»  National Review

November 20, 2000

  The End of the Ectomorph


For me, one of the abiding impressions of this recent election campaign has been Al Gore's sternocleidomastoid muscles. Remember the sternocleidomastoids? They were introduced to us by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. One of the characters in that novel was an ambitious young District Attorney who was exceptionally proud of these features of his anatomy. He used them for purposes of mating display, supposing they made him irresistible to women; and he flexed them in courtroom situations to intimidate witnesses. I thought Tom Wolfe had just made up the sternocleidomastoids; but when I checked in Gray's Anatomy, there they were on page 318, running from the clavicle up the side of the neck to the mastoid process behind the ear. Al Gore's are particularly well developed. They came out very well in the debates, each time he drew in his chin and looked down to check his notes or to do some Oh, come on! body language.

You need a little restraint in working out the sternocleidomastoids, especially in politics. If they are too buff, they make your head look smaller than your neck. You are then a guy with a small head — not necessarily the impression a candidate wants to convey. Contrariwise, failure to pay attention to the sternocleidomastoids risks the pencil-neck geek look, even more to be avoided. It is so difficult to get these things right nowadays, when our expectations of the male body have all been ratcheted upwards by the modern cult of "working out." It is inconceivable that a man as fat as William Howard Taft, or one as lean as John Tyler (to judge from the Healy portrait), could attain high office in the present age. In matters of physiognomy, at least, "diversity" is out. We want either a regular mesomorph or the pumped-up version, a Bush or a Gore, a Clinton or a Jesse Ventura.

When did it all start? When did ordinary non-athletic middle-class folk start joining gyms? At which point did "lats," "traps," "quads," "glutes," and "pecs" enter the common vocabulary? When did men start to bother so much about the shape of their bodies? When? Around 1975, that's when. Early signals were Charles Gaines 1972 novel Stay Hungry and the rise to movie stardom of body-builders Sylvester Stallone (Rocky, 1976) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Pumping Iron, 1977).

Prior to that, body-building was generally perceived as a freak cult practised by men of ambiguous sexuality. There was some leakage into mainstream culture, principally through boxing and the movies (Sean Connery was a body-builder in his youth — though in the more modest pre-steroid style of the 1940s). For the most part, though, body-builders were out on the fringe. No ordinary man of 1960 knew the names of any muscles other than biceps. Gyms were for athletes and boxers, not office workers. Skinny boys were encouraged to "bulk up" by their fathers and by peer pressure, but many did not bother, and male ectomorphs were a common sight in American streets and workplaces. It was even possible for an ectomorph to be a TV or movie star: with the passing of Jimmy Stewart, Tony Randall is now the last surviving specimen.

This last quarter-century has seen the American male ectomorph slip into near-extinction. Jockeys and long-distance runners still need to be lean, but male scrawniness is now otherwise transgressive. The wilder kinds of pop stars can still be skinny: patrons of certain members-only websites will have noticed that in most respects Tommy Lee, sometime husband of Pamela, is significantly under-endowed. In the movies, psychopaths and mean hillbillies can be skinny. Outside these offbeat zones, if you want to be thought normal: bulk up, guys.

You do not, of course, have to go the full Schwarzenegger route. If you do, in fact, you run the risk of making yourself ridiculous. Not every personality type can carry excess muscle mass. I worked in the offices of a large company with a man who must have spent all his free time at the gym. He was bursting out of his suit. His sternocleidomastoid muscles could have held up the Verrazanno Bridge. Like the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Lover, "his arms completely filled his sleeves." (D.H. Lawrence was the Tom Wolfe of his day, unusually attentive to male body shape. After seeing the ectomorphic philosopher Bertrand Russell in a bathing suit, he noted: "Poor Bertie — all disembodied mind!") Unfortunately my colleague had a rather peevish, prickly personality. This was not altogether a disadvantage in his particular line of work — he was an auditor — but the combination of abrasive manner and over-developed physique caused everyone to snicker at him behind his back.

Women especially, I noticed. Excess musculature counts for nothing in the mating game, as any psychologist will tell you. Ceteris paribus, women like a trim mesomorph, a Tom Cruise or a Robert Redford; there is no value-added to any development above that —none, at any rate, worth half as much as a modest self-assurance or a cheerful sense of humor. Pop psychology hints that an over-developed man may be "insecure" or "compensating" — negatives for a first impression with the opposite sex. Bulk up, guys, but know when to stop. Women who praise muscle mass generally have some ulterior motive; like Eleanor Clift describing Clinton-Gore in 1992 as "the beefcake ticket" — fair enough in the case of Gore, but a stretch for Clinton, the least physically impressive president since Richard Nixon.

In fact, for all the talk, working out has probably remained as much as ever a young guy's hobby. It is plain from the illustrations — unchanged for decades, and now transported intact on to the Internet — that the ads for Charles Atlas courses are targeted at a median age of about sixteen. Once out of their twenties and cumbered with life's larger responsibilities, most men become indifferent to their body shape. Ectomorphs who bulked up at school or college allow their hard-won muscle to turn to flab. Mesomorphs go pear-shaped. Endomorphs swell into gross obesity. The results can be seen in any gathering of non-elite Americans — people, I mean, who cannot afford a live-in personal trainer. The patron saint here is St. Francis of Assisi, who on his deathbed apologized to his body, which he addressed as "poor donkey," for the burdens he had heaped on it.

This does not, of course, help the public man. (I am not slighting women by ignoring them here; it is just that the social and political implications of their body shapes need another, much larger, article all to themselves.) However pear-shaped the nation, we shall not any time soon vote ourselves a pear-shaped Chief Executive, nor again flock to our movie theaters to see a dramatic lead shaped like Jimmy Stewart or Orson Welles. It is not so much that we have become a narcissistic people. If we had, gyms would be commoner than gas stations and MacDonalds would be out of business. It is more that we expect narcissism in our leaders and dream-idols; we expect them to undergo the pains we are not willing to endure ourselves.

The cult of exercise, the end of promiscuous smoking and drinking, and also, increasingly, the availability of cosmetic surgery, have given our society a beauty elite of entertainers and personalities more numerous and more flawless than any we have had before. Their omnipresence has changed our psyches, adding anxieties and frustrations, altering our expectations of all public persons. There has always been a Golden Bough factor in the public life even of this rational republic — a belief that our leaders, as well as being honest and capable, should be representative of health and fertility, too. This factor is now, I think, stronger than ever. We should resist this tendency for all sorts of reasons. Not only is it a reversion to more primitive notions of leadership; let us also remember that Hollywood, the heartland of narcissism, beauty and buff, also has the nation's highest concentration of gross political error.