While researching a documentary project about steroids, I quickly realised that their growing popularity is a symptom of a deeper concern. If more than 60,000 guys are "juicing" in the UK and 10% or 8-18 year olds would consider taking steroids to achieve their muscle-building goals – despite the well-documented side effects – then surely this is a mark of anxiety rather than healthy ambition.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to get in shape or lose weight. The key questions are why and how. In the case of men, there is increasing pressure to match up to an ideal – to be "ripped", "shredded", "cut" and all the rest of it. That image of the huge, yet extremely lean Adonis is all over movie posters, on reality TV, in your Instagram feed, in your local gym… This gives the impression that you have to not only look good, dress well, smell nice and be successful. You also need to be built like a superhero, the 2017 version. Or jacked like Zac on Baywatch.
There have always been body ideals – from Fifties' pin-up Steve Reeves, to Arnie and Fight Club-era Brad Pitt. But it is the ubiquity of imagery in the modern age, its volume and velocity, that's really preying on men's anxieties. "Notions of what it means to be a man place too much emphasis on the body, rather than the spirit," says Chris Sav, an artist in residence at male suicide prevention charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). "The fact that I possess a certain set of genitals shouldn't really impact on how I should act in the world, nor should it affect people's expectations of me, but it does."
What we are really talking about is mental health and it is a slippery slope. Gender stereotypes have been reinforced through the years to the extent that around 42% of male respondents to CALM's survey said they believe a man is "mostly responsible for being emotionally strong and taking charge in a crisis, compared to 17% of women". Men also feel more pressure to be the breadwinner, and when depression strikes they are less likely to seek help than women, descending into drink and drugs.
Men are more depressed than ever, committing suicide in record numbers. According to CALM, male suicide accounted for 78% of all suicides in 2013, making it the biggest cause of death for men aged between 20 and 45 in the UK. Three in four suicides are male. And yet the Tories have made no firm financial commitment to address this issue. In fact, it was announced in May that mental health services would be cut in five regions around England.
Mental health and masculinity are intertwined. The latter is a "fatal burden" according to Grayson Perry. If a man seeks help or expresses how they feel, they are more likely to be perceived as weak than brave. From a young age, most guys are conditioned to think that masculinity is only about rationality, power, dominance, control and aggression. Now, the prevailing thought appears to be that "muscularity equals masculinity". The modern man is in crisis, even if he won't admit it. Our survival depends on a new conception of strength and success.
Women have have #thisgirlcan and are making daily strides to feel empowered as individuals. Where is that positive feeling of togetherness and self-determination among young men? Who are their role models today? How could or should their place in society be informed by their relationships with women?
This podcast about hyper-masculinity among black males touches on the dangers of putting on a front, always being on the defensive or thinking that "being feared means having the upper hand". In the words of one guest, artist Shadez the Misfit, "ego kills opportunity." Clearly, men have some catching up to do.
So it was encouraging to see a mainstream men's brand leading the way with Lynx's #isitokforguys campaign. This is the company that once talked about "the Lynx effect" and how you could get the girl with its magic "sex potion". Now the magic is in you. The key insight was that men ask Google lots of embarrassing questions that they won't ask friends, family or peers. Most of them start with that hashtag: "Is it ok to be a virgin … to cry … to wear pink … to drink soy milk?"
Lynx and 72andSunny set out to answer these questions with the help of the other guys and celebrities such as boxing champion Anthony Joshua, actor Will Poulter and grime legend Wiley.
Using a mix of sincerity and humour, they strip away the alpha-male archetype. The message is to be your own man. And that's the point.
We are well past some primitive, prescriptive definition – being assertive and aggressive, protecting and providing, carousing and womanising. It's now fluid and open to interpretation. Make it our own. Clothes, alone, will not make the man. And neither will a rock-hard physique. I'll leave the last word with Buddha:
"A man may conquer a million men in battle but one who conquers himself is, indeed, the greatest of conquerors.”