What self-truths are bodybuilders hiding under all that muscle?
A scrawny teenage boy sat on the beach with a girl. They were friends, but he wanted more: to hold her hand, to go steady.
Then a bully, 220 pounds of brawny masculinity, appeared on the scene. He behaved as any toxic alpha male would: he walked past them and kicked sand in their faces. The boy stood to challenge him, but he grabbed the boy’s thin forearm and squeezed.
“I’d smash your face … only you’re so skinny, you might dry up and blow away,” the bully said. By now, the girl had sidled up to the bully, and the boy was shaking with anger.
“Oh, don’t let it bother you, little boy,” she told him, her voice dripping with contempt.
The chastened boy went home, gambled a stamp on a free pamphlet about isometric exercise, and waited. After the pamphlet arrived, he performed the exercises, each push-up and handstand bringing him closer to precious manhood.
As soon as he’d finished bulking up—which didn’t seem to take long at all—he returned to the beach. The bully, who now appeared slightly smaller than the boy, was sitting with the girl.
“Here’s something I owe you,” the boy said, sucker punching the bully in the jaw before he had time to react.
The girl friend, shocked by this turn of events, hurriedly announced herself as the boy’s girlfriend. “You are a real man, after all,” she whispered to him as she stroked his arm. “What a build!” shouted another girl, who’d seen the whole thing. “He’s already famous for it,” her companion added.
That story comes from a short but memorable comic strip accompanying the advertisements for Charles Atlas’s “dynamic tension” training program. For young men growing up in the fifties and sixties, Atlas’s tanned, leathery torso, leopard-spotted bathing suit, and aging matinee-idol visage were inescapable. He gleamed out at them, the very picture of virility, from the backs of comic books and pulp magazines. There they’d read about impossibly hard men doing impossibly hard things; Atlas tantalized them with the promise of their own hardness, merely a postage stamp away.
The Insult that Made a Man Out of ‘Mac,’ as the strip is known, was based loosely on events alleged to have occurred in Atlas’s life. The Atlas baby boomers knew was already an old man, having been born at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Back then, he was just Angelo Siciliano, an immigrant from Calabria, Italy. He arrived in Brooklyn at age eleven, avowedly puny and undersized, a victim of assorted local toughs and beach bullies who kicked sand in his face. He remained weak and helpless until he chanced upon some big cats stretching their muscles at the zoo—whereupon, in an epiphany, he devised the “dynamic tension” system he would spend the latter half of his life peddling. By following a regimen of body-weight exercises, Atlas supposedly developed a physique strong enough to batter his aggressors into submission and sculpted enough to convince the fitness-magazine magnate Bernarr Macfadden to discontinue his annual bodybuilding competition.
It’s a good story, a rags-to-riches tale that helped him and his business partners sell their product. Too bad it isn’t true.
Angelo Siciliano was small, I suppose, but only in the way most prepubescent boys are. And he did indeed impress Macfadden with his physique, winning recognition as the world’s most perfectly developed man—but, like most modern athletes, he built his physique with barbells, achieving a host of pressing records that are respectable even by today’s standards. The rest was bullshit: a lot of muscle, smoke, and mirrors.
The Atlas myth is a critical part of bodybuilding lore, an eternally recurring ur-story. From the famed Greek wrestler Milo of Croton, who allegedly invented resistance training by toting a calf on his back and increasing the load as it gained weight, down to the tales of men like Lou Ferrigno, who fashioned weights out of milk jugs and sand, bodybuilding stories are, at base, creation myths. Something muscular is forged from frail nothingness, and the creator lives happily ever after. (Milo, the story goes, was eaten by wolves or lions after getting stuck in the tree he was attempting to split with his bare hands, but at least he perished doing what he loved.)
The apotheosis of the bodybuilding-as-wish-fulfillment narrative arrived on American shores in 1968 in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilding and powerlifting champion from Austria. Like his idol Reg Park, Schwarzenegger planned to turn his massive physique into the stuff of legend, appearing on magazine covers, in movies, and anywhere else money was to be made. Schwarzenegger tells us in his 1977 autobiography, Education of a Bodybuilder, that he dreamed his way into Reg Park’s body: willing, in his sleep, the transformation of his own meager muscles into Reg Park’s round, manly muscles, and profiting thereby.
That book, which came out the same year as Schwarzenegger’s star turn in George Butler’s Pumping Iron documentary about the 1975 Mr. Olympia finals, doesn’t so much seek to humanize its subject as immortalize him. Schwarzenegger then was still almost a decade away from becoming Hollywood’s “Ahnuld,” but bodybuilding had already made him a golden, distant god, capable of few emotions aside from fleeting disappointment at a bodybuilding defeat or irritation at his out-of-touch, provincial parents’ disdain for his career. “With my desire and drive,” he told readers, “I definitely wasn’t normal. Normal people can be happy with a regular life. I was different. I wanted to do something special, to be recognized as the best.”
Education of a Bodybuilder was the first book I ever read about the sport, in which I had once hoped to participate as a means of boosting self-esteem shattered during a turbulent childhood. I had seen Pumping Iron and was hungry to know more. Schwarzenegger’s turn as an unbeatable, charismatic heel, opposite the partially deaf Lou Ferrigno’s sweet, doomed good guy, had captivated my imagination. Reinvention stories, as packaged in Education of a Bodybuilder and encouraged in Schwarzenegger’s subsequent Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding (1985), would always appeal to misfits. “I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention,” wrote the erstwhile Black Flag singer Henry Rollins in a Details essay about lifting weights. “To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.” He adds: “There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.”
Given my teenage admiration for its author, this passage struck me as profound, but it’s simply a catchy repackaging of the same mind-over-matter material found in Education of a Bodybuilder. In both cases, readers glimpse only fleeting hints of the true purpose for building a body: to create a suit of armor behind which one might conceal a real self, in the hopes that no one would ever bother inquiring its whereabouts. If you were a towering, bully-beating titan, no one would dare ask about the weak-willed boy who remained underneath.
A small but noteworthy corpus examines the darker side of bodybuilding. Most of it, like Paul Solotaroff’s frequently anthologized essay “The Power and the Gory,” written for the Village Voice in 1990, focuses on the seamier side of the sport. “Gory” follows ex–Mr. America Steve Michalik, an abused boy who grew up to become a heavy steroid user, as he goes on a wild, drug-fueled ride from the top to the bottom of his profession and back again. The article is gripping: Who wouldn’t want to read about horned-up bodybuilders attempting to have sex with Coca-Cola machines or running out into the highway to face down approaching cars? But it also seems exaggerated, at least from the perspective of an actual performance-enhancing drug user, and it’s shoehorned into a conventional redemption arc not unlike the one in Schwarzenegger’s Education of a Bodybuilder.
Closer to the mark, we find Samuel Fussell’s Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (1991). Fussell, the son of the literary critic Paul Fussell, graduated from Oxford and Harvard during the late eighties only to find himself adrift and scared in squeegee-man and peep-show era New York. Suddenly in possession of a modest inheritance from his grandparents but with no Schwarzenegger-like master plan in mind, he drifted into bodybuilding and steroid use, first as a curious novice at a New York gym and later as a promising, Zubaz-pants clad meathead bound for the muscle mecca that is Los Angeles.
Muscle is a phenomenal book, gripping in its exploration of the author’s deep, inexplicable loneliness and competitive failures. Despite packing loads of mass on his previously frail frame, Fussell comes up short at both a bench-press competition and a low-level bodybuilding show. These failures underscore his contempt for Schwarzenegger’s better-living-through-bodybuilding model: like most of us, Fussell had no desire to be great, only to remain hidden from the world, and when he decided to stop hiding, he lost his will to discipline his body with exercise.
“Everything I’d done for the last four years had been an effort to keep the world at bay, to find a place in which I wouldn’t have to react or think or feel,” he wrote apropos his eighty-pound transformation from muscle zero to muscle hero. “Because as big as I’d gotten and impressive and imposing as I looked ‘standing relaxed,’ I felt that if you could somehow find a chink in my armor and pry apart a muscular pauldron from a gorget, you’d find nothing within that vast white empty space but a tiny soul about the size of an acorn.”
Fussell had gotten close enough to grasp the truth of this world, but—perhaps to his credit—he lacked the fortitude to continue. Bob Paris, by contrast, was among the sport’s rising stars throughout the 1980s, a fixture on the covers of Joe Weider–owned publications such as Muscle & Fitness and Flex and a top contender at several Mr. Olympia contests. The sport is dynastic, and Lee Haney’s lengthy run on the top wouldn’t end until an HGH-enhanced Dorian Yates exploded onto the scene, but Paris married considerable mass with Frank Zane–caliber aesthetics. He looked beautiful, spoke eloquently, and appeared destined to follow in Schwarzenegger’s footsteps by crossing over into other media.
Except he, too, eventually decided he didn’t want it, a renunciation chronicled in his memoir Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Bodybuilding (1995). Like Fussell’s Muscle, it’s the tale of a life spent in bodybuilding, but it also follows Paris before and after he exploded onto that scene.
“I fought against that subtitle,” he told me via e-mail: “It wasn’t just a bodybuilding story; it was about coming of age, as a catawampus outsider, who looked (on the surface) like a total insider.”
Also like Muscle, Gorilla Suit is the fruit of a single author’s mind: it’s the only such ghostwriter-free memoir written by a competitor of Paris’s caliber. “He’s the only writer on bodybuilding who doesn’t lie for a living,” Fussell wrote in a review of Paris’s book, referencing the “kayfabe,” or willfully fictional, tone of much of the rags-to-riches motivational material that’s constituted the sport’s literature since Eugen Sandow, the first supposedly perfectly built man of the twentieth century, sold impressionable boys on the benefits of a salubrious, abstemious lifestyle even he didn’t follow.
Despite excelling in the classroom and on the football field in rural Indiana, Bob Paris had an unhappy homelife and a fraught relationship with his father. “I hated myself; that simple,” he wrote. “My limbs were all in the wrong places, my teeth were weird, the hair on my head from outer space, the hair sprouting on my chest embarrassing. And I was a fag.” Or, as he explained to me, “What’s the old saying? ‘Show me a bodybuilder and I’ll show you a guy with dad issues.’ ”
Paris conceded he would do some things differently were he to write the book today, but it’s remarkable how candid he was with his readers. Few writer-participants in the sport, from the aforementioned Sandow (who lived with a male companion later in life) to Schwarzenegger (who doesn’t offer any details regarding his early relationships with women but does admit to rejecting the advances of a gay admirer who wished to “sponsor him”), discuss sex or sexuality. Bodybuilding has all sorts of homoerotic connotations—or, at least, it’s outwardly assumed to be saturated with homoeroticism—but Paris dispenses with that line of thinking: “The myth that all bodybuilders were gay caused great psychic unrest among the straight men who ran the sport, great strivings to prove what a wholesome heterosexual pastime it was.” He recalls having bikini-clad models draped over him in magazine photo shoots to ensure that this was so.
Paris’s final break with the sport stemmed from a combination of his disdain for the increasingly heavy drug regimens competitors were required to follow as well as a desire to pursue other creative outlets. Bodybuilding had helped him escape his provincial childhood surroundings and brought him a degree of international acclaim, but it hardly represented the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “If I had been straight and stupid—or maybe not even stupid, but less obsessed with chasing ideals—I would most likely have had that magic career,” he wrote of his dalliance with wrestling promoter Vince McMahon’s short-lived World Bodybuilding Federation in the early 1990s and the close of his competitive career with the rival International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. “But at the end of my bodybuilding rainbow, instead of a pot of gold, there was a complication; beyond that, frustration.”
“A story is what allows the person at home to connect with the [bodybuilding] characters,” the veteran bodybuilder Kai Greene told me at this year’s Arnold Classic, where he was promoting Generation Iron 2, a sequel to the bodybuilding documentary in which he played the upstart Lou Ferrigno role to reigning Mr. Olympia champion Phil Heath’s unbeatable “Ahnuld.” “If you don’t have a story, it would be very hard to develop a reason to care about why you’re following this experience.”
Greene, who often poses in bizarre costumes and philosophizes about the meaning of life in Instagram videos shared with his fans, is among the more outré of the sport’s active competitors. His eccentricities may have cost him one or two Mr. Olympia wins, but he seems far more committed to uncovering personal truths than achieving a permanent spot atop the IFBB’s roster of commercially viable stars.
Was Greene, who remains in the prime of his career, unhappy with the limitations of bodybuilding? Throughout the first Generation Iron, he appeared melancholy and introspective, concerned that his progress through the IFBB has been slowed for various personal reasons. But this could merely be a role within a role, a story he tells himself to force out extra sets and reps while he creates the physique needed to achieve whatever his dreams might be.
“And man is mind, and evermore he takes the tool of Thought, and shaping what he wills, brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills,” wrote the British philosopher James Allen, from whose work Kai Greene quotes liberally. The act of self-creation is often difficult to distinguish from self-delusion, and part of the appeal of bodybuilding is that it allows participants to undertake both processes simultaneously.
“I am not what I am,” remarked Othello’s antagonist Iago, who could just as easily have been speaking about someone with chiseled body of a heavy lifter as he gazed longingly into the mirror, seeing reflected there only the flabby body of a heavy reader: someone liable to have sand kicked in his face.
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.