Distraction Free Reading

On Being a “Natural” Human

Bodybuilders, split between “all natural bodybuilders” and those who, in failing to specify, are marked out as “drug” bodybuilders, are explicit about both the health consequences of using growth hormones and steroids, and the fact that they are absolutely necessary to success. “All natural” I was told, “is dead.” “You can’t get anywhere without taking drugs.” Yet these same interlocutors also told me that “drug bodies are fake.” With drugs the muscles are not “you,” “it’s just this skinny little guy in a muscle suit.”
Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that “you” is always a “guy,” though when this conversation took place we had actually been talking about women, I want to think/talk/write for a moment about the tension, the distance between fake and winning bodies.

I come to this discussion out of the excellent recent post by Chris Furlow on competitive cycling. Chris suggests that discourse amongst cyclists centers on a notion of “performance.” Here, I want to suggest that fake bodies and winning bodies, while they are both “drug” bodies, point to different kinds of performances.

I use “performance” here differently than Chris did, but in rather interesting relation to it… I will get to that later. For the moment, I am thinking along the lines of Judith Butler’s citations. Bodybuilders practice highly disciplined regimes of diet, exercise, and sleep toward transforming themselves into an ideal form. In competition, men and women display their bodies and compete for who most closely approaches the “ideal body.” The ideal body for both men and women is a combination of more muscle (for size), less fat (for “definition”) and symmetry, a somewhat ineffable balance of proportion. This goes for competitions across the board, whether “all natural” or not. Yet I would argue that these performances, these citations of an ideal, are not the same, and the distinction is embodied in the tension between authenticity (the alternative to fake) and winning (the alternative to “dead”).

When I first began researching bodybuilders in 2005-6, I was intrigued by the notion of “drugs” as a kind of moving target. For some, drugs were “anything that isn’t legal” while for others, the purists of the pure, all supplements were artificial and therefore suspect, though vitamins were described as a necessary evil. Clearly, they pointed to a boundary, a sense of what is and is not the proper domain of the natural human. What I discovered over the course of my dissertation research in 2006-2007 was that the distinction between “real bodies” and “fake bodies” for the all natural athletes I worked with pivoted on notions of what muscles said about the person. To develop a bodybuilding physique without the aid of growth hormones or steroids takes time, discipline, and an understanding of nutrition, physiology, and ones own body that informants called, broadly, “knowledge.” While steroids also demand careful management and in that sense a good deal of knowledge, “drug bodies” were seen as fake because they came too easily, without the kinds of qualities that a muscular body would represent if it were “real.”

Yet members of the all natural gym where I did the bulk of my research were sympathetic towards those who “went over to the dark side.” It was understandable, they told me, in a sport where drugs were the condition of possibility for success. While some said they preferred a more “natural aesthetic,” even those role models were drawn from amongst competitors who were known to have used steroids to achieve their looks (most commonly, Frank Zane). It was in reading Chris’ post regarding “performance” and cycling that I began to think about what kinds of “performance” the elite bodybuilder embodies.

What comes to mind, more or less simultaneously, is the continuity between the Olympic Games motto of “faster, higher, stronger” and “Moore’s Law” of the technology industry where I now work, which foretold (quite accurately, it would seem), that the number of transistors on a computer chip would roughly double every year. Across these very different contexts, it strikes me there is an ideology of surpassing, of endless and exponential growth that, the housing crisis of recent years notwithstanding, articulates a particular ideology of what “success” is that is common to both. In a bootstrap nation where success and failure are seen as a question of personal responsibility, and a reflection of individual capacity, winning means going above and beyond oneself, doing “whatever it takes.” The bodies of champion bodybuilders, the “monster bodies” of Jay Cutler, Ronnie Coleman, or Phil Heath, represent an ideal of “performance” as surpassing to the nth degree, an ideological refusal of glass ceilings, limits, or boundaries.

In their own way, the all natural bodybuilders I spoke to were also very much concerned with surpassing overcoming limits. The difference between all natural and elite bodybuilding was a question of what limitations were to be surpassed, and what various kinds of surpassing signified.

This is a tension that continues to fascinate me now; it is this issue that ties together my past work on bodybuilders where at first glance “technology” seems mostly the kind with weights and pulleys, and my current research on data, technology and the body. It is the dynamic movement between constrained notions of a proper, authentic, all natural “human,” and the effervescent rejection of those boundaries as mere challenges to be surpassed in hard work, discipline, and the next-gen technological innovation. What makes us human? How do we want to be human in the future? When, in the incorporation of technologies, by ingesting them, or as physical prosthetics such as spectacles that extend our capacities to see (farther, sharper, clearer), do these technologies become part of us, of what and who we are, and when are they mere fakery, muscle suits that conceal the diminished skinny guy within?

1 Comment

  • Chris Furlow says:

    Great post Jamie. It does seem that our projects have a lot in common. I’m very interested in boundary between authentic/fake you talk about and how that boundary is signified in terms of moving beyond vitamins. In cycling, they are governed by the WADA codes and definitions of legal/illicit drugs and methods. At the same time, there is a sense that it is critical to go way beyond vitamins (one pro-cyclist told me she took about 40 pills a day, all legal, of various vitmins and other supplements to aid perfomance and recovery). Diet and nutrition is also central to notions of professionalism. Eating the minimum necessary to maintain health and enable training in order to reduce body fat to minimum is the goal. Eddy Mercyx, considered greatest cyclist ever, is well known for his comment that it is essential to leave the dinner table a little bit hungry every night in order to succeed. So austerity and discipline are core values among pro cyclists. Hope to talk more with you. Chris

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