Simon Evans, a 35-year-old furniture salesman in Texas, describes himself as a “yo-yo amateur bodybuilder.” “It’s a funny title,” he says. “You’d usually use it for dieting, or for people who switch between being vegetarian and eating meat. Basically, it means that there will be periods of time when I’ll dedicate myself to bodybuilding and the strict discipline that comes with it. But that will be followed with times when I won’t be strict with what I’m eating, even if I continue doing the same workouts and lifting programs.”
On the surface, this might seem fairly unremarkable — after all, even the most dedicated gym rats admit to having cheat days or times when they’ll stop training altogether. But Simon tells me, “It doesn’t work like that in the culture of bodybuilding. In fact, there are a lot of people who’d probably say that you can’t call yourself a bodybuilder if you aren’t sticking to the strict regimes or disciplines.”
It’s that culture that Simon says alienates him — and “probably hundreds” of people like him, the people who “feel they can’t partake in conversations about the sport, or even participate in the same physical spaces, because they have visible fat on their bodies.” Simon isn’t overweight by any means, but he says, “I wouldn’t even consider posting pictures of myself on social media, or the various groups I follow, because I know how the response would end up. They’d automatically dismiss my body because I’ve got love handles, or they’d say that I had man-boobs because my pecs weren’t well-defined. Basically, any evidence of fat would be up for mockery.”
Simon’s fears aren’t new. If anything, they’re surprisingly common. A cursory look at Bodybuilding.com, the internet’s main resource for amateur and professional bodybuilders, hosts endless threads about fat and fatphobia within the sport. Often, these threads are littered with comments deriding fat acceptance and fat-activist movements (dismissed as “social justice warrior” culture), or portraying overweight people as weak, pathetic and lacking in mental and physical strength.
In fact, some users on the site even refer to themselves as “former fatties” and “ex-fatties.” In doing so, they recall stories of “mastering” their bodies and minds to achieve the lean, “X shaped” physique that many bodybuilders view as the mark of physical perfection. “The culture basically suggests that there’s one standard that a body has to meet in order to call yourself a bodybuilder,” Simon explains. “It doesn’t acknowledge that there are different body types that are affected by things that happen internally and externally. So you end up — a lot of the time anyway — feeling alienated when all you’re looking for is people to share your goals and experiences with.”
The issue was highlighted in a recent paper entitled “Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming Anthropometry Through Fat Bodybuilding” by Gulf Coast State College Professor Richard Baldwin, a former bodybuilder turned academic and social justice campaigner. In it, he argues that a sport like bodybuilding — whereby prowess is judged on precise measurements of aesthetic — ends up promoting a culture that’s inherently “fat phobic,” and that while the physique of a bodybuilder isn’t considered to be the norm, it penalizes and demonizes fat bodies in a way it doesn’t thinner bodies.
Baldwin proposed introducing “fat bodybuilding” as a category in the sport, believing that it would be both a way for noncompetitive bodybuilding to be more inclusive and act as a form of resistance against societal understandings of “what a body actually is,” eradicating the idea that a “fat” body is one that lacks strength and turgidity. He goes on to write:
“Traditional bodybuilding adheres to relatively masculinist norms of strength, rigid order and conformity by adopting an extreme anthropometric alternative blueprint while fat challenges those norms in favor of an equally valid yet more fluid, organic and amorphous understanding of the (politicized) fat body as having been built. Bodybuilding currently rejects the fat body, and fat bodybuilding challenges normativity by expanding the notion of the built body itself.”
On cue, Baldwin’s paper was derided by bodybuilding blogs, right-wing news sites like Breitbart and the twitter account @realpeerreview, which publicly shames research articles from universities it deems to be examples of left-wing, politically correct SJW culture.
While I wasn’t able to reach Baldwin, I did speak to Oliver Lee Bateman, a frequent MEL contributor who has long been involved in bodybuilding and powerlifting (and written about it for us on a number of occasions). He wasn’t surprised at the reaction to Baldwin’s paper, telling me, “Bodybuilding forums are pretty hostile to any sign of weakness, fat being just one of them. There are welcoming threads, but folks are made to feel illegitimate if they’re not running the right steroids or they don’t look strong enough, too soft, etc.” Bateman adds that in a lot of ways, bodybuilding communities are “another outgrowth of male-coded nerd culture — outsiders have to work hard to penetrate or ignore it entirely in order to coexist. It’s not that there aren’t many women in the sport, it’s just that the central part of the culture is male nerds obsessed with a kind of trivial bullshit attendant to the activity.”
That said, he believes, that as bodybuilding becomes less of a niche sport, the idea of fat-inclusive spaces within it won’t be such a source of ridicule. “Fitness culture is ultimately too mainstream now to protect it as some kind of purist nerd fiefdom,” he says. “The same thing that happened in comics and gaming will happen there. People will have to grudgingly share space.”
When I put this to Simon, though, he says, at the moment at least, it seems unbelievable. And while he’s currently putting together a new fitness plan, he says that it will “still be uncomfortable to go into the gym and start training — being around guys who you know are looking at you and judging you for a supposed lack of discipline. These are guys who spend half their lives at the gym. So they know everyone, and they know how they’re training.”
I respond by asking him whether he’s worried he’ll be goofed on or made to feel unwanted. He hesitates before saying, “It’s not that. I’ll be left on my own, and I know I won’t be physically bothered. It’s more like just being around guys who you know train everyday without ever stopping — their whole lives revolve around their fitness goals. Even if you’re doing well, you know you’ll leave the gym still feeling at least a little bit pathetic.”