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.