"The Body Shop": The decline of the American muscle man

Bodybuilders were once movie stars. Now they're "Jersey Shore" punchlines. Why did we stop loving brawn?

Published July 24, 2010 9:01PM (EDT)

 (Damir Spanic)
(Damir Spanic)

Where have all the muscle men gone? Just a few short decades ago, men like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan and Sylvester Stallone, with their glistening bodybuilder physiques, were not only movie stars but the embodiment of the 1980s American zeitgeist — pumped up, ripped and always ready to take off their shirt and start flexing. Nowadays, hyper-muscular physiques are more readily associated with a hard-partying subset of gay men and the cast of "Jersey Shore" than with conventional notions of sexiness (the Village Voice went so far as to conflate the two by putting the "Jersey Shore" stars on the cover of its queer issue). It's a change that telegraphs the ways in which our ideas about masculinity — and sex — have changed since the early '70s.

Muscle culture and the politics of masculinity are two things that are awfully familiar to Paul Solotaroff, contributing editor at Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone. His new memoir, "The Body Shop," recounts his own tortured relationship with steroids and weightlifting — an obsession that simultaneously built up his body and broke it down. Coming of age in the '70s, he was saddled with a slight frame and father issues, but when he began injecting steroids as a freshman in college, he went from anxious beanpole to muscle-bound hulk in a few short months. This change led to a career as a stripper, coke-fueled orgies and a lifetime of health problems.

Salon spoke with Solotaroff over the phone from his home in Brooklyn about gay men's muscle obsession, Schwarzenegger's impact on popular culture, and why bodybuilders really are overcompensating.

How has the male ideal changed? What does it look like now?

Muscle is no longer the kind of freakish totem that it used to be. You don’t have to be an iron head to get noticed anymore — I think there are lots of muscular guys who don’t lift weights. Yoga muscle is the real elixir these days. If anybody’s a pimp these days, it’s the guys who are at the front of classes at Crunch who have that long, really dense, righteously earned muscle from doing four and five hours of postures every day. I think that’s really healthy, because that’s really useful. My muscle is useless. It’s much more grown-up muscle, more about inhabiting your body intelligently as a man rather than still doing what I do, which is carry around this adolescent fantasy of masculinity.

What do you think has prompted that change?

Well, muscle got so commodified in the '90s — action-flick stars, massively built ballplayers and the gorgons of professional wrestling — that it stopped being a freak show and became a lifestyle, or the adjunct, at least, to one. Where once it was the banner of blue-collar macho men, suddenly wealthy men were flocking to gyms and putting on size like a pair of British wingtips. They got what Schwarzenegger was selling all those years — that muscle, properly packaged, radiates power. And when women of style stopped being repulsed by brawn and found that they actually liked it, the stampede was on at high-end health clubs and the mass-market chains. The owners of Crunch and Equinox should send Ah-nuld a monthly check — not that the bastard needs it.

Some of it is probably cyclical. You go from the kind of wispy Williamsburg paradigm to its polar opposite and then back again. In this country we go from electing a Bush to an Obama. These cycles used to have 20-year arcs. Now the oscillation is much faster. I also think they’re much more fractional. I think there’s one body style that rules the day in Brooklyn, and then another in Bayonne, and a third in Short Hills. I just feel that everything now is so segmented so we’re really living three generations at once.

Where do you see muscle in popular culture?

If you really want to talk about what’s happened in muscle culture, the place you really have to turn to is sports. We took muscle out of the comic books and we put it on the football field. All you’ve got to do is go to ESPN classic or MLB where they’re constantly showing games from the ’50s and ’60s. Look how skinny and skeletal those guys who threw a ball and swung a bat were and flash forward to utility infielders in the last generation. It’s like we’ve populated sports with a new species. We got rid of all those gifted but hopeless losers with their 175-pound frames and the natural cutting motion of their fork ball and replaced them with these 6-foot-6-inch mastodons who routinely throw 95 in the seventh inning. Sports became less about beauty, grace and the human consequences of athletic endeavor; it became this Roman spectacle in which the fantasy was right there in front of us.

Two groups that stand out for their muscle-conscious bodies are a subset of gay men and the "Jersey Shore" crew.

Yes, they’re real consumers of that archetype of maleness. What we’ve done is sell muscle to these two cultures that prize sexuality above everything else. What is "Jersey Shore" about, if not about hooking up all of the time? What is Chelsea [New York's gay neighborhood] about? It’s not about all of the very reasonable inhibitions that the age of AIDS threw up, but carrying on as if none of that applied. So where muscle is still king, it’s in these two very libidinal, very id-centric communities. I almost kind of worship them for it. Fuck all of the nuance. Fuck all of the hipster stuff about growing a beard and keeping a chicken in your backyard and eating like Gwyneth Paltrow. We’re gonna fuck like it’s 1976.

You started lifting around the time when people like Arnold Schwarzenegger were first getting notice for their muscular build. Do you see yourself as part of the same generation?

We all came out from the same paradigm, I think. We all came out of this lonely boyhood fantasy of what constituted manhood that had been bubbling up for 20 years. It all grows out of this subliminal idea that America was suddenly this muscular place. We’d won the war. America as a superpower is only an idea that’s 50, 60 years old. We don’t really become this kind of military empire until the age of Eisenhower, the tipping point being winning the Second World War and doing so by ramping up this enormous military-industrial complex on a shoestring — people bringing in their pots and pans to make fucking Howitzer rounds and build submarines. But we did it. And the America that comes out of the Second World War is an enormously prosperous, proud and expansive place where everything is possible.

How did that affect the younger generation, specifically young boys?

I was one of a generation of kids who really kind of fell hook, line and sinker for that kind of nuclear fantasy of what a guy’s guy looked like. There were the Steve Reeves movies, which I remember vividly watching when I was 9 years old, home sick from school. There were shows like "Batman," "The Green Hornet," "Flash Gordon." It seemed to be everywhere. When I was 7, I bought my first copy of "Spiderman." The explicit fantasy is this: By being lucky, you could get bitten by a radioactive spider, too. Or in the case of the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, being exposed to gamma rays. Gamma rays were big. If you really wanted to get laid in the ’60s, you really needed to make it your business to get exposed to gamma rays.

Some people would argue that men that work out so voraciously are like men who buy Hummers; they’re overcompensating.

There’s a lot of truth to it. I work out with guys every day who probably have some variation of my childhood, which was kind of lonely, marginalized, late-emergent. There’s that great phrase of Erikson: the most interesting people amongst us are twice born, that is to say that people give birth to themselves. I think a lot of the guys I go to the gym with are people who of necessity have had to reinvent themselves physically because the old version just wasn’t getting it done. It was certainly the case with me. I’m not going to lie; I had a real hard time getting laid for a real long time. Suddenly I got big and in a very short span of time, I had no trouble. I’m not going to pretend that the women I slept with in 1976 were the women I’d grown up fantasizing about. They tended to be the kind of women who said, "Hammer me, you big Jew fuck." They were probably a lot like the girls on "Jersey Shore."

What you seemed to have in common with a lot of the other men you lifted and did steroids with were father issues. Everyone seemed to be lost boys in a way.

I think originally the guys who went to the gym were sort of in search of their daddies. We were this generation of lost boys. We didn’t get a whole lot of fathering and we certainly didn’t get a lot of firsthand instruction in what it took to be a man and pick up a man’s responsibilities. The gym was this kind of wild guess on our part about how we went about becoming a man. It was a lot of guys who were really hoping to be adopted by bigger guys and in the process become men in their image. I know that for me at least part of becoming big was an attempt to get noticed by my father, and did I get noticed by him — in a very negative fashion. He was appalled and mystified by what I had done. Of all the cockamamie things that I had done to get his attention, this was about the last thing he would have imagined for me.

How did the use of steroids lead to the use of other drugs?

If you’re doing large amounts of steroids, I’m here to tell you that ain’t the only drugs you’re doing. It’s impossible to only do steroids and not do other stuff. Steroids are so speedy if you’re doing them in significant doses, at some point you’re going to have to figure out a way to cycle down at the end of the day. So immediately you’re vulnerable to depressant drugs. Then you’re into the cycle. Once you’re crashing, you need to get up again the next day. There’s speed. If you’re out at night, there’s cocaine. You’re constantly reacting to whatever you put in your mouth last, shot into your ass last.

In the past few years, clinicians have identified "muscle dysmorphia" (sometimes called bigorexia) as a concern among many men. It sounds as though your case would qualify for it. How did you work through it?

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever worked through it. I would say that I still suffer from it. At my biggest I was too small. At my biggest I would look in the mirror and see flaw after flaw, see things that embarrassed me. I think we all have that problem. We’re all operating out of this fundamental sense of our own frailty, our own unimportance, our own sadness.

I think I do understand it differently now. I’ve written so much about brain chemistry in the last 10, 12 years that I’ve really come to understand this as a neurotransmitter issue as much as it is a developmental one. There are really just people who are susceptible to imagining the worst about themselves. It may be because they were hectored to thinking that way by the bullies in sixth grade or the cold distant mommy, but I think just as often it’s because they’ve got too little epinephrine or they’ve got an excess of serotonin.

How do you see yourself now?

It’s very much a mixed bag. I see myself in two disparate ways. I see myself as someone who can still get noticed walking down the street because I’ve got these arms. And I’m entirely capable the next minute thinking, I’m completely invisible. How sad is that? After all these years, all this effort, I’ve completely vanished.

It was the richest time of my life. I keep trying to answer the question, Why did I write this book? And it was the best year of my life. Everything else comes up a little short. Even when I’ve written a story I’m really proud of, even when I have an immensely tender moment with my boy, even when I’ve had a really connective moment with my girlfriend or see a film that moves me deeply or read a book that resonates deeply, it doesn’t go down as far. I imagine I’ll be writing about it again through someone else’s story.

By Alex Jung


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