Dept. of Sport Studies, Linnæus University, Kalmar, Sweden
Critical Readings in Bodybuilding is a collection of articles addressing the contemporary practice of bodybuilding, and breathing new life into much-neglected debates on the topic. Featuring a variety of bodybuilding scholars, this anthology is certainly promising and the contributors deserve extra credit for extracting valuable data from a field that can in many ways be difficult to access. Positioning the book, the editors state in the introduction that much of the existing literature on bodybuilding tends to address the performances of the classical bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, and thus describes the practice as it was in the 1970s. Likewise much of the writing on female bodybuilding concerns praise for the sport as a form of feminist resistance, whereas little attention has been paid to other aspects such as the associated eroticism and the sexual fetish known as ‘muscle worship’. The purpose of this anthology, therefore, is to tackle these gaps in the existing literature, by addressing the contemporary practice of bodybuilding, and particularly the way in which bodybuilding has become increasingly more extreme in recent decades.
The book is edited by Adam Locks and Niall Richardson. They have gathered an interesting mix of researchers with a professional and seemingly also personal interest in the practice. Several chapters actually focus on the authors’ personal experience or their own relationship to competitive bodybuilding, which gives the book an aura of ethnographic closeness and honesty, and at times also a high degree of subjectivity. The book is introduced with an historical framework that adequately describes the emergence of this phenomenon, including some highly interesting forerunners/icons of the practice and its cultural development. The rest of the book is divided into two main sections – the first dealing with the ‘practice’ of bodybuilding, aiming to capture the everyday life of bodybuilders and the meanings ascribed to this lifestyle, mainly outside the competition stage. In this section the reader is thrown into the day-to-day routine of bodybuilding and confronted with some highly interesting case studies focusing on how this lifestyle can be understood in relation to aspects such as gender, health, illicit steroid use, ethnicity, and identity, as well as on bodybuilding as an immersive practice. The second part of the book, which can be placed within a context of contemporary media-saturated society, analyses bodybuilding mainly as a form of representation. The phenomenon is contextualised in relation to the historical development of modern photography, an increasing cultural celebration of abject freakishness, muscle worship, and a model of pleasure that extends the types of beauty and sexuality available to mid-life women.
A common challenge when compiling an anthology is to make the different contributors and their respective chapters ‘speak’ as one. Naturally, even this anthology has its difficulties. The overall impression, however, is that the editors have done a fine job placing and arranging the different chapters in such a way that the reader’s understanding of this (sub)cultural practice is successively deepened. Some chapters are more appealing and up-to-date in relation to the existing literatur than others. I particularly enjoyed a chapter entitled ‘The Shame-Pride-Shame of the Muscled Self in Bodybuilding’, in which a highly personal portrait of a man and his ever changing understanding of the muscular body and being black is analysed, and another chapter entitled ‘Getting Hard’, in which muscle worship on YouTube is discussed. But I assume that other readers with an interest in this cultural phenomenon would be just as likely to prefer the writings of other contributors. The chapters are, with few exceptions, well written, up to date and analytically sharp. There are, however, some aspects of contemporary bodybuilding that this anthology could have pursued more stringently, and that I would like to comment on as a critique, or rather a suggestion as to how the editors could ‘read bodybuilding’ in their next book.Pumping iron at the gym certainly characterises the lifestyle of the bodybuilder, but perhaps also the lifestyle of the ordinary citizen who takes responsibility for his or hers own health.
The critique concerns mainly the overall perspective and analytical focus projected through the different chapters, which could be defined as a lingering feeling that this phenomenon is more or less solely understood as a subcultural practice and that the bodybuilder is understood as, or understands him or herself as, an outsider or an outcast. This might of course be the case and would not be an inconsistent approach in relation to the existing literature. But, given the purpose and title of the book, another, perhaps more critical, reading of bodybuilding in relation to the existing literature would actually have been to analyse it as a cultural expression within modern fitness culture, rather than a subculture of freakishness. For example, the basic system of ideas on which contemporary fitness culture is founded is clearly classical bodybuilding. Many of the techniques, tools and exercises currently used in gyms and fitness centres worldwide are the results of a physical culture developed and refined during the 20th century and as such have deep roots in the history of bodybuilding. The development of the gym and fitness industry is also largely an international and global story. Today, a large number of international magazines are devoted entirely to the art of bodybuilding. There are many books and manuals on the market that offer training programmes for bodybuilding, and through different organizations, such as the IFBB, bodybuilding has become a global enterprise and sport that clearly extends beyond the concept of ‘subculture’. Pumping iron at the gym certainly characterises the lifestyle of the bodybuilder, but perhaps also the lifestyle of the ordinary citizen who takes responsibility for his or hers own health.
Consequently, although contemporary representations of bodybuilding bodies are not unproblematic, and the bodybuilder is often viewed as something of a freak in ordinary situations (as one chapter in the book clearly shows), it could at the same time be argued that huge muscular male and female bodies, the lifestyle this body represents, and the techniques used and developed within bodybuilding, are highly valued and/or idealised in contemporary society and fitness culture. This storyline or contextualisation is however not pursued properly. In this sense I think that Critical Readings in Bodybuilding could have given the practise of bodybuilding a little more credit in relation to the tremendous development within fitness culture in recent decades by, for example, presenting a concluding chapter in which contemporary bodybuilding were contextualised within a broader cultural, societal and global framework. Regardless of this criticism, however, I think that this is an excellent book that provides many insights into an ‘exotic’ and much-debated culture and practice, and I do recommend it.
Copyright © Jesper Andreasson 2014