Tuesday, January 6, 2009

rethinking the beef cake: weight lifting and the regulation of male bodies

I suppose it all began that first day I sat in a small office for my fitness consultation. I was very adamant in my goals. "I want to be strong," I said. "Very strong. I want to be able to do pull ups and one-armed push ups. I don't care about weight loss. I want to be strong."

I was unprepared for what I was asked next. The personal training manager, for being so overly-bulky and bulgy and unnaturally muscular, I thought would take my request for granted. Instead, he asked me "why?" I stammered a bit, admittedly confused. "I want to be healthy and strong," I insisted.

This was not enough. "Everyone has an emotional experience that makes them want to be strong. What was yours?"

I was shocked. That was rather self-aware of him. So I did what any other extremely blunt and very open person would do--I gave him a scoop of the old rocky road and truncated my own shaky past into a few sappy but truthful sentences. It was early in the morning, I had been ambushed, and was feeling the pressure of law school applications; I was not particularly prepared for a mini-therapy session. Don't tear up, don't tear up, I told myself. Perhaps I expected a callous or uneducated response--an "oh" at least. Instead, I met understanding and support. And there in that tiny personal training office, I had my first emotional exchange with a beef cake. Who knew? I was fascinated.

Now that my ambitions had been stripped to some sort of psychological hang up (but then again, isn't everything?), we dove into our first session. While the personal training I encountered in the past was more ball exercises and body weight maneuvers, if I wanted to get super strong, I was told that we would have to go "old school"--"none of that ball shit." For the first time in my life, I encountered physical strain that no yoga, ballet, kickboxing or cardio could prepare me for: repetitive and heavy lifting. After a fourth rep of assisted pull ups, I actually wanted to die, cry, vomit and fall over at once. More surprising then feelings of imminent death, however, was my ginormous trainer, who all at once assumed a culturally deemed maternal role of nurturing and support to combat my swelling tears and groans as I fought to reach the bar. Did I really pay for 36 of these in advance? This was one of the most difficult exertions of my life.

I looked at the sweating, bulky men around me (who, from a gendered perspective, disproportionately and egregiously dominate the lifting section of the gym), and I got off my high horse. Before this first experience, I (the alleged humanist, no less) would have written them off as beefy d-bags. But now I was beginning to see weight lifting as something else--an art form that, if executed properly, requires dedication, skill, and control. I developed an appreciation of isolating and flexing those esoteric back muscles. I understood the rewarding feeling that comes from getting something right, and getting through a hard set. Then it began to sink in. The stigma of the "beef cake" is extremely stereotypical, disenfranchising, and ignorant of the reality of weight lifting. I felt a little guilty. Shouldn't I have learned this lesson from the social stigma that casts eating disorder victims as stupid and shallow? There is much more going on here.

So I began to observe and nonchalantly interview. I have to say, my own initial stereotype of the emotionally primitive "hyper-masculine" douche was soon dismissed by warmth, fun, and conversations around the gym. The more I probed, the more I realized that themes of control, perfectionism, discipline, self-improvement, escapism and physical proportionality that accompanied the body building experience mirrored the same themes that plague victims of anorexia and bulimia. While lifting can be social in that a group of people--likely men--will meet and work together, it can also be very isolating. One interviewee revealed that he lifts alone because no one is as dedicated as he is. Similarly, eating disorder victims--likely girls and women--can restrict, purge, or exercise in groups for support...or they can completely withdraw and go at it alone.

In discussing the perceived "mismatch" of his body, my trainer explained how his naturally larger legs always seemed too big for his body, and so the pursuit of matching drove his upper-body lifting experience. My mind went back to the testimony of an anorectic friend, who explained her stomach was just too big for her legs and arms.

I am not trying to say that body building is the same as an eating disorder. Clearly, eating disorders are far more serious and deadly at that. Body building at its most extreme and obsessive form, accompanied by steroid use, begins to compete in terms of danger. However, it is quite striking to note how aspirations of rigidity, control, perfectionism and addictive/compulsive behavior--not to mention certain psychological contexts and emotional experiences--are mediated through culture and gendered relations of power, and largely find themselves regulating male and female bodies in different (and opposite) ways.

1 comment:

The Obama Generation Supporter said...

very interesting parallels - my cousin once said that when he weight lifts he feels as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The only difference is, he is the one in control - he doesn't let the weight ("of the world," metaphorically speaking) to control him.

One could argue this is similar to an anorexic yearning a sense of control and stability over their world (which some try to achieve through purging), but I think weight lifting is a much healthier alternative absent steroid use, etc.