When you’re buying your groceries, you can’t help but notice the magazine cover:  “Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine Body and How to Get It.”  You flip idly through the issue while waiting in line, noting that the workout that produced Jackman’s striated, vascular musculature consisted of 30 minutes of kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and box jumps.  Oh, and then there’s the diet:  “Seventy percent of your physique is your diet, and diet is the biggest change that happens,” Jackman told the Los Angeles Times.

Is it, Hugh?  Does it really come down to those five cans of dolphin-safe tuna and 16 ounces of organic kale?  Because science seems to suggest otherwise.  Your own body transformation photos—of a transformation that occurred later in life, at that—suggest that the impossible is possible.

Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong saw their reputations destroyed over performance-enhancing drug use. Yet male actors are rarely criticized or even questioned.

And it’s not just Jackman.  Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Henry Cavill, Christian Bale, and even the formerly schlubby Chris Pratt have also undergone extraordinary physical makeovers in preparation for roles as action heroes. Aaron Eckhart, a character actor and B-list star, landed a magazine cover after pumping iron to prepare himself for a leading role in the underwhelming thriller I, Frankenstein.  Their shining examples tantalize us with the promise of deliverance through diet and exercise, but how many stars reached these heights in a manner that wouldn’t have caused them to run afoul of Major League Baseball’s drug policy?

But that’s not a question anybody asks, because nobody seems to care.

And that, at least to me, is absolutely puzzling.  Critics have rightly savaged magazines like Cosmopolitan for producing covers with models whose bodies were airbrushed in impossible ways.  Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Ben Johnson, and Lance Armstrong saw their reputations destroyed after evidence of their performance-enhancing drug abuse emerged.  Yet male actors, many of whom are quite obviously enhancing their own performances, are rarely criticized or even questioned about the significance of this behavior.

“When I’m a wrestler, I behave as a wrestler,” Mickey Rourke told Men’s Journal in 2009.  Rourke was responding to a question about how he packed on 40 pounds of muscle for his star turn in Darren Aronofksy’s The Wrestler; his answer suggests that audiences crave the hyper-realism of PED’d superstars almost as much as they lust after CGI’d robot fights and space battles.

It wasn’t always like this.  Once upon a time, directors either cast an established hardman—Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood—in the hero’s role, or looked outside the box for a superhuman powerhouse like Lou Ferrigno or Arnold Schwarzenegger.  This split persisted well into the 1980s, with a clear distinction made between the conspicuously “beefcake” pictures of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and more traditional action fare featuring stars such as Tom Selleck, Kurt Russell, and Harrison Ford.

Who would be harmed if someone like Ben Affleck told the world that he used Human Growth Hormone, that it was great, and that other men in their 40s should consider using it, too?

The latter three men were all reasonably fit—Selleck had played college basketball, and Russell was a decent minor league baseball player—but one heard relatively little about the “training routines” for the movies in which they starred.  Pumping iron was the province of Schwarzenegger and Stallone; it certainly had nothing to do with Michael Keaton, who seemed content to portray the iconic Batman without making any significant changes to his Beetlejuice body.

Today, of course, that would be unthinkable. Keaton, who at the time received a great deal of praise for his performance, would now catch hell from more discerning viewers who believed he simply didn’t “look the part.”  More than that, every semi-superheroic role requires intensive physical conditioning, from Ben Affleck’s turn as a well-meaning goon in The Town (in which he debuted a totally reshaped body absent from his earlier portrayal of blind crimefighter Daredevil) to Chris Pratt’s recent depiction of Star-Lord.  Pratt, already one of the finest comedic actors of our generation, deserves praise for his work in the gym, but the added bulk seems wholly unnecessary for a character who rarely appeared shirtless in the original comics and whose powers had far more to do with his ability to use a variety of space weapons and deceive gullible enemies.

In an age of ostensible openness, we seem more confused about images and bodies than ever before.

All of this is rather puzzling.  In an age of ostensible openness, we seem more confused about images and bodies than ever before.  Men are women find themselves faced with an endless barrage of trompe-l’œil visuals for which explanations are rarely given. Oh sure, Barry Bonds was constantly being “exposed” as a steroid user, but he was also aggressively denying it, too.  Actors and actresses frequently stay mum about their plastic surgery and liposuction; the magazines that promote them and their products are only too willing to pass off such changes as the results of make-believe diets and fitness plans.

Here’s the thing: Who would be harmed if someone like Ben Affleck gave an interview and told the world that he used Human Growth Hormone (HGH), that HGH was great, and that other men in their forties should consider using it, too?  To be sure, he’d be pilloried in the press, much as Sylvester Stallone was after he was arrested for importing HGH into Australia.

But why? Why, in an era in which the truth is not only known but widespread—where every image and every performance we see is impacted by chemical supplementation or digital modification of the sort that is almost universally scorned—should we forbear from having an honest and open dialogue about such subjects?

All things considered, isn’t that preferable to believing some actor’s superhero body is a mere 30 kettlebell swings and 16 ounces of kale away from being yours?  The truth, if it is indeed out there, will set us free to respect and admire our own bodies.

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