Pursuit of Perfection

Many men are taking more extreme and dangerous steps to maintain their youth

Joshua Vanorman is your average 30-something male. He has a degree, a girlfriend, a great social life and a good job at a marketing firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. Vanorman also has a flatter stomach and a tighter derriere, thanks to a tummy tuck and Brazilian butt lift he recently had performed.

“I run in a group of people where it’s very accepted,” Vanorman says. “I have six or seven friends who have had liposuction in trouble spots. It’s like a little miracle.”

Welcome to the ever-evolving, metrosexual world of the 21st-century male. Whether it’s plastic surgery, personal trainers, skin care products, laser hair removal or dietary supplements, a world once dominated by women is being invaded by men. With more options available, greater social acceptance and a burning desire to feel and look younger, increasing numbers of middle-aged men are drinking from the science-powered fountain of youth. Despite the stigma sometimes attached to this level of vanity, and some potential dangers, this trend shows no signs of slowing.

“Men want to look younger so they are doing all that they can to try and reverse the aging process. They’ve discovered there are acceptable alternatives that they no longer have to be secretive about,” says Dr. Felmont Eaves, who is the former president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), a partner at Charlotte Plastic Surgery and an attending surgeon at Carolinas Medical Center and Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, N.C.

“It’s been a gradual process to reach this point,” Eaves continues. “If you go back 30 to 40 years, plastic surgery was something for the rich and famous — Hollywood types. It wasn’t for middle America. But if you look at the cost now, it’s become affordable for the majority of people in the country. At the same time, people have gotten used to the concept when it’s discussed in the media and among friends. Men’s attitudes toward it have paralleled those of women.”

American men had more than 750,000 cosmetic procedures in 2010, according to ASAPS statistics. While that number represents just 8 percent of the total, the number of annual cosmetic procedures for men has increased more than 88 percent since 1997. Nearly 75 percent of those procedures were for men between the ages of 35 and 64.

The top five surgical procedures for men in 2010 were: liposuction (37,183), rhinoplasty (30,099), eyelid surgery (20,675), breast reduction to treat enlarged male breasts (18,256), and cosmetic ear surgery (10,849). Eaves says the tummy tuck is also a fast-rising procedure that will likely crack the top five soon.

“Every men’s magazine you open these days seems to suggest that you don’t get through the door unless you have a six-pack ... [The] media are far more pervasive than they used to be, and when media show images, they create an ideal that people aspire to,” Eaves says.

Sex appeal in advertising used to be an almost-exclusive domain for women. Then People Magazine debuted its"Sexiest Man Alive" feature in 1985, Calvin Klein put Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark) in nothing but his underwear, and the Chippendales (established in the late 1970s) became the first all-male stripping troupe to make a business out of performing for mostly female audiences. In a generation’s time, the male body became a part of the mainstream media, and men had something new to worry about.

“We’ve seen a bit of a shift in power and roles in our society that’s been occurring over the past 20 years or so,” says Dr. Erin Shannon- McGowan, a clinical psychologist and energy medicine practitioner based in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. “In the last few years, the stress on the economy may have heightened anxieties, but in my opinion, this trend is almost a reaction by women becoming sick and tired of being looked at as a sex object. Women are thinking, ‘Screw this. I’ll look at you as a sex object, too. I’ll go to Chippendales. I’ll wait for the hot guy and I want chiseled abs.’”

Women’s increased focus on male appearance has, in turn, made men increasingly self-conscious. And men’s obsession with looking younger, hotter and better-kept has spawned a series of industries seeking to profit off that attitude shift. British writer Mark Simpson even coined the term metrosexual in 1994 to define a man (especially one living in an urban, post-industrial, capitalist culture) who spends a lot of time and money on his appearance.

Rock-hard abs and bulbous butts aren’t the only male ideals being pushed these days. Hairless bodies are becoming the norm, too. While hairless backs have long been desirable, hairless chests are now the standard, thanks in part to the powerful underwear ad campaigns of Calvin Klein and others. But the anti-body hair movement has covered new ground in recent years.

“A lot of men are coming in and doing Brazilians where they have everything in the groin area removed,” says Tammy Biddlecome, an esthetician and laser technician at Luminescence Aesthetic Medicine in Phoenix. “Three to four years ago, you never saw this being done, but it’s very popular now. We get married men coming in all the time.”

Duncan Robertson, 46, is a Luminescence client whose procedures have included laser hair removal from multiple body areas and laser facial peels. The 46-year-old husband and father runs a network marketing firm but is also a high-end hair stylist. “I’m used to people casting aspersions on my sexuality because of my business and the way I groom myself, but it really doesn’t bother me,” Robertson says. “I just tell them, ‘You’ll catch up to me at some point.’"

Robertson cited a couple reasons for choosing his procedures. “My wife and I get lots of photos taken of us through our marketing network company and we’re on camera a lot, too, so before we go on, my wife gets Botox and I get my procedure and everyone's like, ‘Man, you look so young,’” he says. “But the truth is, I’d probably get it done anyway. I just don’t have the shy gene in me. I don’t worry about social conventions.”

Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, a book that draws on empirical research and cultural analysis to “expose the destructive spread of narcissism” in America.

“Some of the trends we’re seeing now for men are probably good because it wasn’t that long ago that you could talk to guys about grooming and they’d say: ‘What’s that?’” Twenge says. “Some of the basic metrosexual contributions of actually combing your hair and putting on something other than a hockey jersey are good things. But it has, in some cases, crossed over into a realm where the intention is not just to feel good, it’s to look the best, better than anybody else — to achieve some form of perfection that halts the clock and aging.”

Twenge believes that form of vanity, in many cases, crosses over into narcissism. “There’s this very strong cultural trend toward living in a fantasy world and looking a little better than you actually are,” she says.

“Everything is fake now: plastic surgery, boobs, pec implants. We’re encouraging the appearance of success rather than actual success. People have more impressive possessions and homes they gained through huge credit card debt and mortgage debt. Kids’ grades are inflated. It’s the same with these trends of physical appearance. You’re spending money on these expensive treatments instead of say, paying off credit card debt or saving for retirement, and that’s probably not a good thing. There’s also the reality that this isn’t who you actually are, so why are you doing this? To feel good about yourself or to impress someone else?”

One of the more damaging psychological aspects of narcissism is the standard it creates. “This is something women have struggled with for a long time,” Twenge says.

“There is this impossible standard of physical appearance that is very difficult for most people to achieve. It requires time that could arguably be spent on more important things, and if you don’t achieve it, it can have a profound impact. It can lead to depression and eating disorders, and we’re seeing both of these on the rise among men.”

Dysmorphophobia, a severe disorder in which a person exhibits an inordinate amount of anguish over a perceived body flaw, has become relatively common among men, Shannon- McGowan says. “Men are being inundated as much as women have been with images of an unrealistic ideal,” she says. “It’s on the internet, the television, their cell phone, at the gym. They can’t get away from it. There’s all this free-floating anxiety among all of us and we have to attach it to something to try and control it. A good way to do that is to attach it to the body and try to slow the aging process so we take some HGH, a little Botox or have a surgical procedure. It’s irrational, but it’s happening nonetheless.”

Aside from the psychological issues inherent in this approach, Shannon-McGowan sees real physical dangers. “When you have surgery, your neuro-chemistry changes because you went through major trauma. You may not be aware of it, but the body remembers every cut, every liposuction and that trauma is stored in all cells of the body, not just the brain or the incision areas,” she says.

“The newest research shows us that an increase in disorders is due to the fact that we store traumas and don’t process them correctly. So when someone undergoes several operations, even if necessary, the body stores that trauma, the immune system is down, and cells can be dysplastic which can lead to cancer and other issues.”

Dangers also exist in supplement use, Shannon- McGowan says. “My favorite line from supplement sellers is ‘Oh, it’s an all-natural supplement.’ Well, so is cocaine. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” she says.

“These companies have manipulated people’s anxieties to a repulsive degree. The important thing to remember is these are drugs. No matter how you take them, they alter your system. The human body functions to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance). If something changes it for the better, it still disrupts the system, so it’s important to work with a physician that takes a holistic approach.”

Rich Gaspari is a legendary bodybuilder who set the record as the youngest man ever to winthe IFBB Mr. Universe crown in 1985 at 21 years old. Now 49, Gaspari is the CEO of Gaspari Nutrition, a nutritional supplements company whose products are distributed worldwide in more than 80 countries. Gaspari agrees that it is wise to consult a physician when adding supplements to the diet. But he believes supplements play a vital role in maintaining health.

“I’m a firm believer that we can not get all the nutrients we need from food alone,” he says. “Most of our food is so over-processed that we lose a lot of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants we need.”

Gaspari says a strict regimen of weight training, cardiovascular training, healthy eating and nutritional supplements has helped him maintain the same body he had in his 20s. “You have to create good habits if you want to stay healthy — if you want to feel good and look good,” he says. “I don’t see anything wrong with that if you’re taking a healthy approach.”

Gaspari says he was aware of bodybuilders using steroids when he was younger, although he suspects that usage has dropped dramatically with the advent of safe supplements. He also has heard about HGH use in modern athletics and offers a word of caution. “I’m not advocating taking this to an extreme. I never took steroids because I want to live long and healthy and I’ve never had to take HGH,” he says. “It can be dangerous. If you do it on your own and take too high a dose there could be very bad side effects, so it should always be monitored by a doctor.”

More than one-half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements, according to a 2011 CDC report. While much of this usage is to add critical vitamins and minerals to the diet, the supplement industry has also targeted the fitness craze with promises of increased muscle mass, faster recovery time and more energy. Men are at the core of this ad campaign, and middle-aged men are a favorite target, with promises of trimmer bodies and ripped muscles well into their 50s. The potential problem?

Dietary supplements are not tested regularly or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, having been granted a separate designation through the efforts of Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose states house more supplement manufacturers than any other states in the U.S.

While the companies that sell these products also test them, independent tests by organizations such as Consumerlab.com have found many supplements lack the percentage of ingredients listed on labels, contain unwanted byproducts such as metals and pesticides and can not prove efficacy or long-term effects. Gaspari’s products have been FDA tested, but he admitted that some manufacturers attempt to skirt the good practice laws of the industry, so it’s up to the consumers to do their research before putting something in their body.

Tom Hatten is the president and CEO of Mountainside Fitness, a chain that has locations in Colorado and Arizona. Hatten works with supplement suppliers, but Mountainside is very careful not to push supplements and only offers the most basic ones, such as proteins and glutamine.

“We do believe in supplements. We’d be crazy to think we don’t have the need in some cases,” he says. “But we’re only interested in the ones that help build muscle or restore muscles quickly after they’re broken down.”

Hatten has witnessed another trend in the male search for the fountain of youth: specialized training. Like many gyms, Mountainside offers personal trainers to teach this method and men are choosing them in large numbers, Hatten says. “The term used to be cross-training but cross-fit is probably the more up-to-date word,” he says.

Savvy companies are fully aware of the potential for growth that men represent in a number of vanity markets. Clothing lines like Spanx help slim problem body areas and the market research company, Euromonitor, released figures last year showing American consumers spent $4.8 billion on men’s grooming products, a figure that doubled during the last decade.

Within the men’s segment, skin care sales quintupled during the last 10 years to $217 million. That growth led many of cosmetics’ largest players to enter the market, including Clinique, Jean Paul Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent. Trish Gulbranson, owner, president and CEO of Derma Health Institute, says continued Botox and collagen filler marketing has made them popular choices for men.

“I think the reason men are going for it is it’s quick,” she says. “You come in for a Botox treatment and it takes 10 to 15 minutes. Fillers take a half hour. It’s instant gratification without any down time from work or telltale signs of a procedure so you don’t have to worry about going back to work and having somebody say, ‘Oh, what did you have done?’”

Gulbranson says most of her company’s ads have a feminine appearance to them. Even so, the male portion of her clientele has doubled in recent years. Gulbranson expects that market, and other vanity markets to continue their growth as they gain wider acceptance, greater notoriety and proven results. Despite this possible inevitability, Shannon-McGowan hopes men will first ask why they are choosing an approach before beginning.

“Maybe it’s not about how they look,” she says. “Maybe there’s something else at the root of this choice. Is it the voice of your father when you were 12? Is it about the wife that left you? What insecurities, stresses and anxieties make you think you need to take extreme measures to fix it? And in the end, will it fix it?”