MUSCLEPHOBIA - The Cause and Cure

Muscle Phobia

The media has an enormous effect on the general public opinion

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The media giveth, and the media taketh away. And lately, the media's position on bodybuilding has been wildly mixed. Trendy responses in 1989 ranged from flirtatious curiosity and admiration to full-bore contempt, with the worst steeped in skepticism about the sport itself ("It's a hobby, not a sport."), the required action ("What a waste of time and energy!") and the aesthetic and capital values of the results ("You call that body pretty? Wouldn't you rather build a house?").

The bodies of Brawnville are often needled on the beach. Sooner or later even champions are having to brush sand from their eyes, the stuff kicked in by resentful wimps. Even so, a more dangerous and clever foe is approaching, a team of anti-fitness gurus whose "weights" are wielded in the mass media.

Consequently, strength athletes striving for acceptance in a just-say-no-to-drugs-but-yes-to-booze society often find that acceptance comes when demanded and hardly ever, if at all, when politely awaited. Face it: It's a mine field out there for anyone possessing a bigger-is-better body. If you trail behind one, you can hear everything from "Wow, are you the Second Coming?" to "He-e-e-e-re's Gumby!"

A man who's just left a gym in Venice, California, is pulled over by the police. Later, in a health food store, he stops to relate the incident: The police had wanted to know if he was "on steroids" or if anyone had tried to sell some to him. The man, tennis instructor Dave Austin, is amused that he could be "mistaken for a bodybuilder."

No matter how thin you slice it, athletes are going to get the same baloney about steroid use. Currently, all muscle is suspect, purist replies are doubted, and a single confession ends up speaking for the thousands who are silent.

"I don't believe it; they brought the police," sputtered Mr. World winner Joe Bucci, who was suffering symptoms of internal bleeding that prompted the arrival of paramedics- and the police. As blood welled in the champion's throat, his room was searched. "For steroids," an officer later told him.

In a quiet case of muscle-discrimination Bill Tully of Santa Barbara, California, was dismissed from his commercial airline job when his musculature was classified as "excessive weight." According to airline policy makers, it seems that 20 pounds above a person's ideal weight-be it fat or firm-is still 20 pounds more for the jet engines to bear.

Aside from these nasty occurrences, wide-bodied folks who anticipate the same repute as Arnold Schwarzenegger because their biceps are as big, or bigger, often receive the slam-dunking of their lives, particularly when their sole virtue is the magnificence of their flesh. As one theatergoer whispered to another at a muscle-action film, "Seen one biceps, seen 'em all."

Even the best of Bigdom, Schwarzenegger himself, forsook some weight, sacrificing Conan's heft for an elongated and vibrant look. In "Twins" only Arnold's biceps remain large, like two swollen souvenirs. Despite what this transformation suggests, a sign swings from a training house near World Gym: "Life is too short to be small." Meanwhile, although Rambo is more ripped than Rocky, and Sly Stallone has a split in every bodypart, which has earned him kudos, his box-office record lags. "Rocky" fans don't give a punch about his newly etched intercostals.

Rolling a plastic dumbbell across his desk, the whimsical Andy Rooney put an editorial dent in the minds of those viewing "60 Minutes" last fall. Providing film footage of Tony Pearson flexing next to Gary Leonard, Rooney opined that weight training will make you look like "a side act in a freak show." (Interestingly, Rooney excluded even one reference to the 'roid word.) Zooming in on Rachel McLish as she tightened her torso to reveal a dainty set of abs that I call "carnal lace," Rooney lauded that "some women make Rambo look like a sissy." (Rooney apparently had yet to see Hannie Van Aiken.) Finally, the tubular commentator drifted to a stationary bike, which he managed to mount. Sighing, he said that he didn't believe in pedaling to "go nowhere."

Whimsy aside, it's tempting to think Rooney would prefer we return to bar-hopping, TV-stupefaction and, for exercise, perhaps practice spouse-bashing or shop for automatic weapons between burger binges at McDonald's. Anything to avoid sweating.

If derogatory words have been said, gaffing words have been printed. Last summer, for example, TV Guide circulated millions of copies of a memorable review that slashed ESPN's "American Muscle Magazine," a low-budget but worthy effort to telecast physique shows into 20 countries. Aiming below the navel, the critic wrote that he didn't know who was more disgusting, the men or the women on the show.

Granted, some powerful journalists don't like what they see, perhaps ticked that their own exercise regimens and diets have failed them. But would they really prefer Roseanne Barr or TV' s recent symbol of fitness, Oprah Winfrey, to Juliette Bergmann come bikini time?

In a 1988 issue of Mademoiselle magazine, a feature itemized what was "in" and what was "out." In the "out" column, which read like a Mafia hit list, ensuring death to anything there under, "women's bodybuilding" was included, suggesting that maybe now you girls should get out of the gym and back into the malls. Familiar with many strategies to manipulate public attention, I suspect M and other beauty mags have been stung by the loss of so many subscribers to the sudden crop of fitness-before-glamour journals.

Cameo Kneuer, Ms. National Fitness, once asserted, "I represent total fitness, not just weight training." She was acutely aware of the limited and controversial implications of the word "bodybuilder." Even her sister's weight-training show, "Body Shaping With Cory Everson," was titled to attract viewers who would be repulsed by "the other word," the word considered by Wall Street marketeers to be too hardcore for the general public. Meanwhile, on her high-self esteem days USA champ Dorothy Herndon wears a T-shirt that states, "I don't want to look like you either."

Shockingly, most bodybuilders cow under public attack. Battle shy or battle weary, they are loathe to confront the weakest attackers, never mind the vilest ones, as if by ignoring them they would just go away. But this tactic has proved profoundly futile in the past (consider the altruistic Rose Bird, dethroned Chief Justice of California, and ex-prez "Tricky" Nixon). Besides, bodybuilders look too damn good in the sites of angry killer-wimps and the few disturbed members of the U.S. media who are hellbent on turning them into kikmies (see "LiF Abner").

"But I really am the strong and silent type," said a Mr. America in examining his own nonchalance, an attitude that has made it easy for muscular people to "be seen and not heard" and treated like large children who hang out at adult-size playgrounds with their peers. Should the elephantine really never "throw their weight around" or unlock their jaws or their tongues, because they might frighten the world away, or worse, be told to put their muscle where their mouths are? "He's bad for bodybuilding," affirmed one "XXXL" about another, whose worst offense seemed to be that he didn't smile much or let anyone cut in line at the drinking fountain. As King Kong proved, it only takes a little fear to breed a lot of hate. Is that any reason for the world's largest to expect that, like Mighty Mouse, Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be there to "save the day" and rescue the biceps-bearing from ever raising their voices or voicing their own identities?

Hence, after assessing the ferocity of recent attacks on the weight-trained and considering that survival is supposed to go to "the fittest," it is indeed a wonder that bodybuilding has progressed at all. (Or has it? Today extreme muscularity is exhibited weekly by TV wrestlers, while physique shows only appear twice a year on major networks.)

It isn't likely that another Arnold will emerge from the competitive lineup either, as many film stars are shopping for bodybuilding secrets in hardcore gyms and finding that they can be bought cheap. In another year or two these celebrities will add striated quads to their bargain biceps. And if they should fail, well, the new latex suits bring stunning results. They sure worked for "Batman" and "Popeye."

All positions of great social stature require at least an occasional defense. Maintaining social power follows the same principles of the physiological-use it or lose it. Thus, old-timers recall when Arnold, in his Mr. O days, appeared on a talk show and was hassled by a guest. The guy said something like, "Who'd want a chest that looks like that?" Arnold brought him to his feet and opened the man's shirt. Then he asked the audience which chest they would prefer, "His or mine?"

But that was then, and this is now, and recently one L.A. newspaper reported that bodybuilders were "the most boring group of people in Southern California." No doubt the writer was frustrated for a story. Many times he had tried to provoke a response from them, doing everything short of throwing stones, and nothing-absolutely nothing-happened. Tsk tsk, he should have tried interrupting a workout.

How to Answer Stupid Questions

Q: Do you lift weights?

A: Just small parcels, and I'm careful to keep my knees bent.

Q: How much can you press?

A: If the shirts are clean, about 50 a day.

Q: Where'd you get those muscles?

A: Oh, these? Found 'em under the Christmas tree last year.

Q: How come you don't have as much money as Arnold Schwarzenegger?

A: Probably because he's taller.

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