Dolls can make guys believe they must have huge muscles

Psychiatrist studies effect of bulging `action figures'


WASHINGTON -- GI Joe has gotten huge. Impossibly, seam-splittingly, unattainably huge. And that could mean big trouble for little boys.

A new analysis of the changing physiques of action figures, by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Harrison G. Pope, shows that today's figures -- from Joe to Batman to Luke Skywalker -- are rippling with huge pecs, delts and triceps they didn't have decades ago.

Scaled to human size, the biceps of a GI Joe Extreme measure 26 inches around. That's bigger than slugger Mark McGwire (19 inches) or behemoth Arnold Schwarzenegger (22 inches).

According to Pope, the muscle-bound play figures may be contributing to growing body image problems in boys and men -- something long thought to be the domain of girls who played with tall, busty Barbies or leafed through fashion magazines.

"Women for decades have had to deal with the fact that they've had to look at pictures of women who were unattainably beautiful," said Pope. "Men have not had to do that until recently."

Studies have shown that eating disorders and obsessions with weight and figure in women can be spurred by an environment saturated with Playboy images -- from plastic dolls to magazine super models to TV Miss Americas.

Pope has spent years studying what drives men to abuse anabolic steroids and why they are often dissatisfied with the bodies nature gave them.

He examined action figures to see if he could measure a trend toward increased muscularity he also sees in male models and film stars. The study is being published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Eating Disorders.

There is no direct evidence this barrage of muscled role models is harmful or makes boys ashamed of their own bodies, but Pope said he thinks it may contribute.

In a type of reverse anorexia, some men look in a mirror and see themselves as thin and frail even though they're not. They may spend hours at the gym in lieu of other activities and may abuse steroids in an attempt to bulk up.

"We believe there is extreme anxiety about body image among men," said Pope. But much of it is suffered in secret. "Real men can't go around in society fussing about what they look like," he said.

The bemuscled dolls are extremely popular among boys.

Parents shouldn't worry if their children want to play with the figures, the expert said, but should "point out that these are unrealistic and to be a real man you don't have to look like this."

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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