Must, You Must, You Must Increase Your…Pecs.
in high school, it was no secret that boys would spend hours thumbing through
their sisters’ collections of Sassy, YM or Seventeen. Supposedly, they
were trying desperately to learn about the opposite sex.
It wasn’t until less than a year ago that some ingenious publisher decided it was time to offer male teens their own lifestyle magazine, addressing the questions they inevitably have about dating and the hassles of puberty. MH-18, a Fall 2000 spin-off of Men’s Health, is one of the only male teen lifestyle magazines out there. According to Stan Zukowski, the senior editor at MH-18, the goal of the magazine is "to deliver fitness, health and relationship advice to teen guys, ages 13 to 18. It’s a service magazine. It’s light on the fluff. You come to this magazine to learn something." Zukowski believes the magazine industry is only now targeting male teens because "suddenly, people are realizing teen guys read. They won’t read a 2000-word story, but they will watch TV and pick it up and read bits in between. It took a while to realize how they read."
Either that, or the publishers were inspired by visions of advertisers scrambling to get the attention of 12 million consumers who clearly have more disposable income than their predecessors and a burgeoning interest in fashion, style and physical perfection. According to Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist who co-authored The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, the male preoccupation with appearance began with a bang 10 years ago, around the time of the Calvin Klein ads depicting Mark Wahlberg in his underwear. "Advertisers and marketers are thinking, all this time we’re making money off women being dissatisfied with their appearance – there’s half the population left to be targeted," Olivardia explains. "It’s slick marketing to make boys feel insecure, too. It can produce whole new product lines." Indeed, at $17,500 a page, a host of advertisers – including Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Panasonic, Adidas and Nautica Jeans – occupy many of MH-18’s 112 pages.
True to its parent, much of this quarterly magazine offers fitness advice, especially on how to build muscles. At first glance, the January/ February issue of MH-18 is vaguely reminiscent of gay porn, with a well-tanned and greased muscle boy on the cover. Zukowski says they’re planning to move away from using half-naked guys on the cover and put "soft celebrities" instead. "[Teen males] don’t want to see a naked guy on the cover. Teen guys are still homophobic," he explains, adding that they want their readers to share their magazines and not hide them under the bed. Considering the supposed large gay male readership of Men’s Health, it would make sense to assume that MH-18 kept the muscle boy on this month’s cover for a reason – to expand its 125,000 reader circulation.
Once inside the magazine, we are hit with more half-naked men and their muscles. A shirtless and iron-pumping black Adonis stands next to a big bottle of Polo Ralph Lauren cologne. Turn the page and a seven-foot, 290-pound high school basketball player towers over small white text offering his training tips on page 40. A chart on page 35 details what body weight and measurements you must have to be a quarterback, running back or offensive/defensive lineman. Then of course there is the cover story on how to build big biceps, which is really a six-page layout of Johnny Bravo, a V-shaped macho cartoon character, exhibiting weight-lifting techniques. Johnny Bravo asks, "Want to look like me, Johnny B? These arm-sculpting exercises will buff you up big-time, Daddy-O."
An article in The New York Times about steroid use cited a study conducted by Dr. Charles Ysalis of Penn State University which found that 40 percent of American boys 12 and older have experimented with or plan to use anabolic steroids. Surely all this emphasis on muscles is contributing to negative body imaging among male adolescents who might be naïve enough to think they too must have broad shoulders and six-pack abs to achieve all their goals in life. Zukowski recognizes these dangers. "There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Adonis Complex and muscle dysmorphia among men. I’m not denying that there’s a problem, because there definitely is," Zukowski admits. "In the first issue we had a big story on steroids and supplement use. We want to be healthy. We don’t want to say they have to have six-pack abs."
But Zukowski goes on to say that so many male teens are overweight that they do intend to focus on articles telling their readers how to lose five pounds. "There does need to be an emphasis on fitness, with a balance of working out and nutrition," says Olivardia. "The problem comes in when boys think if they do these exercises they can look like the models, who are often muscular because of drugs. But they can’t look like that without drugs and thus will think, I’m a failure, I’m nothing, I’m not good enough. They need to know the models aren’t real." Or not be shown such false role models in the first place.
Like its female predecessors, MH-18 faces the age-old struggle of what’s-good-for-the-magazine versus what’s-good-for-the-reader. Would they be willing to sacrifice ad dollars and use more normally shaped models to sell the products? Unfortunately, for now, it looks as if teenage boys will be facing the same media-induced self-doubt that adolescent females have been trying to overcome for years.