Stephanie Convery is a Melbourne-based writer specialising in criticism, cultural commentary, fiction and non-fiction. She writes regularly for Overland on topics of feminism, politics, literature and art, but she has also appeared in New Matilda, the Drum, Meanjin and others. Her personal blog is Ginger and Honey. Last year Stephanie completed her PhD in Creative Writing, and her first book Big River. She has also appeared at the Emerging Writer’s Festival and Cherchez la Femme. Overland‘s David Brun chatted to her about her essay ‘Pump’ in the latest issue of Overland.
You mention that bodybuilding is largely responsible for changing perceptions of what constitutes a ‘masculine’ body. What other factors might be at play?
The mass-marketing structures of Hollywood and the sheer commerciality of the mainstream film industry have had a massive role to play in the changing images of masculinity. The immediate forerunner of Schwarzenegger and his fellows was the Strong Man of the circus and the freak show. Charles Atlas, for example, who is often referred to as the father of modern bodybuilding, actually performed in a Coney Island Circus side-show. So that performative element to mammoth muscularity was already there, all the way back at the turn of the century. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when the cultural and financial monolith of Hollywood stepped in, that bodybuilding as we know it today really took off.
This particular conception of a masculine body dovetails neatly with a very conservative notion of the masculine social role as hunter and protector, strong leader, head of the family unit and so on. It’s not quite as simple as muscles = (conservative) man – I’ve explored some of those complexities in the article itself, particularly regarding the homoeroticism and homophobia that has accompanied bodybuilding as a sport – but those two portraits have a lot in common with each other. This gives the image of a muscular man a lot of currency with a particular conservative narrative regarding gender relations.
The rise in the popularity of bodybuilding also coincided with a boom in the fitness industry. What this meant was that exercise (as distinct from organised sport) began to transition out of the realm of medicine and into the market. And the fitness industry has a very specific product to sell: a stronger/leaner/more muscular/more attractive you. One of their methods of selling that is a further proliferation of these images.
How far did you take bodybuilding – is it something that you are still practicing?
Yes, I am still practicing it. I started out simply using machine weights sporadically at the gym. Then, after the FEM Camp, out of curiosity more than anything, I made some small changes to my diet and started protein supplementation. Finally, after attending an actual bodybuilding competition as a spectator, I decided to throw myself in the deep end. Immersive research.
I bought a tailored training program from a personal trainer who specialised in bodybuilding, which committed me to four hour-long weights/resistance training sessions and two cardio sessions (alternating between sprints and long-distance running) a week. I completely restructured my diet: I gave up coffee, sugar, heavily processed foods and foods with high levels of fat and salt; I switched to (mostly) low GI carbohydrates; I more or less tripled my protein intake; I regulated my servings of food; and instead of eating three times a day, I now eat five or six times a day, or every 2-3 hours.
Initially I did all this by way of experimentation: I wanted to feel for myself what a professional bodybuilder went through when training for a competition. I didn’t start with any particular time limit in mind, and I fully expected to last a couple of weeks at the most. I presumed my body would change somewhat, but I didn’t know how much.
What I didn’t expect was that my body would respond so dramatically and positively. I noticed the difference after little more than a week. I have tonnes more energy. I sleep so well. I run faster and I feel stronger – I am stronger, and because of that, I find myself enjoying physical activities all the more. My body feels clean. It feels like it’s running at optimum. I feel infinitely capable. So while I deviate from the routine every now and then, I keep finding myself veering back towards the weight rack, measuring out my oats and egg whites in the morning, replenishing my protein powder supply. I’m not doing it for research any more – I’m doing it because I like it.
What do you want readers to take away from this piece?
I wanted to explore a community, a practice, a sport, an exercise subculture that is often the subject of ridicule and derision, but which has actually been profoundly influential in western sport practices, and which I think is actually quite fascinating. Part of the fascination lies in the way the community and the industry performs gender identity, which throws up all sorts of knotty questions about body image as opposed to body function, about what is normal, what is natural, and what is healthy or unhealthy.
I also think it’s easy to scorn, judge or dismiss bodybuilders as delusional meatheads, and bodybuilding itself as being massively damaging to people’s self esteem, and fostering essentially negative relationships between people and their bodies. But what I experienced suggested the reality isn’t nearly as clear cut as that, and part of the objective for this piece was to investigate that complexity, to tease out those contradictions and untangle those knots. If the reader walks away with anything, I hope it is an appreciation for the variety of motivations and contexts in which people might be drawn to the sport, and some idea of how engaging with it might be able to help us unravel some of those persistent questions about gender, politics and the body.