Forbidden Iron

My Uncle Brian recently tried to describe someone to my father. “He was a tall slender guy, like Michael.” Michael is me.

“Brian, when was the last time you saw Michael?”

“Maybe a year and a half ago . . . why?”

“Why?! Brian, he’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger! He’s busting out of his shirts!’”

I felt my face turn red when my father related this conversation to me. Part of me was pleased—I work hard at the gym. Another part of me, a part I keep hidden, knew I had so much further to go—and that was why I blushed, not because of the compliment. It’s that second part, the secret part, throbbing constantly under everything else, that I want to talk about. The incessant drumbeat inside me that calls out for more, that animates my endeavors at the gym. It feels like an unseemly thing I’d do best to hide. It is a desire that I have hidden, or downplayed, or dressed up in respectable guises.

Well. Time to come out of the closet.

***

I admit. The stain of respectability politics is within my heart. When I started bodybuilding and people noticed the changes in my body, I’d laugh nervously and say—oh, when I get anxious about my dissertation, I go lift weights! That was a dodge—yes, it does help reduce anxiety, and the gym has become a psychological anchor for me, but that wasn’t and isn’t the prime mover.

Or maybe I’d say something polite and acceptable about how nice it feels to get stronger. That’s a dodge, too. It does feel nice to be stronger. There’s a certain grim Protestant satisfaction in the utility of strength over the vanity of the flesh. But it was the vanity that moved me, not the utility. Strong was a nice side effect; but big was what I cared about. Oliver Sacks, famous writer and medical doctor, was also a powerlifter, lifting for strength. That’s respectable. I want to be a bodybuilder. That’s not respectable.


I am tired of forcing my embodied desires into shapes that look respectable.


Despite my father’s remarks, I’m not like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m 6’ and weigh 195 lbs. Arnold, at his most iconic, had at least 50 lbs on me. I’m kind of big and athletic, but nothing jaw-dropping. But I have added 30 lbs of muscle to my frame over the last two years, and that does tend to surprise people who only see me sporadically. Sure, my broader back gives me new width, my chest pushes proud and round against the fabric of my t-shirts, my shoulders bulge when I lean on the kitchen counter, the veins in my arms pop after the carb-bomb that is a big family dinner, my squat-thickened thighs test the seams of my pants. I’m a big guy, at this point. But I’m not really big.

But my point is: I’d like to be. I’d like a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Even better, I’d like a body like Roelly Winklaar, Dallas McCarver, Mamdouh Elssbiay, or any of the more recent bodybuilders who, since the late 1980s, have left Arnold in the dust—the obscure hyper-developed men whose names you wouldn’t recognize unless, like me, you follow the eccentric subculture of bodybuilding. Justin Compton. Alexey Lesukov. Aaron Clark. Kai Green. Craig Golias. Men so freakishly developed they scarcely look human. These names are immediately familiar to me, and I could give a dozen more easily, name them as quickly as I can name literary figures, but I don’t expect any “normal” person to know who they are.

The shameful admission: yes, I’d like to be a head-turning freak of muscular size. And yes, I pour time and effort and resources into this pursuit, because it makes me happy to do so. I am not interested in moderation. My desire, on this question, feels limitless. I can’t imagine ever being truly satisfied; for me bodybuilding is Lacanian, always in pursuit of the impossible to attain thing. And, yeah—I enjoy my symptom.

But for all my life, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to. I’m a PhD candidate in literary studies at a top-tier research university. I’ve been a star student all my life. Bookworm. Teacher’s pet. Mommy’s boy. Nerd. Weak, nearsighted, sensitive. Bully-bait. As a teen, a blue-haired theatre kid and die-hard Tori Amos fan. In sum, awkward and unathletic by nature, embedded in the arts, pursuing a life of the mind. My queerness has been of the disembodied sort since before I knew I was queer.

An extreme surfeit of muscular development is not something I’m supposed to desire, especially because my desire wasn’t based in any higher, nobler purpose. I didn’t want muscular size and strength for any useful purpose. I just wanted it: impractical, ugly, ridiculous size. My 4.0 GPA defined my identity, and I fully internalized—was encouraged to internalize—the idea that big biceps and big brains were mutually exclusive.


My mother regularly warns me: “You look good now. Don’t get any bigger!” But what if I really, really want to? What if I don’t care about looking “good”?


In the summer of 2014, I started an anonymous tumblr blog, to try to come to terms—intellectually, psychologically, emotionally—with this enduring interest, this forbidden urge. I’d never once enunciated that desire, even though it had been with me from childhood.

And it wasn’t just a desire to get bigger—I loved looking at images and videos of very muscular men, too. I say loved and I mean it in every sense. That feeling has also been with me since puberty – or even before it. The bodybuilding magazine glimpsed in the drugstore magazine rack, a bodybuilder used as a gag in a commercial or a sitcom, good ol’ reliable hyperbolic comic book physiques of the 80s and 90s, the enormous and rare good fortune of a bodybuilding contest on television and no one else home.

Or, rarer still, spotting an actual bodybuilder in the wild—the body that resolutely takes up ‘too much space.’ That moves in a different way than ‘normal’ bodies. Lumbering gait from thighs so large they have to swing around each other. Lats that push away from the side of the body. Round shifting bulges of muscle under thin skin, rearranging themselves with every small movement. Clothes hanging in ways they do not hang off ‘normal’ bodies, forced out by jutting protuberances that most people don’t have. Too big for a bus seat, angling to fit through a narrow doorway. There was something adamant about these bodies, something insistent and intoxicating. Unapologetic, unmistakable. Spotting bodies like these in public — these were the moments of my sexual awakening, the discovery of my primary erotic orientation. Not just gay— aroused very specifically by muscle.

On my tumblr, I mostly shared images of very muscular men that excited and inspired me – but I also wrote about my thoughts and feelings regarding bodybuilding and muscle fetishism in an analytic and self-reflexive mode. I wrote about how I was now trying to transform my body into something that resembled my desires. It felt like a new thing to do, a useful way to integrate my two lives, my two selves.

I began to receive messages from other people like me—academics or professionals in fields requiring a high level of intellectual skill and certification. Quiet gay nerds, basically, who, like me, carried this intense interest in extreme muscular development, but felt unable to express or pursue that interest. Afraid of the gym not because of the imagined homophobic thugs who populate the weight room (they are usually, but not always, imaginary), but because, if friends and family knew they were lifting in pursuit of size, then somehow the secret of how they really felt would get out. It was the closet-case’s homophobic overcompensation, translated.

I’d assumed—naively—that I was alone, or, at least, rare. A scholar aroused by bodybuilding—it seemed unlikely there’d be many of us. This was obviously incorrect. It seemed like every week or two I’d get a new introductory message from a quiet brainiac who shared my fixation and desire. Who desperately wanted to take up a pair of dumbbells and transform their bodies to better reflect their desires, but who felt unable to.

Some of these messages were grateful—like my honesty and insight had freed something in these men that had previously been painfully bound up, unspeakable. “SO glad I found I’m not alone!” one anonymous message read. Another thanked me for my tumblr’s very existence. “Your tumblr certainly helps reinforce the fact that I am very much NOT alone. . . . coming out as gay in the 1980s was rough enough; the muscle thing I could not talk about or own to. . . if I had articulated to [my parents] as a teen what really sexually aroused me (working out heavy, becoming as big as a beast, competing on stage with the huge roided up studs), I would have been institutionalized.”


***

I should say—‘normal’ people often have trouble taking in the scope of what we’re talking about here. It’s not the body fascism of the chiseled gay male Adonis. Those specimens are entirely too puny, in the eyes of freaks like us. We are talking about bodies that would be labeled “gross,” “disgusting,” “too much.”

It’s very easy to perform a cheap psychoanalysis—pencil neck geeks desire hyperbolic masculinity because the tweedy homosexual scholar is an emasculated figure in the muscular blue collar working class cultures many of us arise from. That might be the case for some people, but I really don’t think it’s so for me. I enjoy undercutting the hyperbolic masculinity of extreme muscular development. One of my tumblr’s side missions was to reconfigure muscularity as a kind of male voluptuousness, muscles as sensuous and ecstatic, not as brute physical accretions of toxic male violence.

Basically, I wanted to reimagine bodybuilding as a kind of queer self-fashioning, a rejection of body normativity, a rejection of the repression of embodied minority desires. A celebration of deliberate, joyful freakhood. A community of self-creating mutants.


People who live in their head aren’t supposed to be into their bodies.


Or, if they are, they’re supposed to do yoga, or run 10k races, or something like—build endurance and flexibility, make their bodies sleek, efficient machines. The correct body is the invisible body, the normative body that gives no trouble and draws no attention to itself.

And, of course, academia is all about class training. The policy is unofficial, usually implicit, but clear as a $5 bottle of sparkling mineral water: white trash has no place in the ivory tower, and different forms of exercise—and the body shapes those practices cultivate—demarcate class clearly. There is a high expectation that professional scholars will act as members of the upper class, even if their salaries place them under the poverty line. Being successful on the job market requires class-appropriate knowledge and social practices. Winning an increasingly rare tenure track job could well hinge on speaking with a high-prestige accent, selecting an appropriate bottle of wine at the job talk dinner, and so on. One hears horror stories about job candidates who failed to get the gig because of a gauche outfit choice or an etiquette faux pas—candidates who failed to get a job because they failed to perform class appropriately.

Control and containment of the body is associated with the upper class—table manners, proper posture, and so on. These are practices designed to help us forget that the body exists. The body is there to be silent and seemly, to display stylish and appropriate clothes, produced in a narrow range of sizes. The body itself is supposed to be more or less invisible. There is little room for larger people or atypically embodied people in this milieu. Things like bodybuilding, obesity, and some forms of disability make the body visible, prevent it from fading into the background. The body is suddenly present where class expectations would like it to be absent.

I want to take nothing away from discourse critiquing fatphobia and fat shaming, which is a much greater problem than anything I tackle in this little personal essay. There are intellectual ‘excuses’ that well-meaning people make for the obese body—so and so has a gland problem, so and so hurt his leg badly and put on some weight, so and so is just genetically disposed to be plump. These ‘excuses,’ at their root, are still fatphobic. They still suggest that obesity is undesirable, an unfortunate condition to be tolerated if it can’t be helped—never something to be desired or celebrated. These are the powerful moves I see “gainer” communities making: What if fat was desirable? – because it is! What if some people are fat on purpose? – because some people are!

However, there is no polite ‘excuse’ to be made for an excessively muscular body (I’m not talking Hollywood Adonis here, I stress again—I’m talking bodies that are hulking, ripped, up to or even over 300 lbs). No gland problem, no leg injury, no genetic predisposition. You deliberately, with great effort over a period of many years, made your body like this—it does not happen by accident. You spent a lot of time and energy to break the rules of body-presentation, to make your body outlandish, and then to present it on stage or in public as a spectacle. You did this on purpose. Bodybuilding is all about the existence of the body, of making more of the body. It says so right in the name.

An unacceptably muscular body is a cultural signifier something like a neck tattoo – except it goes even further into the territory of the unacceptable, because a tattoo can be the result of a passing impulse, signifying a youthful rebellious spirit that might be tempered with time into the kind of trouble-making that academia purports to love. Unlike an outré tattoo, 275 lbs of bulging muscle requires many years of dedicated effort, planning, sacrifice, and most likely deliberate hormone manipulation, illegal in many jurisdictions. You have to want it bad, for years, to make it happen. It requires immersion in a subculture that is very different from academia and high society – and, although building such a body is quite possibly an act of rebellion, it is unlikely to be read and appreciated that way.


Academics who love to talk about disrupting systems will often be the first to reject such disruptions when faced with them.


Men who engage in bodybuilding are assumed to be psychologically damaged narcissists, pursuing some kind of masculine compensation—aggressive, dangerous, toxic individuals. For women bodybuilders, the assumption is that some kind of gender dysphoria is at the root of the interest (this is rarely a charitable or empathetic assumption in the minds of those who make it). In general, bodybuilding is not seen as something a healthy, intelligent, mentally well person should want to pursue.


***

As a gay person, I have a strong negative response when I see unusual desires rendered pathological by ‘straight’ people. Not too long ago, or today, should I be unlucky in place of birth, the ‘disease’ of my homosexuality could have landed me in an asylum, in prison, chemically castrated, in a concentration camp….

The turnaround in public opinion regarding homosexuality, at least in the parts of the world where I’ve lived, has been astonishing and swift. Now, in 2017, in urban Canada, to a majority of citizens my gay marriage is just as boring and typical as a straight couple’s. It isn’t that western society recently learned to be more open-minded and tolerant about minority or queer desires. It’s more that homosexuality has become understood as a variant of majority desires. The walls of the hegemon weren’t broken down; the hegemon just opened the gate, let us inside, and shut the gate behind us.

The strange result is that, in my day to day life, in the urban liberal bubble, I very rarely have any anxiety about revealing my sexual orientation—but I have a lot (a LOT) of anxiety about revealing my intense interest in bodybuilding. The latter seems, to me, much less socially acceptable. “Gay” is (lucky me) no big deal. “Bodybuilder” comes with a cost. When composing this essay, I circulated a survey to readers of my tumblr. Many of my informants report a similar perception—the people around them think being gay is OK, but an interest in muscle would not be understood or accepted, and so it must remain hidden. They are out of the closet, yet still inhabit a second closet.

At a magazine rack, I look around to make sure no one I know is nearby before I pick up Flex or Muscular Development. I’ll flip through, feel uncomfortable, like I’m doing something illicit, and quickly stuff the magazine back in its place, turning to something much more acceptable and ‘in character’—the literary journals, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, etc. I think of alibis I could give if an acquaintance ‘caught’ me with the muscle mag in my hand.


***

I should probably say here that although I’m not satisfied with my body’s development, I’m not unhappy with my body either. Saying this is a defensive move. I assume people will think I have some deep unhappiness because I would very much like to inhabit a ‘freakish’ physical form.

Yes, that is my desire. I am not unhappy. I am not unwell. I am not disordered. The time and energy I spend at the gym are not damaging me.

Whether or not I suffer from body dysmorphia is debatable; but if I do it isn’t to any alarming degree. Sometimes I feel frustrated with how slow my progress in the gym is, or have some momentary flash of disgust at the imaginary faults in my flesh. But, on the whole, I quite like my body. I really enjoy my embodiment. I am happy and confident in my skin. I laugh a lot in the gym – not at anything, just because I feel a sense of giddy exhilaration. I am joyful when I am lifting.

Why do I feel so defensive? I just have these desires, these fantasies, these goals, and I’d like to move closer to achieving them. I enjoy and take pride in my mind in its current state, too, but that doesn’t foreclose any intellectual or creative ambitions I might have.

Is it possible to be body positive while also pursuing intense physical transformation? What I’m doing isn’t about anyone else’s body—it’s only about my own body. All bodies are good bodies and all bodies deserve celebration. My current body is a good body and there’s nothing wrong with it. I just want something different. No, not different. I want more. More of my body, stronger, larger, more substantial, overfilling my frame. More of me.


***

On cold dark winter mornings when I have to drag myself out of bed before sunrise, eat my oatmeal, drink my protein shake, and walk through the sleet for a punishing session at the gym, where I will end up lying on the floor, my muscles in a glorious agonizing storm of lactic acid, laughing wildly at myself, feeling the endorphin rush hit…. I think to myself: this is my only chance to get what I want. And that makes it easy to do—and the next thing I know, I’m in the gym, sweat dripping off my nose, gasping after pulling a 405 lbs deadlift, and I’m laughing. I’m giddy. In those moments I feel so joyful in my body—and I know that I’m growing, and nothing makes me happier.

 

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Footnotes

Featured image by Chris Piuma: Michael Collins posing along the Seine, Paris, France.

Headshot by Chris Piuma: Toronto, Canada.