I am watching a video. In it, one man—handsome and extremely muscular, with bronzed, hairless skin—lies splayed on a hotel bed. He wears only white briefs. At the foot of the bed stands another man. He gazes at the reclining figure and slowly undresses—the video is getting racy now. Viewed from behind, he peels off the top half of his dark blue tracksuit to uncover the sculpted ridges of his back. He turns a little, revealing the vast slopes of his smooth, muscled chest to the camera. If I fast forward twenty minutes or so, these buxom, oil-slicked men will be caught in medias res, grinning ecstatically as they embrace.
I have buried the lede. As closely as it apes it, the film in question is not gay porn, the men depicted not porn performers—or, at least, the film is not intended to be pornographic. No, it’s a different kind of fare: 1977’s Pumping Iron, a documentary that follows, among others, the professional and strictly heterosexual bodybuilders Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they prepare to battle for the top spot at the 1975 Mr. Olympia, a bodybuilding competition hosted by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB).
Unlike other, explicitly gay fodder, Pumping Iron enjoyed considerable box office success and critical acclaim upon its U.S. release. Even at a moment in history when American culture was, broadly speaking, profoundly suspicious of homosexuality—and even bodybuilding as a pastime—reviewers lauded the film for encouraging its audience to gaze desirously at the awe-inspiring, seemingly monstrous, bodies of its male subjects. Louise Sweet, writing for The Monthly Film Bulletin, commended the film, and Schwarzenegger in particular, for managing to inspire “envy rather than disgust at ostentatious musculature.” In the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wryly noted that Schwarzenegger’s undeniable charm and heroic build were sufficient to make “all of us in rotten shape . . . feel his very presence as a constant rebuke.” Though never explicitly stated, both critics implied a male viewer looking enviously and, accordingly, covetously at the rippling physiques of the film’s stars.
Read in this way, Pumping Iron represents a puzzling contradiction within professional men’s bodybuilding. Namely, while homoeroticism is on full display—its aesthetics, its sustained assessment and idealization of the male form—bodybuilding is routinely presented as the very apex of male heterosexuality: masculinity dialed up to eleven in the hulking, bulging, rock-hard bodies of the professional male bodybuilder. In Pumping Iron, interspersed among the erotic close-ups of flexed muscle and male-on-male tenderness, Schwarzenegger shows off for a group of cooing women at a photoshoot and, later, compares the sensation of lifting weights and pumping his muscles to “having sex with a woman.” In other words, while straightness is front-and-center in the world of bodybuilding, homosexuality is everywhere and nowhere to be seen.
Bodybuilding was not always considered a serious sport. While early adherents like Eugen Sandow achieved fame and notoriety for their spectacularly large physiques, the sport was considered, at best, unusual and, frequently, repugnant for most of the twentieth century—in large part because of its perceived relationship to homosexuality. Indeed, Sandow himself first rose to prominence not as a sportsman but by exhibiting himself as a kind of one-man freak show, demonstrating his supernatural strength and hyperbolic physique to awe-struck Victorian audiences in the late 1890s.
In the decades following World War II, however, bodybuilding underwent a period of deliberate reinvention. The sociologist Ruud Stokvis contends that an abundance of food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles led to rising concerns about the physical health of the population and, in turn, an increasing interest in fitness. With a newfound emphasis on the outwardly “healthy” body, bodybuilding as a pursuit began to accrue some esteem, signifying the superlative health of its practitioners. The newfound respectability of bodybuilding was largely achieved, however, by two individuals: Joe and Ben Weider, two brothers from Canada who founded the IFBB in 1946 with the intent of crafting a demand and reputation for the sport. They worked tirelessly to promote and expand their empire, which by the 1970s comprised, among others, the IFBB, Weider Nutrition, and a smattering of fitness magazines, including what would become Flex and Muscle & Fitness. But the Weiders’ biggest victory was, perhaps, their discovery and patronage of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom they brought over to the United States to train in 1968. Years before The Terminator, Pumping Iron brought Schwarzenegger—and bodybuilding—into the mainstream.
By the end of the 1970s, then, bodybuilding had come to represent a gold standard of male bodily achievement. Of course, this was not the first moment in history that impressive muscularity had been favorably tied to masculinity. The art historian Norman Kleeblatt describes how, at the Second Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1898, Max Nordau successfully promoted the notion of muskeljudentum, or a “muscular Judaism.” Nordau argued that the cultivation of physical fitness amongst the Jewish people—especially Jewish men—was a necessary means to actualize a Jewish state (for virile men were needed “to build a new nation . . . [and] defend its borders”), as well as to counter anti-Semitic mythology about the frail and effeminate Jewish man. This latter image would become part of the fabric of Nazi ideology, pitted against the ideal Aryan man whose body evoked the art of Greek antiquity. Elsewhere, the historian Ana Carden-Coyne locates early enthusiasm for bodybuilding culture in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War, when enlarging one’s physique was regarded by some proponents as a way of “compensating for the reality of war’s destruction of male bodies.”
Gay men were not only admirers of bodybuilders from afar but were important early advocates of the sport—both as practitioners and as its patrons.
Just as readily as the cultivation of a muscular physique has been regarded as a sign of virility, it has also been considered an “unmanly” pursuit—an expression of a repellent and effeminate narcissism. One article in a 1955 edition of the fitness magazine Strength & Health, for instance, harshly condemned bodybuilding for the excessive vanity of its adherents. Because of the primacy the sport gives to aesthetics over athletic prowess, the article caricatured the bodybuilder as a self-concerned youth “who has nothing better to do with his time than to spend four or five hours a day in a smelly gym,” who “wears his hair long and frequently gilds the lily by having it waved,” who “lives for his big moment, when he can strut and posture under the glare of a spot light before an audience,” and to whom “athletic fitness and muscular coordination and superb health are completely meaningless.” To this kind of onlooker, there was nothing heroic or even redemptive about the inflated physiques of bodybuilders. It was the antithesis of the lifestyle expected of an upstanding, productive, and altogether modest gentleman.
Naturally, concerns about the pathological narcissism of the male bodybuilder mapped closely to wider anxieties about the cultivation of homosexuality within the sport. Since the male bodybuilder was dimly regarded for his almost masturbatory self-obsession—the distorted channeling of his sexual desire—it required no great leap of imagination to consider his fixation with the male form to be a form of sexual pathology in its own right. Nowhere were these concerns expressed more acutely than in a series of censorship battles that plagued fitness and physique magazines in the middle of the twentieth century, when the U.S. postmaster general launched an attack on the distribution of apparently obscene magazines like Physical Culture, which frequently featured artful photographs of nude bodybuilders. Regarded as eroticizing the muscular male body, rather than depicting it for the purposes of physical instruction, these magazines were accused in congressional hearings of inciting homosexuality and encouraging degeneracy in young men.
No doubt, this wave of censorship advanced under a cloud of anti-gay and anti-sex hysteria. It was not, however, without foundation: midcentury physique magazines were being widely enjoyed by a rapt audience of gay men searching for sexual stimulus and community. As the writer Valentine Hooven notes, “For much of the fifties . . . physique magazines were not just an aspect of gay culture; they virtually were gay culture.” While many of these magazines were produced with instructive intention and simply co-opted by gay audiences, some were published by gay men themselves, who explicitly leaned into their homoerotic appeal.
Notably, in 1963, lovers Lloyd Spinar and Conrad Germain founded Directory Services, Inc. (DSI), which published titles including Butch, Tiger, and Male Nude Portfolio for an audience of well over fifty thousand gay men. In 1967, they were arrested and charged with twenty-nine counts of obscenity. Remarkably, although the prosecution worked hard to establish the homosexual intentions of DSI periodicals (with the help of testimony from gay male customers of DSI who were coerced into confessing that the magazines encouraged them to seek sex with other men), the judge found Spinar and Germain not guilty. Acknowledging that the intended audience of DSI was, indeed, a “deviant group,” Judge Earl R. Larson ruled in the defense of the rights of gay consumers, arguing that “the rights of minorities expressed individually in sexual groups or otherwise must be respected.” As such, the historian David Johnson has argued that this ruling represented one of the first significant judicial victories for the gay community in American history, integral to the development of “a national gay commercial market” that would be an eventual “catalyst to the rise of a gay movement in America.” In this way, the erotics of bodybuilding are indelibly attached to eventual attainments of sexual freedoms by the queer community.
Gay men were not only admirers of bodybuilders from afar but were important early advocates of the sport—both as practitioners and as its patrons. Before it became possible to earn a living as a full-time bodybuilder, they often relied on the financial support of wealthy gay men. For instance, in his ethnography of the field, the anthropologist Alan M. Klein estimates that anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of bodybuilders in Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s performed sexual favors in exchange for money. Hustling, therefore, buoyed bodybuilding culture long prior to its professionalization as a sport.
Moreover, in Western Europe and North America, a burgeoning gay community acted as an enthusiastic and early adopter of the sport in the decades following World War II. According to the queer theorist Alan Sinfield, muscularity in men had long been an erotic signifier in homosexual culture—the markers of the kind of “manly,” working class “rough trade” cherished by rich and more “effeminate” queer men. The knowledge and practices of bodybuilding, therefore, provided gay men with the capacity to don these signifiers for themselves, to build muscle not through or required for physical labor but via the ritualized lifting of weights with a patently sexualized intention. As well as erotic, gay enthusiasm for bodybuilding was also political. The exaggerated masculinity of the muscled gay male body served as an apparent (though imperfect) response to the stereotype of the gay man as effete. In particular, in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, the buff and swollen gay gym body acted as a visible rejoinder to the public spectacle of sick and frail gay men suffering with AIDS related illness. So dominant would these attributes— and the “clone culture” they were bound up in— become that, as Dennis Altman wryly noted, in 1980s San Francisco, gay men appeared more “masculine” than their straight counterparts.
Bodybuilding culture as a whole has been at best skeptical of and worst hostile to the specter of homosexuality with which it is associated.
Both in its appreciation and its uptake by gay men, who provided crucial material and fanatic support to a budding culture and industry, the proliferation of bodybuilding is clearly indebted to the homoerotic appeal. And yet, despite its debt, bodybuilding culture as a whole has been at best skeptical of and worst hostile to the specter of homosexuality with which it is associated. For instance, while they enjoyed the financial benefits of a captive gay male audience, many distributors of beefcake magazines were less than enthused about their homosexual circulation. Bernarr Macfadden, who founded Physical Culture in 1899, disdained the limp-wristed deviants who had co-opted his enthusiastic support of bodybuilding for sexual ends. Writing in The Virile Powers of Superb Manhood, he railed against “the shoals of painted, perfumed, kohl-eyed, lisping, mincing youths that at night swarm on Broadway . . . ogling every man that passes” and who had, much to his loathing, begun to enjoy his magazine.
Despite his venomous attacks on homosexuality, Macfadden was arrested in 1907 on charges of distributing obscene material—a crime for which he was found guilty. Throughout his trial, Macfadden stressed the strictly asexual and educational intent of the images he published, claiming that any immoral or improper use of his magazines was not his responsibility. As the literary scholar Greg Mullins notes, Macfadden attempted to draw a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of looking: namely, between identifying with and desiring the muscular male body. While, in practice, these are contiguous or even identical modes of looking, of coveting or admiration, homophobia and the threat of criminal reproach made it necessary to invent such a distinction—to assert, in short, that bodybuilding was anything but gay.
Accordingly, bodybuilding required a lengthy—and still ongoing—process of what media scholar Niall Richardson calls “forced heterosexualization”: a visible distancing of the sport from the gay community it came into being alongside and through. In order to cultivate respectability, proponents strived to present bodybuilding not as the preoccupation of sexual deviants but as a marker of heterosexual masculinity in its own right. In developing the official IFBB competition guidelines, the Weider brothers endeavored to de-eroticize the pageantry of bodybuilding and develop a heterosexual mode of gazing at and displaying the nearly nude male body. They enforced strict rules about what male bodybuilders were permitted to pose wearing—banning thongs or revealing G-strings from competition stages—and forbid the use of any accessories during posing routines. Moreover, the rise to prominence of bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger who flaunted their heterosexuality helped give the field an aspirational, straight face that put to bed suspicions about the sexuality of the sport.
Fifty years later, our culture has, broadly speaking, moved on. Homosexuality is increasingly normalized, and the muscular frame of the bodybuilder, once considered a form of gender deviance, has since become the male ideal—most visible in the multi-billion-dollar industry of preternaturally jacked superheroes. Globally, the fitness industry itself is now worth close to $100 billion a year.
And yet, despite these important shifts, bodybuilding has, in many ways, become more anxious and, in turn, more silent about its relationship with homosexuality. Today, male bodybuilders, dripping in machismo, trade in euphemisms to discuss one another’s bodies. As the academic Jeremy Strong observes, contemporary argot “avoids many of the terms of reference and evaluation which circulate in relation to women’s bodies,” which “structures a permission (a permission normally denied) to look at the male body.” Nervously skirting around language that might be inferred to carry a homosexual desire, bodybuilders compliment their peers, idols, or adversaries using terms like “’mirin” (short for “admiring”) or else qualify their praise with the linguistic handwashing of “no homo.” In this way, bodybuilding continues to assert a strong divide between (appropriate) heterosexual and (inappropriate) homosexual modes of gazing at the body.
The line between wanting to be or wanting to fuck someone is unclear and unstable.
The sport has gone to even greater lengths to distance itself from homosexuals discovered among their own ranks. In 1989, the bodybuilder Bob Paris came out as gay, making him the first professional male athlete to come out while still actively competing in a sport—but coming out decimated Paris’ career. “I watched as 80 percent of my business just vanished,” he told the Windy City Times in 2014. As well as freezing him out of professional competition, Niall Richardson argues that bodybuilding culture responded to Paris’ coming out by defining itself against his aesthetic legacy. Specifically, Paris was famed for his “classical” physique – his large, but well-proportioned muscles that resembled the shape of Greek statuary. (In 2006, Flex Magazine declared Paris to have had the most aesthetic physique in the history of bodybuilding). In his 1994 memoir, coauthored with his then partner Rod Jackson, Paris blasted the turn of bodybuilding away from the “perfect” physical specimen to “grotesque freakiness for the sake of freakiness.” According to Richardson, Paris’s advocacy for classical beauty within bodybuilding served to “cement the link between [it] and homosexuality” and, accordingly, increased the appeal of a hyperbolically muscular physique to male bodybuilders. Of course, this attempt to achieve velocity sufficient to break from the orbit of the homosexual proved a fool’s errand: new standards of size and muscular monstrosity have been gleefully enjoyed by fetishists and casual sexual observers across the world. It is impossible to outrun sexual desire.
Bodybuilding simply remains no place for same gender attraction. Other than Paris, there are and have been vanishingly few openly queer male professional bodybuilders (including Chris Dickerson, who won the 1982 Mr. Olympia title). Of course, the inhospitality of professional bodybuilding as an environment for gay competitors is a product of a latent, swirling gay panic, which has led not only to a disappointing crisis of representation within bodybuilding (disappointing because, although a disproportionate number of gay men enjoy bodybuilding as a pastime, they are woefully underrepresented in the professional domain), it also disavows what is potentially politically exciting about the sport. That is, freed from the limiting grasp of homophobia, understanding bodybuilding as a pursuit requires acknowledging and accepting that men gazing desirously at the bodies of other men— one man hoping to possess the physique of another man in some capacity— is not the exclusive preoccupation of queer men but, rather, is a universal phenomenon. The line between wanting to be or wanting to fuck someone is unclear and unstable.
The time is long overdue for the world of bodybuilding to acknowledge the queerness of its historical foundations and its internal dynamics—the love and appreciation of the male form between and amongst men. Should a straight bodybuilder— the very pinnacle of heterosexual masculinity—admit his admiration for male muscularity, exactly nothing world-ending or corruptive would happen: he would not wither or shrink, lose competitive advantage in the sport, or be otherwise altered in any way. And yet, such an occasion would indeed be welcome and profoundly altering: not only opening up bodybuilding as a field unafraid of queer participation but publicly demonstrating that even the very manliest, the most macho, the heterosexual-est of men are, well, a little bit gay.