Social beings internalize the structuring capacity of hierarchy so effectively that even particular groups self-hierarchize within a larger hierarchical framework, so that an intricate tree of hierarchies can be traced, with relative distributions of power within these particular groups. It seems almost natural to project this structure onto the things we do and people we meet. Sports are no different. Bodybuilding, as subaltern, finds itself low on any hierarchized list of sports (assuming this classification is accepted). Hierarchies divide and subdivide through social signification, distinguishing importance, power, and privilege, in essence, separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots.’ Classification and subclassification is an absolute necessity for distinguishing demarcations between groups. However, when this demarcation reflects social significance and hegemony, it becomes objectively and systemically violent and it establishes itself as hierarchy.
Bodybuilders and gym-goers in general are often inclined to establish themselves (at given points of superiority) within the hierarchy. The gym-goers hierarchize themselves as regular members, periodic members, or even worse… the ‘spring breakers’ (who diet and exercise for a few weeks to look better at the beach and clubs in Cancun) or the ‘New Years resolutionists’ (who work out for the first few weeks of the year and then drop off). Regular gym-goers establish hierarchies of serious lifters (who train legs and not just upperbody, who educate themselves on proper training and nutrition, who time their rest periods, etc.) and the recreational lifter. The list goes on and on. Yet, the question is how are we classified and who has access to the autonomy of classification? For example, someone may label herself or himself a ‘serious’ lifter because they train six days a week, whereas I may label them a ‘recreational’ lifter due to their level of knowledge or approach to weight training.
Within bodybuilding there is an intriguing level of ostracization surrounding, in particular, the men’s physique and women’s bikini divisions. In fact, men’s physique is often referred to as “men’s bikini,” which emasculates the division and the athletes, and, of course, speaks also to the stigmatization of the women’s bikini class. These two divisions are often labeled as inferior.
The women’s bikini class is occasionally viewed as a beauty pageant (in fact, bodybuilding in general can be viewed in this vein), in which the body is much softer and less muscular. The posing is also viewed as ‘modelesque,’ rather than a somewhat more ‘rigid’ posing that would greater emphasize musculature. I have heard numerous men and women comment on the nature of the bikini athlete as similar to a “Barbie doll.”
The men’s physique division is frequently defined by what it is not or by what it lacks, in other words, through negative qualification in reference to the Self. For example, “it is not bodybuilding.” Competitors shouldn’t have too much mass, and the physiques should be much more ‘athletic’ or similar to a ‘fitness model.’ (Again, like with bikini there is a modelesque quality.) Boardshorts are worn and thus the quads and hamstrings aren’t even displayed. Some body parts (legs and back) are significantly less development, as compared to bodybuilding. Furthermore, physique competitors aren’t nearly as lean on stage.
Due to these factors some bodybuilders feel that the physique division requires less work, less dedication. It is deemed less ‘hardcore,’ and is presumed to be easy. The largest contention regards legs, back, and the overall development of size and symmetry. Most bodybuilders believe that a full body is key in any classification of bodybuilding and especially pride themselves on massive legs. After all, it’s bodybuilding, not upperbodybuiding. I also feel this way about legs. (I should mention that there is a wheelchair division in certain competitions, a topic that will undoubtedly engender a separate post.) Yet, the physique class doesn’t currently allow them to be shown. In other words, legs aren’t currently judged. This is, in part, due to the physiques of the class. Most do not have adequate leg development. Actually, being too muscular would negatively affect placement, particularly for back and legs.
Personally, I respect anyone who gets on stage and exhibits his or her body. Of course physique athletes work hard, as do bikini athletes. Bodybuilding prides itself on its freaky physiques, balance of size and symmetry, leanness and dryness, and its hardcore and diligent lifestyle. Sometimes we are so devoted to maintaining this image (not only our own, but that of bodybuilding itself) that we look down on those who do not fit our standards. But the physique class does not threaten our subjective orientations regarding the approach to bodybuilding. My own masculinity is not in danger because of varying conceptualizations of an aesthetic male body. On the contrary, the establishment of new divisions adds to the complexity of bodybuilding and allocates avenues for inclusion.
Too often our identities are constituted through the establishment of the Other. There are many factors as to why someone would compete as a bodybuilder or a physique competitor (genetics, personal preference, etc.). As such, bodybuilding should step away from narrow-mindedness and formulaic approaches. Bodybuilding, contrary to popular belief, has the capacity to alter and complicate conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity, two primary elements in the structuring of hierarchy. I suggest that, rather than projecting the exclusionary nature of hierarchical division, we find confidence and security in ourselves and in our sport, so that we may accept and encourage difference, variation, and nuance.