The first duty in life is to assume a pose.
What the second is, no one has yet discovered. (Oscar Wilde)
I’ve been growing for four years now. You can see it looking at my legs. My quads bulge over my kneecaps at the joint. You can see it looking at my shoulders, broader than those of my male friends. When I reach my arms out to the side my lats jut out from behind my boobs, which, always small, now barely deserve the designation.
I didn’t mean to put on weight when I started lifting. I’ve never been dainty, and skinny only once, but if you’d have told 19-year-old me that I’d ever have arms as big as these I would have started to cry. Throughout my life, like most women, I’ve been conditioned to nurse a perpetual and well-sublimated desire to lose weight – not pick it up – expressed through various “health” and “fitness” endeavors. When I started weightlifting, I was terrified of bulking, of stacking on muscle mass that would obscure my only-just feminine shape. But a trove of online articles about lifting-while-female assured me that I had nothing to worry about. Sure, there were those bodybuilding she-hulks, broad-shouldered and washboard-abbed, at the extreme fringes of the sport. Most women though, the articles explained, (the Instagram gym babes and fitfluencers I would soon resemble) didn’t lift to build mass – they lifted to shape, tone, and define their bodies. Relieved, I picked up the weights.
Bodybuilding, or lifting for looks, or the use of progressive resistance exercise to build muscle for aesthetic purposes, entered the collective consciousness in the 1970s, carried into the mainstream on the broad shoulders of Austrian-American iron prodigy Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his prime, the “Austrian Oak” stood 190 centimeters tall at around 105 kilograms, with arms 22 centimeter in circumference – as thick as the average thigh – making him one of the biggest bodybuilders of his time. Photos from his competition days, mercifully grainy, have preserved Arnie’s enormous, overbuilt body at it’s peak: an impossible but oddly tidy assemblage of ballooning muscles under tightly stretched skin, at once tanned and translucent, and marbleized by protruding veins.
Competition bodybuilders still look like this today, as if someone had inflated a classic Greek sculpture with air to reveal a fine-grained web of tissue and fiber beneath the stone. Most bodybuilders train everyday for hours to achieve this look, segmenting their body into parts, limbs, and muscles for optimal performance, optimal recovery, and optimal results. They learn to isolate muscles whose existence most of us are blissfully unaware of, breaking them down through weight overload and rigorous repetition, and then command them to grow back bigger. They learn to count their macros (macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates), add ominous-sounding nutritional supplements to their protein shakes (Creatine, BCAA, Glutamine, L-Theanine, et cetera), and decide on the proper steroid cycle for their muscle goals. A 100 to 150 milligram injection of Testosterone Cypionate or Enanthate every two days is a good place to start, I’ve been told. The fact that Arnold’s modern heirs, such as eight-time Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman, are so much bigger than he ever was is owed less to superior gym techniques than to a better understanding of the effects and interactions of certain types and doses of steroids.
These days, people in the bodybuilding community talk about steroid use more openly, but many professional brands and competitions still deny their existence altogether. On bodybuilding.com, an online bodybuilding resource managed by a supplement retailer (my bible in the early days of my weightlifting journey), the s-word isn’t mentioned once. It’s all hard work, grit, and dedication. And I was dedicated alright. I started with a three-day split, six days a week, built around the three big compound movements (bench press, squat, deadlift) and complemented by accessory exercises, cardio, and HIIT training. It was exhilarating to see my body change. In the first weeks, of course, in ways only noticeable by myself: a tighter stomach, a bigger butt, stronger wrists. But soon enough, in ways that others noticed. Every few months when I visited my hometown, my family would remark on my continued transformation with mock concern and genuine bewilderment. More than once they ended their strained compliments in a “but”: But don’t you think it’s enough now?
But it wasn’t enough. By the time my family noticed my body’s changes, I was long converted. It wasn’t just about how lifting made me look, it was about how it made me feel. As I kept getting bigger, I kept minding less. At the gym the constant drumming of my body dysphoria faded into the background. Suddenly, the threat of developing massive biceps and bulging thighs didn’t sound all that scary anymore. If anything, it sounded kind of hot.
Bodybuilders put so much effort into crafting the appearance of their flesh that the aesthetics surrounding the sport can only play a secondary role. Most gyms look like a tired set designer’s attempt at an alien breeding station (gray, chrome, ovals), or a steampunk underground bunker (steel, iron, chalk) sprinkled with motivational wall-quotes, inspiring stock photos of other gym-goers, and advertising for nutritional supplements. What unites gym aesthetics is an emphasis on raw materials (metal, brick, wood), and bold color schemes (red, black, yellow, and any other bright neon color), assembled according to a kind of testosterone-orientated feng-shui. Unless, of course, the gym is women-only, in which case the equipment is pink or turquoise, and strives to create an all-around "soft" and "non-threatening" atmosphere.
Typical bodybuilder fashion both in and out of the gym is either functional or tight, but preferably both. Anything that emphasizes the hard-earned muscles counts as a good look. The bodybuilder’s best-beloved accessories are weightlifting belts, wrist wraps, and exercise tape – not just to treat and prevent real and imagined injuries, but to exude an air of professional toughness. Maybe the aesthetics of bodybuilding are best summarized by the product design of many of the supplements that are a staple in the lifting diet: huge, aggressively colored plastic containers with bold lettering, announcing the mega strength-building and hardcore performance-boosting properties of the product in the loudest possible way.
For all the combative posturing and talk of pain and discipline, bodybuilding appears to be fueled by profusely hedonistic impulses. First, there’s the endless consumption: even during off-season, professional male bodybuilders consume around 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day to maintain mass. Then, there’s the colossal waste of energy. The solipsistic squandering of manpower at the gym almost makes a mockery of the physical strain that defined work before the 1950s. And finally, there’s the frivolous pursuit of expansion itself, something I’m inclined to argue only men could have come up with. Who else would have dared to leisurely claim such a preposterous amount of space for themselves?
Even in our ostensibly progressive present, with its girl bosses and body positive ad campaigns, gaining mass still seems like a bizarre hobby for a woman – as my friends and family’s well-meaning taunts often remind me. Toned gymbabes are everywhere, but female bodybuilders competing in similar categories as their male counterparts are regarded with suspicion and ridicule. Not least because steroid use has a masculinizing effect on the female body, helping it to build ‘unnatural’ amounts of muscle and stripping it of characteristic fat deposits. Yet to the same extent that professional female bodybuilders strive for a traditionally masculine body composure, professional male bodybuilders could also be construed as striving for traditionally feminine shapes.
From afar, what’s the difference between a ballooning muscle and a supple curve?
While men have historically often sought to control women’s bodies, controlling one’s own body for aesthetic purposes was, until recently, considered a primarily feminine pursuit. Extreme bodybuilders, whether male or female, thus inhabit a kind of hermaphroditic space, just as they inhabit so many other in-betweens: man and machine, destruction and creation, body and landscape.
I’m a bodybuilder in the sense that I’ve claimed these in-betweens as my home. After four years and thousands of sets, reps, and pounds, I acquiesce: I am the she-hulk I once loathed – and it’s glorious. I’m a bodybuilder, to the extent to which I owe this physique to exercise and use exercise to build my physique. I’m also a bodybuilder in the way that all of us are bodybuilders.
Because even if one rejects the gospel itself, there’s no denying that all of modern exercise derives from bodybuilding. Zumba, Spinning, Pilates, any other app-powered home workout – they all just emphasize different aspects of the core principle, of designing your body through physical intervention. They tweak the bodybuilding formula in service of different lifestyles and aesthetics, and make it more palatable to consumer groups who don’t identify as ‘gym bros’. It’s bodybuilding for those who want to fit better into their clothes rather than burst out of them, but it’s bodybuilding nonetheless.
There’s an easy story to tell about our growing cultural obsession with physical exercise. Social media has made us painfully aware of our physical shortcomings and incentivized good looks to an unprecedented degree. Body is capital and we’re encouraged to optimize ours to maximize returns. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. At peak consumption, material status symbols no longer suffice as signifiers of worth and wealth. Now, gramming casual snaps of your ‘healthy’ toned body is the best way to flaunt your assets. Not only do you have money to invest in a gym membership and fitness equipment, you have the luxury of leisure time you use to work out, the educational resources to stay fit and healthy, and the ‘self-discipline’ – or freedom from actual discipline – to pull through. Bodybuilding is no longer limited to bronzed Gymcels contorting themselves for a jury of has-beens in run-down California convention centers. It’s no longer just lifting weights and counting macros. It’s the whole complex of workout crazes, gym apps, juice cleanses, chemical peelings, injections, fillers, implants, eyelash extensions, brow filling, and all the other means we use to enhance our physical selves.
But the story of exercise obsession, to the extent that it figures in the post-postmodern bodybuilding craze, is not that simple. That’s because exercise in itself, unlike lip fillers or juice cleanses, but not unlike sex and heroin, can be immediately and intensely pleasurable. For many exercisers, what starts out in pursuit of aesthetics therefore quickly turns into an addictive, quasi-spiritual experience. It’s like starting to smoke because it makes you look cool (and you know it still does). Give it enough time and you’ll come to appreciate the taste. And then you’ll come to crave it.
When I enter my CrossFit gym, my brain is instantly awash in endorphins. The intensity of the workouts grinds my body and mind into a nothingness that feels transcendental. The addictive quality of exercise is illustrated by the fact that apparently, when you show exercise junkies an image of someone working out, their brain lights up in the same way as when you show a cigarette to a smoker. The spiritual quality of exercise is evidenced by my casual observation that talking to non-exercisers about exercise feels like talking to an atheist about faith. If you don’t do it, you just don’t get it.
The fact that there’s so few worthwhile philosophical inquiries into the world of bodybuilding might have less to do with a lack of intellectual appeal but more to do with the impossibility of verbalizing the experience at its center. As an outsider, you simply lack emotional access. As an insider, you know describing the feeling is as hopeless as describing an orgasm to someone who’s never had one. Just like with meditation or other forms of spiritual practice, you can write meaningfully only about the mechanics of lifting. Tuck your pelvis, extend fully at the top, push on the outbreath. In that sense, ‘Do you even lift, bro?’ might be less of a personal attack than an inquiry into the possibilities of communication. As Kathy Acker observed in her essay on bodybuilding, The Language of the Body, this communication is largely nonverbal – another way in which lifting resembles sex, or rather, masturbation. No wonder then that Arnold once described the feeling he gets from bodybuilding as “coming day and night”.
I haven’t come in weeks. Since COVID-19 restrictions forced gyms to close in mid-March, the heaviest thing I’ve lifted is a sixteen-kilogram kettlebell that I panic-ordered off the internet within the first few days of the lockdown. I’ve tried to get the most out of it. I’m running and training with my go-to bodyweight exercise app. But it’s not the same. At night, I find myself fantasizing about deadlifting a really heavy barbell. I imagine the ribbed iron pressing against my palms, the tension of my muscles as they anticipate the exertion, the smell of sweat and rubber in the gym. My body has shrunk from the lack of strength training, but it’s nothing against the mental deterioration caused by this forced hiatus. Without lifting, I feel a little more anxious, a little more ugly, a little more vulnerable to the entropy of the universe.
The relationship between physical exertion and muscle growth is not perfectly linear. But the link between effort and gains – both physical and mental – is as neatly causal as any you’ll come across on the twisted paths of earthly existence, and the rewards are visceral and immediate. You sweat, you grow. I’m not suggesting that you can change the world by working out. But you can change the stubborn vessel through which you experience the world. At the very least, you can change your experience of the vessel. To me, that’s a sweet relief. It’s a taste of control from the passenger seat of life. It’s a bit of order amid the chaos. It’s a lot of fun.