Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Ben Nadel at the NYC Tech Talk Meetup (Aug. 2010) with:

Bodybuilder Americanus By Samuel Fussell

By Ben Nadel on

A long time ago, I blogged about one of my favorite books of all time, "Muscle: Confessions Of An Unlikely Bodybuilder," by Samuel Wilson Fussell. It is both a hilarious and, often times, moving account of one man's journey through the world of bodybuilding. In the comments to that post, Reg recently pointed out to me that Samuel Fussell has written some other pieces about which I was unaware. Of particular interest, Fussell wrote, "Bodybuilder Americanus," as a chapter within the book, "The Male Body: Features, Destinies, Exposures." Bodybuilder Americanus is a hypercritical analysis of the culture, statement, and mentality of the modern day iron warrior.

While the piece captures both the sharp wit and the brilliant articulation that Samuel Fussell is know for, I found some of his points to be quite thought provoking. The following segment provides some very interesting perspective, not just for bodybuilders, but for cross-gender understanding:

While the swimmer and the bicyclist shave to cut down on drag, on air or water resistance, the bodybuilder shaves to make sure his body is seen without obstruction. His performance lies in being looked at, ogled, appraised. For these modern-day coxcombs, using the theatricality of the street as their backdrop, the stare is the ultimate reward. It's a reversal of sex roles, with the builder taking a traditionally female role: body as object. (The Male Body, 45)

Fussell points out that in many ways, the bodybuilder heavily blurs the line between masculine and feminine. In some ways, he appears to be an extreme parody of both genders. As a male, generically speaking, it is typically very hard to understand how women see the world. I wonder if the bodybuilder - Bodybuilder Americanus - levels the playing ground, providing a tunnel into the female psyche? And if so, how much does that change our understanding?

Anyway, I would definitely recommend checking out Fussell's piece. Whether or not you like bodybuilding, it provides a fascinating point of view as written by a very talented author.




Reader Comments

Man, that really is interesting. Putting yourself on display to better understand how many woman are observed in the world really might lead to some interesting insights.

One nit-pickey bit: cyclists don't shave their legs to cut down on drag. It's done half out of safety and half out of tradition.

Safety: When you fall off a bike at high speed, any dirt and crap in the road gets ground into your skin, making the 'road rash' ripe for infection. The solution is to basically 'scrub it til it bleeds again' after you get home. If you've got hair, this process will rip more skin off and make it harder to clean. For mountain bikers, it also makes spotting ticks a hell of a lot easier.

Tradition: It's a sign of dedication, that you've done your time to build the muscle that you want to show, and that you know what the heck you're doing. If I'm in a group riding at 25-30mph, I'm not going to be six inches behind the guy with hairy legs unless I know him well enough to know he's not going to grab the brakes in a panic when a dog runs in the road.

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@Joe,

It's definitely a very interesting piece. As far as bikers go, I think my brother was once telling me about it; I think he said something like, "I fell once... and I very quickly realized why I needed to shave."

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@Ben - You and Mr. Fussell have many things in common, not the least of which is being brilliant writers. :)

As an interesting aside, Mr. Fussell mentions Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay in his article. Does that last name sound familiar? :)

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@Ben - Mariska Hargitay, his daughter, is the star of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

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@Ben- It's a good show, albeit disturbing much of the time. And Mariska is a brilliant actress; there are pictures of her with her dad at various award shows, etc. Makes me wonder if they've read Mr. Fussell's article and if they seem themselves in it anywhere (as a former bodybuilder and a current actress).

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@Ben,

Good piece of information. I am interested in bodybuilding (reducing the Tyre along my waist line actually). Can you suggest something (just as you give good CF points)?

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"I wonder if the bodybuilder - Bodybuilder Americanus - levels the playing ground, providing a tunnel into the female psyche?" It's a start, but it's probably not an authentic tunnel. There is a big distinction to be made: The body builder chooses to be "ogled" and be an object. A woman does not. And the woman can't just stop being an object as the bodybuilder can (ie., stop working out, competing, etc.). That's a big difference that will always inform a woman's world view. A woman, no matter her age will always be "judged" (if only passively) according to society's current standards.

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@Scooter,

I am not so sure. Think about all of the choices that we all make and the understanding that judgments will be rendered. While we cannot every truly stop people from judging us, we can certainly influence the image that we present. I guess what I am getting at is that I don't see much of a distinction between the bodybuilder that chooses his own outfit vs. a woman that chooses her own outfit.

After all, the tight fitting, muscle-encasing "Under Armour" spandex top is not any different than the woman's fitted jeans or spaghetti-strap tank. In the end, they are all conscious decisions of one person's desire to present a facade to the outside world.

What lends the insight here is the fact that the bodybuilder "appears" to put so much effort into their appearance, spending hours upon hours in the gym, that we think the decision is *much* more deliberate... but I would argue that it is not any different at all.

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As an aside the mother of the above mentioned actress is, I believe, Jayne Mansfield. Irony? since the discussion is mainly dealing with the human body as object. interesting! I read Fussell's book several years ago, but kept it, very rare for me. I enjoyed it very much as an "iron man" who never got into it at that level.

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Here's a 9,000 word interview Sam did with a Dr./Author on Human Performance from the Mayo Clinic:

http://www.drmichaeljoyner.com/

Sam articulates why he wrote the book, Muscle, how he wrote it, and discusses the five year experience and immersion in lifting. He also goes on to discuss what he's doing now and why.

And it is jaw-dropping.

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Is the son of Paul Fussel, author of 'Class : A Guide Through The American Status System'? If so that explains where he gets his wit and insight from.

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