ATOMIC DOGThe Embarrassment of Bodybuilding
The monstrous zit on your face; your inability to climax with the hot personal trainer you picked up unless you're listening to Susan Boyle singing that song from Cats over your Onkyo docking station; the one you let rip in the empty elevator just seconds before it stopped and über-babe Megan Fox got on; the time you took a monstrous dump at your new girlfriend's apartment and the toilet plugged up and started overflowing but there was no plunger and you had to use her thick, fleecy, peach-colored Terry cloth towels to soak up the poo-poo water; the day the captain of the cheerleading squad somehow bypassed your privacy settings on your Facebook page and saw all your fan photos of the new Spock; or the time you were using the trough in-between innings at the Cubs game and you saw the flotilla of cigarette butts surging by and you inadvertently slipped into video-game mode and started blasting away at them while screaming, "Die, die, die!", only to notice that everybody had stopped peeing to stare at you.
Any of those are what you might call embarrassing.
I'll tell you what else is embarrassing, or should I say, was embarrassing, at least to me.
I used to be embarrassed to say I was a weight lifter, or worse, a bodybuilder.
I never would have told a girl I just met that I was a bodybuilder. Never would have revealed it during a job interview. And whenever I bought any newsstand bodybuilding mags, I'd wait until the cute cashier went on break and the pimply little girl with a clubfoot took over.
It was my own little version of "don't ask, don't tell," with the penalty consisting of being treated like the syphilitic hooker with swine flu who attended your daughter's first communion.
Do we really need to go into why the bodybuilding stereotype was embarrassing? Have we really forgotten?
Oh gawd, where do I start?
A Few of My Un-Favorite Things
How about the alternating bouts of gastronomical prissiness, where a cum-drop extra of salad dressing would cause a bodybuilder to go into an apoplectic fit, juxtaposed with orgies of eating that would make Caligula blush, the particular phase the bodybuilder was in determined by whether he was "cutting" or "bulking"?
How about the lack of intellectual depth exhibited by some of the sport's most accomplished stars? How about guys like Greg Valentino?
The stupid, stupid magazine covers, with some torpedo-tit babe nuzzling the armpit of some spandex-attired, baby-oiled hulkster.
The shrunken nuts, the serpentine clits, the awful tans and the backs full of zits...these are a few of my un-favorite things....
And the rampant narcissism often associated with bodybuilders used to embarrass me, too. The girls could spot it a mile away. They were used to guys who were only concerned with their dick, but here was a new species of lunkhead that treated every body part, even their freakin' calves, with the same reverence as they did their penis!
But as far as the self-worth of this species being determined by the size of their biceps, it made sense. Most of them had a classic "little man complex" where muscle was how they protected themselves from the judgment of society, or worse yet, themselves.
Most of them had an experience similar to author Samuel Fussell in his book, Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, when he first saw a picture of Arnold:
"There he stood on the mountain top in Southern California, every muscle bulging to the world as he flexed and smiled and posed. Just the expression on his face indicated that nothing could disturb this man. A victim? Not bloody likely.
"As for his body, here was protection, and loads of it. What were those great chunks of tanned, taut muscle but modern-day armor? Here were breastplates, greaves, and pauldrons aplenty, and all made from human flesh. He had taken stock of his own situation and used the weight room as his smithy. A human fortress—a perfect defense to keep the enemy at bay. What fool would dare storm these foundations?"
But no matter how much "armor" the bodybuilder put on, it couldn't heal the feelings of inadequacy. Alan Klein wrote about it in Little Big Men:
Narcissus fell completely in love with his reflection, the bodybuilder would like to, but can't. Inside that body is a mind that harbors a past in which there is some scrawny adolescent or stuttering child that forever says, 'I knew you when...' the metamorphosis is doomed to remain incomplete. The individual gets a new body, but one so lacking in substance that only constant reassurances from a friendly mirror can allay the fear of not having changed at all.
And all too often, this narcissism manifested itself through a total lack of empathy. Eleanor Payson, author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, describes these narcissists as having "a primitive, underdeveloped sense of self." To compensate, they create a grandiose image to distract them from an inner state that's one of "almost malignant anxiety and emptiness."
In psychological terms, bodybuilders were real poo-poo heads.
But I don't mean to go all Dr. Phil on you when maybe a little Oprah is needed. Instead of continuing to disparage the stereotype of bodybuilders gone by, you get a car! You get a car! Ev-ry-bo-dy gets a car!
...so to speak.
Saying I was a bodybuilder used to embarrass me when I was immature; saying I was a bodybuilder used to embarrass me when bodybuilding was immature.
The caricature of bodybuilding still exists to some extent, but a few things have changed. For one thing, I don't give a rat's ass what lay people think about it, but mainly, bodybuilding has largely morphed into something else altogether: it's left the stage and the pages of silly magazines to go back to where it started, to the dimly-lit garages and back-alley gyms.
It's back to being about preparing yourself for some battle that may never come. It's back to battling the weights; to feeling the pleasant "uncomfortableness" of having trained your ass off. It's back to being connected to your body in a way the normal people can't imagine; of being acutely conscious of how the tightness of your shirt, which, hot damn, is just a little tighter than the last time you wore it.
It's back to being about personal growth, both physical and mental, as opposed to being about public display and plastering over personality disorders.
People are happiest when they're building something, facing new challenges, or mastering some skill, and what is back-alley bodybuilding but facing new challenges and mastering them in order to build something—your body—every single day?
Mastering a lift or movement creates satisfaction, and if you do this over time, bodybuilding itself becomes truly meaningful. Sure, it sounds silly to the person who's never exerted him or herself in anything, let alone the gym, but the rest of us know exactly what it means.
(Please nod solemnly if you agree.)
That grunt we make as we push up that heavy weight—the weight that makes us just a little bit nervous—is an affirmation of sorts that says, "Up yours, universe. This is one thing I control, and every rep is my version of a foot up your infinite ass."
Hell, that grunt is virtually Klingon and it means something like, "If it is in your way, knock it down."
As back-alley bodybuilders, we take smug satisfaction in knowing that a lot of our practices, a lot of the "experimental physiology" we figured out in the last few years is now totally (almost) mainstream and being recommended by physicians and being practiced by Joe Everyman.
We told them about fish oil and functional fatty acids years ago; we told them about the benefits of Testosterone replacement; we told them about manipulating carbohydrates to change body comp; we told them about the benefits of protein; we told them all kinds of stuff we're only now starting to read about in medical journals and the popular press. Hell, we practically told them about the birds and bees:
"If you tickle a fitness model precisely here, she will respond with glee and in 97.6 percent of cases, she will drop her panties."
Okay, that last one hasn't made the journals yet, but it will by God, it will.
A complete list of the things back-alley bodybuilding foresaw would have you scrolling down the page for a long time.
But never mind that, lest we get too much into the chest-puffery that used to make me embarrassed about bodybuilding.
Here is what bodybuilding does for someone:
It builds strength of character, strength of body, knowledge of yourself and your own limitations, a quiet confidence in being able to face any challenge no matter how daunting; one that carries over to anything you might do.
And none of that is anything to be embarrassed about.
"Every time I get a tattoo, it's a little f**k you
to anyone who tells me not to."
The definitive walk of shame.
What were those great chunks of tanned,
taut muscle but modern-day armor?
T NATION tickle-researchers at work.
Ev-ery-body gets a car!
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