Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron - Part Seven

Masculine & Feminine

Perhaps the most controversial topic in the iron world has been the advent of women bodybuilders. There have been "strongwomen" since the days of vaudeville and earlier. But these women were, for the most part, regarded as oddities, interesting as they were. In recent years, women have become a large force in bodybuilding, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting. The fact of women in the latter two sports has been accepted pretty well as a more or less natural development. The acceptance of women in bodybuilding, in contrast, has been fraught with controversy and heated polemic. This degree of concern  suggests some deep, psychological dynamic. I believe this state of affairs is understandable, again, with the aid of the theory of archetypes. Jung identified several archetypes which have evolved to such a high degree that they deserve to be viewed separately from the many other archetypes of the collective unconscious, and regarded, instead as distinct elements of the personality. Two of these, the "anima" and the animus," represent the feminine and masculine principles, respectively. Remember, the anima and the animus are archetypes, highly evolved, and as such are forms which serve as frames of reference for experience. The anima is the unconscious side of a man's conscious masculinity, and the animus is the unconscious side of a woman's femininity. For each, it is the respective unconscious archetype which allows an empathic understanding of the opposite sex.

The difficulty which many people have had with women in bodybuilding has been that they thought the women did not look feminine. They did not look soft and curvaceous. And, so the schism in women's bodybuilding evolved. Some contests awarded their honors to the more "feminine" looking bathing beauty type, while other contests chose as winners those who looked lean, angular, hard, in a word, muscular. The tradition had been set by the Miss America and Miss Universe contests and their regional and local versions. These were contests for bathing beauties. Then along came women with muscles. Clearly, muscles have traditionally been associated with masculinity. Note the similarity of the words "masculine" and "muscular." The stem words "mascul" and "muscul" differ by only one vowel. If that were not enough, we can be informed by the etymological fact that the Sanskrit root word for muscle is "muska," meaning "scrotum." And here we have the issue that for some is a problem. The issue is that women bodybuilders are displaying a high degree of development of something which is associated with the masculine -- muscles. The problem is for people who insist on a simple world where black is black and white is white, or more to the point, men are masculine (muscular) and women are feminine (not muscular).

Jung insisted, as Freud had before him, that human beings are not so exclusively masculine or feminine as some people would have it. Rather than black and white, the human situation is black and white, and also some black within the white and some white within the black. This is profoundly symbolized by the Yin Yang symbol of Taoism. Jung's way of saying this is that the man carries the anima within him and the woman carries the animus within her. The development and expression of the anima or the animus aspect of one's person is a part of one's development of wholeness or self-realization.

For a woman, then, the task of self-actualization includes the realization of her animus (masculine). While her animus is denied and repressed, she is incomplete, she has not actualized an important aspect of her potential being. Lifting weights is a direct avenue to the primitive, archetypal level of experiencing the animus. I suggest that women bodybuilders may be unconsciously motivated by the urge to live out and experience their animus in the dramatic and blatant form of a highly muscled body. As I see it, a woman bodybuilder is bringing forth an aspect of her being which has not been welcome in our culture in such a stark and dramatic physical expression. Whether or not someone likes that muscular look is another question, a question of personal esthetic preference.

Just as lifting weights can bring forth the woman's animus, it is a way for the man to give emphasis to his masculinity. The psychology of Alfred Adler is particularly useful in the understanding of the motivation for this. Adler observed that when someone has a physical weakness, some underdeveloped or inferior body part, the person will tend to compensate by trying to develop that part through intensive training. The classic examples are of Demosthenes, who, although a stutterer as a child, became a great orator, and Theodore Roosevelt who overcame his childhood puniness to become a strong, robust man. Adler's idea was that one's feeling of inferiority leads to an attempt at compensation. He termed this striving for compensation the "masculine protest." As he broadened his view over the years, he came to see that feelings of inferiority can arise from a sense of incompletion or imperfection in any sphere of life, and lead to compensatory behavior. Behind this compensatory behavior is a "striving for superiority." Adler believed that "striving for superiority" is an innate urge, a natural part of life. It is this basic motivation which carries a person from one stage of development to the next, and keeps one wanting to grow throughout one's life. It is "the great upward drive," a striving for completion. As such, "striving for superiority" is parallel to Jung's concept of "self-realization," and the concept of "self-actualization" in humanistic psychology.

As a deep motive, then, a man's feeling of physical inferiority may lead him into a "striving for superiority" via the barbells. The more keenly felt the inferiority, and the more hopeful and optimistic about successfully compensating for that, the more devoted one may be in his pumping of iron. Remember, the key to understanding this motive is the subjective experience. What is important is the degree of self-perceived inferiority. A man may be small, weak, and even puny, relative to other men, but may or may not experience a feeling of inferiority. Likewise, a large, strong man may feel physically inferior despite objective evidence to the contrary. So it is when a man feels physically inferior regardless of the objective case, that he is likely to seek out a compensatory experience. Lifting weights, of course, is an obvious choice when it is available.

I think it is good to recognize this Adlerian "striving for superiority" as a deep motive for lifting weights without becoming moralistic and critical. My purpose here is not to judge this motive as good or bad, but to acknowledge it as a probable dynamic in many men's choice to lift weights.

This motive seemed so obvious to me, since it sparked my beginnings with the weights. When I was a boy, my father tried to get me interested in lifting. He lifted regularly both at home and at a gym. Although I sometimes watched him work out, had access to a variety of equipment, and even knew the names of many exercises and what they were for, I felt no urge to participate. I was simply uninterested. I started high school young, still twelve when I walked through the door for the first time, and weighed 98 pounds. It was a couple more years before I started lifting. A girl friend and some teasing from the "jocks" led to my taking stock of my physical being, and clear sense of inferiority. My feelings of physical inferiority sparked me to avail myself of all that iron in the garage, and I became a devout lifter. The mental shift was dramatic. I changed from being indifferent to lifting to truly loving it in a matter of weeks. I soon identified with lifting as "my sport," and felt a self-identification as a weightlifter. Without that feeling of inferiority, I doubt that I would ever have become a hardcore lifter.

As I touched upon, above, along with the feeling of inferiority, the hope for successful compensation by means of lifting is necessary or else one would not lift, but would seek out some other form of physical training. So, one may sally forth on the weight path sufficient with this faith and hope. Soon, however, hope will dim, if the hard work is not rewarded by some experience of successful compensation. A gain in weight, a new bulge where there had only been skin and bone, a lift with five more pounds . . . all will provide early reinforcement. My first big reinforcement came less than two years after I started lifting, with my winning a state weightlifting title. That little plastic and metal trophy was the concrete evidence which symbolized that I had successfully compensated for my beginning state of inferiority. To have gone from weak and puny to a locally recognized winning athlete in less than two years felt to me like a huge reward. With this magnitude of reinforcement, of course I continued lifting.

What becomes of this "masculine protest" after the inferiority has been adequately compensated? Two things, I believe. First, as Adler described the "striving for superiority," there is no end. It is not just a move from "inferior" to "no longer inferior," but it is a lifelong striving for completion and wholeness. It is, as I wrote a few paragraphs back, parallel to self-actualization and self-realization. As such, it is a driving force to carry one from one plateau to the next, perpetually. Second, the activity which was the means of successful compensation may then become an end in itself. What I am suggesting is that lifting weights, begun as a means to compensate for physical inferiority, may in time, come to be cherished for itself. The psychological term for this, as introduced by Gordon Allport, is "functional autonomy." in the beginning one may lift with the hope of overcoming perceived inferiority, later because of the success experienced, and still later, out of a love for lifting, per se. In this third stage the act of lifting has become functionally autonomous, no longer tied to either hope or the reinforcement of success. It is as if one lifts in this third stage to honor and be with the experience which once was so important in transporting one from the realm of inferiority. This is not merely habit, nor is it neurotic compulsion, but rather the pleasure of the company of an old friend.

Next: Women and Adlerian Inferiority.   

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