‘Real men’ didn’t always have muscles. The buff hunks of Hollywood action movies, the biceps and flat stomachs expected of our romantic heartthrobs: all that is the legacy of a certain group of men (and a few very tough women) who hung out at Venice Beach, California, in the 1960s and 1970s. At one specific gym, in fact: Gold’s.
When Gold’s opened in 1965, gyms were hardly even a thing. Those that did exist were dank, dingy and barely reputable. The house of muscle that Joe Gold built, however, was roomy and breezy and right on the beach, with its back door opening out onto the ocean. It was also exclusive: no freeloaders or casual passers-by could train. Serious lifters only.
In one way, that was a legacy of Joe Gold himself, whose enterprise was driven solely by his love of weights. In an in-depth profile on the history of Muscle Beach for US publication Men’s Journal, Paul Solotaroff explained how Gold would often waive the token membership fees and help out the men he took under his wing. But exclusivity also functioned as self-preservation, because it was tough being a bodybuilder back then. Lifting for four or five hours a day didn’t leave much time for work, romance or other hobbies. Plus there was the social stigma. Solotaroff’s interviewees recalled attitudes at the time:
‘I’d go to the beach, and they’d give me the wolf whistle, guys on a blanket wanting to fight,’ says Eddie Giuliani, the 1974 Mr America (short division) and one of the early legends at Gold’s. ‘Nobody liked guys with the lumps back then. They thought we were all morons and fairies.’ George Butler [says], ‘I always liked to walk behind Arnold in the street so I could check out people’s reactions as we passed. They’d point at him and sneer: ‘God, look at that fucking freak. What a clown.’
I first became fascinated by bodybuilding after reading Muscle, Sam Fussell’s memoir. I had never been sporty as a teenager, but I had taken up running during my PhD to get away from my desk and found, much to my own astonishment, that I enjoyed it. It became, in many ways, the antithesis of my postgrad work: in contrast to the hours spent hunched over books, running presented an opportunity to get out into the air, to feel my heart beating out of exhilaration rather than anxiety.
In the months after submitting my PhD, I entered a series of fun runs and half marathons, partly because sport enabled me to forget about my thesis, but mainly because running cheered me up. The depression that had settled around me like a fog since the final year of my doctorate thinned only in the euphoria of physical exertion. As part of preparation for Tough Mudder – which I insisted on signing up for, to the amusement and horror of friends – I’d taken up weight training. The men and women who hung out at the weights rack at my local gym always intrigued me. Perhaps it was the legacy of all that time in the academy: in spite of myself, I couldn’t help developing a fascination with the politics of exercise, and of bodybuilding in particular. Watching those men lined up next to one another in front of the mirror, peering at their biceps, carefully checking the definition of their abs, I was unexpectedly reminded of a scene from the Tina Fey/Mark Waters teen comedy Mean Girls, in which the Plastics, a clique of school queen bees, stand in front of the mirror and scrutinise their appearances.
‘My hips are huge,’ says one.
‘I hate my calves,’ says another.
‘At least you guys can wear halters,’ says the third. ‘I have man-shoulders.’
The scene pivots on the main character’s recognition that this is expected feminine behaviour, that even the most attractive and popular girls systematically and almost ritualistically scrutinise their own bodies for faults to remedy.
And yet here at the weights rack, where the walls practically sweat brash masculinity, a bunch of men were doing exactly the same thing. What did this mean?
In the early days, most bodybuilders were broke. If you were serious about muscle, you didn’t have time for a regular job. It was impossible to make a living from the competition circuit – bodybuilding tournaments, such as they were, paid out a paltry sum – so even the biggest stars of the era took on crappy jobs to pay the rent. Lou Ferrigno, the 1973 Mr America and Mr Universe and the future Incredible Hulk, was a sheet metal worker. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the single most famous bodybuilder ever and a Gold’s Gym member since 1968, worked as a bricklayer.
There was a seedier side-trade, too. Muscle may have only just been on the verge of catching the eye of the mainstream public, but it had attracted a different audience for some time already: other men.
A builder’s body was his primary focus – and his biggest asset. It’s not clear how many bodybuilders were involved in the sex industry, but reports suggest it wasn’t unknown for a guy to duck off for a couple of hours between sets to shoot a skin flick or pose for a gay magazine. In 1972, when entrepreneur, bodybuilder and occasional porn actor Ken Sprague bought Gold’s Gym, changed its membership policy and opened its doors to the public, the already flourishing side-trade in sex became even more prevalent. Solotaroff writes:
Calls would come in on the pay phone at Gold’s from people seeking to book a ‘model’ for a shoot. Limos would pull up in the alley out back, and world-famous bodybuilders would split for an hour, then return to finish their hack-squats. ‘We had some tense moments, given the macho reputations of the guys who were hustling,’ says Sprague. One time he overheard a former Mr America being taunted by his buddies for booking dates. ‘He yelled, “Well I certainly don’t kiss them!”’ Sprague says, then adds, with a laugh, that the taunters were often up to their necks in whoring, too.
The industry didn’t really begin shaking off the stigma of the sex trade until 1977. The pivot point was George Butler’s now-classic film Pumping Iron and its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a time when muscles were seen as freakish, and bodybuilding’s links to the underground gay scene were apparent even to the general public, Pumping Iron was careful to portray its stars as indisputably heterosexual.
In one scene, Schwarzenegger and some Gold’s members are lying in the California sun, working on their tans, talking about the women they’re interested in. In another, Schwarzenegger is shown modelling for a muscle mag with three giggling young women in bikinis. He hoists one of them, laughing, onto his shoulders and flexes. But perhaps the most memorable moment involves Schwarzenegger talking about how lifting weights compares to having sex.
The most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump … your muscles get a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode any minute … it feels fantastic. It’s as satisfying to me as coming is – having sex with a woman and coming. Can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am, like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym; I’m getting the feeling of coming at home; I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up; and when I pose out in front of five thousand people I get the same feeling. So I am coming day and night. I mean, that’s terrific, right?
Cringe-worthy as it was, Pumping Iron profoundly affected the mainstream American public. It flipped a switch, changing the trajectory of the sport: over the next four decades, the exercise industry would grow exponentially, and bodybuilding would infiltrate all corners of it.
I first saw the poster for Monica Brant’s F.E.M. Camp at Doherty’s Gym.
The CBD branch of Doherty’s loitered in the old bluestone boat sheds in Banana Alley, underneath the train tracks that ran along the Yarra River on the west end of Flinders Street Station. The sign on the door announced: ‘We Never Close!’ Inside, light boxes containing posters of famous bodybuilders, in all their jaw-clenching, oiled-up glistening glory, lined the whitewashed stone walls. Doherty’s had its own distinctive smell – a kind of mustiness mingled with unwashed bodies, dust and sweaty carpet, an odour that oozed out of its ever-open door and into the street. Buses paused outside the establishment for a moment, picking up crowds of people and dropping off dozens of others. Trucks rumbled around the sweeping right-hand turn on the intersection of Queen and Flinders before swinging left to trundle across Queens Bridge, the river glittering beneath.
The poster for the F.E.M. camp – F.E.M. stood for ‘Fun, Education and Motivation’ – was in stark contrast to the others that lined the walls of Doherty’s. It was much smaller, for a start. Also, it was pink. Rather than flexing in the hunched-over, vein-popping bodybuilding stage pose I later learned was called ‘most muscular’, the very shiny, cheery-looking and feminine Brant smiled pleasantly in the promo picture, her hair blown back and her white teeth gleaming. The semi-translucent banner splashed across her six-pack abs announced that, for the first time, a one-day F.E.M. camp would be held in Melbourne, Australia, right there at Doherty’s Gym.
In Muscle, Fussell writes about bodybuilding as a disease – an addiction, with its own highs and lows. You had to fully commit: building became your life, your world. If the lifting high was anything like the running high, I felt perhaps I could understand something of it. But would I feel it, too? And what was it like to be a woman in that world?
I understood that men’s bodybuilding had become mainstream in spite of its bizarre gender issues (which I still hadn’t quite figured out) but women’s bodybuilding remained an utter mystery to me. Cues from Hollywood and MTV suggested that the idealised body type for a woman in the twenty-first century was less the buffed up Linda Hamilton of Terminator 2 or the square-shouldered Elle Macpherson of the 1990s catwalk and more the waifish Natalie Portman or Florence Welch. But that wasn’t what one saw on the bodybuilding stage.
Popular culture portrayed female bodybuilders as looking ‘like men’, but the women I had glimpsed in the gym were a very specific type of fitness fanatic: the kind that offset their rock-hard arms, abs and tiny thighs with boob jobs, curled hair, a full palette of make-up and lashings of fake tan. As a woman who found it an imposition to have to brush my hair before a workout, who was pale, freckled and perpetually hairy-legged, the thought of spending a full day with people like that gave me the heebie-jeebies. But I couldn’t help wondering: what was it really like? Why were these women drawn to building? And what did it mean to be a woman who in many ways defied those conventional standards of femininity and deliberately cultivated muscle?
That night I fired off an email asking for more information.
I arrived at Doherty’s at 9 am sharp and sat down at a plastic table near the protein-packed refrigerator and the coffee machine, listening to the whir of treadmills and clatter of weights from the next room. A train rattled overhead and the building shook.
Despite my cynicism, I found myself very anxious to be perceived as belonging at the F.E.M. camp. If I was going to get to know what drove these women, even a little bit, I couldn’t appear an outsider. So I’d waxed my legs and plucked my eyebrows, bought bright pink running shorts and a loose-fitting purple racerback. I washed, brushed and blow-dried my hair and even applied mascara before making the journey into the CBD for the day. Halfway there, I wondered if the mascara was overkill.
As it turned out, to fit in at a F.E.M. camp I would have needed a full afternoon with a stylist. I looked at the other people sitting at the table and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. They appeared to have spent at least an hour on their hair alone. Their gym clothes were skin-tight and – with the exception of one pair of impossibly tiny blue shorts – black. They were all fully made-up. One woman wore a diamanté-studded pink top, a bubble skirt with boy-leg shorts attached to the underside and false eyelashes.
The last person to arrive was a young woman named Jane. She was short and dark with curly hair (perfectly set and the front raised in a bouffant) although she didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. She sat down next to me. I smiled at her and introduced myself.
‘I’m a bit nervous,’ she admitted.
I nodded in sympathy. ‘Have you ever done anything like this before?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I signed up because I thought I could learn some things, but I don’t really like lifting weights. I’m a bit worried that they’re going to make us do a whole lot of really hard stuff. I was like, oh, I don’t know if I want to go.’
I was thinking the same. My first email query about the camp having been prompted by sheer curiosity, I had idled about following up with a commitment. The payment was $205 and I was poor. And then Brant herself emailed me. I just wanted to check that you were coming on Saturday? Looking forward to meeting u and sharing the day! Mo xoxo.
I had been quite taken by the direct communication. Did famous fitness models usually engage personally in email conversations with members of the public? I’d imagined that perhaps we would hit it off and become friends, go out for a beer afterwards (or, at least, a protein shake) and she would tell me all about her career and motivation and what life was really like as a pro bodybuilder. Maybe I too would end my emails to her xoxo.
Now that I was here, though, I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
When Brant appeared, she was unmistakable. Her hair was long, blonde, expertly curled. It fell loose over her shoulders and down her back, held in place only by a black-and-white bandana. She wore black leggings and a black singlet with the words ‘I Train Like a Girl’ splashed across the bust in silver glitter. She was accompanied by softer-faced woman in a pink tracksuit, who I later found out was also a builder. Her name was Lynda Thoresen, and she had been a competitor on the Canadian Bodybuilding Federation circuit in the early 2000s.
Brant and Thoresen – or Mo and Lynda, as they called themselves – had compiled a two-hour workout regime for us to follow that morning. Warm-ups were first: five minutes of moderate walking on the treadmill. I took the machine next to a woman named Jo. Formerly from Britain, Jo was a runner who had sustained a knee injury, had undergone surgery and had been through five different physiotherapists in recovery. While we were warming up, she asked me why I had come. I told her the truth: I was fascinated by bodybuilding.
She nodded. ‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ she said, conspiratorially. ‘I mean, I’m doing this to learn some new things about fitness and stuff, but those enormous men and women …’ she gestured at the walls, at the pictures of champion (male) builders and their balloon-like muscles. ‘It’s just … unnatural,’ she whispered.
I wondered about that – unnatural. What did it mean? Surely all bodies were more or less ‘made’: shaped by their circumstances, by personal endeavour, by their economic situation and by all sorts of other factors. But the sense that copious muscle was unnatural, whether in a man or a woman, was a common idea about bodybuilders.
How many people did it scare away from the weights rack?
There were seventeen different exercises in Brant’s regime for us that morning, many of them not involving weights at all. We did two circuits of two sets of one minute each.
In the boxing room and the bench press alcove, the walls were scribbled with ‘inspirational’ messages – ‘Why discipline? Because without discipline you have nothing! Go hard or go home!’ – and some admonitions – ‘Do not throw weights at the wall! That means YOU, big guy!’
During the leg workout, Brant had been coming up with her own lines. In the sumo walk: ‘If it’s not hurting, you’re not doing it right!’ Between good mornings and reverse ham curls: ‘Take advantage of the pain!’
And the exercises were hard. I knew I was fit but hadn’t been aware of how much of a routine my body had slipped into. I tried to breathe regularly through the jumping jacks (start with your feet wide, keep your back straight, jump your feet together while holding a weight, repeat) but my legs felt like they were about to fall off. ‘Pain makes you pretty,’ Brant said. Yes, I thought bitterly, and right now I feel like a piston in an industrial beauty machine. Up, down, up, down, up, down.
By the time we reached the core workouts my energy was flagging. I managed three pop-ups (lie on your back with your knees to your chest, roll forward and spring up onto your feet) before collapsing back onto the mat, my chest heaving. My calves were screwed tight, my thighs felt like they’d been sucked dry, I had a stitch in my gut and I was hungry, tired and sweating like a pig. But in spite of that, and perhaps unexpectedly, I found myself on a high. I’d tried everything. The more tired I had become, the harder I had to push myself, and I got through it. I succeeded. I had achieved something. And that felt good.
If the difference between sport and exercise is competition, then it’s hard not to classify the highly competitive championship bodybuilding as a sport. At the same time, bodybuilding is, in many ways, less comparable to, say, football or cycling or even professional diving, than to a beauty pageant. Competitors are judged not by the weights they lift on any given day, nor by their technique in the gym, but on aesthetics: proportion (an even balance of muscle development throughout the body), symmetry, muscle definition and mass, and ‘stage presence’. The judges select the best physique, and thus what begins for the individual in the gym as an attempt to extend their physical capabilities becomes, on the competition stage, a matter of appearance.
For an article on what he calls the ‘gender capital’ of male bodybuilders, sociologist Tristan S Bridges spoke to bodybuilders and powerlifters to understand how both regard masculinity. Powerlifters, who lift for strength, often see bodybuilders’ intense focus on their appearance as, well, kind of girly. Bridges quotes Javier, a powerlifter, who says:
They are always touching each other and checking each other’s bodies and stuff. … I think they’re all just acting like they don’t want to get with other guys … That’s all they talk about though … guys’ bodies and different parts and stuff. Nasty! … They try to pretend and be all man and all that, but they mostly be shaving their legs and wearing thongs … it’s just gay. I don’t know what else to say.
In a weird fashion, the masculinity of bodybuilding means pushing feminine tropes to the extreme. An almost-pathological obsession with body fat, for example, is usually understood as quintessentially womanly. Yet no-one diets as hard as bodybuilders. Muscle definition of competition-winning standard can only be achieved by eliminating subcutaneous fat, the layer of adipose tissue (fat cells) that lies just below the skin. Because of the excessive amount of gym work that bodybuilders do and the strict diet controls required to build so much muscle, their subcutaneous fat is generally very low anyway. In the lead-up to a competition, however, builders will typically drop their calorific intake well below their basal metabolic rate to deplete as much fat as they can, leaving as little padding between their skin and muscle as possible.
That is, after a bulk-building regimen fuelled by mountains of protein, carbohydrates and energy expenditure, they crash diet. The results are the vascular biceps, shredded abs and rippling pectorals that you see on stage. By way of a comparison: the average athlete competes with approximately 16 per cent body fat; a bodybuilder takes to the stage with only 2 to 4 per cent.
What, then, to make of female bodybuilders? What happens when women take on an activity in which men have masculinised femininity?
Historian Ludmilla Jordanova argues that during the eighteenth century, social and cultural differences between the sexes became theoretically grounded in biology. One result was the feminisation of the nervous system and the masculinisation of musculature. Fast forward to the 1980s and the height of the feminist movement. The Miss Olympia competition (now called Ms Olympia) was established in 1980. As the competition grew, so did the size of the women. The female ‘physique’ competitors of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Australian Bev Francis, Brazilian Reneé Toney and American Lenda Murray, were the size of trucks. Their capacity for muscular development directly challenged conventional understandings of female physicality and strength – and the desired aesthetic of the sport.
In this respect, bodybuilding provides an extraordinary illustration of what Judith Butler calls the ‘performativity’ of gender. In her essay ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, Butler, after Simone de Beauvoir, writes:
[T]o be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman’, to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.
Gender is, Butler argues, not simply a structure imposed by society and inscribed upon the individual. Rather, it is a set of acts that are not only shaped by social context and material conditions, but also re-experienced and re-inscribed through their repetition. Thus ‘the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives’.
By developing musculature, female bodybuilders subvert traditional understandings of femininity and of the body as ‘woman’. Yet these acts of subversion are undercut by institutions committed to traditional gender roles – and often also by the women themselves.
In female bodybuilding, the bending of gender identity eventually provoked an official intervention. The industry issued strictures relating to ‘feminine’ presentation. They made allowances for breast implants, even though competitors were otherwise required to be strictly implant-free; they insisted female competitors focus on muscle definition rather than mass; they encouraged women to present themselves in as ‘girly’ a manner as possible.
This was not only a moralistic response to a perceived subversion of gender ‘naturalness’, but a direct response to commercial concerns. International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness vice-president Wayne DeMilia explained to Iron Man magazine:
We saw that as the physiques became more extreme, we couldn’t market it. At the beginning of 2000, we sent out a criteria [sic] that the athletes had to come in with more of an emphasis on symmetry and muscularity and that the face would be judged. We also switched to weight divisions so that the smaller women wouldn’t have to try to get big like the larger girls.
The women themselves also reacted. They bleached their hair, got pedicures and manicures, had facelifts and boob jobs, and blew air kisses to the crowd. And instead of posing for the cameras flexing their biceps and broadening their shoulders in ‘most muscular’, they donned lacy G-strings and stiletto heels and posed in cheesecake shots for men’s magazines. They performed their femininity with such gusto that it became almost like a pantomime, but a pantomime driven by a very practical, material concern: women who look like men don’t sell, and so were unlikely to win competitions.
After lunch, we lined up along the mirror next to the punching bags in the boxing room at Doherty’s, and looked at our reflections. This was the ‘Poise and Presentation’ seminar: a tutorial in how to walk, stand and pose for the stage. In her emails, Brant had requested that we bring a pair of high heels.
The stage walk itself was disarmingly simple: you cross one foot in front of the other along a straight line so that there is a natural swing in your hips. Keep your chest open, abdominals in. Smile at the audience. Pause in the middle of the stage. Right presentation pose (a kind of robot version of the third position in classical ballet); left presentation pose. Smile, make eye contact. Smile again. Strut offstage. (I would demonstrate the posing routine for my workmates at lunch the following day, to much laughter – and some astonishment.)
As we lined up in front of the mirror and practised smiling and pouting at an imaginary crowd, I couldn’t help but think these people were kidding themselves if they thought that this preening and posing was about health. More than anything, bodybuilding was a fetishisation of the appearance of physical capability that, at least if one were to compete, required a compromise of functionality itself.
But then again, it didn’t seem to me that there was anything necessarily wrong with wanting to develop or change or alter our bodies, even for purely aesthetic purposes. Perhaps it wasn’t the desire to shape ourselves that was problematic, but the forces that structured and shaped that desire in endless pursuit of profit. In competition circles, where the dollar dictated not only the conditions of entry but the very markers of success or failure, bodybuilding couldn’t help but be sucked back into gender normativity.
So, I thought, it would be silly to blame these women for wanting to be strong, comfortable, attractive and confident. Their desires existed in a world where adherence to normative gender roles was rewarded, and where the money came in for women who posed near-naked in fitness magazines. In that respect, women builders today face very similar pressures to those that confronted male builders in the early days of Gold’s. Those men were marginalised by their difference, and feminised by their marginality. But as more women began to participate, and male muscularity became an expectation of the mainstream, so the pornography became almost exclusively the domain of the sport’s women.
The women who took to the stage in a bodybuilding competition were in many ways defying a traditional construction of femininity as passive, subordinate and weak. Like their male counterparts, they were tough and capable; they were broad-shouldered and driven. The difference was that through their success, the male builders were able to transform their perceived femininity into masculinity. But the women in the sport could not succeed until they stepped back from the masculinity on which they were trespassing – that is, until they fell back into the feminine.
Perhaps we were all, for different reasons, trying to regain control over our bodies, to find refuge from those waves of external pressure – in my case, from anxiety, and the overwhelming, completely counterintuitive sense of inadequacy caused by my doctorate. And perhaps Brant was genuinely trying to empower people in one of the most basic material fashions: through strengthening the body. Bodybuilding’s gender issues might have been contradictory and confounding, but nonetheless the confidence that came from the practice of that physical discipline, the ritual of turning inward, of focusing on what the body was doing – that was real. And as we lined up to take our final walk in front of the mirrors across the imaginary stage, Jane, standing beside me, clasped her hands together. ‘I’m so glad I came,’ she said. ‘I’m so glad. I just feel like this has done so much for me.’
She gazed rapturously at Brant and for a second the cynic in me was stifled, because what she said was true. You could see it. Jane was holding her head higher, as if something inside of her had found solid footing. It was a confidence that seemed to come from her core, in stark contrast to the blustering, nervous front she’d presented when we first started. And I recognised something of that, because I had felt it too.