When I was in high school, my mother came home one day furious that I turned down a job at the local retail store so I could lift weights instead. I told her that the job sucked and paid next to nothing. She called me lazy, and said I didn’t know the value of hard work. With protein shaker in hand, I declared that the work I did in the gym was harder and more valuable to me than any job.
My antipathy for paid labor and love of physically laboring with weights might seem idiosyncratic to some, but I wasn’t alone. Serious bodybuilders often put their personal pursuit of strength, size, and aesthetics above more material concerns like money.
This pursuit was on display this past weekend at one of the most popular events in bodybuilding: the Arnold Sports Weekend, a four-day event where bodybuilders from around the world come to train, pose, cheer each other on, and stuff their gym bags with free samples from the biggest supplement companies in the industry. The discourse of herculean labor at the Columbus Convention Center has died down and the bodybuilders have gone home, but it’s worth revisiting bodybuilding’s roots in widespread concerns over capitalist labor at the end of the nineteenth century and, more importantly, why these concerns matter today.
Responding to Taylorism
At the turn of the century, looser charter laws, widespread mergers and acquisitions, and evolutions in manufacturing and transportation transformed many American businesses in fields like steel and sugar into giant conglomerates. This growth created millions of new positions in advertising, accounting, sales, public relations, and other white-collar fields, and fueled a wave of migration to the cities by Americans in search of better lives through wage and salaried work.
However, these bureaucracies and their seemingly benign forms of labor came with their own problems. Taylorist-style deskilling and the separation of mental tasks from physical tasks left a large segment of the male workforce performing sedentary labor. For many men, the promise of a better life in the city was laden with the new problems of urban work: mental exhaustion, a feeling of separation from one’s body, boredom, and a lack of freedom in one’s work.
The once pervasive artisanal, craft, and agricultural forms of labor idealized by popular turn-of-the-century authors and orators like Walt Whitman and William James became nostalgic objects of the past for a new and predominantly male middle-class workforce.
In response to the changing nature of labor, men like America’s first physical educator, Harvard professor Dudley Sargent, created “mimetic exercises” for middle-class workers. These exercises, which utilized free weights and pulley systems, mimicked the movements of physical laborers of the period. This approach to the body was adopted by emerging state gymnasiums, the YMCA’s “physical work” department, and icons like Teddy Roosevelt. By the end of the nineteenth century, bodybuilding was a national phenomenon.
The ritual of building one’s body allowed middle-class men to perform a rugged and masculine sense of self — a sense of self that was undermined by corporate capitalism each day. It also helped white-collar workers alleviate their fears of being overthrown by muscular immigrants — a sentiment echoed today by the “this is our country, not theirs” legion of Trump-supporting bodybuilders on bodybuilding.com. In the gym, masculine ideals were expressed through strenuous training and a well-developed body, and the threat of what Roosevelt once called “race suicide” was temporarily averted.
Furthermore, the gym offered well-to-do men a cultural space where labor could again be rewarding and intrinsically valuable, instead of alienating and externally oppressive. For early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, whose body is enshrined in the Mr Olympia trophy, the weight room was a place where mind and body were not separated, where workers had control of their labor, and where what they produced did not go to someone else. This kind of work, Sandow explains in his 1894 training manual, has a “bracing effect on the mind and an enlivening influence on the spirits.” In contrast to the jobs performed by Gilded Age accountants and admen, and the dreary office jobs performed by many Americans today, this work was fulfilling and enjoyable.
Today bodybuilding has moved beyond the geographic boundaries of the United States — and beyond the binaries of mental and manual labor — but the tension its practitioners highlighted between wage and salaried labor on the one hand, and fulfilling work on the other, has not disappeared. As anthropologist Alan Klein observed in his seven-year field study of bodybuilding gyms, most noncompetitive bodybuilders “labor at unrewarding jobs . . . the gym rat sees his, or more recently her, training as his or her real work.”
Peggy Roussel and Jean Griffet’s study of female bodybuilders echoes this argument. As one of their subjects explains in an interview, “The thing I really like about bodybuilding is that you get out what you put in . . . what we do doesn’t belong to society, it belongs to each individual person and it’s the fruit of our labor.”
A similar sentiment is present in Taylor Herbert’s rationale for why he bodybuilds:
Sitting in an office all day cranking out daily work for a paycheck. Eight to ten hours a day given to someone else for money. Time in my life that I will never get back. Watching the clock, pushing myself [until] five. The gym is where I get that time back, one set at a time. This time is not for . . . my rich ass boss . . . each rep gives me back my life that I give away to others everyday.
Self-fulfillment, wholeness of mind and body, control over one’s body, and ownership of one’s labor and the products of one’s labor speak to the kinds of activities that all of us find meaningful. Whether it’s the middle-aged man planting tomatoes in his garden, or the young woman writing poetry on her front porch, we all yearn for freedom, creativity, and control in our labor.
Bodybuilding arose because the people interested in making money off of other people’s labor began to eliminate the kinds of work that embodied these characteristics, at a rate that matched their own bureaucracies’ rapid expansion.
Over one hundred years later, instead of gaining more autonomy in their work, most people have become even smaller cogs in bureaucratic machines, whether it is the Walton dynasty or Nike, Inc. As Harry Braverman argued, Taylorism was not a passing stage in capitalism’s development — it is one of the guiding tendencies of capitalism itself. Less control, less skill, and an increased division of labor makes salaries lower, workers easily replaceable, and capitalists rich.
However, Taylorism is not the reality workers have to accept.
Early supporters of the physical culture movement, like socialist and The Jungle author Upton Sinclair, not only built their bodies. They built movements to stop owners from turning work into what it is today. Men like Physical Culture editor Bernarr Macfadden even built cooperative communities where individuals could free themselves from wage labor, without the threat of starvation. Similar to the anticapitalist blueprint expounded by Erik Olin Wright, many bodybuilders fought to both tame capitalism and offer an alternative vision of social relations and labor. The struggle was, and is, not just about better wages and more benefits, but better jobs. This is a struggle that the rhetoric of job creation — a hallmark of Trump’s presidency — fails to recognize or acknowledge.
The emergence of cultural forms in the United States to mediate the social problems provoked and accentuated by capitalism is not a new phenomenon, but a cyclical tendency. Social change occurs — as it did for Upton Sinclair and others — when dissent is directed toward radical movements and alternative modes of production, not reconciliation. Until then, the labor that makes adults jubilantly yell “Light Weight!” and “Yeah baby!” will remain different than the labor that has people saying “Thank God it’s Friday.”