Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Size Matters: Connecting Subculture to Culture in Bodybuilding - Alan Klein


Excerpt from "The Muscular Ideal: Psychological, Social and Medical Perspectives" [2007]

Alan Klein is also the author of "Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction" [1993]

Two years ago, I shared a room with my graduate student at a conference. A former collegiate hockey player, he was not overly macho, yet he embraced athletic masculine ideals that included many bodily practices such as workout out to retain "the look" and assuming closely cropped hair which was common to collegiate hockey players of the time. 

An hour of so after he went out for the evening, I walked into the bathroom and was jolted by the scene: The bathtub was caked with dry shaving cream and hair; short stubbly hairs were everywhere. When I asked him about it later, the student matter-of-factly described what he was up to . . . 

"I shave, dude."   

"Everywhere?" I asked. 

"Yeah . . . chest, legs, crotch, why?" 

It was the "Why?" that got me. Apparently, I had missed something in recent years, something that had become ordinary enough to warrant a response amounting to "You never heard of this before? Where've you been?" 

Full-body depilation is known as "man-scaping." I'd first seen it 25 years earlier in Gold's Gym in Santa Monica, California, where bodybuilders used depilatories before contests so that their musculature would be more visible. Was my roommate's blasé attitude an indication of just how mainstreamed bodybuilding practices had become? The fact that the current circulation of bodybuilding's premier magazine, Muscle & Fitness, exceeds 450,000 a month is another indicator, as is the election of former bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

There can be little doubt that bodybuilding has become culturally mainstreamed. In this chapter, I explore two aspects to this process. First, how and when did bodybuilding cross over to become mainstream? And second, will this mainstreaming alter bodybuilders' sense of themselves as participants in a sport and in a subculture? 

Answering these questions involves delving not only into cultural matters but into the social psychology of bodybuilders as well. (This article deals primarily with research on male bodybuilders, and comments about bodybuilders apply to men, unless otherwise specified. 

Bodybuilding's rise to respectability can be tracked in a number of ways. Gym memberships have grown by 25% since 1998, to over 41 million members. Publications on bodybuilding have proliferated. In a recent search of, I counted 433 bodybuilding books. All but nine were either how-to books or biographies. Over the past 20 years, a small corpus of scholarly studies of bodybuilding has accumulated. Most of the social scientific articles have been of the cultural sort, but there have been several important psychological works as well. In the fields of sociology, anthropology, and history, a small but steady string of studies have emerged. 

Within much of the scholarly work on bodybuilding, there is aa pronounced tendency to leap back and forth between subcultural and cultural categories. The work is insufficiently grounded in ethnography and relies on poorly understood cultural variables. Much of the impetus for this work comes from the current popularity of considering the body as a cultural site. By referring to the body as a cultural site, one is prepared to interpret the surfaces of the body as being inscribed by cultural norms and practices (e.g., tattooing, piercing, or a certain manner of hairstyle). Bourdieu's (2001) work and Foucault's (1995) examination of the body have pushed body interpretation to new heights. Even studies that do not focus on the body err by overprivileging culture. My own research has suffered from this confusion; for instance, in one analysis I explored parallels between fascist and bodybuilding aesthetics. Rather than build my argument slowly, in stages, from micro practices in bodybuilding to macro cultural products in the Third Reich, I extrapolated between them.      

This chapter proposes an ethnographic view of bodybuilding subculture that is linked at various points to ever-larger levels of culture. I submit that understanding bodybuilding's place in culture involves critically examining two key assumptions: 

a) that when defining bodybuilding (or, for that matter, any sport), the sport and subculture aspects are organically linked, and

b) that, unlike in sport, form is separated from function in bodybuilding. 

Regarding the first assumption, that sport and the subculture of sport is organically linked means that the subculture flows from the sport without any external influences such as administrative apparatus or media influence. the subculture is, in turn, dependent on the sport being played. 

Regarding the second assumption, form follows function insofar as the practice of a sport (e.g., major league baseball pitcher) selects for certain physical attributes and then exaggerates them (e.g., long arms, powerful legs). Pitchers are steered away from heavy weight lifting because it would harm their delivery. On the basis of my own research and other qualitative work, I examine the manner in which bodybuilding subculture works around certain core social psychosocial issues in such a way as to foster the creation of practices and a subculture that is the outcome of these issues. I show that bodybuilding as sport is fraught with difficulty, but bodybuilding as subculture has the ability to articulate with larger cultural currents thereby, gaining a measure of credibility. 

My fieldwork on competitive bodybuilders took place between 1979 and 1986; afterward, I continued intermittently to interview bodybuilders and track developments in their lives. Fortunately, my initial entry coincided with the first real round of popular interest in the sport. At the time, bodybuilding was presented as the grotesque that had become curious : the "marginalized world) of exaggerated muscle and strange practices (e.g., shaving the body, pumping iron). Beginning in the mid-1980s, there was a steady increase in images of bodybuilders in the media, including television commercials, advertisements, and rock videos. One bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, even crossed over into movie stardom in "Conan" and later the "Terminator" series. His impact was quickly made apparent as other, equally buffed leading men (e.g., Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wesley Snipes) began appearing in action films.

It is tempting to state that the use of bodybuilders in pop culture formats indicated their cultural acceptance. But it is more revealing to consider how linkages between the insular world of bodybuilders and culture writ large were formed. 

Despite the significant presence of women in competitive bodybuilding, the sport and subculture of bodybuilding have historically been fueled by a cultural dialogue between men and muscle. Every man engages in some sort of dialogue with muscle; it does not matter whether he embraces or repudiates it -- he holds an internal dialogue concerning muscle. It is an essentialist cultural principle and one that distinguishes men from women. 

Size matters when it comes to muscle. Indeed, because of sexual dimorphism (i.e., muscular differences between the men and women of a population as a whole), the whole question of maximum muscular development is framed in male terms. Size matters in bodybuilding, in part, because in a world in which gender divisions have shrunk, muscle still separates men from women (it also separates men from other, "lesser" men). 
I studied male competitive bodybuilders (both pro and amateur) in an elite West Coast gym over a 7-year period to examine these kinds of gender-based issues. By studying an exaggerated form of masculinity, I felt I could get at some of the issues that periodically crop up in crises of masculinity. This community comprised many of the elite competitors, and thus they differed even from other bodybuilders. 
One key distinction was that they subordinated all other areas of their lives (e.g., social relations, employment, leisure) to competing. The pursuit of maximum muscular development within a competitive framework fosters extreme behavior. 


Any attempt to demonstrate the relationships between a subculture and mainstream culture should proceed from the ethnography of muscle production. The social settings, behaviors, and language that make up bodybuilding ironically reflect a cohesiveness born of both repudiation and slavish imitation of the larger society; members of this community simultaneously desire to be accepted by mainstream society and engage in behavior that destances them from it. 

Bodybuilders want to be considered athletes. One of the earliest promoters of bodybuilding, Joe Weider, has spent a lifetime trying to get bodybuilding recognized as an Olympic sport. There are many factors that preclude that from happening, among them that most people do not regard it as a sport and that certain practices of bodybuilders appear bizarre and unathletic to the public. 

At rhw core of the bodybuilder's existence is "the workout," the complex behavior associated with building the body. In calling it a ritual of production, I am conflating two distinct cultural areas: the act of productioin and ritualized behavior. The production that occurs is both cultural and physiological. Indeed, all subcultures are consumed with fashioning a cultural identity that is at once distince yet related to the larger society of which it is a part. The core of cultural production may be a bodily practice (e.g., circumcision, scarification), a ritual practice of some sort, or a fashioning of belief. Ritual is, according to Rappaport (1999), socially encoded, more or less invariant, communicative, self-referential, and performance driven. It functions to validate social groupings and norms and enhances one's sense of psychological security. Subcultures rerly on ritual in all of these ways, in addition to using it to distinguish themselves from the larger society. 

The bodybuilder's workout is a complex ritual built around the body. The ritual he assembles from among the many available if rigidly adhered to, is performed with impressive regularity, and is symbolically loaded with meaning. It is called a "routine," but it is actually ritualistic. A routine involves mundane activities performed repeatedly, and bodybuilders indeed work out in a repetitive way, but the bahavior provides the ritualistic functions Rappaport outlined. There is also a strong element of obsessiveness in almost everything bodybuilders do with reference to their bodies. Training, eating, and resting are all planned in minute detail, and any change is liable to invoke anxiety. Hence, in training for competition, the bodybuilder wakes at a certain time to eat carefully selected food that will be digested in time for him to begin one of two marathon training sessions that day. Between sessions, he will eat and rest in a prescribed fashion. To the outsider, a breakfast may look like two slices of whole wheat bread and two poached eggs, but to a bodybuilder it represents 286 calories, 13.2 grams of fat, 18.0 grams of protein, and 24.8 grams of carbohydrates -- all of which has to be in place in his body at the proper time.

The workout routine centers on the body parts "du jour" (e.g., Tuesdays may be arm and back days). The routine almost never varies, soi if he is doing reverse grip pulldowns (a back exercise) with four sets (of 15, 12, 8, and 6 repetitions), there can be no fewer. 

The first half of a bodybuilder's training for a competition involves eating and working out to gain maximum muscle masss. As the contest nears, he begins to restrict calorie intake and beefs up his exercise levels, the goal being to shed as much subcutaneous body fat as possible (shredded is the term used for the resulting look). Once calories have become severely restricted and energy levels follow suit, the bodybuilder shuns new exercises and increased sets. 

The routine, not the contest, in fact becomes the end. Training for a contest is very much akin to what an Ironman triathalon competitor endures: a personal test of physical endurance under conditions of deprivation. One fights one's own gody, and the routine becomes one's daily mission. Each set is an act of will, a testimony to one's commitment and a signifier of one's worthiness (Klein, 1993). After the contest, bodybuilders engage in institutionalize bingingm, or "pigging out," and sometimes gain 15 to 20 pounds in just 2 days. 

Hence, in bodybuilding both anorexic and bulimic elements (e.g., extreme dietingm, cutting calories below what is needed to function, purging in the form of diuretics) are intimately tied to competing. 

To aid the quest for a win, the bodybuilder takes large doses of supplements, both legan and illegal. The types, dosage, and combinations are also carefully determined, although with little or no medical oversight. Gym lore serves to justify and direct this phase of the bodybuilder's life. Bodybuilders often cite fictional results of medical studies as a rationalization for taking certain drugs in various combinations; I have never been able to track down such studies, because anyone I queried would simply say that they got the information from another person involved in bodybuilding. Buying and taking steroids, human growth hormone, and other banned substances fosters subcultural identity by furthering separation from non-substance-taking endeavors.

Other bodybuilding practices include tanning, shaving, carefully selecting music and costumes, and practicing posing. Just as with training and eating, nearly everything a bodybuilder does is related to the goal of total mastery and garnering size; one competitor turned to me and gleefully declared, "I don't need an alarm clock to get up. I get up at 6:30 on the button to take a dump! Never fails!" 

The ritualized dimension of the bodybuilder's world is filled with repetition and standardization; however, there are subtle and powerful psychological processes at work as well. Nieber noted that in the objectification inherent in ritual, "the inner becomes the outer, and the subjective world picture becomes social reality" (p. 30, Culture Storm: Politics and the Ritual Order, 1973), by which he meant that internal concerns are fetishized via ritual to become externalized and a bit more real. In the bodybuilder's case, however, this process can be reversed; the external-idealized world (the massive body) is a questionable form of "social reality" that is never completely real. The internal psychological state of bodybuilders reveals a patter of flaws that fuels the need for creating the external edifice (i.e., the bodybuilder's body). 


What these ritualized bodily practices reveal or conceal about the bodybuilder's inner world is essential for an understanding of their subculture. I collected life histories of 39 competitive bodybuilders during my fieldwork years. They ranged in age from 20 to 43 years old. I collected them in a nonrandom fashion because it was such a small population. In the life histories I collected, some very clear themes emerged that point to a neurotic core in many bodybuilders. I use the term neurotic, as did Butt, D. ("Sports Psychology, 1975), not to impune su much as to suggest that for this sport subculture, a collective response to a set of shared psychological issues constitutes a central pillar for the construction of the community. Dorcas Butt was not the only one to characterize bodybuilding as neurotic. Other psychological texts also noted that bodybuilders were overly insecure with their sex roles (see Pleck 1983, ; Thune, 1949).   

One theme that came up regularly in the life histories was that of bodybuilding as an effort to compensate for lack of self-esteem: 

 - These guys are drawn into bodybuilding for some reason, insecurities or whatever. Myself, it was 'cuz my brother and i got beat up all the time . . . But these guys, I think a lot of them are insecure. That's why they pump those lats out and walk around like that.

 - See, we had dyslexia, so in school we didn't excel, but in physical things we excelled. So we fought a lot . . . Bodybuilding seemed like a natural thing for us 'cuz of that.

 - See, my father is tall, and I'm not. So if I can't be as tall as him, I wanna be as big as him. (From film Pumping Iron). 

Another theme has to do with faulty parental relations, particularly father-son relations: 

 - My parents never gave me credit for anything, and that's where it [insecurity] came from. We had a minor league team in our town, and you know how fathers take their kids to the games. But mine never did. Mine never did nothin' with me. 

 - My dad never gave me support. I was always wrong. Hell, I'm still always wrong.

 - I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man make no bones about living him and hating me . . . The minute I walked in from school, it was, "You worthless little shit! What are you doing home so early?" 

With self-esteem and parental issues so seemingly prevalent, it is no surprise that bodybuilders appear to be insular and have difficulty developing social relations. They are prone to holding others at bay by valuing bodybuilding as an individual sport (and disparaging team sports) and by characterizing themselves as loners: 

 - 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 groping, sweating, and all that shit. I would rather spend the time by myself in the basement pumping iron.

 - Friends, I don't have. I don't believe in them. I'm a loner, and you have to be in bodybuilding. 

Put into a context of like-minded questers seeking to compensate for the "diminished self," they have fashoined a subculture that fetishizes power through imposing physiques. Bodybuilders share a world in which physical grandiosity is the daily currency, and no one (no man, at any rate) can be too big. The men I interviewed also live in a world in which ingesting anything rumored to have growing properties is encouraged and in which greetings, photo shoots, and training for contests all bear the mark of secular ritual. In this regard, bodybuilding is more popular as a subculture than as a sport, a point that is critical to an understanding of this group.    


Separating the subculture from the sport of bodybuilding sheds light on the factors that led to mainstreaming of bodybuilding in the late 20th century. Being considered a legitimate sport has always proved difficult for bodybuilding. Coakley's criteria for spiort -- physical prowess of some sort, institutionalization, and competition -- have been problematic for bodybuilding. Without doubt, bodybuilding is both highly organized and competitive. Meeting the criteria of physical excellence of prowess, however, poses problems on two fronts. Bodybuilders can claim only physical exertion -- not "excellence" -- from their weight training session. Session are designed only to build muscle, which overlaps only slightly with the sport of weightlifting or powerlifting. In fact, because training with weights is not standard in most sports, most athletes are also bodybuilders. 

Are we to consider hockey, basketball, or football players two-sport athletes because they train with weights and build muscle? In addition, what passes for physical prowess in bodybuilding is not coterminous [having the same border or covering the same spaces] with the competition that occurs. Rather, working out and bodybuilding competition take place at different times and in differrent places. The competition consists of a visual display -- posing only -- not weight lifting. Perhaps because of these issues, the perception of bodybuilding by the cultural (and sport) mainstream has been somewhat clouded and acceptance limited. Reluctance to accept bodybuilding into the sports pantheon is fueled by the perception that, for bodybuilders, form is separated from function.


Bodybuilding began as crowd-pleasing displays tacked onto the end of the "strongman exhibitions" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (T. Todd and J. Todd, personal communication, see also Fair, John D, 1999) In this way the qquestion of its legitimization as a sport was skirted. 

By the 1940s, when Joe Weider emerged as bodybuilding's leading promoter, the effort to separate from strength exhibitions had begun, and with it came aspersions about the emptiness of the form. 

York Barbell owner Bob Hoffman dismissed Weider's move to establish bodybuilding as sport. In Hoffman's Strength & Health magazine, he derisively referred to the emerging bodybuilding movement as "boobybuilding." 

Sport assumes a union between form and function, but bodybuilding is a striking and perhaps novel case of a subculture striving for sport legitimacy in which function is sheared off from form. Key to understanding this separatijon is the social psychology of bodybuilders and the need to compensate by building imposing physiques. If these men sought success, power, and mastery, they would be better served by going into martial arts or law, but it is overwhelmingly the physical trappings of these endeavors that draw them into boobybuilding, er, bodbuilding. It isn't the functioning dimension of boxing, powerlifting, football, and so forth that appeals to these men; rather, it is the appearance of power. It is not what those muscles actually do, but rather whaat they look like they can do: 

"Building my muscles is preferable to engaging in competitive sport because I would never be called upon to actually use these muscles. I could remain a coward and no one would ever know. (Fussell, 1991).


Form comes to mask function through a rang of practices. First, the body is made partible, viewed as an assemblage of very distinct muscle groups. These parts re named and given a life of their own. One's arms, for instance, are not simply biceps and triceps, but "guns" and "canons," as in, "He's got some serioius guns." An informal socioligical survey of bodybuilders' language and bodybuilding publications extends the objectification. Body parts are often likened to animals or machines in action. One possesses "arms like pythons" or "loaf of bread" biceps. Muscle groupings command their own times; the days of the week are divided according to body parts, as in "Tuesday is leg day" or "I'm only working back today." One has autonomous parts that both act and are acted on; hencem one "releases the beast" or "corrals bigger calves." 

The objectification proceeds in two ways: (a) by viewing the body as something to be worked on and (b) by developing language and practices that bestow a dynamic quality (action) on an inherently static demonstration. The latter is dramatically illustrated in the photos of bodybuilders in contests as they pose next to each other; cultural commentator Susan Sontag (1983) referred to "static virile posing." 

Here . . . 

"Fascist aesthetics . . . its choreography atlernates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death." 

Language lends a dynamic quality to the static form. Terms like "chiseling" and "polshing" connote the creative work of sculptures, but most descriptions of what bodybuilders do to themselves are far more violent. Hence, one does not simply chisel a muscle group, one "shocks," "rips," or "blasts" it. This language has been constant since I began my interviews 20 years ago. Building up a body part may be referred to as an act of destruction, as in "I've gotta rip that waist to shreds" or "Nuke your arms." Self is distinguished from body, and the body is beaten into the desired shape. 

Note: I find the comparisons of bodybuilding to actual sculpture laughable. A more fitting comparison would be two-color fingerpainting, since the physical structure can only be changed in very limited ways depending on existent genetic structure. Right. Sculpture. Art. Bodbuilding: Blunt, severely limited and lacking any form of the abstract or implied. Finger painting may actually be more receptive to artistic expression than bodybuilding with its minor variances among competitors. I suppose some overblown unhealthy clown in a superhero costume might lead certain people to think this is an art form of base levels, but all I see is the same monotonous drill with a new suit of clothes tacked on, much like a children's paper doll. To many, this emperor has no clothes and presents as a buffoon.  

Once the individual sees himself as separated into self and other, he can project the other as imposing, as a powerful animal or machine. The image of a machine that works ceaselessly, precisely, and powerfully is alluring and often called up in workouts. The looks and functioning of machines -- their hardness, their power -- have entered the language of bodybuilding. Bodybuilders "pump iron" or "battle iron." "Hardness" is part of the everyday language of the bodybuilder, and one avoids terms denoting its opposite -- "hardness" or "smoothness." 

The body is under constant scrutiny in bodybuilding subculture, and the mirror plays a central role. To the more serious competitor, the mirror enables him to visually check progress and readiness for competition. Others may see their reflection in the mirror as an actual person working on the set: "It's funny, but if I'm doing a set and there's only a wall, I can't see myself, it doesn't feel th esame as when I see myself in the mirror moving my arms. (Klein, 1993). The person relies on the presence of the mirror-being to complete the set. Other forms of visual validation are found in the institutionalized requirement that bodybuilders possess and scrutinize photos and videos of themselves and others. 

Next: The Image of Power, Marketing: The Missing Link, Bodybuilding Meets Body Work (cosmetic surgery), Practice Makes Perfect, and the Conclusion. . 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  



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