Bodybuilding and the future of gender
Arnold Schwarzenegger is an icon. During the filming of Pumping Iron, filmed in 1975 and premiered in 1977, he is only 28 years old, but is already at the end of his competitive career as a bodybuilder and carries five consecutive Mr. Olympia awards, the biggest professional bodybuilding competition in the world. All the bodybuilders featured in the documentary know his name, idolize his career and are fascinated by his body. A superhuman body, swollen beyond natural limits. A body that can reveal to us a future in which gender is not relevant or even doesn't exist.
John Berger said that “men act” and “women appear”, underlining the trope that men advance the story and women are mere decorations, the passive subject of just existing for the benefit of others. The body of a bodybuilder, whether male or female, is subject to gender confusion, it is simultaneously masculine and feminine: it expands beyond the normal to underline the weight of virility, the muscles pushing the skin and veins in a demonstration of strength, of invincibility, the superman capable of advancing the story of any epic, just to offer himself to the appreciation, the appearance, the exhibition; it is a body that at the height of its appearance of strength is weaker, more fragile, dehydrated, malnourished, the skin thinner than a sheet of paper. It is a hyper masculine body that gives itself to a hyper feminine practice. As Susan Bordo said, “it is feminine to be on display”.
A bodybuilder looks at his body the way a sculptor looks at the statue he sculpts: from the outside. It allows him to work his own body as an external object, outside his consciousness. For him, there is no difference between appreciating his body or another bodybuilder's body; and this appreciation is devoid of sexuality, it is focused on technique, on results, as an art critic appreciates a sculpture. The body is worked beyond its natural limits, the distance between the mind and the body allows him to transcend pain and embrace the rigor and discipline that bodybuilding requires. The body is his but it is not part of himself, it is a functional object to be worked, polished, built and improved with an aesthetic rather than a functional purpose. Schwarzenegger's body does not act, it appears. And everyone else wants to appear like him.
If this confusion of gender and distance between body and mind can teach us anything, let it be the ease with which it is assimilated by the mainstream. If it is not difficult to understand bodybuilding or the bodies that are worked for competitions but that exist beyond them, it will also not be difficult to imagine a future in which any body distances itself from the mind, from the sheltered identity, bodies and minds simultaneously masculine and feminine, so simultaneously that there is no difference. Can bodybuilding give us this? Can Schwarzenegger's body be the metaphor for a society free from the obligations of the body and the limitations of gender?
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Bordo, S. (1999). The male body: A new look at men in public and in private. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Routledge. London.
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Richardson, N. (2004). The queer activity of extreme male bodybuilding: gender dissidence, auto-eroticism and hysteria. Social Semiotics. 14:1: 49-65.
© Miguel De — 2022