A Farewell to Arms19 July 2016
When I was 15, I used to wake up at 6am and bench press an old rocking chair in the downstairs study. This was to help me with girls, of course. Chair lifting beat the heavy lifting of introducing the opposite sex to my personality. Physical improvement was my chance to measure up to more charismatic, less acne-ravaged boys.
The chair was also a performance piece in my search for a male role model. Not my dad, who is great in all the ways that matter, but a physical embodiment of greatness. Body building was a panacea to the disempowering rat maze of high school and higher education that contemporary youth have to wrangle on their Iliad to independence.
These morning rituals were not my idea, though. I was re-enacting the woodland workouts pioneered by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was a teenager. I was buying into the monetized myths peddled by Bodybuilding.com, T-Nation and other ‘fitness’ blogs. And at first, it worked. I was a nerd grandmaster in high school yet somehow sportiness made that okay. The dawn workouts widened my margin of social acceptability.
Positive reinforcement taught my younger self that Australian culture respects visible strength. From there on in, I was stuffed. I joined the Army straight out of high school. The cutting-edge gym they showed us around was a major factor in that decision. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
In my experience, the Army is high school on steroids. I didn’t end up on steroids but some people sure did and I was less far off them than I’m comfortable with. In my circle – the third circle, for Dante enthusiasts – we emptied out pay packets into protein and pre-workout powders, tank tops and testosterone boosters.
When I left the Army, I worked as a lifeguard while I studied. I also tried seriously to become a body builder. By that stage I was a card-carrying muscle cultist. My days were textbooks, protecting strange bodies at the pool and abusing mine in the weights room.
It sounds ridiculous, but this is how some people live. Orbiting ourselves, literally and figuratively. Making major decisions based on a pseudo-sport. During brief flashes of rationality, this lifestyle feels very like ‘Space Oddity’ sounds: lonely, melancholic and buffeted by distant forces beyond one’s control.
Success or failure in body building is more of a genetic lucky dip than following a blueprint. ‘Building’ is a misnomer because it implies intent; every human body reacts differently to resistance. Forcing a massively complex organism towards a reductive ideal is cosmically self-defeating. I enjoyed the challenge of defeat though. I imputed nobility to infinitesimal improvement and blindly discounted the daily sacrifices, of which there
I had no time. I conservatively estimate I spent 5,000 hours in the gym over ten years, not counting travel, online research, shopping and preparing meals. With modern jobs slipping the bounds of nine to five, most people can pull off, maybe, two significant extra-curricular activities besides sleep. Serious body-building takes up both slots.
I had no money. Supplements and gym memberships are luxury consumables. My ten-year body building bill was in the ballpark of $45,000. Speaking of consumables, I ate tuna, rice and porridge every day for five years straight. My night-time treat was porridge with chocolate protein powder mixed in (actually quite tasty).
Lastly, and despite the time expended, my fitness was never great. Cardio is for cowards, as meatheads aver. The weight room is a fantastic place to go if you are new to fitness or want to lose fat. After a few months of improvement, it’s just about traumatising your muscles for marginal growth. But setting aside the pointless sacrifices, by far the biggest problem I have with weight lifting are the psychoses it encourages.
Since the emergence of body building in the 1950s, young males have been progressively conditioned towards ridiculous body expectations that do not align with need, desirability or reality. Place them in a gym – a hothouse for hyper-masculine mania – and the darker side of aspiration comes out.
Every gym-goer watches each other jealously and plots to surpass their neighbour. That’s what all the mirrors are for: to keep the rats running. The mentality of masculine performance wormed its way into every interaction I had. I became a stereotype in my own eyes. I’d sometimes break out in nervous sweats meeting strangers; I imagined them sizing me up the way I’d learned to mercilessly size myself up. My mind was hitting the big red emergency button.
That was the side effect that finally tipped me over the edge. Biologically and psychologically, I was engaged in a spiralling arms race with myself. Ego has no end point, only endless growth. By fuelling my addiction I was losing out in so many dimensions: temporal, financial, emotional and intellectual. My emerging social impediment, however, was the most blatant symptom of an unhealthy bodily relationship.
At the start I loved it all. I was the pilgrim there every Sunday morning saying prayers in the squat rack. By the end I was so, so tired of the hoary, air-conditioned room echoing with grunts. A body should not mindlessly pursue failure day in and out. If you want fitness – and you should, because the mind works best when it’s in healthy connection with the body – go for a run. Do sport, yoga, pull-ups and push-ups in the park. Buy a free-weight set and set reasonable objectives. Go for another run. I’ll see you in the park. I’m out of the hothouse now and I’m never going back.
I recount these experiences in the hope of persuading at least one person from pursuing a similarly depressing, fruitless tyranny of their body. Ultimately the arms race is cold war fought between yourself and your manufactured expectations. In life, there are so many better fights to be had.