Crisis And Contradiction In Bodybuilding

Alan M. Klein
Northeastern University
Dit is een samenvatting van Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

While the projection of ideal images is very important in American culture, it is in the subculture of sport and bodybuilding that it gets carried to be extreme. A 4 year study of bodybuilding's Mecca -Southern California- revealed a fundamental set of discrepancies between what the subculture projects as ideal and what actually goes on. These discrepancies are examined to determine which ones result from changes that have taken place in bodybuilding and which are structural to it. It is shown that as the sportsubculture altered its image to achieve cultural respectability, it inadvertently created new problems. The shifts are examined within the context of studies of deviance and point to the need for a long term ethnography in sport sociology.

Sociologists and anthropologists have avoided disciplinary conflict in part because they have drawn territorial boundaries that complement each others' interests, a feat that has as much to do with avoidance as it does engagement. Subject matter and methodology were divided so as to avoid turf issues. According to this simplified scheme, anthropologists study exotic cultures (preferably non-White and non-European) while sociologists seek out Westem societies. Anthropologists do qualitative analysis, while sociologists focus on quantitative. Enough is shared between them to constitute an intellectual demilitarized zone filled with anthropologists studying Westem urban contexts and rural sociologists working in areas like Brazil and the Philippines.

The study of sport reflects both the separation and complementarity between sociology and anthropology. Sport sociology has been even more separate from anthropology than have other sociological fields, making the potential contributions from ethnography more promising. The following ethnographic study will speak to the fruitful relationship between the disciplines of sport sociology, urban anthropology, and studies of subculture. In particular, the relationship between cultural ideals and behavioral actuality will be examined. While both disciplines share an interest in this relationship, they have framed it somewhat differently (e.g., Durkheim, 1953; Becker, 1963; Diamond, 1972; Linton, 1945; Freilich 1977). Using some of the more recent contributions from the field of subcultural studies, this paper focuses on the use of historical analysis and power relationships to look at discrepancies between ideal and real (Hebdige, 1983).

In sport analysis there is an immediate difference in the way the two fields define the appropriate subject of study. Sociologists study sport, while anthropologists deal with play. Play is certainly a broader category of behavior than sport, covering as it does, for instance, a child sitting alone making mudpies, as well as organized competition. By and large, however, anthropological studies of play view sport as less common in kin-based, nonstate societies, hence more properly the realm of other social scientists.

The association that each discipline forms also reflects these divisions. The North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) studies Western sport or occasionally sport in Eastern industrial society (e.g., Cantelon & Gruneau, 1982; Eitzen, 1983). Exceptions are uncommon, such as Lever's study of soccer in Brazil (Lever, 1983). On the other hand, The Anthropological Association for the Study of Play (TAASP) tends to look at games and play in a Third World context (e.g., Stevens, 1977; Schwartzman, 1980; Blanchard and Cheska, 1983). The commitment to ethnography and fieldwork is noted in the work on sport carried out by anthropologists, while their sociologist colleagues lean heavily toward quantitative methods. It is the possibility of a sport ethnography within the sociological domain of contemporary industrial sport that represents a fruitful merger of anthropological orientation and sociological setting. This study attempts such a fusion.

Sport Sociology and the Ethnography of Sport

Sport sociologists occupy a position of low status within the hierarchy of sociological specializations. Studying almost any institution, be it law, family, corporations, even deviance itself, seems more legitimate than the study of sport. Among sport sociologists there is an unstated consensus about the negative views their colleagues outside the specialty have of them. In partial response to this, sport sociologists have compensated with a hyperempirical methodology. Quantitative sport studies predominate as evidenced by the citations of work in leading texts (Coakley, 1982; Eitzen and Sage, 1978; Leonard, 1960). Journals such as the Journal of Sport and Social Issues and Sociology of Sport Journal, also point to a gap at least as large as the one that separates the disciplines of sociology and anthropology.

Anthropologists have increasingly carried out ethnographies and fieldwork on games (Blanchard & Cheska, 1985). With few exceptions, however, these studies have been on nonindustrial peoples (e.g., Geertz, 1972) or marginal groups within industrial societies (e.g., Tindall, 1975). While these are worthwhile anthropological contributions that deepen our understanding of culture, they do little to inform our understanding of American or Western society as it is affected by and through sport. This reinforces the oft-held view of anthropology as having little to say about the dominant society. Anthropologists have developed their analysis of small-scale societies, however, seeing them as a set institutions and cultural variables which act to integrate and alter that society through consensus and conflict. This assessed through participant observation. More important, anthropologists stress the use of culture as a prism through which social life can be interpreted. While sociologists are aware of these techniques and perspectives, it is the anthropologists who have developed them more fully. As a result, they can be used to advantage where other perspective have previously prevailed.

Sport ethnography is virtually nonexistent. Participant observation in the service of sport reporting is not in itself sufficient. On occasion, journalists with unusually keen insight and a sense of social analysis inadvertently cross over into the realm of ethnography (e.g., Lipsyte, 1975; Boswell, 1983). However, these efforts remain dilettantish rather than being serious ethnography. The observations of Janet Lever in her thoughtful sociological work on Brazilian soccer (1983), or those of Brower (1975) or Devereux (1976) on Little Leaguers, are not the same as those of Colin TurnbuU (1965) or Spradley (1970) or Lee (1979). Missing is the view of soccer or baseball as a self-contained integrated whole, a cultural diorama That totality and the insight and understanding that comes from the method and perspective of ethnography can be a critical element in the rise of sport sociology to a position of prominence.

Sport Ethnography and Subcultural Studies

The gap between sport sociology and ethnography can be bridged by looking at the analysis of subcultures. Although primarily the contribution of sociologists, anthropologists have not been altogether absent (e.g., Liebow, 1969; Spradley & Mann, 1975; Daner, 1976; Keiser, 1979). The theoretical debates have centered on the function, origins, and systematic workings of subcultures but have mistakenly placed such work within the area of deviance. Periodic, reassessments (e.g., Matza, 1969; Brake, 1980; Hebdige, 1983) have done little to change this view. Anthropologists are uncomfortable with the way in which sociologists have lumped disparate subcultures under the heading deviance. Despite cautioning us about the larger society's method of stigmatizing and labeling deviants, sociologists continued use of the label sanctions it (see Hebdige, 1983). In anthropology the tradition of cultural relativism is sufficiently strong to promote a view of subculture that avoids deviance connotations, in part by focusing on the study of cultural entities via ethnography. Through relativism, and by partially sacrificing the subculture's ties to the larger society, the ethnography can intensively examine a subculture, giving it an integrity that ethnographic tradition often bestows upon its subject. Admittedly, unless one is careful the relations between the part and the whole (i.e., the sub culture and the larger society) can be sacrificed; this hurts analysis but is more than made up for by affording a view at the subculture freed of the deviance label.

Some sociologists distinguish between subcultures on the basis of delinquency, thereby dichotomizing between delinquent and occupational subculture (Downes, 1966) or delinquent and subterranean subcultures (Matza, 1964). Sport subculture would seemingly fall into the category of the more acceptable work and countercultural groups. Many assume that sport as a whole is synonymous with socialization of norms (e.g., Phillips & Schafer, 1971). Others see this as the province of specific sport subcultures (Loy, McPherson, and Kenyon, 1978). Clearly there is a need for the establishment of a sport ethnography in looking at the machinations and function of sport subculture.

The neat division between delinquent and subterranean subculture that Matza (1969) points to, and the view of sport subculture as fitting neatly into the mainstream, is somewhat rattled by the case of competitive bodybuilding in Southern California.

Bodybuilding As Subculture

The respect by the larger society that has eluded bodybuilding for so long is finally within reach. This acceptance can be measured by the astounding growth in the past decade of competitive and noncompetitive bodybuilding. Trade publications estimate that as many as 85 million Americans engage in some form of weight training, and while only a tin, fraction will ever develop enough to compete, almost alt of them are expecting to see bodily transformation. In the sense they are all bodybuilders, body shapers, or body designers. Over 100 countries now sanction and promote it as a sport, making bodybuilding the 7th largest sport federation in the world. Southern California, and Olympic Gym in particular, is the pulse of bodybuilding. It is the nexus between bodybuilding as sport and subculture, and as such it is the ideal place to study its cultural properties. As the self-styled core of bodybuilding, Olympic Gym has been home to almost every great bodybuilder of the past two decades.

Venice, California, is the perfect setting for a subculture as visually exotic as bodybuilding. Muscle Beach, Olympic. Gold's, and World's Gyms are all within a square mile of each other, making it easy for people to characterize the area as a haven for the practitioners of this sport. Venice, however, lends the entire complex a good deal of its own color. The ideologues of the sport-the Weider brothers who own the largest conglomerate of bodybuilding products in the world and who are headquartered nearby in Woodland Hills-view the free spirited and tolerant climate of Venice as somewhat excessive and potentially embarrassing. They strive to gam respect by projecting a persona of wholesomeness. By dovetailing with the fitness movement, the behemoths who determine bodybuilding's cultural images through their magazines are concerned with gaining cultural respectability rather than trendy popular cultural status. To come closer to mainstream culture, three values are heavily projected to the public via the leading publications: health, heterosexuality, and rugged individualism. As mainstream values, these three differ from values sought by other subcultures. Bodybuilding does not perceive the larger society as malfunctioning and in need of alternatives. If anything, the bodybuilding subculture is conservative, or as Matza might claim, an occupational subculture (1969).

A tension exists within bodybuilding's subculture, one between the ideal image as expressed in the three values listed above, and bodybuilding institutions that foster different and often contradictory behavior. In anthropology these discrepancies have been called "ideal versus real" culture patterns. First the status of bodybuilding in sports must be discussed.

Bodybuilding: Sport or Spectacle?

Bodybuilding rests precipitously between sport and spectacle. If professional wrestling or roller derby have become synonymous with spectacle, it is not because of their inability to meet basic definitions of sport Structurally, they meet the outlines presented by Coakley (1982), who cites physical exertion, competition, and organization as three key traits all sports must have. Bodybuilding has some unique problems in meeting these criteria.

All three of Coakley's traits can be found in bodybuilding. The International Federation of Body Building (IFBB) is the dominant organiation in the sport. Contests are highly competitive, but the physical exertion and demonstration of skills which most people assume runs in tandem with organization and competition, is conspicuously absent. It takes place separately and is linked to the contest only as a visual reportage-a posing routine. This transforms the contest into a nonphysical event that outsiders often see as being like a beauty contest. Insiders defend against this by claiming that the sport is both sport and art weight training is the sport, and posing and competitions are the art. Regardless of how they divide their field, the physical component is not contemporaneous with the organized competition, raising a claim that it is not a sport at alt but a spectacle. Belly dancing is not a sport, yet many of its practitioners engage in weight training and enter competitions. Even with bodybuilding there has been a tendency of late to exaggerate the spectacle with the use of props and outrageous costuming and makeup (e.g., The Night of the Champions, a professionnal contests).

Definition of sport is mediated by other factors, however, most notably the media's willingness to accept an activity as such and the public's acceptance of that decision. Within the past decade just such a passive acquiescence seems to have occurred through the dramatic rise in popularly of "trash sports" (Sewart 1983). Bodybuilding rode that crest first through the attention received by the award-winning film Pumping Iron, and second with network telecasts of some of the better bodybuilding contests. This supported the view that virtually any sporting event would generate sufficient ratings, and contests along with prize money proliferated during the late 1970s. The advent of women's body building made the most dramatic impact however, because it opened the sport/spectacle to a hitherto excluded group. And to the thousands of fans who willingly paid as much as $100 a seat to get into the Mr. Olympia contest the temporal break meant nothing.

Closely related to bodybuilding is the intemationally recognized sport of powerlifting. Here, one sees all three Coakley's traits functioning at once. Both powerlifting and bodybuilding stemmed from the 19th-century strongman acts of Europe, with the former monopolizing the strength feature while bodybuilding focused on the physique. Between them exists an uneasy truce marked by the condescension of powerlifters toward their counterparts. The 11 powerlifters at Olympic (most prefer more utilitarian, austere gyms) were given a wide berth and respect granted only to the top people in the gym. Yet it is bodybuilding, not powerlifting, that has risen to cultural prominence, a rise that bears testimony to the media's ability to redefine cultural institutions and their definitions.

While the status of bodybuilding is not universally accepted, its position as a subculture is even more questionable. Many of the practices and beliefs held by bodybuilders have undergone a degree of change as a result of the new-found acceptance of the sport. Media attention exacerbates this, with the result being that discrepancies emerge between what is consciously being presented about the sport and what actually goes on. Three of the more glaring examples are individualism as a self-definition versus socially determined self, (b) health versus illness, (c) heterosexual projection versus homosexuality.

Individualism Versus Socially Determined Self

Bodybuilders prefer to be thought of as rugged individuals. Their very presence in such an individualized sport speaks to that preference. Those who came to the sport with a previous sport background invariably note their disdain for team sports and what it implies: I began developing a strong sense of individuality quite early. I was always turned off by team sports. I just didn't like being part of a team and the backslapping and groupie sweating and all that. I would rather spend time in my basement pumping iron. I liked football and all, but there was too much sharing. I just didn't wanna depend on anyone. I wanted to do something totally by myself. Bodybuilding is it.

A recent study of bodyboilders (Sprague, n.d.) used the Cattell 16PF psychology test on a random sample of people and found that bodybuilders were significantly more self-sufficient and less group dependent than the mean population. Of the numerous interviews conducted between 1979 and 1984, the expressed lack of ties among bodybuilders was typical, with characteristic comments like, "I'm a loner" or "I'm not easy to make friends with."

Question: Do you hang around with anyone in the gym?

Answer: No, no. You don't hang around with those guys. You're not gonna get it (acknowledgement) from them. The gym isn't really a social situation for me. I don't think these guys make friends. You know what the problem is? Bodybuilders are selfish. and I been around for 10 years. They have to be. All they do is think about themselves That's why _______ was popular. Cuz in a sport where selfishness, size, and hustling count, he was the most selfish, the biggest hustler, and just the biggest.

Within the gym, however, there are distinct social and psychological categories, the most significant being gender. Women are far more likely to be social, more likely to bond with others than men are. They are also mare likely to lend mutual assistance (Klein, 1985b). However, because men make up the majority of the gym's population, and always have, the atmosphere still rings of indifference, and at times even surliness. The social solidarity of women is typified in the following:

Women are tighter. I've seen girls swap clothing, posing suits at contests. And they helped me with my hair and makeup when my hairdresser didn't show up on time. Some of the girls really help each other. Like P. She had gas. She said to C, "I gotta get rid of this gas. " So C starts taking her through these stomach exercises that will help her move the gas around, and she massages her stomach for it. It was really neat the way she put her own considerations aside... People help each other and that's what I like about the competitions.

The daily routine of bodybuilders and the relations they fashion and act in are all couched in atomistic behavior. Special dietary restrictions makes eating fairly dull and a more or less isolated act. The entire day is built around training, and much of the mental preparation is of the self-motivating form: no team sessions or mutual psyching (with one notable exception) as found in other sports. At the gym no one dares to break into someone else's routine or approach equipment until relatively certain that it is unused. Conversation, especially as a contest nears, is often kept to a minimum while working out.

While we're training, we don't wanna be bothered It's much more social for non-serious bodybuilders. Those guys have time to bullshit in the gym. I'm very sociable really. But I know when to cut it off. When I'm training I don't want to be bothered, like right now. I can't talk now, man.

Thus while the gym may appear as if it is rocking in collective exertion, it is, with the exception of the training partnership, really a long sequence of individual efforts.

It is in competing, however, that one glimpses the extent of the individualism. All pretense at social bonding abandoned, each bodybuilder views others suspiciously. Competitors in bodybuilding (unlike most other sports) train together in the same place, and each day of contest preparation is dotted with confrontations and guarded acts lest one's physical condition be prematurely revealed. To assure this privacy the body is swaddled in sweat clothes, no information is given, and a hostile bravado supplants a tentative affability.

As the contest nears, conversation, which is already at a premium, virtually ceases. This is as much the result of the pernicious effects of dieting as it is the anxiety of competition. Men give and ask for nothing. Backstage at the contest, sullen, scantily clad men stand alone in a crowd. The ruthlessness of actual competition is no more bruising than the isolated preparation that goes into it (Klein, n.d., chapter 4).

Economically, bodybuilders suffer as a result of their atomism. What each pro strives for are contest earnings as well as endorsements. Additionally, a world-class bodybuilder can parlay his or her winnings and titles into a lucrative mail order business. This is the economic ideal: individual competitive success followed by self-employment. The result is that every successful bodybuilder competes for a finite market against others, as well as the leading entrepreneurs. In the face of such fierce competition, more rational attempts to conduct business such as joining forces or not duplicating efforts would seem imminent. But the individualism that is so pervasive works to prevent this. Needless to say, the possibility of a bodybuilders' union, as was attempted in 1979, is doomed from the start.

Feudal Organization and Bodybuilding

Despite their individualism, bodybuilders do in fact form a community, rooted in their physical distinctiveness and what it symbolizes. Forced in upon themselves, bodybuilders have fashioned a subculture in Southern California's more tolerant climate. The gym, various contests, Muscle Beach, and media hype are additional factors making possible the expression of the subculture. In this context their individualism is actually fused into a social system that allows them their atomism while concealing social bonds. This social system has many traits in common with a feudal social system, yet exists within capitalism (Klein, 1981, 1985a).

To the outsider the gym appears as either a group-group or a collection of individuals, yet there exists a clearly demarcated social hierarchy as well as different strata of political and economic entities. Beginning with the latter, and borrowing the feudal analogy, bodybuilding has a small class of powerful lords consisting of the largest entreprenuers such as the Weider organization and to a lesser extent Olympic Gym. Beneath them and tied to individual lords through ties of dependence, one finds the various professional bodybuilders. These men and women vie with one another not only for prize money in contests but for closer political ties with the moguls. Amateurs competing for limited access to these same mentors, as well as the larger category of noncompedtive bodybuilders, are the serfs. They serve in the capaciy of consumers for the products generated by the other strata.

The key to this feudal structure is the tie of personal dependence. Witbin each strata individuals compete for rank and economic oppartunity, the result being the creation of vertical ties at the expense of horizontal ones. The primary relationship is one between a mentor and a subordinate, between a mogul and a bodybuilder. The paternalisdc giants in turn vie with one another for the allegiance of the competitors. Group solidarity is virtually impossible in such a millieu, a condition that allows for an exaggerated view of individual autonomy.

One of the most sought after rewards for the aspiring bodybuilder is magazine space for one's ads. Here is what several candid bodybuilders had to say about the control exercised over the access to ad space:

Of course it [success in the magazines] all depends on who you are. Tom P. and R. get a gratis thing [free ad space]. I know that Joe Weider doesn't like me, but then he doesn't like others also. l remember he said that R. would never appear in Muscle and Fitness but he did an article on him anyway. And somebody said that they heard Weider say that I didn't exist as far as he was concerned. But then I know that Joe is considering me for Flex ... oh he wants to sell me but he doesn't wanna work with me.

A. used to go to Joe [Weider]. He was one of the intermittent people. He wouldn't get a lot but he'd get something. He would never get a mail order ad, but he would get a couple hundred bucks when his face appeared in the magazine, whereas everybody else has to be perfect and kiss their ass to get in the mag. Then A. found out that if he asked Joe for help, "Joe, I need some help in my posing. "Or "Joe, my diet. I can't get it quite right. "You know, make him feel as if he's needed. Well it worked to get him in.

Responding to my question in 1979 regarding a failed attempt to put together a bodybuilders' union by some people at the gym, one top professional dismissed it, revealing the feudal-like political structure in the subculture: I don't think bodybuilders need a union. The IFBB [the largest international federation in the sport, created and presided over by the Weiders] operates with the best interests of bodybuilders in mind. Whenever problems arise they're willing to listen and legislate or change the situation for the better. I think if things were so bad that there had to be a union, there would have been a union.

Social Organization of Olympic

Because of its influential position in the sport, a gym like Olympic has a unique social organization. Six distinct hierarchically organized groups exist. These are arranged in pyramid fashion, with the members constituting the largest group.

Professional bodybuilders
Amateur bodybuilders
Gym rats (noncompetitors)
Members at large
Onlookers and Pilgrims

The first three categories are self-explanatory and not particularly unusual except that at Olympic one tends to find whole clusters of professionals and amateurs, whereas at most gyms finding one is unusual. The category of gym rat is worth describing, however. All serious gyms have these men and women at their core. They come in religiously and train hard, but are distinguished from pros and amateurs because they do not compete. Hence, in gym hierarchies gym rats have less status. Members comprise that category of people who train less than the other categories. Of gym regulars. they have the least status, often not even looking like bodybuilders.

There's a pecking order with guys like Mike at the top. Maybe I'm put in there too. In terms of who gets to use a piece of equipment if three guys are waiting for it, and other things having to do with the gym.

Olympic, however, has another category of people who do not belong to the gym. Onlookers and pilgrims come there either to satisfy their curiosity or because they are bodybuilders who come to pay homage to the place. Since they are constant presences in the gym, they are given a place in the front of the gym. Commenting on the removal of one line of gym equipment that had brought in a flood of outsiders, one competitor summed up insider/outsider relations:

I'm kinda glad the water machines are out of the gym. I felt like I was training in a showroom. Those machines brought in a lotta sales people ... and there was always those weirdos in business suits watching us all the time. Get outta here. Go up there (pointing to the balcony) where all the weirdos gawk. I mean, where people train, you gotta prove yourself to be accepted. There's a lotta non-people in the gym, people who shouldn't be here.

This pyramidal orgaruzadon is not a conscious one. Little in the way of formal organizational properties can be found in bodybuilding other than the organizing bodies that govern competition. Within the gym the only formal relationship is the training partnership. Usually made up of two (but sometimes three) people, training partners are responsible for pushing each other to their limits to enhance physical goals. This bond is formal and recognized as distinct from all other relationships. It is also a brittle bond, often lastng only as long as the preparatory period before a contest. Yet, through these partnerships a sequence of tentative bonds emerges, linking people in the gym together. The rarefied nature of these bonds was succinctly stated by one female competitor. "It's easy to find a boyfriend, but a training partner is hard to fmd."

In the past few years fitness and health have been the bodybuilder's ticket to cultural respectability. Weider changed the name of his magazine to reflect his going from Muscle Power to Muscle and Fitness. Bodybuilders now view themselves as nutritional and kinesiological experts, and for a fee will counsel others on matters of diet and training. Up on all the latest research in pop kinesiology, each has his or her idiosyncratic road to vigor and health and hypes it in comic books, exercise books, mail order ads, or most recently as guru-trainers to the stars. Certainly, in terms of fashioning their bodies into whatever form they desire, bodybuilders are advanced. Not only do they know what combinations of goods to consume, but also how to bulk up (increase mass) or cut up (reduce subcutaneous fat) on demand. This is fused with a mind-boggling array of weight training routines.

Self-mastery is the goal. Experiencing each repetition and calorie in terms of an overall plan for physical transformation is the means. one man had so mastered himself in terms of diet, training, and routine that he had no need of an alarm clock. At precisely 7:30 each morning he awoke with the urge to evacuate his bowels, at 11:30 am. his breakfast and food supplements were just kicking in and he could commence a 3-hour workout. Another had not missed a daily or twice daily workout in 5 years. Illess is anathema, an admission of having failed to do things properly. Nutritional Calvinism is the philosophical tenet: Bodybuilding success is partially predetermined (i.e., genetic), but good protein, complex carbohydrates, training, and so forth can help one realize his or her predetermined potential.

In direct contradiction to their public boasting of fitness and strength, we find bodybuilders' use of steroids and other drugs to be widespread. Despite the profoundly negative effects of steroids on health (e.g., the carcinogenic effects and negative impact on the liver), steroid use is virtually universal among male competitors and increasingly frequent among wamen and noncompetitors:

They all use drugs, even the Mr. Naturals. That year that S. won the Olympia [a professional contest], he told me that he used more drugs that year than he'd ever used in his whole life. They all use 'em, and when they say they don't, they're lying.

Drug peddling is so common among bodybuilders that conversations about drugs and drug deals are barely concealed. As well versed as these people are in matters of training and nutrition, they are equally unquestioning and naive on the subject of drugs. For instance, thyroid prescriptions from other countries are not even translated into English. In one instance this lead to an overdosing just before a contest:

I had a reaction to thyroid medication... I heard so much about a European product, I did something I hadn't been guilty of in the past-using it without knowing about it... I had all the symptoms of thyroidism: nervousness, irritability, weakness, dizziness. You kinda feel subjected which is stupid, but you change so much during the last weeks before a contest. I mean bodybuilding is obviously not a healthy endeavor.

Drug related conversations are, ironically, quite lively, with a considerable sharing of information and misinformation. This is in marked contrast to other kinds of conversations. The schizophrenic relationship of bodybuilding to steroid use involves outright denial and manifests itself in accusing others of drug abuse:

I think we (referring to himself and friend) have the potential to be the best. All these guys (pointing around the gym) take steroids and we don't. Our structure is perfect. We don't take a lot. We been on steroids three times now (in the past 12 months).

In magazines bodybuilders espouse a competitive life free of steroids. Advice columns reject drugs as dangerous and not all that effective. Yet, among themselves they continue to consume dangerous quantities:

Q. Did you use a lot of steroids over a long period?
A. When I quit using steroids I had trouble finding a spot on my ass that I could inject.
Q. Why?
A. Cuz, calcium deposits build up when you inject certain steroids. And I'd been on a long cycle (using the drug for a protracted period).

One well known pro read his own advice column aloud in the gym in mocking tones. As he read his quote on banning steroids, he and the others gathered around him rolled with laughter.

The top pros know best how to use as little of the "right" drugs and get the results needed. But lesser lights have little knowledge of drugs and experiment freely on themselves. First-timers on oral steroids were, from time to time, seen doubled over in the corner of the gym. Another man handed me a box of hormones he was taking. The label cautioned, "Not to be used on horses that will be used for food."

The reason for drug use is that they help resolve a physical dilemma. The bodybuilder has to be as big as possible yet achieve maximum muscular striation (getting "cut up"). This combination is usually incompatible. To facilitae striation a bodybuilder must diet down (perhaps as little as 1,000 calories a day) near contest time, but in doing so jeopardizes strength and the ability to retain size. Steroids are allegedly capable of enhancing strength and granting size, and in so doing permit one to continue to be large and achieve striation through dieting.

The extreme dieting preceding a contest also exacts a toll on the body as well as on the psyche. In conjunction with the anxiety surrounding the competition, many are not only weak but irritable as well. This is a time when bodybuilders lash out. Steroids only increase aggressiveness, and confrontations are kept to a minimum by judiciously limiting all social interaction. Immediately before the contest many even take diuretics to increase the striated look and overcome the bloating effect that many steroids create. As one pro said, "When we walk on stage we are closer to death than we are to life."

Courting dehydration and exhaustion, pumped with a variety of steroids and other drugs, many bodybuilders no longer represent the picture of health they so busily promote. Citing the prison he felt competition symbolized for him one informant commented on his retirement that he was happy because, "I'll never have to take my shirt off again. From here on I train for me."

Following the contest there is an institutional gorging, accurately termed "pigging out." In groups and singly bodybuilders go out to eat vast quantities of food. In a single evening some will gain 15 pounds. On one occasion an informant consumed 7 pies. Another downed 24 donuts. The way binging and dieting occur institutionalizes borderline bulemic and anorexic behavior. These we know are syndromes involving intrapsychic disorders, but in bodybuilding they become structured into an acceptable cultural product. Epidemiological research suggests, however that rapid weight fluctuation is positively correlated with certain forms of cancer and cardiac irregularities.

As with so much of bodybuilding, the behavior is based on shortsightedness. Steroids foster short term success at the risk of long-term illness. Underlying this preoccupation with the immediate is the demand for the new wealth coming to the sport. This collective grasping takes its sense of urgency from bodybuilding's past isolation and the fact it was held in disrepute. As late as the mid 1970s almost no practitioner could make a living from the sport. With the fitness movement in the United States came the opportunity for many who labored in obscurity to make money in the sport. Thus, the relative deprivation has had the effect or negating long-term, rational considerations. The apparent deleterious impact of drugs is explained away through a series of pseudoscientific facts that claim the contrary - that in moderation and in the right dosages one can use steroids without ill effects. Hence, the contradiction between health and illness is understood as an historico-economic problem, and one that will continue until the rewards are not so great.

Heterosexuality and Hustling

Heterosexuality is enshrined in the pages of Muscle and Fitness. Each issue abounds with full-color ads of men and women together, enjoying each other in some wholesome way. Forty years ago Charles Atlas' ads ran in comic books and also reinforced heterosexuality. In both Weider's and Atlas' ads the message is that if one looks like a man some woman will drape herself over him.

Ya; know in every age the women, they always go for the guy with muscles, the bodybuilder : (The women ) never go for the studious guy. (Welder interview, March 1980)

The Atlas ad scenario underscores the same perspective. It begins with a young man out to impress his girl. They run into the physically imposing beach bully who insults the skinny man and kicks sand in his face, all of which is perceived as being emasculated. The girl is miraculously impressed with the bully's display, or so we are led to believe. An ad in his comic book leaps out at our unlikely hero, promising him a secure and permanent grip on his masculinity: a big body. Weeks later he avenges himself upon the bully by outsizing him and meting out physical punishment. In the course of this ludicrous scenario the woman is impressed and content to become the prize.

Size, masculinity, and physical appeal are equated with bodybuilding, and through magazines and ads that work by invidious comparison, they are hyped to an insecure public. Weider's latter-day versions of Atlas ads have not changed. The sexism is still present in his images of fine women seemingly delighted in being dwarfed by their he-men. The men all hold large impressive weights, while the women hold smaller, chrome plated versions of the same. It exaggerates their weakness to be cast in these scenes, but sales of these magazines have risen dramatically in the past 6 years.

For all this heterosexual posturirig, bodybuilding has long existed under a cloud of suspicion. Be it the inordinate attention paid to oneself, the preoccupation with prancing about on stage wearing as little as possible, or an awareness that for all that form there is little function behind bodybuilding, many outsiders see bodybuilders as somehow associated with homosexuality.

Americans are perhaps the most homophobic people in the world. Crosscultural analysis on the subject indicates that most societies are not nearly as fearful of homosexuality (Karlen, 1971). In enculturating young men we seek to instill in them the notion that one's masculinity is detennined in direct proportion with the repudiation of anything deemed homosexual. The latter is based in negative associations men have of women, and involves negating those traits. For many the ultimate man is the most macho-looking and sounding, the most aggressive-appearing and acting. "Real" men do not wince in the face of pain or trouble; they do not emote freely. Anything falling outside of this is considered weak and unfit, that is, womany. The final link in this line of reasoning is that should one be biologically male, yet behave as a weakling or a woman, then he is an a priori candidate for homosexuality.

Building one's body becomes a necessary part of achieving the desired state of heterosexuality for many men. Hence, little boys are taught a modified version of the military male model: tough, disciplined, and stoic. Popular culture reinforces this as young boys are inundated with heroes such as Hulk Hogan, Rambo, or bodybuilder Arnold Schwazenegger as Conan or the Terminator. Anthony Wallace (1970) has shown what the negative consequences of such one dimensional expectations were for the 18th-century Iroquois Indian warriors. Buried under hypermasculine behavior, it was difficult for them to show need, dependency, or softness; and the greater the need the more it needed to be displaced. Caught in a similar quandry, many bodybuilders simultaneously search for requisite masculinity and a repudiation of homosexuality. Ironically, the selling of sexual favors to gay men is widespread in Southern Califarnia bodybuilding. Estimates of the activities range from 40% to 75% depending on who is queried., It is called "hustling" by people at the gym, but it only involves the male members of the community. Hustling is a range of transactions involving a bodybuilder and a gay male. Only on rare occasions is a woman the procurer of sexual favors. The act of hustling may entail selling one's time for "beefcake" photographs, or nude dancing at all-male events, but primarily it involves sexual acts. The latter might be passive or active, depending on one's conscience. Hustling is seen as distinct from being gay, a dichotomy made by both bodybuilders as well as myself. The two may merge, as when a gay bodybuilder engages in the act of hustling, but informants pointed out that very few of the bodybuilders they knew who hustled were also gay.

The process by which a bodybuilder moves from his conscious heterosexual upbringing to hustling is complex. Hustling is not found equally often among all strata in tbe gym. Pros, for instance, do not hustle that much, while amateurs do so relatively more frequently. The bulk of this behavior is found among males which compete but do not as yet earn any real income from bodybuilding. Elsewhere (Klein, n.d., chapter 8) I have interpreted male hustling as an "economic strategy," engaged in primarily by amateurs and noncompetitors. The reason for it is that amateurs have made the commitment to train full-time for competition but do not have enough economic security to do so. Proper training is an outgrowth of leisure time and money-time to mentally prepare oneself, to engage in lengthy training sessions. Given the educational background and work histories of most bodybuilders, it is unlikely they would have the sorts of jobs that would allow them to train effectively. In Southern California, men train for the most prestigious contests (e.g; the Mr. California, or Gold's Classic, or the pro Mr. Universe or Mr. Olympia shows). This increases the caliber of training needed. The economic dilemma is answered through the gay community (or segments of it) that exist on the periphery or the subculture. Hustling is easy to initiate because of the proximity of men willing to pay for it. Once a hustler achieves any degree of security and can generate his own money, hustling is usually left behind.

There is a second and growing category of hustler- the bodybuilder who trains full-time without intending to compete. This man hustles purely to pay for his bodybuilding lifestyle. He has no intention of working his way up the ranks, and the presence of greater numbers of these men has been noted by many of the older informants who have been at Olympic for years (Klein fieldnotes, October, 1985). Jennifer James' (1973) analysis of female prostitution holds valuable insights for this interpretation of hustling. She points out that for many of the young runaways who venture into the world of prostitution, the path is lined with people offering shelter and friendship but who, after a time; demand a payment (most often sexual). For young girls faced with the sudden pressure to reciprocate sexually for favors they thought were offered freely, the response is often based on guilt, shame, and capitulation. The sex they experience with their one-time protector or friend is often seen as the fall that makes all subsequent sex a moot point;, and so they can move on to prostitution.

For many of the young men who go to Southern California and expect to be instantly successful at bodybuilding, the initial indifference they encounter can be jolting. Few come prepared emotionally, or with enough money to pay the dues, demanded by the sport and lifestyle. These men are often the targets of advances made by other men. At first it might be just a token of friendship as when someone offers a badly needed job, or steroids, but later it is for services rendered.

The quandry is quickly realized and while some bodybuilders reject these advances, many do not. It should also be noted that many hustlers as well as homophobic bodybuilders tend to see advances even where they don't exist. Hustling represents quick money, freeing them to train and meet expenses. To assuage guilt and facilitate acceptance of their impending status change, the men flirting with hustling will list all the great bodybuilders who have engaged in this behavior.

People don 't realize that in any given lineup of 20 competitors 10 are hustling. We have always had gays in the gym... I learned from _____who was hustling, that all the guys were doing it and that really opened my eyes. But now there is such a heavy gay concentration in the gym.

Hardly anyone is spared, allowing the novice to feel that hustling is a rite of passage rather than a deviant act. Interviews taken also point to compartmentalization of experience, a psychological device that allows one to separate out kinds of behavior that might be contradictory or otherwise problematic. Hence, straight life is separated from hustling life. As with any defensive strategy, however, it can at times break down. At that point the suppressed anxiety surrounding homophobia manifests itself in hostile encounters toward gays. The very people who hustle most are the ones who talk endlessly about their women and sexual conquests around other bodybuilders, thereby denying anything that might implicate them. The following is typical of the line of reasoning given for not going out with women while hustling, that is, that they are too demanding.

On any given time I can go out with a woman, but it's not very satisfying like a regular relationship. Women demand time. I don't have that right now. I lived with that girl [points to a photo] for a year and a half but it's not that good Several know what I'm doing. Some can handle it, some can't. I can't lie so that's why I'm not living with anyone until I get older.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde life they fashion enables them to juggle opposing moralities, but often the contradictions surface as hatred (often violent) of gays. Sometimes it takes the form of self-loathing and guilt, which on more than a few occasions has led to repudiation of the lifestyle and replacing it with Born Again Christianity. At other times it has led to suicide attempts. Reiss (1973) in his study of street hustlers documents the hatred that the hustlers had for gays. This expression of homophobia performs the function of separating the "peer" (hustler) from the "queer" (Reiss, 1973:404-406). It is likewise found among bodybuilders I interviewed:

I'll tell you being involved with the whole thing [hustling] reaffirmed my whole thing [being straight]. I remember in Venice I was involved in that, you know, community and saw so much that I began to wonder about their sanity and mine. Maybe 75% of the judges on any panel are gay. Well, they might understand this [the sane view of hustling] at the same time that they might hold it against you: the fact that you're working in that gay world, taking advantage of their people.

Here we see how hustling may fuel a huster's homophobia as well as resentment on the part of gays. Viewing gays in a predatory way allows the hustler to continue the charade that lets him separate out his "straight self" identity from the husting behavior he engages in. Gays who regularly seek sexual favors from bodybuilders often see the relation as predatory as well. Comments about getting the best of the deal are typical.

The positive sole of gays in the world of bodybuilding, however, cannot be denied. As a group, bodybuilders tend to have (or have had) a poor sense of self. They generally require a strong dose of material and emotional support. It is in this context that various gay men have played a substantial role. When the society at large was indifferent or even hostile to bodybuilders, members of the gay community would lend support and admire them by acting in the capacity of fans and defenders. Gays essentially subsidized the sport in the difficult days of bodybuilding when the sport paid little.

The reasons for the attention paid by gays to bodybuilders stems from a psychological complex that merges heterosexual and homosexual issues. One is the notion that bodily form (and overall looks) is best understood and appreciated in a nonerotic way by members of the same sex. I refer here to the many studies pointing out that men dress for other men rather than for women, and the converse of that. This is based in part on self:love extended to encompass our gender, or appreciation of our gender as an extension of ourselves. I would call this gender narcissism and it is universal, essential in the formation of bonds among members of the same sex. The excessive homophobia in our society, however, fosters a view of this otherwise healthy expression of gender narcissism as too close to homosexuality to allow expression. That gays have historically been supportive of bodybuilding therefore is seen in all cases to result from their erotic desires. The broader appreciation stemming from gender narcissism is fused with the erotic and suppressed. In doing so, however, we deny the capacity to appreciate any extension of our gender. Women, being less homophobic than men, are less likely to do this. It is, for instance, deemed suitable for women to state how attractive another woman may be, while one rarely hears something comparable from one man to/or about another.

The concern with presenting the sport in the best possible light has resulted in expunging any association with homosexuatity and narcissism. The subculture of bodybuilding raises this possibility more than any other sport, but ultimately asks the question of sport itself.


In this study I have attempted to show how each publicly expressed value is created and then, because of the sport's need for acceptance, betrayed. New relations, within the subculture and between the subculture and society, stem from its increasing incorporation into contemporary capitalism. As a result a series of quasi-contradictions are brought to the fore. While the world of bodybuilding never envisioned itself as an alternative to status quo society, it nevertheless developed atypically and so fell within the domain of deviant subculture.

The sticking point that prevented greater cultural acceptance of the sport of bodybuilding has always been the vanity factor in addition to the sexual suspicions cast on its practitioners. Contrary to the Protestant Ethic, preoccupation with the body was seen as a frivolous, self-indulgent exercise in vanity. Recruitment to the subculture, however, stems from real, felt unmet needs and personality deficiencies. In short, poor self-image lurks in the background of most bodybuilders.

I got caught up in the sport just cuz I was thin, and I wanted to put some body weight on, you know, get big. I was picked on when I was a kid. There was no support from my parents. I was always wrong in my parents' eyes. I was never dated, not even for the senior prom...People used to laugh at me when I'd wear a bikini. They'd call me chicken legs. Now I can walk through a crowd and people go, "Check her out, what a bod."

Poor body image also results from emotional and other handicaps. Dyslexia stuttering, eye problems, along with short stature and weight problems, were all documented as factors contributing to low self-worth among people at Olympic Gym. Considering their low self-esteem, mainstream views of bodybuilders as narcissistic and vain misses the point (Klein, n d., chapter 9). This study sees the narcissism institutionalized in bodybuilding as therapeutic, a view also shared with bodybuilders.who see it as a mark of how far they've personally come.

Well, I would say that as a bodybuilder you have your mind so much into your body. You have to keep thinking positive. You may not be falling in love with your body, but you are positive that you are great in looking at yourself. I noticed that when I was more in love with my body and I'd look in the mirror; I dunno, it's something to do with muscle and pain. Your mind has to be so positive. In the gym you have to be in love with your workout. You have to think about your pump [muscle worked to the point of failure]. So in a way I would have to say that bodybuilders are in love with themselves. These guys are drawn to bodybuilding for some reason, insecurities or whatever. That's why they flare their lats out like that.
Q. Do you think they're narcissistic?
A. Have you looked at the guys in this gym? Damn straight they're narcissistic. It's gotta be cuz of where these guys' heads are at, you know, insecurity.

It is at this point that deviant and occupational subcultures merge into a single category. The labeling of bodybuilders as deviant is then stood upon its head by the bodybuilders who turn the stigma into status-bearing criteria (c.f, Hebdige, 1983). Thus narcissism becomes essential, leading to perfection, and hypermasculinity becomes the Mr Olympia form.

More recently, the society at large seems to be altering its views on bodybuilding. Matza and Sykes (1961) point out that values associated with the dramatic rise of leisure since World War II foster a change in views of deviance. Values centering on excitement, disdain for work, hedonism, masculinity, and toughness are socially more highly regarded and these are traits central to the bodybuilding subculture. Bodybuilding, then stands to gain cultural acceptance by virtue of being what was previously most reprehensible, that is, self-indulgent, narcissistic, excessive, and sexually exotic.

Ironically the sport of bodybuilding has, according to its premier publication, chosen just this time to stress traditionally held cultural values such as hard work, wholesomeness of family, filial piety, God and country. Ideologues in this sport have missed the point that it is the oft-held view of bodybuilding as lurid, seamy, and excessive that is, at the core of its newfound appeal. Instead, cover photos depict hulking men with their wives, girlfriends, or a model but always lacking sexuality. Articles heralding the virtues of nutrition and drug-free lives abound, not to mention cliches about hard work and Horatio Alger snipets by the truckload. It is likewise ironic that many suspicions once held by outsiders turn out to have more than an element of truth. However, now those suspicions are fashionable - vanity and hedonism is in, as attested to by the popularity or the looks and messages of rock stars such as Madonna, Prince, and David Lee Roth. In the course of this obstacle-strewn path to success, bodybuilding seeks to pay homage to tradition while appearing postmodern. This often creates more questions. As with the adult who earlier suffered humiliation, much of later life is spent responding to that hurt. So it is with bodybuilding, which can never completely enjoy its newfound success. The wound is historic and institutionalized as a set of behaviors. The recent rise in popularity of that subculture has generated a crisis in confidence because so much of the subculture was premised on social stigma that removing the barriers threatens many of the institutions within the subculture.

The work done on subcultures (e.g., Becker, 1963; Cohen, 1955; Brake, 1980), it seems, has understood the need to look at origins of subculture but has missed the value of looking at subsequent developments, such as removal of the stigmatization that can create new problems. These problems foster conflicts within the subculture precisely, as I have tried to show, because of the change in rules and structures. Sport ethnography goes a long way toward helping social scientists discern these crises.