Thursday, January 27, 2005


I've been reading a book called Little Big Men by Alan Klein. It's about bodybuilders, studying them as if they were a tribe, with their own separate language, social customs, hierarchy, that kind of thing. It's interesting, in a weird way (although I haven't got up to the bit where the naked bodybuilder leaps out of the cake at the gay party, and I'm beginning to doubt it's in there).

A few things he says I don't know that I believe. He seems to be very big on the idea that masculinity, "how to be a man", is something entirely socially constructed, something a culture or society makes up from scratch, with nothing inbuilt. He seems to think that absolutely everything about what it is to be a man comes from nurture, rather than nature. I don't believe that. It's all a complex mix of genes and environment, and I don't think blank slate fundamentalism is going to be what leads us into the next century.

He talks about some of the dominant ideas in the gym, and some of the contradictions. By "the gym" he means the serious, bodybuilder end of things. He points out how you get overly masculine behaviour, almost hypermasculinity.

You notice this in a few ways. For a start, there's sex. There's always a small group of guys who come in around five and bang on about their weekend sexual exploits: what she looked like, how many times, how much she wanted it, how they won't call her back. I don't know that they'd talk so much or so loud if they were each pushing a shopping trolley in the toiletries section of Woolworths. And everything bad or weak is "gay" or "faggoty": fag pecs, gay shoulder press technique, fagotty little weights on the bench.

In between these comments they stare at large pictures of oiled, almost naked young men.

And I'm not saying that all these men are actually latent homosexuals or anything like that. It's just that maybe there is some relationship between their focus on the male body and the rest of their behaviour, that if I wanted to reassure people, including myself, that I wasn't gay maybe I'd talk like that.

Besides sex, there's utility. Men are meant to be about doing useful things, doing stuff, functionality. The same small group of guys there always seems to be stripping down a VS Commodore or building a new room on the house: doing what men do, things concerned with function rather than appearance.

But bodybuilding is all about appearance. The only group of people who spend a comparable amount of time worrying about their appearance is supermodels. Even the most extreme metrosexual or American psycho doesn't spend half of what these people do on tanning lotion. And bodybuilding itself isn't about anyone's ability ot do something - not about how much you can lift or anything - it's about looks. It's Miss America minus the talent section, only swimsuits.

Reading something like this is not flattering. It makes you feel defensive about going to the gym. It paints a picture of people in the gym as egocentric loners. I don't feel I'm an egocentric loner. Some of those losers who train at the gym might be, but I don't know, I don't talk to them much.

Anyway, I was trying to work out what the gym was for me, and the closest analogy I could come up with sounds really stupid. A monastery.

Seriously. It has that effect, it's calming. I think the gym is almost the only place where I feel in control of what is going on in my life. You pull the bar down, the weights on the other end go up, you feel the strain in the latissimus, the big sheet of muscle that covers your back. You curl your arm, the short head of the biceps brachii engages, the weight moves through a certain arc. There's a precision that's almost mathematical, a graded dose-response curve, as true as a chemical equation. Do this, this happens.

For me, I go in there, it's like a monastery. High ceilings, functional objects, an absence of conversation that is like a vow of silence, a series of prescribed and regimented "works" to mortify and chastise the flesh. A cycle of behaviours - chest, back, shoulders - that is like matins, vespers, tierce. And a mirror - as a kid I read somewhere about Buddhist monks using a mirror as an aide to meditation.

Anyway, that's a gratifying image, but it's one I can only sustain for a few moments, until it strikes me as absurd. Monks don't wear lycra, or flex, or shout encouragement at each other during communion - "Come on, big man!! One more wafer!! Now rosaries - two -three - feel the burn!! Work that tonsure!!". Monks rarely turn to performance enhancing drugs.

I don't know. I think there is a connection between the gym and religious life, even if it's a warped kind of religion, an anti-gnosticism: an elevation of the flesh over the spirit, a God who lives in the strong rather than died for the weak.

I'm getting theology in here. I shouldn't write these after night shifts.

Anyway. There was a blind girl who used to go to one of the gyms I went to, close on fifteen years ago. She would trot in and lift her five kilo weights and often stand next to the big benches, where the big men came to lift their big weights in a big manner. She would stand there and they (singlets saying "Gold's" or "Olympic", baseball caps on backwards, buff) would shout at each other. "Get it up!! Drive it in, big boy!! Go hard!! I want to feel it!!"

I wonder if she wondered what was going on. Or maybe she worked some of it out fifteen years ealier than I did.

Bronze John


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