PRINT February 1992


the Law of Physiques

BODYBUILDING HAS ALWAYS APPEALED to teens. At the back of any DC comic, just as the bright pulp daydream gives way, a slick gray photogravure has traditionally prolonged the fantasy for just an instant longer, as Superman appears in human form to sell a fitness regimen. The bodybuilder—a male fantasy of sexual potency and physical intimidation—seduces the alienated 98-pound teen.

Is the boy’s response erotic? Heterosexual bodybuilders deny it with vehemence (they feel embarrassed and misunderstood); homosexuals think otherwise. But even a muscle-happy gay teen will sometimes describe physiques in terms that are alternately erotic and nonerotic, which gives one pause. John Fox, in The Boys on the Rock, 1984, describes a sexual experience with an older, more physically developed friend:

He wrapped his hands around my waist and squeezed. His fingers almost met. He moved to the obliques and I ran along the raised veins on his forearms. I reached up under his arms and squeezed his lats. . . . [After sex] we laid there squished suctioned together, me trying not to think of anything, massaging lats, deltoids and everything.

Muscles are sexy, this fiction seems to say; but even so the narrator’s passionate intensity frequently gives way to absentmindedness (“me trying not to think of anything”). This boy “gets into muscle” the same way other boys “get into” waxing their cars—as a way of escaping, through intense mechanical focus, the free-floating anxiety of adolescence.

Some people only discover this escape after becoming adults. In Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, 1991 (paperback, 1992), Samuel Wilson Fussell describes bodybuilding as a means of psychic protection: his new muscles were “physical palisades and escarpments [that] served as a rocky boundary [and] permitted no passage.” Safe inside, Fussell cultivated his aches and pains as a monk might cultivate roses.

Leaving his job at Random House to lift weights at the Vanderbilt YMCA, the Oxford-educated Fussell soon graduated from universal gym to free weights, from “strutting” in the East 50s and an apartment in Queens to the Shangri-La Fitness Training Center in Southern California, where he supported his habit for iron and steroids on a trust fund parents (dad, essayist Paul; mom, cookbook author Betty) hoped he would spend on a house. An eight-page photo insert attests to his success in gaining bulk if not better looks; the text, for its part, indicates an unabating psychic misery, culminating in the last-page decision to write a book. (To the two subtextual metaphors of masochistic preoccupation used to describe bodybuilding throughout—compulsive masturbation and drug addiction—we may now add a third: autobiography.)

Fussell says his pursuit of bodily perfection had nothing to do with his sexuality, though he admits gay friends thought otherwise. His own pursuit of a well-muscled ideal came, he says, purely from the need for psychic self-obliteration: “This shell that I created wasn’t meant just to keep people at bay. [It] was laboriously constructed to keep things inside too. . . . My own body permitted. . . no hint of a deeper self—a self I couldn’t bear.”

During his four years of lifting, Fussell had no sexual relations with others. Bodybuilding was the physical release of choice. A single romantic encounter fizzled well before orgasm. “Muscle isolation didn’t permit [dating],” he writes. “To date meant to admit frailty, to acknowledge the fact that I was less than complete. . . . None of us [bodybuilders] had meaningful relationships with anything other than iron. . . . I couldn’t go through with it.”

In the end, Muscle isn’t a sexy book, it’s an embarrassing one—embarrassing because the psychic self-laceration of this bodybuilder/autobiographer seems, in the end, so questionably motivated: “I had at last achieved the metamorphosis. What my father called ‘an atavistic nightmare,’ what Clive James called ‘a condom filled with walnuts,’ what my mother called ‘a cautionary conceit,’ I had become. A bodybuilder at last.” One wonders at a man who enjoys writing such things about himself. So much self-mockery suggests a (tortured) self-love. A book about oneself, after all. Such a clever one. And those bikini-bottomed photos in the photo-insert.

Speaking of photographs, it was the cover photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger on Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, 1977, that first demonstrated the transformational power of bodybuilding to Fussell. But it’s in the film Pumping Iron, 1977, that Schwarzenegger appears at his best: both bully and clown, prankster and ape. Of all the bodybuilders in this quasidocumentary, he alone seems to understand the need to simulate mental toughness in much the way his physique simulates supremacy of the flesh. He’s all show. A screen natural: utterly dishonest, quite straightforwardly a creep—and for that reason, wonderful fun.

Arnold’s most compelling lie is his equation of “the Pump” (the dizziness caused by heavy lifting) with orgasm: “It feels fantastic. Like coming. So you can imagine how lucky I am. I’m coming in the gym, I’m coming at home. . . .I’m coming day and night.” From the hangdog expressions of the boys around him, however, you sense this isn’t entirely true—just another psych-out, just the class bully distinguishing himself from underlings. In fact, “the Pump” is less like an orgasm, more like a postcoital cigarette. But Arnold’s lie is fascinating all the same. Not to mention the cornerstone of his career.

Like “the Pump,” the Schwarzenegger biography is no more than an immense advertisement for the self, about as true to real-life experience as Charles Atlas’ letter to the 98-pound weakling. But both Arnold and Pumping Iron make one thing perfectly clear: Schwarzenegger is a breed apart. The majority of weightlifters we encounter through these two works are, like Fussell, men in full retreat from life. If the film tells us anything about bodybuilding, it’s simply that the state Fussell describes so well (self-loathing subdued through self-inflicted pain) is hardly unique. One need only see the incredibly fragile, uncertain look on Lou Ferrigno’s face as his adoring father tells him in Pumping Iron, “You know Louie, you look like something Michelangelo could of cut out,” to know: this isn’t funny, it’s very, very sad.

Fussell’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction memoir is not the only recent title to look askance at the bodybuilding subculture. Harry Crews tells a phenomenally entertaining story in Body, a 1990 novel about a woman bodybuilder, Shereel Dupont, née Dorothy Turnipseed, and her encounter with her disavowed back-country family on the eve of a championship competition in Miami Beach.

Interestingly enough, the Turnipseeds and the bodybuilders aren’t immune to each other’s charms. When Shereel’s enormously fat sister Earline spots muscleman Billy Bat flexing by the pool with Shereel’s archrival, Detroit black muscle-woman Marvella Washington, her first impulse is to tackle him and give him mouth-to-mouth. Shereel’s ex-fiancé thinks Billy Bat “a tad deformed,” but in the same breath describes Marvella as “a prime nigger wench.” Billy ends up seducing bonbon-munching Earline in a bubble bath, supporting Mrs. Turnipseed’s contention that “menfolk. . . like to have something to root around in, something big and soft that wears easy.” “He had always been married to bodybuilding,” Crews notes laconically, “but when he entered [Earline] he got a divorce.”

Still, the psychic state of most bodybuilders is a far cry from Crews’ fun-and-games in Miami Beach. Perhaps the best evocation of bodybuilding masochism can be found in Physical Culture, 1989, a short and highly idiosyncratic novel by Hillary Johnson, a woman writing in the voice of a man. Pain, Johnson’s masochist narrator John explains, is an end in itself. It doesn’t exactly transport, just keeps you preoccupied. For a man uncomfortable with moment-by-moment existence, pain provides a preferable alternative. John’s story describes several masochistic encounters, encounters that bear a striking resemblance, in their evocation of psychic isolation, to the physical isolation Fussell found through bodybuilding: “When I first undressed in front of a sadist,” John thinks during one such experience, “I was afraid, not of what he was about to do to me, but of what he would think—until I realized that he, too, was held wholly captive within himself. For the first time in my life, I felt at ease, trusting my own opacity. . . thinking: this must be how normal people feel all the time.”

Tracing this impulse to its roots, John recalls a childhood episode in which, anxious and fretful, he escaped a family reunion by locking himself in an upstairs closet: “I . . . smashed my thumb with a. . . hammer. . . . For as long as my thumb throbbed, I didn’t think about people knowing anything about me. I was in too much pain to care. . . . Years later I made tiny razor slits inside my armpits, where the sting of sweat would remind me—relieve me—for days. . . my own portable, irrevocable privacy.”

How, in the end, does one “read” a bodybuilder? Perhaps, after reading through these contemporary literary testaments, one should turn back to the tortured body itself. If the bodybuilder can be said to aspire to classical perfection (Papa Ferrigno’s “like something Michelangelo could of cut out”), perhaps what he ends up with is something more baroque: a turgid form less expressive of a natural ideal than of the desire to transcend nature altogether—and so, through an abstraction of the body, to give a representation of spiritual agony. Bodybuilding, as Fussell says, “the willful distortion of muscle tissue to imitate the extremes suggested by real life,” signifies, I think, a state of imbalance we’ve all known, and perhaps felt nowhere more strongly than in adolescence, say while reading a superheroes comic: the secret desire for power and glory struggling against an equally strong desire to hide, closeted in pain.

Justin Spring is a writer who lives in New York.