Some guy was on my leg extension machine. Sure, the gym had two others, but this guy was on the one I wanted to use.
Typically, in that situation, I follow standard gym protocol: I wait until the guy is done with his set, and then I ask, “Mind if I work in with you?” But this situation was different. The guy was huge. Bengal tiger huge. So I was too intimidated to even approach him. I was afraid he’d say, “You think I’m going to alter my workout for you?” Or worse: He’d ignore me, as if somebody of such small stature didn’t even blip his radar.
I’d just moved to Vegas, just joined Las Vegas Athletic Club, and I didn’t want any trouble. So I got on the calf machine, thinking, Man, the guys in Vegas are built. What do they put in the water here?
Fast-forward three years.
I now know that guy was Jay Cutler (aka Mr. Olympia). I also know he’s actually a nice guy, and that he and I aren’t so different, after all: We both want to get bigger. The difference is, Cutler sees himself as moving towards perfection; I see myself as moving away from deficiency.
Most people think of “body image” as a women’s issue, particularly here in Las Vegas, where sexy female physiques are used to advertise every casino and nightclub on the Strip. But guys are under pressure, too. By local billboards and ads (Chippendales, Thunder from Down Under, American Storm), by Old Spice commercials, by Men’s Health cover models and the Mark Wahlberg, Matthew McConaughey and Jake Gyllenhaal movies we’re dragged to, the subtext of which is, if you want hot girls to like you, you need big arms, ripped abs and toned legs.
Guys feel insecure about their bodies, too. We just don’t talk about it.
But guess what? I’m talking.
I was never obese, but I was once overweight. I liked sugar cereal and I liked big portions. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Pops, Cocoa Puffs—the usual suspects. At the time, I didn’t realize how unhealthy those overflowing cereal bowls were; I only realized that I didn’t look like Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man Randy Savage or the other guys I’d watch on TV as I chowed down.
At 14, I passed out in the middle of my first marching band practice. I woke up on the grass, surrounded by my new classmates. But even that wasn’t my most embarrassing marching band-related memory.
This one time, at band camp, one of the drummers asked me, “Ricky, do you have boobs?”
“Huh?” I replied, as if I didn’t hear or understand the question.
“He said, ‘Do you like boobs?’” offered one of the girls, trying to cover for him. That I needed a girl’s help to get me out of it only made the situation more humiliating and emasculating.
I lost weight at 16, and was thinner by college. Freshman year, I went to Michigan State and lived in Case Hall, with all the football players. One day, in the elevator, four or five of them got on and squished me against the back wall.
“Sorry, man. Didn’t see you there,” one of them said.
After that, I got more serious about lifting. Over the past decade, I’ve gained some muscle mass, but I still look nothing like Macho Man. And recently, I finally accepted that I’d never look like him.
It’s a good thing, I told myself. A lot of women don’t like bulging veins and stretch marks. A Wahlberg body is one thing. A Schwarzenegger body is another.
But then I stumbled on a shortcut. Trouble was, the shortcut would take a couple weeks to arrive by mail. So in the meantime, I set out to meet someone who’d already achieved the physique he was after. Along the way, he got some help from a different type of shortcut ...
Joe Rossi is a personal trainer. He’s 44, and he’s lived in Las Vegas most of his life. When I met him at the Las Vegas Athletic Club at Decatur and Sahara, he was wearing a black-and-white Under Armor shirt and matching shorts and shoes.
“One of my clients got me this whole getup,” Rossi explained. “They know I spend all my money on food.”
Rossi’s in fantastic shape—especially for a 44-year-old—but as a kid, he had asthma and pneumonia, and he was overweight.
“When I got out of the pool,” Rossi says, “the other kids would call me ‘whale’ because my skin was so shiny.”
Rossi started bodybuilding in his late teens, and after he starting lifting, he started doping. “I started taking testosterone cypionate and Dianabol. I got them from a sports doctor. I felt that to compete at the level I wanted to compete at, I had to.”
About seven weeks before Rossi’s first event, his parents caught him using.
“They threw all my drugs in the garbage,” Rossi remembers. “I was devastated, but I understand. Those drugs can be dangerous. A couple weeks ago, this trainer at Gold’s—he was a serious bodybuilder in the late ’70s/early ’80—he died of heart failure. Right in the gym. They tried the AED machine, but it didn’t do anything.”
And that’s not Rossi’s only death-at-the-gym story:
“When I was 18, there was this guy performing cable crossovers, a lower-chest exercise, and his heart exploded. At least, that’s what they said; I think what happened was a chamber blew out. Either way, the guy dropped dead.”
Rossi’s been off the drugs for a long time. He maintains his physique with diet, exercise and discipline. But he still remembers when he first went off the banned substances: “There’s a physical and psychological addiction. It wasn’t easy.”
Ultimately, that might be the best reason not to do steroids: Eventually, you have to stop. And when you do, it’s not pretty or simple. Your body will shrink and your brain will resent you. Luckily, the shortcut I’d discovered had no potential for addiction.
Flex Design Costumes manufactures realistic muscle suits. They take flesh-colored bodysuits and glue on 60 hand-cut pieces of foam. Then, they press on another layer of fabric, airbrush and sew. The muscle suits take three weeks to make and cost $850.
Mine showed up on the porch in a large, thin box. I removed the suit and was pleased to see that its color matched my skin tone well. I slipped the suit on and zipped it up. Then I put on a pair of running shorts and checked myself out in the mirror.
My usually small forearms had ballooned to the size of softballs. My calves were like grapefruits. And I finally had that sought-after V-taper. The extra-broad shoulders and padded butt even made my waist look smaller. I felt a powerful, surprising, instant ownership over my new physique. This, I thought, is the body I deserve.
Everything was lovely … until I realized I’d have to take the suit off.
And when I did, I looked pudgy. But I didn’t feel down about it; I felt inspired, motivated to turn my real body into something resembling the one I got on flexdesigncostumes.com. And I hadn’t even worn the suit out in public yet. Because, even though I was excited to see people’s reactions, I was nervous, too.
Jay Cutler is the No. 1 bodybuilder in the world. He’s the most endorsed (MuscleTech, Muscular Development, SmartShake—the list goes on), and he’s the current Mr. Olympia, winning that title four times over the last five years. He’s 5-foot-9, 300 pounds. His arms are 22.5 inches around and his thighs are bigger than your waist.
The youngest of seven, Cutler grew up on a farm in Massachusetts. He bailed hay, chopped wood and raised cows, chickens, geese, horses and pigs. He was always a big kid, and Cutler discovered bodybuilding young.
“My sister’s boyfriend was into lifting, and one day he brought this magazine to the house. There was a picture of Chris Dickerson on the cover—he won Mr. Olympia in 1982. I wasn’t sure what bodybuilding was, but I was sure that I liked the way it looked. As a kid, I watched superhero cartoons—Superman, Batman—and when I saw the bodybuilders in that magazine they looked like the superheroes from the cartoons. So I equated bodybuilding with power.”
Cutler saved up his money, and when he hit 18, he spent $300 on a yearlong gym membership. He was disciplined from working on the farm and he used that drive at the gym, waking up early, putting in the hours.
Did his new body attract lots of women?
“I started dating a girl when I was 16, and I’m still with her. We’ve been married 22 years,” Cutler says. “Nobody goes into bodybuilding to get chicks. It’s way too hard. And I don’t know about you, but the women I know aren’t interested in cooking up chicken breasts 10 times a day.”
And Cutler is constantly eating. He attributes 85 percent of his physique to his nutrition; 15 percent to his training.
“How many times during this interview, so far, have you thought to yourself, I hope this wraps up soon so I can eat?” I ask.
“Honestly, a couple.”
Cutler has more discipline than anyone I know, but I wouldn’t call him obsessed. He’s just a professional who knows what it takes to succeed. I’d characterize his drive as healthy, though a lot of his peers don’t have such sound psyches.
Cutler says about half of bodybuilders have muscle dysmorphia, a disorder in which people think they’re not muscular enough. “They think they’re not big. If you see a bodybuilder in the gym wearing a long-sleeved shirt in the summer, it’s because he thinks his arms look small.”
“And do you think you’re big enough?” I ask.
“I see photos of myself at my absolute best. So I have this picture in my head. And when I train, I’m always trying to get to that point,” Cutler says. “I’ve never been insecure about my looks, but right now—this is the worst I look all year. Right now, it’s my off-season, and I’m in my bulking phase, so obviously I don’t look great.”
When somebody compliments Cutler during the off-season, he doesn’t feel pride; he just thinks, You should see me at competition time.
When the interview ended and Cutler walked outside, everybody stared. That’s his whole life: stares, pointing and cell phone camera pictures. Some people know who he is. Some are just impressed. And some think he’s a freak. But one way or another, everyone looks.
I slipped the muscle suit back on.
Over that, I put on red track pants and a tight, white, long-sleeved Nike turtleneck weight lifting shirt to hide the suit’s telltale neck and wrist lines. My fake abs popped through the fabric, as did the veins in my fake biceps. If you didn’t know me, you’d never suspect something was up.
I drove to the grocery store. Everybody in the parking lot looked so unfit. I felt bad for them, and felt bad about parading my newly cut body before them. Or maybe they all saw me and thought, look at the juicehead moron.
As I freed a shopping cart from the rack, an older lady with short blonde hair paused to watch, her mouth agape. In her defense, my incredibly tight shirt wasn’t usual grocery store attire. The only guy who would wear that shirt shopping is the type who wants to be gawked at.
I’m typically a healthy shopper, but wearing the muscle suit, I was exceptionally so: lettuce, pomegranate juice, fat-free salad dressing, Gardenburgers, eggs. I’d wanted to get some ice cream, but didn’t want to piss off the other shoppers (i.e., He eats that crap and looks that good? How is that fair?).
In the cereal aisle, I passed by a group of four. The guys were built and the girls were cute. But they barely looked up at me. Which gave me a depressing thought: If I can’t catch these girls’ eyes looking like this, what chance does the real Rick have?
Looks weren’t a problem when I wore the suit to the Las Vegas Athletic Club on West Flamingo the following night.
Good abs on a guy are the equivalent of big breasts on a girl. Guys looked at my ripped abs, then up to my eyes, then away. A second later, without fail, they’d look right back to my abs. They must have assumed that after they broke eye contact with me, I’d break eye contact with them, and they could score a free glance at my stomach candy. It was a pitiful display … and, I realized, it’s precisely how I check out women. Oops.
When I stopped strutting around and started working out, I found myself lifting way more than usual. How was that possible? It’s not like my new muscles were real. I’ve got two hypotheses:
1) Imagining yourself bigger is a common weight lifter visualization technique, and the suit made that infinitely easier. I didn’t even have to try; I just looked in the mirror and saw myself huge, which might have tricked my brain into thinking that I could lift more than I actually could.
2) I didn’t want to embarrass myself or arouse suspicion. If I were to curl 25s looking the way I looked, people would wonder. So I curled 40s instead. Normally I can’t do that.
I was well off to what might have been the best workout of my life … until I had to pee. And so my workout came to an abrupt end. Proceeded by a really fast drive home.
The unplanned, inconvenient, bladder-trying drive forced me to contemplate the lengths to which I’d gone to feel big. Should I feel embarrassed? Was I crazy? Was I alone?
Susan Bordo is a professor of gender studies at the University of Kentucky, and she literally wrote the book: The Male Body: A Look at Men in Public and in Private. I told her my story and asked whether men’s bodily insecurities were as bad as women’s.
“In one way,” Bordo replied, “it’s worse, because not only are men dissatisfied with their bodies, but many feel ashamed that they have those insecurities. They see it as unmanly to care about how you look. So it’s a double-whammy.”
And, as it should be obvious by now, working out more is the wrong way to make these insecurities go away.
“Few people who suffer from body image dissatisfaction are truly content with a healthy body. The anorexic strives for a body that is never thin enough, the surgical junkie’s face gets tighter and eyes more cat-like every year and men and boys with muscle dysmorphia can never be big enough.”
Bordo’s messages was crystal clear: Chill out, Rick.
I’ll never have a perfect body. I’ll never look like I do in the fake muscle suit. And even if I did look that way, I’d probably still feel dissatisfied. For all I know, the guys on the Chippendales billboards and in Men’s Health feel that way, too. Maybe even Mark Wahlberg.
I’ll probably retire the muscle suit, and I’ll probably keep lifting. But I’m not going to beat myself up because I don’t look like Macho Man. That said, if my workouts go well these next six months, come Halloween, you just might see a former band geek wearing a leopard print tank top and a leopard print cowboy hat, carrying around a box of Slim Jims. If you do, toss a compliment his way. You just might get a Slim Jim out of it.