The Wayward Bodybuilder: Morals and Muscle Mass

Robert Eckert

The Wayward Bodybuilder: Morals and Muscle Mass

This essay explores the evolution of the social-cultural perception of the ideal male physique and how that evolution has characterized the identity of professional bodybuilding in the United States. A thorough analysis of this evolution has shown that social media has played a prominent role in steadily increasing the muscularity of what is considered to be the ideal male physique.

Strength has always been seen as an admirable trait in a man. A man who is seen as physical strong is generally considered someone who is capable of accomplishing hard work, someone that can be relied on. In recent years, the perception of strength has become more and more associated with the attainment of the ideal male physique. The quest of achieving this ideal physique through strict dieting coupled with a vigorous workout program has been coined “bodybuilding.” There are two distinguishable types of bodybuilders: anyone who participates in the dieting and weight lifting for personal improvement is considered an amateur bodybuilder, while those who “bodybuild” full time to compete against others (for the most ideal physique) are labeled professional bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding became a relevant activity following a growth in strong man spectacle events that took place in the 1890s. The standout name of the time was Eugene Sandow, a “strong man” who was rapidly growing in popularity. With his new-found fame, Sandow a true business man, began the first ever fitness magazine titled “Bodybuilding” and so the name was coined.

hey skinny

 “Vintage Comic Book Muscleman Ad,” Image courtesy of Charles Atlas LTD
Well displayed in this Charles Atlas workout advertisement is how the American ideal male physique had evolved by the 1960’s largely due to the strong media influence in movies and advertisements like this. Notice how the ad uses the implementation of women to motivate the reader to put on muscle in order to gain the attraction of women.

Bodybuilding became increasingly relevant by the 1960s. By this time there were multiple, well-established professional bodybuilding competitions held every year in gyms across the country. It was around this time that the media began vigorously promoting fitness advertisements where, for example, men who were not bodybuilding were displayed as subordinate to those who were. Often these advertisements presented the argument that the central difference between a boy and a man was how muscular he was. It was this type of media that started this evolution of the social-cultural perception of the ideal male physique which has characterized the identity of bodybuilding in the United States ever since. American professional bodybuilders are considered wayward due to their excessive drive for muscularity which often leads to the abuse of Anabolic steroids, willingness to use extreme methods and their often narcissistic nature.

Professional bodybuilders more than any other type of weight lifter have dedicated their lives to building an ideal male physique. As their profession bodybuilders maintained an extremely strict diet, eating a specific number of meals consisting of specific size portions, eaten at exact time throughout the day all in order to optimize muscle growth. They work out extremely hard and often have very meticulous work out routines in order to hit each muscle not only for size but for symmetry and proportion to the rest of the body. They do not go out and drink on the weekends or help themselves to a slice of cake on their best friends birthday. But, all too often they seem unhappy with their results in comparison of their sacrifices especially when other bodybuilders have, in their mind, better more ideal physiques. So to compete at a higher level, almost all professional bodybuilders (certainly all successful ones) end up using anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids not only promote muscle growth, but increase testosterone and cut down recovery time for the muscles, certainly a significant edge in comparison to a non steroid user. While anabolic steroids are a great tool for professional bodybuilders, they were made illegal in the United States in 1990 due to a variety of negative side effects. But, the use of steroids within the circle of American pro bodybuilding certainly did not stop, bodybuilders just got their steroids illegally and continued to use them. The vast majority of Americans are law abiding citizens, if they were not, the entire legal system would be unable to operate. The idea of purposely and repeatedly breaking the law would certainly be considered wayward especially when considering that anabolic steroids may have several different negative side effects on the user.


“Greg Valentino,” Image courtesy of Iron Magazine
Greg Valentino, otherwise known as the most hated man in bodybuilding, displayed above, took synthol use to an extreme in his desire to gain larger arms (a result of Muscle Dysmorphia). Currently Valentino has the largest arms on record, but certainly not a reflection of the ideal male physique.

All too often, bodybuilders come down with a disorder called Muscle Dysmorphia. The basic concept behind the disorder is that the person afflicted with it becomes obsessed with the idea that they are not muscular enough and they may also have delusions that they are “skinny” or “too small” but are often above average in musculature. Basically as a result of obsessing over gaining muscle mass this person has now become consumed with the belief that they are too small. A person who has Muscle Dysmorphia can be identified by several mannerisms, for example they will frequently neglect friends and family in order to exercise. Another common mannerism of someone with Muscle Dysmorphia is that they will constantly examine themselves in the mirror (searching for flaws). While these types of behaviors are not necessarily troubling it’s when the disorder becomes severe that the waywardness becomes apparent. In severe cases of Muscle Dysmorphia the person with the disorder will go to extreme lengths to improve their body regardless of the consequences to their health. In some cases the person will become addicted to fat burners which are used to keep a body looking well defined or for an overweight person to lose weight quickly. These fat burners can cause serious damage to the cardiovascular system especially when used in excess. Others distraught by their inability to achieve the size they mentally believe they need to, will inject their body with an oil called Synthol. Synthol just sits in the body eating away at muscle tissue, and while the person effected may think it looks more muscular often times in reality it looks more like a physical deformity.

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Phil “The Gift” Heath, Courtesy of Muscular Development Magazine
Displayed here is the true narcissistic of bodybuilding. Phil Heath, the current Mr. Olympia, wearing only the tiniest of underwear and covered in bronzer so that he can be effectively examined by the crowd for his physical prowess.

Bodybuilding at its core has extremely narcissistic implications attached to it, bodybuilding is the extreme valuation of the physical and nothing beyond. Bodybuilders brought on stage are not expected to address anything mental, they are purely physical on stage, the appreciation of the body with seemingly no attachment to the person. Considering that narcissism is a central theme of bodybuilding, it’s not surprising that many of those who partake in its highest competitive levels have a narcissistic nature themselves. Narcissism in the sense of “self obsessive thinking” reaches a large percentage of bodybuilders. First there are those who display the self obsessive thinking defined by Muscle Dysmorphia, which is a negative self obsession. While others are Narcissistic in the more traditional sense of being completely self-absorbed, believing that they are the embodiment of self-perfection, which prevents them from realizing when they are acting arrogant or shamelessly. Narcissism is wayward because it prevents those inflicted with the ability to see themselves and others realistically, or as those comprising the societal norms see them.

Suggested Reading

Arnheim, Daniel D., and William E. Prentice. Principles of Athletic Training. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Dir. Christopher Bell, 2008.

Chapman, David L. Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2006.

McCreary, Donald R., Doris K. Sasse, Deborah M. Saucier, and Kim D. Dorsch. “Measuring the Drive for Muscularity: Factorial Validity of the Drive for Muscularity Scale in Men and Women.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 5.1 (2004): 49-58.

Pumping Iron. Dir. George Butler, 1977.

Schwarzenegger, Arnold, Bill Dobbins, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

This entry was posted by reckert2012.

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