on college-age men just past adolescence.
The confusions that arise in young males as they try to reconcile the traditional masculine values of their fathers, for example, with a postfeminist culture that celebrates sensitivity and openness have created a "national crisis of boyhood," according to some psychologists as well as a boomlet of academic interest in boys and a burst of popular literature on the subject. In addition to "Raising Cain," there is William S. Pollack's "Real Boys," Michael Gurian's "Wonder of Boys" and James Garbarino's "Lost Boys," as well as a spate of books and magazines about male fitness. Many of these books were inspired by the groundbreaking research in the 1970s and '80s by Carol Gilligan, of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who charted the psychological and moral development of adolescent girls. Now Gilligan and Judy Chu, her research associate, are listening to boys' voices too. And one of the most eagerly awaited books this fall is "Stiffed," an account of the "masculinity crisis," by Susan Faludi, author of "Backlash."
For boys in the midst of the exotic and uncontrollable incongruence of puberty, growing up in an internal world flooded with hormones and an external world flooded with idealized male images, the pressures may be tighter than ever before. In seventh and eighth grades, Alexander Bregstein didn't fit in. "I was picked on in every single class," he recalled. "It was beyond belief. They would do things like hide your bag, turn your bag inside out, tie your shoelaces together. Some of the stuff I just can't repeat, it was so awful." They called him Fat Boy -- thought he was lazy, that something was wrong with him. He knew it wasn't true, but he also realized that his physical appearance made him a social outcast and a target neither of which is a good thing to be in early adolescence. It was during his sophomore year, getting "the daylights pounded out of him" in wrestling and gaining even more weight, that Alexander began what he calls, with justification, his "drastic transformation." He started by losing 30 pounds in one month. For a time, he consumed only 900 calories a day, and ultimately got down to 152 pounds. He began to lift weights seriously, every day for three months. He started to read magazines like Flex and Men's Fitness. He briefly dabbled with muscle-building supplements like creatine. He got buff, and then beyond buff. By the time his sophomore year in high school began, Alexander had packaged his old self in a phenomenally new body, and it has had the desired effect. "My quality of social life changed dramatically when I changed my image," he said. He still maintained friendships with the guys in the computer lab, still programmed, still played Quake with dozens of others. But he worked out at the gym at least five times a week. He shifted his diet to heavy protein. He pushed himself to lift ever-heavier weights. When I asked him if he ever felt tempted to try steroids during his effort to remake his physical image, he denied using them, and I believe him. But he wasn't coy about the temptation. "When someone offers you a shortcut," he replied, "and it's a shortcut you want so bad, you're willing to ignore what it might be doing to your insides. I wanted to look better. Who cares if it's going to clog up my kidneys? Who cares if it'll destroy my liver? There was so much peer pressure that I didn't care."
After Alexander finished his workout that hot July day, we stopped to get something to drink at the gym's cafe. "I feel pretty good right now," Alexander admitted, "and I was furious when I went in there." It turned out that the night before, he had a conversation with a girl that took a decidedly unsatisfying turn at the end. I'm not so worried about kids like Alexander he clearly has demonstrated both the discipline to remake his appearance and the psychological distance not to take it, or himself, too seriously. But there will be many other boys out there who cannot hope to match the impossibly raised bar of idealized male body image without resorting to the physically corrosive effects of steroids or the psychologically corrosive effects of self-doubt. Either way, the majority of boys will be diminished by chasing after the golden few. Moreover, this male reoccupation with appearance seems to herald a dubious, regressive form of equality now boys can become as psychologically and physically debilitated by body-image concerns as girls have been for decades. After all, this vast expenditure of teen-age male energy, both psychic and kinetic, is based on the premise that members of the opposite sex are attracted to a retro, rough-hewn, muscular look, and it's a premise that those who study and write about boys have noticed too. "While girls and women say one thing, some of them continue to do another," Pollack says. "Some of them are still intrigued by the old male images, and are attracted to them." Because he's a perceptive kid, Alexander recognizes how feckless, how disturbing, how crazy this all is. "I tell you, it's definitely distressing," he said, "the fact that as much as girls get this anorexic thing and they're going through these image things with dolls and stuff, guys are definitely doing the same." True, he admitted, his social life has never been better. "But in a way it depresses me," he said, before heading off to a party, "that I had to do this for people to get to know me."