I would like to present three anecdotes as a point of departure for considering the intersection of bodybuilding and academia. They are but three coordinates of a complex composite, yet they underscore three very general positions to bodybuilding: acceptance, rejection, and inadvertent, that is, exchanges that aren’t necessarily predicated on any sense of (moral) judgment, but occur due the internalization or compartmentalization of external stimuli.
As a graduate student I once had a faculty member ask me if I had considered giving up bodybuilding to focus on my graduate studies. The question was briefly prefaced with “So, how is your training? … And how many hours per week do you spend in the gym?” The question of giving up bodybuilding took me unawares and the conversation certainly had its objectives. There was no context given as to why I would consider this (i.e. my G.P.A. was dropping or a faculty member was concerned about my performance), particularly as I had had no prior interaction (academic or other) with this particular professor.
I find this example symptomatic for two primary reasons. First, often times, as a graduate student, professor, or scholar you’re expected to dedicate your life to your work to the point that it consumes all of your free time. In part, this is simply the narcissistic expectation of academia. However, as I develop in my academic career it is clear that to be successful in academia one must truly dedicate their lives to teaching, scholarship, and professional development.
Second, it seems that this conversation was predicated solely on a personal perspective regarding bodybuilding. In other words, I was not asked to give up my personal relationships, weekly trips to the cinema, evening reading for pleasure, or something of the like. The issue at hand was clearly not time itself, but rather the activity that occupied this time.
In 2011 I presented a paper at a graduate student conference at Ohio State University. Prior to the keynote address, a professor (who was not a member of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures) struck up conversation with me, asking: ”Are you a student athlete here at OSU?” “No,” I replied, “I am presenting a paper.” He was somewhat taken aback by my response, but quickly composed himself and initiated an enjoyable conversation. I certainly took no offense, as his assumption was fairly harmless, if not rational. The theme of the conference was “Sports, Athletics, and the Body in German Literature and Culture.” Considering my stature, he assumed I was an interested athlete, not a bodybuilding graduate student. This assumption, although logical, was based on the dramatically distinct stereotypes of athletes and academicians (graduate students).
Last year I was introduced to a well-distinguished professor at a small get-together. We quickly got chatting about the life benefits of sports and exercise. She mentioned that she stayed quite active and saw sports as a natural complement to her life as a professor and scholar. I confided to her that in both college and graduate school I had encountered some faculty and colleagues who were against bodybuilding. She replied succinctly: “Well, they have no idea what bodybuilding is.”
For me, (male) bodybuilding represents much more than how many intellectuals conceptualize it, that is, as a hyper-masculine perpetuation of the body ideal.
When I think about who I am, or who I consider myself to be as a person, many of the traits that come to mind find representation in both my lifestyles as an academic and a bodybuilder. I consider myself to be intelligent, diligent, hard-working, and motivated. I try to constantly push my own boundaries, to see what I’m capable of, to find new methods for progression. I strive to be self-aware, to seek feedback, to be goal-oriented. I am critical. From my perspective, I discern not only commonalities between bodybuilding and academia, but also an unequivocal reciprocity.
I have only scratched the surface of the issues inherent in the three anecdotes provided, which are by no means encompassing. There are a multitude of perspectives regarding bodybuilding. The conceptualization of bodybuilding ought to be as equally complex as the individuals and social structures that construct it. The animosity of academia towards bodybuilding, and vice-versa, is grounded in a certain level of misunderstanding, fear, and insecurity. Blindly supporting bodybuilding is just as dangerous as violently censuring it.