Test is Best?

Do you want to know how to really piss me off? There are a number of ways to accomplish this worthy goal. For instance, you could e-mail me a petty complaint about yesterday’s midterm, sending it when I am surrounded by 90 hideously unmarked exam booklets, trembling with uncertainty while pondering that recurring question: Should I grade these exams, or jump off the High Level Bridge instead? If that doesn’t grab your fancy, other tactics that will nudge me closer to the edge include, in no particular order: disrespecting any one of my friends; claiming three weight machines at once while doing a circuit; walking both slowly and aimlessly in front of me; paying six utility bills at the bank machine; trying to foist your administrative duties onto someone else. But if you really want to push my buttons, here is a time-saving short cut: Ask me about anabolic steroid use in bodybuilding. This question could take any number of forms: ‘Don’t all bodybuilders use gear?’ ‘Aren’t you afraid of those ‘roid monkeys at the gym?’ ‘Have you ever done anavar?’ Or it could simply be a blurted accusation: ‘You are obviously stacking!’ ‘Your unnaturally muscular friend must benefit from Vitamin S. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.’ All I can say is ‘Fuck, fuck, off, off.’

Here’s why. The instantaneous association of bodybuilding with steroids is often based on hysterical media reports and the sheer visibility of the muscle mass developed during intense weight lifting. Anabolic steroids are used and/or abused in any number of sports, but noticed in those cases only when 1) some kind of drug scandal involving a famous person hits the newspapers, or 2) the Olympics are on TV. What’s more, the standard conflation of bodybuilding with injected substances assumes that the impressively bulging muscles on display were made primarily through drug use, disregarding the hours spent sweating at the gym, eating clean, and taking ‘natural’ supplements (more about that later). Plus the knee jerk disapproval of ‘roids is just too predictable, too easy, too socially acceptable. Bodybuilding=steriod abuse=end of discussion is a commonsense truism, which in my books makes it both highly dubious and worth exploring further.  

This past week I sought out literature on illegal anabolic-androgenic steroids. Instead of lingering over the 10,000 media reports that decry doping in sports, or the 7,000 medical studies showing the dangers of such banned or controlled substances, I looked for arguments in favour of nonmedically-indicated steroid use. That’s right: I am rebel, hear me roar. Not that I wished to promote steroids per se; I was simply curious to discover if any reasonable defenses of drug use in bodybuilding would actually exist in print. Guess what? They do. The first source is not very scholarly, but still worth noting: in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Graeme Lancefield, President of the National Amateur Body Builders Association (NABBA), insisted that performance enhancing drugs were a lifestyle choice best left up to individuals, a position at odds with his organization’s official code of ethics (http://www.nabba.com/ethics.cfm). According to him, bodybuilding is not a sport, and should not be subject to anti-doping legislation. ‘The bodybuilding competitions are a show and the athletes are performers. People want to go and see freaks. It’s like going to the circus. Bodybuilding competitions are more of a freak show than anything else.’ I am not sure what my lovely bodybuilding readers will think of Lancefield’s claims, but they certainly provide food for thought. While not entirely convinced by his broad arguments—bodybuilding can be many different things to many different people—I too am intrigued by the way in which bodybuilding defies categories; it is neither exactly a sport nor a circus performance. Competitive bodybuilding consistently blurs the boundaries between any number of binary pairs, including male/female, sexual appeal/physical revulsion, social transgression/social conformity. Such uncertainty arouses some people, engages others, and discomfits many. 

How are drugs defined? What makes one illegal, while another is controlled, and a third is embraced by the medical community? As a person trained in cultural studies, I understand the category of ‘drug’ to be historically and culturally specific, invented and reinvented over time, usually in the interests of one authoritative group and at the expense of a less privileged class of people. Opium was once labelled a medication, prescribed for menstrual pain, and the aches of childhood teething. Got a bad cough? Try swallowing Laudanum, available at the shop down the street. So what changed? Well, according to an article by Diana Ahmad, during the late nineteenth century opium smoking was linked with immoral behaviour by members of the American medical community. They sought to bar Chinese immigration to the United States on the grounds that the ‘Chinese opium smoking habit’ would spread sexual promiscuity, prostitution, and race mixing (see American Nineteenth Century History, 1, 2, 2000). Opium was essentially given a racial and moral profile, linked with a negative attack on the American way of life, and deemed especially dangerous to vulnerable white women. The history of the ingestion of the coca leaf or cocaine is not the same, but like opium, its derivatives were initially embraced as medications within North America, and later associated with a new nineteenth-century concept called ‘addiction.’ In this case, the moral panic identified cocaine as a ‘negro problem’ liable to promote miscegination, leading for calls that it be controlled or banned. Almost every illegal drug has had a similar story of being vilified for social and political reasons informed by assumptions about race, class, and gender. Of course, there have also been scientific, medical, economic, and health policy reasons, created alongside and inseparably from these cultural factors. Recognizing this aspect of drug discourse does not result in the blanket assertion that all drugs should be openly available and none made illegal, but it does provide a richer and more nuanced forum for thinking about how they are represented, including anabolic-androgenic steroids.    

It has been scientifically proven that the abuse of certain kinds of anabolic-androgenic steroids—I don’t want to get too technical here, nor do I have the knowledge to do so—cause liver damage and other problems. That is not, however, the main reason that they are decried in relation to bodybuilding. Those who take, or are thought to use, such substances are typically labelled unnatural monsters who ‘go too far,’ especially if they are female. In a fascinating article in Cultural Studies-Cultural Methodologies (11, 1, 2011), Jodi Kaufmann notes that the ‘adverse effects’ of taking anabolic-androgenic steroids for women include ‘depression, liver damage, infertility, menstrual interruption, enlargement of the clitoris, enlargement of the left ventricle of the heart, increased libido, increased cholesterol levels, increased blood pressure, hirsutism, and acne.’ Isn’t it fascinating that many of these effects are linked with sexuality and reproductive capacity? And how could an increased libido and enlarged clitoris be considered anything but positive? It’s not like women’s use of synthetic hormones is consistently prohibited; many women regularly consume them either to diminish or enhance fertility. When such drugs are taken to increase the chances of pregnancy, this is often seen as ‘naturally’ helping women to fulfill their bodies’ intended reproductive function. Yet when women inject or swallow synthetic drugs to grow muscle, they are seen to indulge in an irrationally dangerous activity, in need of protection from themselves. Regardless of the legal and medical justification, much of the popular discussion of women’s use of steroids is part of a broader effort to firm up the increasingly shaky boundaries between nature and culture, and to gender police them (and men, albeit arguably to a lesser degree, as the male ingestion of male hormones is more easily portrayed as ‘natural’).  

This long and serious post—sorry!—brings me to another even more contested category: ‘nature.’ I could go on at length, summarizing the ways in which feminist scholars and, more recently, practitioners of environmental history have explored and problematized this term, but you will be happy to hear that I am running out of steam, eager to wrap things up. Let me just pose the question asked by that brilliant anthropologist Sarah Franklin in the Journal of Sport Exercise and Psychology (18, 1996): ‘Why is the natural body preserved as a moral value within the realm of sport, while its limits are also pushed to “unnatural” extremes?’ Here is my more pointed question: ‘Why bother holding on to the notion of so-called natural bodybuilding, when there is nothing natural about this practice?’ I contend that the concept of natural bodybuilding is complete bullshit. Let me explain. The idea of building muscle without relying on diuretics or steroids is all well and good. It is nevertheless ridiculous to think that it is somehow more ‘natural’ to puchase ephedrine or another over-the-counter fat burner, or products containing legal synthetic hormones as opposed to illegal ones. Such distinctions are random and always changing. Even without any supplementation, bodybuilding is inherently unnatural. That is a good thing. There is no ‘natural’ human body to protect; the body is fundamentally produced within specific historical, social, and cultural circumstances. Guess what any ‘natural’ bodybuilder who goes all morally superior, distinguishing themselves from those who use clen, anavar, GH, or even winstrol, will get from me? A swift kick in their never-punctured glutes. That’s what. 

I’m glad that I have finally written this post, but I feel a little guilty that I have not even tried to be amusing or filthy. Let me make it up to you, at least a little. First, for more intellectual and artistic engagement, I encourage you to check out these videos by the amazing artist/trainer/bodybuilder/stunt woman Heather Cassils, my new hero! http://www.myvidster.com/video/2884332/Heather_Cassils_A_Traditional_Sculpture_VIDEO and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j52YxHKWcQM.

You should also check out this vintage video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YgkIfZI234 On Friday night, I took my partner out to dinner for a celebration that cannot be revealed. After ordering our Creole food we learned that Alfie Zappacosta would be performing later. I had vague memories of the 1980s and red jello. ‘Oh so sorry; I didn’t know!’ I said to my partner but I was wrong. Zappacosta was a masterful musician and we enjoyed every minute of his show, while downing a few bottles of wine. My exploration of the 1980s continued on Sunday, when I took my Little Sister to an open house at the Art Gallery of Alberta. One of the activity stations featured piles of old magazines and the opportunity to make collaged postcards. I was struck by the many advertisements for microwaves, which consistently portrayed them in relation to bizarrely-artificial turkeys. Apparently, the ability to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal in a hideously bulky brown oven was considered the epitome of feminine behaviour in 1986. Look at what I made! I’m an artist too, you know.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

6 thoughts on “Test is Best?

  1. Well written Lianne. Your facts are spot on..and it is so true. I have been accused of using some performance inhancing drugs due to my lean body mass during competition prep. I find it laughable! I am 115-118 pounds and 5’4…not quite a freak in my mind! The physique culture has room for everyone no matter what path they choose to follow. I like the Superheavy weight bodybuilders, I admire them for their hard work and discipline. You can’t just take steroids and sit back and magically grow! It takes WORK, DIET, and MORE WORK!!! I am so happy you wrote on this subject. I do believe I am learning more from this blog than I did in CollegeI

  2. Ok, not really on the topic of the post, but I still can’t believe you like Alfie Zappacosta that much! Was the other celebrant (SOMETHING DELETED) as enamored with him…I can’t see it!

    • Oh Waggadventure man, we both LOVED Alfie. Please note that a great deal of expensive white wine no doubt enhanced the experience. But in the Zappa’s defense: that guy is charismatic and can really sing and I would definitely see him perform again, especially if a shitload of scotch was involved!

  3. First of all, I love your blog – informative, funny, and foul – perfect! I will start off by saying I love to weight lift, but like the figure physique much more than the body building physique in terms of aesthetics. I can admire those who body build, but in either men or women I don’t find the over-muscularity attractive. That being said, whether or not a person uses steroids is hardly my business. I would no more ask someone if they were on steroids becuase they looked buff than I would asking a pregnant 40 year old if she had IVF, or ask a 60 year old man with a 20 year old girlfriend if he took Viagra. It’s rude, it’s invasive, and it’s of no concern to me (except, lets be honest, curiousity). Just because we want to know something, doesn’t mean we get to know something.

    What annoys me, is those people who ARE using performance enhancing drugs but maintaining that they don’t. If you’re going to do it, own it. And if you can’t own it, don’t do it.

  4. Thank you for this blog. I went through it from the first post on over the course of this weeken. It was an entertaining as well as insightful read.
    Please excuse my spelling and grammar errors that andoubtedly will linger somewere in this comment. As a German English is not my native tongue.

    Let me add a bit on to what you’ve written about steroids.
    Every activity that requires physical stength can benefit from anabolic steroids under the right circumstances.
    Extensive training will in almost all cases lead to a drop of the natural testosterone level. As of now there are
    no conclusive studies out there about the why. Steroids will prevent that effect and at the same time speed up muscle recovery by blocking Glucocorticoides (who are catabolic and therefore reduce muscle mass).

    Interestingly pretty much every publication I could find that covers the positive side of anabolic steroids use focuses an males, implying that females don’t have testosteron (lol). This is, of course, frankly bullshit.
    As a matter of fact testosteron levels in females tend to fluctuate a lot more than in man . Also I have to admit that the available data on that subject is way to limited and some of the baseline values of that data look rather bogus to me.
    That’s important because when it comes down to so called doping in sports this baseline values are applied and some headroom (that no one can conclusively explain) added on. Everyone who’s testosterone value happens to be above that artificial limit is doping.

    The case of Caster Semenya comes to mind.
    But I think I kinda get sidetracked here. This comment shouldn’t turn into a rant about the doping test systematics being based on incomplete and flowed data not considering nantural fluctuations and so on…

    The point I try to make is for woman who are into building muscles it’s much more difficult to spot the individual point were natural (based on that womans individual hormone level) muscle growth ends. Most of the “examples” media tend tu pull out when it comes to “steroid abuse” by female atletes in fact don’t excede testosterone levels seen in “ordinary” women who never touched sports at all.

    That’s right there are women out there who do have higher testosterone levels then most men and no one will ever know unless tone of them starts competitive sports.

    I probably never would have looked into this whole mess if my sister isn’t happend to be one of those.
    She started playing handball as a kid and intended to keep playing for as long as her health will permit.
    She got older and her team better and better and at some point, years later, when she was about 17, she was about to enter
    the semi pro level. Well this was all over shortly after her first doping test.
    She called me and was very very ubset about it.
    I should add here that I myself was playing American Foootball (wanted to play Rugby but there was no local club around here at that time) and doubled in strongman competition at that time (all on a non pro pure fun level) and I used steroides off season for the recovery benifits I stated above under medical obeservation.
    Anyway when I got her call I assumed that she just did what I did and she just was to late with stoping her intake but it turned out she never took any synthetic hormones at all. Herr leveles were just a little below my own (bevore I ever used steroids) and they are rather high to begin with.

    So naturaly I had a long talk with my medical adviser who also was surprised (he never worked with female athletes bevore) and asked if it would be possible to get bllod samples from our parents and grandparents and pretty much any relative we could get our hands on.
    Turns out we have this running in our Mother’s as well as in our Father’s line.
    My Sis, pragmatic as she is, just decided that semi-pro isn’t for her anyway and she stoped activly playing and started her trainer courses eventually training the little ones (age 8 to 10) ’till she ran out of sparetime years later and droped out of that sports for good.

    But for me that was kind of an eye opener and I always had it in the back of my mind.
    A couple of years later (late 90s) I developed an interest in subcultural studies (I’ve spent most of my life in the Goth and Psychobilly Subculter after all) and later on in gender issues while I stumbled over Judith Butlers work.
    Mind you I’m no academic in the social science field just a Computer Science guy so it took me a bit to wrap around the lingo and concepts and I highly doubt I would be able to formulate my thoughts in that terms .
    I will have to babble on a bit more to explain a bit more about were I come from and why it is very difficult for me to understand normal society most of the times.
    I don’t have to deal with average joes at a daily level and have none in my circle of friends. I travel a lot but I spend my spretime in my subcultural circles and they are pretty much the same, at least in europe and northern america (asia, africa and the middle east is something else…)
    I judge people based on there knowledge, taste (by the way you got good musical taste) and humor alone.
    To make it short I have friends of all kinds, shapes and proffesions but not a single one would qualify as social mainstream.

    I’ll try to get back on topic,
    a ex GF of mine, C. was often confused for a bodybuilder back in the days and I can’t blame anyone for that she sure was a impressive view with her 190cm hight, thick neck huge arms and shaved head but in her own eyes and per your definition she never was a bodibuilder just a girl who loved to work the shit out of her body (kinda helps when your life time goal is to be the first Woman who makes it into the GSG9)
    I met her at the Gym besides the Dojo I was training Tae-Kwon-Do. One of the Stuff infromed me on entering that a huge girl is just breaking my bench press record. I was stunned and took a immediate dislike to her.
    Damn I’m getting sidetracked again, It wasn’t my goal to tell you my lifestory (lol)
    To make it short a couple of month later wo got together and had a couple of great years.
    Around the time it happened a lot when we went out together as soon as we left a bar people started to talk, I think you can imagin…
    No stranger ever dared to talk to our faces that way but with the guys from my football team you could sence it was awkward for some of ’em so one day I asked one of the other linebackers what his problem was and after some time he sayed the she looked more like a dude than most of the guys in our offence. All I could reply was that I’ve nver noticed tits on ’em and that I’m very sure I’m the only one who ever shows up with mascara at games (we usually played at saturdays and sometimes I couldn’t get home after DJing the night bevore to make it to the bus in time). I asked him if it would make things less awkward for him if he pretended that she was guy and my boyfriend and, to my astonishment, sayed yes.

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