Is bodybuilding it's own subculture or just a sport? Are physique athletes too diverse and self-consumed to have a true collective identity? Will bodybuilding ever go "mainstream" or should it remain sequestered and hardcore? John, Lonnie, and Rob Fortney of www.virtualmuscle.com throw in their two cents.
[ Q ] Is bodybuilding its own subculture?
LL: Absolutely. It has its own unique set of values and mores that are often very different. Even opposite than those of mainstream America and Canada. Just go to a competition and take a look around. Are those average people? As an example, let's look at the word, "freak" ... negative, disturbing connotations to most people and yet it's the highest praise for a true bodybuilder. Another example is pharmaceutical use.
Lenda Murray & Iris Kyle battleing for first in the 2003 Olympia
I say "pharmaceutical" because I don't want to confuse it here with recreational "drugs." The truth is, most upper-level competitive bodybuilders are fascinated by anabolic drugs and value them as a necessary part of the subculture. They literally enable physique athletes to become supra-human - and that's seductive. It further creates delineation between the "average" citizen and the bodybuilder. In great contrast, the "just say no" generation is shocked and dismayed by drugs in general. I think members of the subculture take great pride in learning about and using drugs that shock the average person.
JB: Bodybuilding? A subculture? Na, it only takes one look at Muscle Media 2000 to see that bodybuilding is as mainstream as Microsoft and ... Oh wait a freakin minute! What am I saying? Of course bodybuilding is a subculture!
But before the argument begins, we have to define what exactly we mean by bodybuilding. By bodybuilding I'm referring to the drive (some call it obsession) for physique perfection including huge amounts of muscle mass and low levels of body fat. Included in this definition is also the drive for maximum intensity both in and out of the gym. Physique competition has something to do with the definition but not everything.
Bodybuilding is more a state of mind characterized by excess that is manifest in the gym and on the stage. Everything about bodybuilding is hardcore. Excluded in this definition is the desire to "look a little more cut", to "see all my abs," and to "get a little stronger."
Nothing is wrong with these latter goals, but they are not bodybuilding goals. Bodybuilding, by its very nature, screams "LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT NORMAL AND I LIKE IT." Does that sound like a subculture to you? Of course it does. And if you don't think so, you're not a member.
One of the most interesting things I find about this subculture is the following. A member of it is easily recognizable. And I don't just mean the silly tans and the pumped up physiques. Since I'm pretty big and lean, I can walk into any serious gym across the US and Canada and once I start training, you'll see the members of the subculture rise to the surface. I know this because in the last 7 years I've had memberships at more than 20 gyms. Immediately as I begin squatting over 500 pounds, the average gym lifter views me as peculiar. And why wouldn't he or she.
My head looks like it's about to rocket launch from my body. In contrast, the bodybuilder views me as "one of us" and is the first one to offer a spot or to start conversation. These are the guys have often become my best friends. It's like being part of a secret society that few others understand.
In this life there's a strange irony. We are all looking for a certain defining individuality but we also want to share that with others like us. It's not a rugged individualism but just something that makes us different from most. And bodybuilding sure does offers that to us.
RF: I don't think there can be any question about bodybuilding as a subculture. When one becomes fully immersed in bodybuilding his life changes and he adapts in varying ways to the pursuit. Lonnie's points about performance drugs and their widespread use cause subculture-like attributes as well.
Take a look at any group who share preference for a certain drug - be it alcohol, pot, cocaine, crack, etc ... Do they not gravitate toward each other? I think in looking at this it is apparent subcultures are created when groups of like-minded people with similar desires unite in opposition to a social environment that views such interests as "abnormal." Building ridiculous-sized muscles is the subculture of bodybuilding.
[ Q ] Is the bodybuilding subculture bad? That is, is there something pathological about it compared to the general population?
LL: Partially; although it takes a couple of years to fully see it. It's particularly "bad" regarding high-level competitions. So much so that it has become part of the subculture itself. Recreational drugs, body image/eating disorders, dishonesty and sexual perversions of all kinds have tainted the sport. These things have almost become prerequisite for competitive success on a national level.
They are not, however, the essence of bodybuilding. If you want to know what the essence is, go watch "Pumping Iron" again or "The Comeback." Sure these were at least partly scripted films and they definitely obscure the "dark side" of the sport from their era, but they do capture the essence. The roots of the subculture lay in something inspiring and almost magical. This hard-to-describe quality is why so many people get hooked for life and never really stop bodybuilding. I suppose, as with so many things, the world is ultimately what we make of it.
JB: Is the subculture bad? I guess it depends on your surroundings and the context. Again, since I move around a lot, I've seen the many faces of bodybuilding. I've seen a bodybuilding full of competitive sprit and camaraderie. This is that essence that Lonnie made reference to. Interestingly, at the time, I was training in a very old school gym full of black and white photos of Arnold and some other 60s and 70s bodybuilders.
In fact the gym owner used to hang with Arnold back when Arnold was still bodybuilding and loved to tell the stories of the good old days. Sure they were delusional in their thinking that the current bodybuilders couldn't hold a candle to Arnold and Franco. Sure there were drugs in that gym just like everywhere else.
Sure there was that hint of body image obsession. But all these potential disasters were held in check by something, I don't know, more wholesome. It was all about lifting weights and pride. Muscles were synonymous with work and in such a place, the bigger you were, the harder you worked. We weren't worried about getting the perfect tan or always being smoothly shaven.
On the flip side, though, I've also seen bodybuilding as a destructive endeavor full of physical obsessions (including the eating disorders, sex fetishism, and drug abuse) and mental obsessions (including obsessive compulsive disorder, addictive personality disorders, and paranoia). This side was full of after hours "photo shoots" with the female fitness models and bodybuilders, full of parking lot pharmacists, and full of dime store thieves and addicts trying to get some money together for their next steroid cycle. In such situations, of course pathos runs rampant.
Low self worth, antisocial behavior, and physical, social, and mental insecurities turn into the desire for some sort of muscle suit to cover it all up and make one "OK." And being part of this over the top subculture seemed to make them feel ok for a while. But ultimately they became defined by the subculture and never were able to develop other coping skills. The threat of no longer being part of this group meant loss of identity and that's how addicitions and paranoia begin. Looking back, it's frightening. With this said, though I'll be honest. The guys in this second scenario were bigger.
And sometimes felt and seemed to be superhuman in the context of their little world. To give an extreme example, I remember days when these guys would have steroid parties where they would play loud music, shoot up lots of juice, and then go "power eat" thousands of calories in a sitting. Again, it was all about excess and they loved it! But from the perspective of an outside observer, they were just sick little children in big boy clothes.
At this point, I hope I'm presenting a fair depiction of both sides of the coin. But no matter how bodybuilding presents itself, in either context, the potential for danger is still there. Like I said earlier, bodybuilding is all about extreme and hardcore. And anything taken to that level for too long may destroy. It's like running a car at 100mph all the time.
On the autobon, it's probably OK. But do that while ripping around your neighborhood and you're just hanging on the edge of disaster. I guess it's more important to know when it's appropriate to speed up and when it's appropriate to slow down. Unfortunately many bodybuilders don't know how on earth to do that.
RF: I feel bodybuilding, when taken to extremes, is horribly damaging to a person's well being, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, if you want to achieve competitive success, you must go to the extreme. The drug abuse, social isolation and inevitable body-image problems can create havoc on one's life.
You'll find most hardcore bodybuilders obsessed and with little to talk about outside of the sport. It's sad and leads to destructive behaviors. I've said it before. Most upper-level bodybuilders are socially impotent and have serious body-image problems.
[ Q ] Can bodybuilding evolve into a mainstream sport or will the attempt destroy its true nature?
LL: Many people have commented that bodybuilding must evolve into an entity that's more appealing to the general populace or it will ultimately destroy itself. I'm not sure that I agree. Although I do feel that the subculture has become stagnant compared to the eighties (few interesting new pros, redundant sales pitches from supplement companies, etc.), I don't believe it has to stay this way.
Some of the stagnation has come from pressure on magazine editors and contest officials to be politically correct. Bodybuilding should not be "PC." It's unique set of values and mores define it. Lose these to outside influences and you lose the sport.
JB: I'm not sure what to think on this one. For the sport, I'm certain that going mainstream is not where it's at. In the mid 90s when I was in the thick of my competitive days, Bill Phillips was trying to convince people bodybuilding is in fact a mainstream activity. And with this belief he decided to define bodybuilders as regular old Joes picking up weights in the weight rooms and fitness centers across the world.
He thought physique competitions should be like his transformation challenges. In fact, I remember the scene in his Body of Work video where he actually went up to a pro bodybuilder and with a derisive tone, he mocked him, calling him "the next Arnold." He then implied that all this obsession with muscles was ridiculous. So, inherent in this, his bias was clearly stated. "Get out of the gym you freak, your days are numbered."
Numbered? I'm not so sure. But times, they are certainly a changin.' It seems like the soft core is in. But in a subtle yet different way than Bill espoused. Bill simply wanted to soften the image of bodybuilding to the general public so that they too saw the value in weight training. But rather than focusing just on that, he decided to combine being apologetic for the bodybuilders with a mocking of them. And although I didn't agree with his methods, that's not all that reprehensible. In fact it's kind of cool to see more and more people lifting weights than ever. But what I see today in bodybuilding is surely what I would define as "soft."
Bodybuilding today has become so image conscious. And in doing this, it has lost its hardcore. With its new attempts at going mainstream there is this carnival-like atmosphere. And it seems to be becoming less and less of a sport. I can't imagine anyone thinking the new carnival is cool. It's Vince McMahon marketing style at its "finest." The bodybuilding aristocracy has created these whirlwind events and publications that emphasize video, magazine, and supplement sales.
Not that big of a deal. But since the consumers no longer think they actually have a chance of attaining the physiques of the pros it's more of a WWF-like interest that keeps them coming back to the sport. Bodybuilding crowds and enthusiasts used to be participants. Now they are just spectators. And to perpetuate this, 16 token bodybuilders will walk onto the Olympia stage every fall. And every fall they're bigger and more unattainable.
Maybe, for the benefit of those who are searching for the essence, the new carnival has to die. But my fear is that if bodybuilding does die, something may be lost. I'm not saying it definitely will, but without public physique heroes, some of the drive is certainly gone. When I was 18, I had a pictures of Gary Strydom, Shawn Ray, and Lee Haney up on the wall in my bedroom. But what I did was cut out pictures of my face and paste it on the faces of the bodybuilders. Obsession? Maybe, but it was definitely motivational for me.
So the bottom line is that mainstream acceptance of lifting is cool. And the practice of it in health clubs is also fine. But bodybuilding as I defined earlier should stay in the gyms. Don't try to take it out to the public. And don't try to bring the public to it. Either way, it gets soft. And whether it thrives as a sport or not makes no difference to me. I never viewed the bodybuilding I do as a sport anyway.
RF: First we have to make the distinction between weight training and competitive bodybuilding. There's a huge difference. Bodybuilding in its purest form will never appeal to Joe Public. And that's the way it should be. I'm huge into music and can tell you that whenever a musical genre gains mainstream acceptance and support, it becomes diluted and lame. The same holds true for bodybuilding. Just look at how the sport's become flaky over the past ten years! Why? Well, for starters, there are too many wankers pretending to be hardcore. Hardcore is a way of life. It's a mindset, not a physical attribute or how much juice you can inject.
[ Q ] What are your predictions/suggestions for the future of the subculture?
LL: The magazines are the voice and the glue that holds the subculture together, so we should start there. First off, to motivate readers/athletes, mags will need an infusion of new, hardcore talent. Second and more importantly, we'll need a paradigm shift away from in-house supplement "magalogs" toward some independent publications.
Selling products within the pages is not, in itself offensive, but when it taints the content of every article, you have to wonder: why am I paying to read a 100-page advertisement? Besides, this type of setup pressures editors to only serve-up sugar coated, more politically correct articles that essentially dissolve the subculture. If no one can get a new "voice of the people" off the ground financially, I predict corruption and dilution to the point of demise for bodybuilding as we know it.
As a web site contributor/editor, I see this type of online publication potentially leading the way toward cultivating a reader-first paradigm that's purpose is to educate/motivate -and only sell products peripherally. The problem with web sites is the ocean of worthless ones. Still, web site/printed mag combos like www.t-mag.com, www.virtualmuscle.com, and the small start-up pub, Muscle Monthly, are steps in the right direction. If they can instill a fresh sense of community, we'll see a new era.
JB: I see a huge shift in the direction of bodybuilding and weightlifting. I don't think that the magazines that are currently portraying themselves as the "voice" of bodybuilding are going to be able to continue as they have been. The bodybuilding media and culture have been corrupted by money. And the money men are wiesels that haven't ever know the pain and subsequent reward of puking after a real 20 rep set of 405 on the squats. Without that knowledge, how do they ever expect to appeal to me? They can't tap into what makes me want to train and get huge.
I think that the hardcore subculture needs to separate from the farce that has become pro bodybuilding (namely the pencil-neck bodybuilding aristocracy) and simply go to where other hardcore athletes are. What about joining forces with sprinters, pro hockey players, football players, and the like?. Are they really all that different than we are? Sure our training goals are different, but is the attitude any different? I don't think so.
We all want to go to the edge in our performance. Heck even the drugs are the same. So why not join forces. Running, football and hockey are certainly more mainstream than bodybuilding and will always be. But I'm not talking about the commercial side of sport here. I'm talking about the athletes themselves.
I think that if the subculture expanded to include these hardcore athletes, if supplements and training programs were designed with all of us in mind, and if real gyms included all of such athletes, then although the subculture might lose a bit of it's identity, it will thrive in different ways and become a bit more mainstream without a deterioriation in its essential character. We may need a change like this to create a new identity. I think it's a hugely mutually beneficial relationship. Think about what we can and have already done for them in terms of training and nutrition!
To illustrate my point look at the individuals who are becoming successful in the industry. The guys who are targeting serious weight trainers and athletes. Sure physique enhancement is included in this. But mags like T-mag are becoming wildly successful without ever showing a bodybuilder's picture or training routine. Such mags are searching to get that essence back. And are finding it in the gyms not on the stages.
RF: I can foresee a time when professional bodybuilding is outlawed. This may seem far-fetched, but is it? The whole thing has gotten so out of hand. What the sport needs to do is lose Ben Weider and other like-minded fools. They want mainstream acceptance and it is drawing in all sorts of deviants and scum. These people want money, nothing else. But really, what isn't corrupted by man's greed? The hawking of lies and crap has become epidemic.
We need to trim the fat and go back to the essence of the sport. Bodybuilding has become corporate I'm sad to say. It's lost its innocence. What ever happened to a pure love of training and the friendships that develop with others who share the same passion? To me, weight training is a natural extension of all else in a healthy life. One must not forsake everything for one attribute. There has got to be balance. I was losing that balance several years ago. Thank God I caught myself. And guess what? I'm a better person and better lifter. Coincidence? I don't think so. Bodybuilding needs mentally strong participants. It's not for the weak.
Well, there you have it. Bodybuilding does seem to be more of a subculture than merely a sport - although even those with competitive experience disagree on its defining characteristics. You can become a force for positive change or you can lose your naivete in very destructive ways. It's up to you.
About The Author
John M Berardi is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human performance and nutrition. His company, Science Link, provides unique and highly effective training, nutrition, and supplementation programs for high level athletes as well as recreational exercisers. John is a prolific author and a sought after speaker and consultant. Visit www.johnberardi.com for more information about John and his team. Also, check out his new DVD entitled No Nonsense Nutrition.
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