After several iterations of exercising and adding weight, the two have settled into their routine. This routine involves a most serious approach to lifting weight, sprinkled with endearing bits of jocularity as the men rest–endearing from the outside, terrifying from the inside. Between these two men the topics of conversation are limited indeed. Listening closely, we hear discussion about diets, discussion about the rest of the week’s workouts, and discussion about physical ailments (the more acutely described, the better). We’re terrified to learn that most of the conversation is about sex. Not real sex of course—fantasy sex. Over the course of an hour or so, a good three-quarter’s of the conversation revolves around the women present in the gym, and what these men would do with them. As if Petey Pablo’s hit “Freak-a-leek” was accidentally placed on endless repeat, they reveal themselves to be animals. Or do they? Here we leave the scene to explore this a bit further.
Reflection, based on time spent in the community, reveals that among the base, the paltry, the pornographic language, something more is happening. Remember, we are talking about men who take things to the extremes. Bodybuilders put massive amounts of effort into achieving their size and strength. They need a way to know they aren’t wasting their expertise, and that’s how their discourse community is built. It is about filtering. It is about learning who can to stay and who must go. If you don’t get it, can’t handle it, or just don’t approve, then these men don’t want to be around you anyhow. Men like these are endlessly pestered with attention, questions, and potential protégés seeking tutelage. They simply don’t have the time to address everyone. So they create a set of filters. Where did they learn to use filters? Their mentors. Each bodybuilder decided to put up with the immature crassness if he wanted to learn the art. Along the way, they determine that it is a necessary evil. Do you really want to know their secret? Stick around. Deal with the language. Deal with everyone in the gym knowing that you’re objectifying women, engaging in self-love at its highest level, and making jokes about everything once thought sacred. Do that long enough, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll accept you as a student.
Sure, there is something maladjusted within these men, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. We’re talking about why men whose physical appearance alone clearly communicates their physical superiority over other men still need to have their own language, still need to use paltry and base arts and entrenchments. At first, it is easy to think that of all groups of people, bodybuilders wouldn’t need to use these uncouth methods to distinguish themselves. Upon further inspection, they do. They do because their mentors required it in order to prove that these students weren’t going to waste their time. Before becoming a bodybuilder, these men have a goal. They do what is necessary to achieve it. Then they become the mentor.
He returns his bag to his shoulder, exits the locker room and heads to the bench press. Free weight bench press of course. As he places his bag under the bench he looks around, a smile quickly forming. He recognizes a friend. This friend isn’t necessarily a giant, but there is something respectable about his physical prowess. As they banter, our bodybuilder tips back his water bottle—a full gallon jug—and takes a drink. Placing the cap back on, the conversation concludes with a handshake. With a hint of interest, he directs his attention to the reception desk. His hand nonchalantly rises to shoulder level as his lifting partner smiles and returns the gesture. Noticing he nearly ignored the receptionist, the partner stops and charmingly offers his sincerest of apologies. The receptionist appears to want to tell him he needs to sign in, but quickly reconsiders. Skipping the locker room, the partner (also carrying a giant duffel bag) heads straight for the bench press. The heartiest of handshakes completes the greeting and signals to all that they are about to begin
And begin they do. Our man grabs a ten pound plate, and begins warming up his shoulder and rotator cuff. One arm making deliberate movements, the other hand feeling the concerned area. Switching hands he repeats the process. His friend then takes the weight and does the same. During this ritual—which dates back to the first time they, not wanting to irritate their mentor, skipped warming-up as a consequence of being late to a work-out and then tweaked their shoulder—they discuss briefly how their shoulders aren’t quite 100%, but that they feel good enough. This minor chit-chat serves as a vocal warm-up, as much as a health conscious discussion. It is their way of talking about the weather. Finally, our man grabs a 45lb plate from the rack and loads it on the bar. The warm-up has officially commenced.
In the classic Moby Dick Herman Melville writes, “For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.” Substitute “physical” for “intellectual” and you have a perfect description of a bodybuilder circa late 1990s-early 2000s. The paltry and base aids that bodybuilders call upon, however, have a specific noble purpose unlike those Melville references. At the turn of the 21st century, bodybuilder mentors used paltry and base external arts as a filter to weed out men who were weak in discipline and drive–to cull the heard as it were. As a matter of course, the student later becomes the teacher and the entire group ends up with its own way of communicating.
Quite unlike intellectual superiority, measuring physical superiority is easy. Whether in size or strength or body fat, the human body is quantifiable. Nonetheless, bodybuilders, these giants of our time, still create their own discourse communities. Join me as we enter the once secret world of bodybuilding.
Immediately, we recognize the man walking toward the gym’s receptionist as a bodybuilder due to his sheer size. He is a giant. Giant also is the duffle bag he has over his shoulder. It is oversized–as is everything in it. A 5lb container of protein power, the sturdiest weight belt on the market, wrist wraps and straps, medium sized notebook and pen, and a Tupperware container of chalk fill the bag. This bag wasn’t always packed this way. Initially, it likely had a change of clothes, or a towel. Over the years, one-by-one each item made its way, as if called, into the bag. Today, this bag softly whispers to the uninitiated, “You and I are very different. Do not expect to understand. That you stare only proves my point.”
Blushing, the young lady receptionist takes his flirtatious greeting to heart. If she is allowed any leniency with requiring members to sign in, this man gets the pass. “Have a good workout!” she adds, displaying a little too much interest as he turns towards the locker room.
Once in the locker room, he becomes king. Locker use is doubtful (who would dare touch his gear?), so he drops his bag wherever he pleases and heads to the restroom. Next, he returns to the designated sitting area and settles into his seat with an air of gravity. He hasn’t yet conversed with any other men in the locker room. Using their silence as a currency, the other members pay their respects. One last glimpse around the room ensuring he hasn’t missed anyone important, he bends over to tie his shoes properly. These shoes being a very unique, almost wrestler looking boot. Sturdy and serious, these shoes and the manner in which he ties them tell us he isn’t here for fun.