Ok, so I had this article sent to me and I thought it had some pretty outlandish claims regarding what this person saw at the Arnold this year. I’ve had several debates with people regarding the use of supplements and steroids and its prevalence at the Arnold among other issues this author brings up. I’d love to see some thoughts on the article. It looks long but doesn’t take long to read. If anything, scan it and comment. I’d really like to know what some of you think.
Pathology on parade
By Frank Forencich with thanks to Jeff Crews
In March of 2009, the Exuberant Animal team traveled to Columbus, Ohio to give a presentation at the Arnold Active Aging Festival. (That?s Arnold, as in Arnold Schwarzenegger.) At the time, it seemed like a good idea. We were happy to contribute to Active Aging and advance the cause of health. We were delighted to share our philosophy of play-based fitness and health promotion with the senior community.
As it turned out, the Active Aging Festival was not what it first appeared. Rather, it seemed to be a token gesture to health designed to buffer criticism of the steroid-fueled spectacle on display next door, at the Arnold Bodybuilding Festival.
The event was prodigious in every dimension. Everywhere we looked we saw extremity, enormity and excess. Everything was huge, loud and in your face. The displays were incredible statements in their own right, but it was the bodies that really stopped us in our tracks: immense, distorted, alien bodies of preposterous proportion ? muscle and silicone as far as the eye could see.
The ethos of the event was clearly expressed in hundreds of signs and labels for various products, mostly supplements. Company names included “Brutal,” “Armageddon,” “House of Pain,” “Punishment Athletics,” “Body Fortress,” (“Your body, your fortress.”) “Beast,” “Affliction,” and our personal favorite, “Biohazard Nutrition.”
Supplement brands included: “Absolute Domination,” “Dark Rage,” “Beyond Extreme,” “Monster Milk,” “Respect,” Retaliate," “Jet Fuel,” “Redline,” “Myo Shock,” "Con-Crêt (“For block-hard muscles”), “Nightmare” and “WAR” (Workout Anabolic Response)
We were also welcomed with t-shirts telling us to “Go heavy or go home,” “Shut the fuck up and train,” “Throw up” and “Go away.”
We didn?t know whether to laugh, cry or flee for our lives. Our emotional reactions swung from abhorrence and disgust to sadness and shock to dismay and morbid fascination. EA trainer Jeff Crews described the experience as “watching our culture circling the drain.” After leaving the convention hall, he spoke for all of us when he said simply, “I feel diseased.”
What?s health got to do with it?
In some quarters, this convention was billed as a “health and fitness event.” But clearly, health had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Most participants were in obvious partnership with the metabolic devil, mortgaging their futures for short-term muscular development.
More properly, this event resembled nothing so much as a vast chemistry experiment. The formula is simple: take immense quantities of anabolic substances, add prodigious amounts of brute physical labor and whala ? spectacular muscular development! If you wanted, you could reproduce the whole thing in a laboratory.
Only the most naïve observer would have wondered about steroid use in this population. Some things are simply obvious. No amount of natural training would produce such grotesque physical development. The tissue that we observed was clearly synthetic. As Jeff Crews put it, “If cannibalism were legal, you wouldn?t want to put any of these people on the barbeque.”
The “me” industry
There was no ambiguity about the ultimate purpose of this event. Aside from the obvious profit motive, the primary objective was to promote the appearance of individual human bodies. As such, this event was poised at the cutting edge of the “me industry.”
Bodybuilders are the most obvious players in this industry, but they are by no means the only ones. The “me industry” is a culture-wide force that includes most health, fitness and lifestyle magazines, TV shows and DVDs, as well as many gyms, spas and salons. It includes, not just an obsessive focus on muscle and weight loss, but also athletic achievement, skin care, fashion and personal possessions.
In this industry, attention is focused exclusively on the individual and the individual?s body. It?s all about your abs and my butt. It?s all about your weight loss or my athletic performance. It?s all about your hair or my skin. It?s never about our community or our predicament.
The “me” meme is all about promoting the primacy of the individual. The customer is a stand-alone organism with no tribe or community. Relationships are irrelevant. This is why magazine covers always feature single, isolated bodies, Photoshopped to perfection. There?s no background, no habitat and thus, no life-support. It?s all about me and it?s all about you, but it?s never about us.
The primary memes of the day were pain, suffering, isolation and darkness. There were no life-affirming messages to be found anywhere. We saw no expressions of joy, celebration or exuberance.
Rather, it was all about self-abuse and punishment. Beat your body into submission. Pain is the path to achievement and spectacular mass. Happiness is for pussies and skinny people. Only through brutal, self-inflicted punishment can one gain mastery over tissue and life. As the Body Force tagline put it so clearly, “The best bodies are built by force.”
Supplement companies went to great lengths to demonstrate their commitment to intentional suffering. Several displays featured fully-enclosed chain-link training areas decorated with industrial urban motif, including black 55 gallon steel drums. These cages were intentionally designed to focus the pain and isolation as intensively as possible.
There was no ambiguity about it; these enclosures featured caged human animals doing battle with heavy iron. Proud of their status as caged animals, these lifters embraced their condition and reveled in its meaning.
But we were stunned. Who would this intentional incarceration appeal to? It was inconceivable to us that a person would build a cage and inhabit it voluntarily. After all, the normal animal response to captivity is escape. No wild animal would ever voluntarily inhabit such a cage, much less build one for the express purpose of locking itself up. From a biological point of view, such behavior is profoundly abnormal.
Is the universe friendly?
As we wandered the convention hall, each of us were given to wonder: What set of circumstances would lead people to such extremity? What kind of life would produce such a pathological orientation to the body and the world?
We can only imagine the original cause of such dysfunction, but one thing seems certain. These individuals must have, at some point in their childhood, given an answer to Einstein?s famous question and concluded?unconsciously perhaps?that no, the universe is not friendly.
And of course, when you live in an unfriendly world, you?ve got to do everything possible to secure your position. Threats are everywhere, options are limited, possibilities few, people are treacherous, security is fleeting, relationships are ambiguous.
If this is your worldview, it makes sense to seek out power and control by any means possible. Intimidate your adversaries with outrageous appearance, buy them off with wealth or overcome them with skill and weapons. And naturally, this orientation becomes a vicious circle of self-fulfillment. The more we defend, the more hostile the world becomes.
And so we see a dark synergy of disciplines and practices, bound together by the power of fear and insecurity. Call it “the insecurity-industrial complex.” This network includes bodybuilding, mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting, military combat, weapons and of course, porno. If you find one of these interests, you?ll often find the others networked with it.
From this perspective, it seemed somehow fitting that the US Army would have a booth of its own, featuring a state-of-the-art interactive wide screen video game called “Door Gunner.” A replica assault rifle was mounted on a tripod, poised to take aim at the display. A pair of young soldiers, dressed in desert camo, invited visitors to take a turn on the weapon. As the action rolled, I watched in horror as an incredibly realistic aerial scene unfolded. Suddenly I was flying over a Middle Eastern city, watching transfixed as our “gunner” picked off people in the streets. The action was completely convincing. Most visitors seemed to find it entertaining and instructive, but we were horrified.
As the world burns
Outside the convention hall, environmental reality was still in full swing of course. The biosphere was still at risk. Climate was still warming at a frightening rate and natural systems were crashing in every direction. But inside, planetary reality was held at bay by denial or willful ignorance. For these bodybuilding enthusiasts, the only possible purpose for planet Earth was to act as a source of gravity and in turn, muscular resistance. (Training tip: if you want to get serious about building massive muscles, try doing squats on Jupiter.)
We observed no hint of ecological or social consciousness on any level. On the contrary, we witnessed spectacular, extravagant waste in a variety of forms: wasted resources, wasted potential, wasted intelligence and of course, wasted health.
We could only wonder: Given our planetary predicament, how could anyone justify this lifestyle? How much carbon was pumped into the atmosphere to make this event possible? How much plastic was produced and discarded? How much fresh water was wasted in chemical processing? How many animals were slaughtered to produce the mountains of protein that were being consumed with in such radical excess?
It takes an immense amount of resources to build oversized bodies: calories, chemicals, carbon and for the women, silicone. Not to mention the years of study that goes into learning biochemistry. All of these resources could be used elsewhere to more socially and environmentally responsible effect.
We could only wonder how this spectacle would appear to the impoverished citizens of planet Earth, the billion or so people who scrape and scavenge each day for mere subsistence. While the muscle monsters obsess over their 6 meals-per-day programs, these people are lucky to find anything at all to eat.
The body is a reflection
I have long believed that the human body is a reflection of culture, a mirror that allows us to see who we are and how we live in the world. So the question is, what does the increasing popularity of extreme bodybuilding tell us about who we are as a people?
It tells us that we are insecure and fearful. We are terrified of our predicament in this world. We feel powerless. We feel that we lack control.
Of course, bodybuilding is an easy target. The pathology is so obvious, so public. But we can be sure that our culture is home to other forms of extremism that are less visible to our eyes. After all, bodybuilders can claim no monopoly on obsessive-compulsive behavior.
And so we have to ask some hard questions?
How is this form of physical obsession any different from any other? Is the obsessive bodybuilder really any different than the obsessive artist or musician? the workaholic? the athlete? Why do we laugh at the bodybuilder, but reward the triathlete? Is it simply a matter of class? What do we expect in a culture that rewards extremity of all varieties? What do we expect in a culture that glorifies the individual over community?
There should be no surprise here. The bodybuilding culture is the logical outcome of a culture in which extremity is not only tolerated, but celebrated.
And in this sense, the problem doesn?t lie with the bodybuilding culture; the problem lies with us.
Of course the bodybuilding culture is diseased. But if bodybuilders are sick, so too is anyone who devotes every waking moment to a physical specialty or monomaniacal pursuit. So is anyone with a physical obsession-compulsion. If the bodybuilders are sick, so too are the ultramarathoners, the obsessive-compulsive climbers and the yoga practitioners who spend years twisting their bodies into impossible poses. Bodybuilders have no monopoly on physical extremism or lifestyle dysfunction.
Where?s the health?
In the end, the whole experience brought me to a higher level of misunderstanding. For years I have agonized over the state of the modern human body, especially our epidemic of sedentary living and physical apathy.
But here I observed something altogether different. The bodybuilders weren?t sedentary and they obviously weren?t obese, but they certainly weren?t healthy.
Outside of the convention center, I observed “normal” Americans as they walked by: they were fat and sedentary as usual. As I stood on the sidewalk and looked around, the contrast was stark: On one side of the door, a parade of diabetic adipose tissue. On the other, a parade of obsessive-compulsive muscle and silicone.
So now I feel like Diogenes with a lamp on a dark night. But instead of looking for one honest man, I?m now looking for one truly healthy man or woman.
Or better yet, a healthy culture.
My search continues?