Thursday, January 18, 2007

Non-archaeology (but sort of anthropology) post

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie Pumping Iron. For those of us alive in 1977 (albeit in the case of yours truly somewhat young to really take full notice of it at the time) it marked something of a cultural change in direction. Admission: part of nearly every day of my life for the last, oh, *mumble mumble* years has been taken up in one gym or another lifting weights or, as we can say since 1977, pumping iron. Note that I look nothing like a professional bodybuilder and never will (too naturally scrawny) but I probably work out harder than your average schmoe so that during the three weeks of summer here in the Northwest when the raincoats come off and we can wear short sleeved shirts, it's noticeable. Small aside: I owe a debt of gratitude, not to Arnold, but to Jack LaLanne. My mother had one of his fitness books that I discovered one summer and found that, whoa, you can exercise with a couple of kitchen chairs and a towel and actually see results! I tell ya, I wowed some people that Fall at school when it came time for the President's Physical Fitness Test or whatever it was called. Never did pass it though; I could never quite get the peg board. C'est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, before Arnold was unleashed upon the universe, the world of professional bodybuilding was barely noticeable by the larger public; our views of guys who "worked out" were largely derived from Charles Atlas ads in comic books which mostly portrayed those kind of people as intent on beating up other guys and impressing women, the sort of manly characteristics that were most often portrayed up to that point. What little else we knew of bodybuilders -- mostly referred to as "muscle men" -- were that they were probably vain and didn't really use all those muscles for anything except posing in their underwear.

Pumping Iron showed the personalities of the more notable in the sport (if you can call it that), the intense competition that was in effect, and the simply vast amount of work and dedication that went into competing. They were funny, often charming, intelligent, personable, and focused on what they were trying to accomplish, while still utterly enjoying it at the same time. It showed that there was far more to being a competitive bodybuilder than just having "lots of muscles". There was a certain psychology involved, there was a keen sense of the aesthetic they were trying to achieve -- Arnold probably had the best grasp of this, then or since -- and they all had an acute attention to detail within that context. Above all, it showed these guys as human beings who knew they were human beings just trying to win a competition.

Before that, most film and TV tough guys (good or bad) weren't particularly endowed physically. It was just assumed that they were maybe a bit bigger, but mostly just stronger and tougher than other men. Check the opening sequence in the Bond film From Russia With Love: the big baddie, played by Robert Shaw, is a bit taller and bigger than most men, but he's not particularly developed muscularly. Heck, even the various actors who played Superman weren't terribly physically imposing.

Similarly, gyms weren't exactly known as clean, inviting sorts of places. They were dark, dingy and full up mostly with guys who thought of themselves as budding boxers. Certainly not places that most people in polite society, and definitely not women would dare enter.

That all changed after PI. Fitness became an acceptable goal for its own sake, not just as a way to either smack down rivals or as part of training for another sport. It went mainstream. Gyms -- or "health clubs" or "fitness clubs" -- became social hangouts where you could actually go to -- *gasp!* -- meet women.

A bunch of studies in the intervening years have shown how the idea of muscularity has permeated popular culture. The best known of recent years is that done by Pope et al. (Pope, H. G., Olivardia, R., Gruber, A., & Borowiecki, J. [1999]. Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26, 65-72) on representations of fictional heroes in the form of action toys. They found that most of these toys gradually became far more muscular, in both size and definition, over time such that they represented physiques not even attainable by actual bodybuilders:

The findings indicated a big increase in sizes for the measured body parts from GI Joe Land Adventurer (1973) to GI Joe Extreme (1998). The chest increased in size from 44.4 in. to 54.8 in. and the biceps increased from 12.2 in. to 26.8 in. The authors noted that, extrapolated to a 70 in. (height) male, "GI Joe would sport larger biceps than any bodybuilder in history" (p. 68). Although the waist increased in size also (31.7 in. to 36.5 in., the authors noted that the latter figure has "the sharply rippled abdominals of an advanced bodybuilder" (p. 67) whereas the early models have far less definition.

Much of this research has been controversial, not in its empirical findings, but relating to the cause/effect this may have on eating disorders in men and boys. Someone even wrote a book on this supposed connection called The Adonis Complex. I paged through it once, but remain unconvinced that the connection is really a causal one or that it's a growing crisis. Mostly the book had a bunch of anecdotal stories of obsessive gym rats, like the guy who went on vacation in the Caribbean and shipped his entire set of barbells ahead of him so he could work out while there. Sheesh.

Empirically, it's hard to argue what the bodybuilding theme has done to action movies (similar to what Bruce Lee did with martial arts, but that's another story) and culture at large. It's hard to find an action movie without a fully muscled lead; James Bond seems to rather upset this trend, at least until Daniel Craig bulked up for his most recent outing; otherwise, Bond was pretty much a normal guy, physique-wise. Even Batman, which caused most observers to raise an eyebrow when the distinctly un-muscular Michael Keaton played him in 1989, was clad not in tights a lá Adam West, but in an armored suit with. . . .muscular definition. Note also the transformation of Rocky Balboa through the years; he started out being big but with little definition in the first film, but progressivley got more chiseled as time went on.

So here we sit 30 years on. Go rent the movie this weekend and check out the gym they were working out in. It's really quite small with a limited range of equipment, a far cry from the acres of machines we now enjoy(?). Also compare them with the current crop of bodybuilders. You'll be surprised at how small they look; bodybuilding has developed into being more about size and definition these days, when back then it had more of an emphasis on overall proportion and balance. Also remember that it's a documentary and the filmmakers took some liberties with developing a 'narrative'. The particulars note that, despite the intense competition, there wasn't really the nastiness the movie seems to portray, particularly in the Lou Ferrigno angle. Still, it's an enjoyable trip back in time when men were men, women were women, and bodybuilders were these really freaky guys who went up on stage in Speedos.