Freakery, Freaks, and Bodybuilding: An Essay on Human Marvels
A research article by Brad Johnson in which I am quoted and used as a reference:
Statement of Interdisciplinary: My Major is Psychology, and I used this as a main discipline of this paper. In addition to this, I also used History which can bee seen in pages 1-11, Biology/Anatomy on page 18 dealing with steroids, Literature on pages 20-23, and Photography on pages 22 and 23.
Freaks, people who somehow differ from what society deems as the norm, have been around since the beginning of time. They come in all shapes and sizes, and in all races, nationalities, and genders. They have been exploited by many and viewed with amazement by all. Seen as both corporeally and culturally different, they make up a unique middle ground between human and animal, male and female, fat and skinny, and so on. This essay focuses on both freaks of the past and the present by summarizing a collection of essays by Rosemarie Garland Thomson entitled Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, an analysis of Freaks (a 1932 film directed by Tod Browning), and a discussion of bodybuilding as a modern day freak show.
Rosemarie Garland Thomson starts her book entitled Freakery with an introduction that covers the history of these so-called ‘freaks’ and how the view of them has changed through the years. The term freak is a loaded term, and what I mean when I use this term is peoples who are seen as different in society, not better or worse, just different. Freaks have existed since the beginning of time. In the Stone Age, “cave drawings recorded monstrous births,” and there were stories of the one-eyed monster Polyphemus, and Goliath the giant, who was defeated by David in biblical times. “Clay tablets at the Assyrian city of Nineveh describe in detail sixty-two of what we would now call congenial abnormalities.”
Even from the beginning of time, these freaks proved profitable. Nobility in Egypt, Rome, and Europe “kept dwarfs and fools as amusing pets.” For some time, these freaks were displayed in taverns or on the streets, but that changed in the nineteenth century. After this time, they were displayed in circuses as sideshows, and people would come from all over to see these amazing freaks of nature.
Next, Thomson introduces freak discourse, which is how the freak’s body is seen over time and how these freaks are pictured. Here, she makes a reference to freaks as similar to both women and slaves. “Like the bodies of females and slaves, the monstrous body exists in societies to be exploited for someone else’s purposes.”
During the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Americans flocked to freak shows. One of the most popular ones was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As a sideshow to his circus, he had freaks such as bearded women, midgets, the wild men of Borneo, fat ladies, living skeletons, and many more. There are four narrative forms to produce freaks. The first is the lecture. Next are fanciful accounts of who these freaks are and the stories of their lives. After that comes the costuming. “An animal skin wrap, a spear, and some grunting noises made a retarded black man into the Missing Link.” Finally, drawings and pictures of these ‘freaks’ were used.
To exaggerate the freakishness of these modern-day ‘monsters,’ when pictures were taken, those who were using these freaks for profit, would often put one extreme right next to the other to show the huge contrast. For example, next to a fat woman they would put a living skeleton, or next to a midget, they would put a giant.
This idea of exploiting freaks to gain profit from became known as ‘enfreakment,’ a term coined by David Hevey. It was once very widely used in the United States.
Freak shows were once very accepted in the United States, and along with being accepted they were also very popular and profitable. A person traveling by might have heard, “Step right up…see the most astonishing aggregation of human marvels and monstrosities gathered together in one edifice.”
All together there are four types of freaks that would be at these freak shows. The “born freaks” who were people born with a physical disability such as armless and legless wonders or Siamese twins. Then there are “made freaks,” who do something to themselves. An example of this is people who cover themselves with tattoos. Then there are “novelty acts” where these freaks might swallow swords. The final type of freaks are really not freaks at all, they are called “gaffed freaks.” These are people who impersonate freaks, or try to be freaks. They are phonies. An example is people who try to be armless wonders by tucking their arm inside their shirt.
These people live a lived inside their own community of freaks and consider people who are not ‘freaks’ to be outsiders. They “developed a unique language, lifestyle, and insiders’ secrets, and contempt for those who were outsiders.” They didn’t take offense to what people called them because they didn’t take it seriously. “Their main concern was to make money.”
Most of the time these freaks were badly misrepresented. They had fabricated stories about who they were and where they were from. This was done to make them more exotic to the people who came and saw them. There were two ways that freaks were presented: the exotic mode and the aggrandized status mode. “In the exotic mode, the person received an identity that appealed to people’s interest in the culturally strange, the primitive, the exotic.” In the aggrandized status mode, they made these freaks superior by making them royalty, and they used prestigious titles such as King and Queen.
In his chapter, Gerber talks a lot about the question of choice. Did a lot of these freaks have any other choice but to join the freak show? One person said that it was either that or he had to go on welfare. This is not much of a choice. Because he was a freak, he wouldn’t be able to get another job, so he really had no other choice but to join a freak show or go on welfare. Gerber also speaks about dignity. The dwarfs that are used in dwarf bowling or dwarf tossing, can they have any pride or dignity?
Grosz begins her essay by explaining what a freak is. “The freak is thus neither unusually gifted nor unusually disadvantaged. He or she is not an object of simple admiration or pity, but is a being who is considered simultaneously and compulsively fascinating and repulsive, enticing and sickening.” There is a duality that draws us to these freaks, it both astonishes us and repulses us all at once. She describes these freaks as ambiguous because they live in the middle ground between human and animal, between the living and the dead, and between one sex and the other.
Grosz then focuses on two types of freaks: conjoined twins and hermaphrodites. She explains the many types of hermaphrodites and how they came about. Along with this we find out that the way hermaphrodites are presented at these freak shows is by dressing the freak in half male clothing and half female clothing.
After this Grosz discussed Siamese twins (conjoined twins). In the late 20th century there were only two fates for conjoined twins. Separating them would most likely result in death; living a life in seclusion was an alternative to being looked at and treated disfavorably.
Part 2 of Freakery begins with Chapter Five, written by Paul Semonin. It begins with discussing the idea of ‘monsters’ in early modern England. ‘Monsters’ did not mean big and scary creatures that went around destroying property or eating sheep. In fact, it did not mean anything like that at all. “The term ‘monsters’ applied to many types of exotic exhibits besides those natural abnormalities that fell into the category of monstrous births.” So not only is the word ‘monster’ used to describe those with physical abnormalities, but it is also used to describe many exhibits with which people were unfamiliar.
Royalty used these freaks or ‘monsters’ to entertain them at the courts, but this royalty was not the only group to be entertained by them. The wealthy paid to have them brought to them for private shows, and these freaks also entertained at taverns and coffeehouses.
Chapter Six, written by Edward L. Schwarzschild, discusses Peale. This man “often presented death as a ‘freak of nature.’” Peale felt that he could have command over death. He wanted to tame death and put it on display at his museum. He even wanted to preserve Benjamin Franklin’s body, as a way to defy death. The painting of his wife with their dead daughter was so powerful that he had to keep it behind a curtain.
Chapter Seven, by Eric Fretz, talks about the exhibition of freaks during the nineteenth century. He compares the freaks that are being exhibited to the values of the American middle class, at that time. “The public selves on display became ideological mirrors that reflected the values of a developing American middle class by confirming notions of success, otherness, and, in some instances, blackness.” So in a way, these freaks represented the American middle class in the nineteenth century.
The next chapter, written by Ellen Hickey Grayson, describes laughing gas demonstrations. These ‘freak shows’ did not focus on physical deformities, but rather, they exposed the inside traits that normally weren’t exposed, of those on stage. She begins the chapter by explaining the history of the study of laughing gas. Then she talks about these performances. Both men and women were used in these performances, but there was a difference in how each were supposed to act. The women “restricted their performances to moral virtue.” They accomplished this by singing or reading poetry or scripture. However, some women didn’t do this and showed their inappropriate character traits, but after it they were criticized and humiliated. Men didn’t have to worry about this as much as women did.
After this, the power of photography and the callers who persuaded people to come into the freak shows were discussed. Photography was critical to the survival and popularity of the freak show. Before photographs, people were skeptical that these ‘freaks’ were not real, but after they saw photos of these freaks they weren’t so skeptical anymore and went to the freak shows to see them. The rest of the chapter deals with how the callers got people to come inside to see the freaks. These callers tricked people by using fake-ticket buyers (a worker would act excited and pretend like he was buying a lot of tickets so the rest of the crowd would follow him and buy tickets also) and they used short-changing techniques.
Chapter Ten discusses “What is It?” in P.T. Barnum’s Exhibition. “What is It?” is also known as the “Missing Link” between humans and our primal ancestors. Through the years that this exhibit ran, we know of at least two men who played the “Missing Link.” The first was an actor named Harvey Leech. Because of his body build (a large upper body and tiny legs) he played many ‘monkey’ chartacters on stage. Because of this, he was perfect for the exhibit. There was however a minor problem. One day, a man looking at the exhibit recognized the actor. Barnum let his “Missing Link” attraction die down for a bit while this problem was figured out. Then, Barnum found another man to play “What is It?.” His name was William Henry Johnson. He was a mentally retarded black man from New Jersey. This man fit the role well, Barnum thought. People from all over came to see this act, but no one new what to call it. Finally, Barnum used the term nondescript, “a person or thing that is not easily described, or is of no particular class or kind.” There was a shift in reception from him being a monkey-man with no feelings, to a human-like being with “bright and intelligent eyes.”
Next, freaks in Germany are discussed in Chapter 11. This includes the “Aztec Children” as well as Krao the ‘Ape-Girl,’ and others. Krao, was a typical Siamese girl who suffered from a disease, but she was presented as the ‘Missing Link.’ These Germans were obsessed with the idea of ‘ape-people’ or Microcephalics and the idea of the ‘Missing Link.’ The chapter concludes with Lionel the lion-faced boy. He was seen as a freak of nature because he was very hairy, much like a lion. The difference between him and the ‘Ape-Girl’ was that he was shown as upper class in the way he dressed and by his poses. He was raised on a pedestal, and the ‘Ape-Girl’ was lowered to sub-human, an animal.
Chapter Twelve differs from the other essays because it is a chapter about a pair of freaks who made it big, and didn’t see their disability as a disability at all. It is an uplifting account. Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who became vaudeville sensations and appeared in two movies. At this time, there was the rise of the New Woman, a rise in thought that gave the women more equality with men, both in the household and in society. These twins were very financially successful, and were seen as reflections of the rise of the New Woman. This movement was not only about women’s equality, but also about them being independent. The ironic part about this is that, while they represented this movement of independence, “neither Daisy nor Violet ever [were] ‘free.’”
The next chapter is about cuteness. In this essay, the author uses both Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple as examples to convey his message. Through this essay Lori Merish, the author, associates cuteness with powerlessness. She argues that cute people aren’t as powerful as people who aren’t cute. Even today, we hold this ideal true. We say someone is “cute” if they say something naive. We diminish these people as human beings by how they appear. Many people feel that people who are cute, especially women, are small and slender. We do not typically think of these people as powerful, we see them as cute.
This next section begins with Europeans displaying foreigners in their freak shows. White supremacy is reflected in Chapter Fourteen, by European entrepreneurs that owned freak shows. They would claim to go into foreign lands and capture natives of those lands and bring them back to Europe. Here, they would be put on display for all to see because they were different. People would come from all over to see these so-called savage and untamed peoples. The businessmen would show their superiority to these foreigners, who everyone felt were inferior, by locking them up and putting them on display for all to see. They were using ethnological show-business to keep Africa as ‘the dark continent.’ One example of this was the Hottentot Venus. She was put on display because not only was she African, but she also had a larger than normal rear end.
Next, the inferiority of other exotic looking people and how western powers controlled them is discussed. It was very easy for these people to control them and they started out by using them for education, or so the westerners said, but then they transformed that into entertainment. Westerners began to exhibit these people because they were different from normal people. But along with displaying them, they stripped their culture from them. For example, some of these people didn’t wear clothes as a part of their custom, but our government said they needed to, so they forced them to wear clothes. Westerners took over their lives. Another example of this is in what they ate. Some of these people ate dogs, but the government stepped in and said no. They made them change their whole way of life so it was more like ours. Once again, we show how superior white people are and the inferiority of those not like us.
Chapter Sixteen summarizes Melville’s fiction in terms of freakery. Melville tells a story about a man who wanted to go and study the Typee, as they lived in their own culture. These people used tattoos as part of their custom. The man saw these tattoos as making these people into objects, he saw them as almost sub-human. Eventually, the Typee wanted to tattoo his face. They were accepting him into their culture, but he said no. He didn’t want to become one of them, he wanted to stay ‘superior’ to them. He didn’t want to be compared with these freaks. He was afraid that if he let them tattoo his face, then he too would be seen as a freak, and would not be accepted in his own culture. Melville compared tattooing with cannibalism. He said that tattooing was just as bad as cannibalism.
Finally, the last and most complex of the chapters in this section, Chapter Seventeen, is about the Circassian Beauty. We see that she is supposed to represent both purity and virtue, but she ends up representing exotic sexual intrigue. The first Circassian Beauty was rumored to be a Turk who was on display, but she may have been just a girl with bushy hair who came to Barnum one day looking for work. From then on she became the Circassian Beauty. Photography helped a lot in the advertising for this beauty. Once people saw the photos they wanted to go and see her in person.
In this section there is a definite theme of white supremacy. White people felt that we were superior to all other people in the world, wanting to capture and put on display all those that were different. Freaks were inferior to white people.
In Chapter 22, Dennett argues that freak shows are still around, but they are now modified to today’s audiences. In our age, there are a lot of daytime television talk shows. We no longer have ‘freak shows’ or ‘dime shows’ where you were able to go into tents and view ‘freaks’ for a dime, because now this would be seen as distasteful. But producers know that we, as humans, still have an urge to view these people we call freaks. So they came up with a ‘tasteful’ way for us to view these people. They came up with these television shows and talk shows where they would display all kinds of ‘freaks.’ A couple of examples she gives are Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Jerry Springer, and Oprah.
Chapter 23 has a similar theme. Weinstock argues that “the freak show may be all but extinct in contemporary America, [but] it remains alive and kicking on the big screen.” (328) He goes on to talk about how Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation meet our definition of freaks. They are freaks in space. He argues that “ugly aliens are bad, [and] cute aliens are good (albeit still inferior).” He then states how the aliens are inferior to the ‘superiority of the white male hero.” After he talks about Star Wars he goes into Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here he argues that the aliens in this show “can be divided into two categories: those races (generally depicted as “primitive”) that need to learn emotional restraint…, and those (generally technologically advanced) races that need to “loosen up.”” He shows us how our freak shows have moved from the streets to the big screen in two movies involving extraterrestrials.
We then move into a chapter dealing with Siamese Twins, a documentary. We examine this documentary created for the PBS series Nova. This film can be broken up into three sections: first, when the twins come to the United States. Second, when they are being prepared for surgery, and finally when they get out of surgery and attending preschool. This essay shows that although this documentary was meant to be for medical purposes, it also touches on the field of entertainment. People were watching it because they wanted to see these freaks become normalized through surgery.
The following article discusses body building competitions as a kind of freak show. Lindsay argues that there are limitations put on women during these body building competitions. The judges, and the audience for that matter, don’t want women to have muscles that are too big. They still want these women to possess some feminine qualities and characteristics. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that there are no such restrictions on men. This is an unfair gender discrimination.
The final chapter in this collection of essays is about Michael Jackson. Yuan argues that Jackson is more famous for his freakishness than his music. Michael Jackson put so much into his appearance because he wanted to be different from everybody else, and that’s why he is famous. Yes, his music was chart topping, but he really became popular for his freakish looks.
As a companion to Thomson’s collection, the movie Freaks describes life behind the scenes of the freak show. It is a movie about romance and deceit, about friendship and spite, and about those with physical disabilities who were exploited at the time. The movie was so controversial that it was pulled off shelves by MGM in 1932 and finally re-released in 1962.
This movie has a lot going on throughout, so I will analyze it by breaking it down into two halves, showing the strength of these freaks when they ban together. “The first half of the film goes to great lengths to “normalize” the freaks,” says Joan Hawkins, while in the second half we see these freaks turn and go on a murderous rampage. At the beginning, our sympathy is directed toward the freaks, but once the shift happens, our sympathy is directed “away from the freaks and toward their intended victim.”
The first half of this movie attempts to normalize these freaks in terms of what society saw as normal and common at the time. It is a plea to our senses to make these freaks seem like the rest of society. This film does a good job at making these freaks seem like us on one hand, but on the other hand, the audience is still aware of these freaks disabilities.
The film shows the actors backstage. Early on, we see Madame Tetralini, the freak show manager, taking many of the freaks out to play. They are playing around, like children (which most of them are not) when two men approach. At this, they run to Madame Tetralini for protection. At this very moment you could see these freaks as normal children, doing what normal children do, playing around. Also, when the men approach, they run to Madame Tetralini like normal children would do to their mother. She then scolds the “children,” telling them that they need not be afraid, that “God looks after all His children.” This scene really attempts to make these freak children seem like normal children.
Also, early on we see the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy marry two different men. They are viewed by all as freaks, but here we see them both get married. This is another attempt to normalize these freaks. How can one be more normal than by getting married? Soon after, Frieda is talking to Hans about the antagonist Cleo, and says to him, “To me you’re a man, but to her, you’re something to laugh at.” To Cleo, Hans is far from normal, he is a dwarf, but to Frieda he is a normal man. The audience can feel her try to make Hans feel as if he did not have a disability.
In addition to these examples, there are two “normal” people who seem to see these freaks as normal human beings. Phroso, the clown, and Venus, the seal trainer, interact and talk to the freaks like they are just another person, like they are normal. They don’t talk down to them or try to make them feel stupid, like Cleo does. A good example of this is when Phroso is talking to one of the pinheads, and he tells her that he is going to buy her a hat when he gets to Paris. It is a very caring scene where the audience can tell he doesn’t see her freak side, he just sees a normal person trapped in a deformed body. Also, Venus talks with Frieda outside the trailers while Frieda hangs her laundry. Here too we see that this “normal” person doesn’t seem to see Frieda as a freak. She talks to her as friend. All of these examples show how Freaks attempts to normalize these people during the first half of the film.
While we see Freaks try to normalize these carnival people (freaks), we also see a shift from this normality to a portrayal as murderers. Right after the wedding feast, there is a definitive shift from one to the other. During this feast, Cleo poisons Hans in attempt to kill him so she can recover the large inheritance that is coming to him. Soon after, the rest of the freaks realize what’s going on and know they have to do something or Hans is likely to be killed. They ban together not only to protect Hans, but to punish Cleo for what she did. As the freak show is traveling to another location, we see Cleo step into Hans’ trailer. In his trailer are a few of his freak companions. She says she is here to give him his medicine, but in reality, she is there to poison him again. Hans asks for the black vile, and Cleo insists she doesn’t know what he is talking about. She turns around and sees one of the freaks flip open a knife and another brandish a gun. These freaks know she was going to poison him and they had to do something to stop it. All of them chased her out of the trailer and through the woods with their weapons drawn. While the freaks in Hans’ trailer were chasing Cleo through the woods, the other freaks had to do something about the other person in the plot to kill Hans, Hercules. They found him outside one of the trailers and attacked. He was injured by a thrown knife, and the rest of the freaks crawled under the wagon through the mud and rain to finish him off. In the end, we can assume the freaks killed Hercules and turned Cleo into the “Chicken-Woman.” Whether we are meant to think they actually mutilated her and actually turned her into a freak, or if it was just a hoax, they were able to demoralize her in some fashion. Banning together, they were hell-bent on revenge.
Remembering when Madame Tetralini had her “children” outside playing at the beginning of the movie, the freaks clung to the “big woman” for protection. However, things changed because “the revenge sequence depicts a big woman who desperately needs protection from a band of marauding freaks.” They are no longer the ones who need protection, they are the ones attacking and attempting to murder both Hans and Cleo.
The biggest, most recurring theme throughout this film is the idea of togetherness and closeness. The freaks shown in this film have a special bond to one another. It is an extremely strong bond, and toward the end of the movie we see the idea of “offend one and you offend them all.” It is a bond that is so strong that they are willing to kill for each other.
Throughout the movie, there are freaks lurking behind corners or under trailers, watching each others’ backs. They are little spies, looking out for one another. We see this bond and closeness in the Wedding Feast scene. All the freaks are off by themselves, Cleo and Hercules are there too, celebrating the marriage of their friend Hans to Cleo. They are singing and dancing and having a great time with one another, but during the feast there is something that really shows the bond of these freaks and how close they really are to each other. The freaks start chanting, “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us.” At this, one of the midgets gets up, while the rest keep chanting, and pours wine into a huge goblet. While they are still chanting, he walks across the table, giving it to each freak to drink from. They all drink from it. Then he offers it to Cleo and she flips out, calling them nasty freaks. It is a very powerful scene. We can almost feel the bond of these freaks, in us, as we watch this. The idea that they are all looking out for each other is prevalent throughout the second half of the movie, from the time Cleo really tries to move in on Hans, until he end. They know that they are all in this together, to the end. And if they don’t watch each others’ backs, then they will be picked apart one by one, much like Hans was before he understood what was going on.
By joining together, these freaks were able to accomplish their goal of getting back at both Cleo and Hercules for making a fool of and trying to kill Hans to inherit his fortune. They were able to kill Hercules and demoralize Cleo, either by actually mutilating her or by making people think she is a freak. Together they were a powerful force and were able to accomplish their goal, but if they had not teamed up, they would not have succeeded. Earlier in the film we saw how one of these freaks (Frieda) tried to stop Cleo from hurting Hans, emotionally or physically, and how that worked out. Cleo pushed even more, and this ended up escalating the problem. Then, by bonding together, the freaks fixed the problem at hand. We see how strong the bond is between these freaks and what they can accomplish as a group as opposed to as individuals.
A long time ago, freaks were seen on street corners and in traveling circuses, but there was a transition of freaks moving from that to the big screen. In Freaks, we see these freaks making that transition, but now there has been another transition. We no longer need to watch television or movies to see such freaks, we can find them walking down the streets and at our local gyms. They are bodybuilders, the modern-day freaks. Now, more than ever, self-made freaks walk around exhibiting their extraordinary ability to entertain and amaze. They are professional bodybuilders. These bodybuilders are seen not only as cultural freaks, but also one of the last corporeal freaks because of their larger than average muscle mass.
Through the rest of this essay, I will explore how modern-day bodybuilders can be classified as freaks, both corporeal and cultural, and how men and women bodybuilders are to be seen differently by others. In addition, I would like to touch briefly on the psychology of bodybuilding, and include the thoughts of bodybuilders themselves.
It is important to distinguish bodybuilding from weight lifting. When you bodybuild, you build up your muscles for display, not for use. However, when you weight lift, you build up your muscles for use. Football players exemplify this difference. They do not want large muscles so they can show off, they want to be strong and have large muscles so that they can compete successfully. So where does bodybuilding fit in our society? Is it a sporting event, is it entertainment, or does it lie somewhere in-between?
For most of its history, bodybuilding “has occupied a curiously uncertain zone lying somewhere between sporting activity, entertainment, and erotic display.” While bodybuilding is a sporting activity, due to its very athletic nature, there have always been some underlying themes, such as entertainment, and eroticism, throughout its history. When these bodybuilders compete, it is more than just showing the judges their bodies after all the hard work it took to get into that kind of shape, it is a form of entertainment. They go on stage to show the audience and spectators their bodies; they want to give the crowd a show; they want to entertain. Because of this, there have been rules in the sport of bodybuilding to keep the eroticism in the back seat as much as possible. The men can not wear any sort of thong and are no longer allowed to turn their back to the crowd and touch their toes, a common pose. These restrictions are in place to keep bodybuilding as closely related to a sporting event as possible
What is normal in American culture in the 21st Century? This is a very difficult question to answer because it depends upon who you ask. For this essay, I will define what I feel is normal for American culture at this time on the topic of bodybuilding and will base all of my statements off of that definition. Some people, both men and women, want to be in great shape and thus they lift and exercise extensively, where other people would prefer to just not worry about it. There are, however, extremes to both of these, exercising and lifting until your health is at risk, eating yourself into obesity, or not eating at all. Bodybuilders are men and women with very extensive muscle mass, and as a hobby or as their job, they lift huge amounts of weights for an extended period of time. They spend tons of money annually on home exercise gyms, dieting supplements and pills, especially males, all to enhance the way they look.
Along with being seen as cultural freaks, these people are corporeal freaks. Their bodies are, at the very least, very different from the average human beings’ body, not only in America, but all over the world. These bodybuilders are the main consumers of anabolic steroids, which are used to increase muscle mass greatly in a short period of time. In steroids, there is a lot of testosterone, which tends to increase male characteristics. This means increased body hair, deeper voices, disrupted menstrual cycles (in women), and acne throughout the body. Women bodybuilders, however, have also used these steroids, and male or female, it will still increase male characteristics. Steroid use is very dangerous and can lead to liver and kidney failure, which can leave a person seriously injured or cause death. A lot of bodybuilders use steroids in moderation, but obsessive bodybuilders are “prepared to endanger his (or her) life for the sake of putting another inch of muscle on the arms or legs.” This use of steroids is not normal in the 21st century, which makes the bodybuilder into a corporeal freak because of the steroids effects upon the body.
Of all bodybuilders, women seem have the most difficult time being accepted by society, because of how women “should look.” The ideal for women is to be slim and trim with large breasts. This is how most men, and some women for that matter, think women should be. If someone deviates from that stereotype too much we begin to see them as a sort of freak, a kind of outcast. On the one hand, there are obese women, and on the other hand there are bodybuilders.
In Iron Jane: Chopping Down the Muscle Myth, Dorothea Helms argues that female bodybuilders are anything but freaks. When Lenda Murray and Diana Dennis, professional women bodybuilders, went onto a TV talk show, they had to “spend the entire hour fighting to defend their femininity and the right to carry their sport to the professional levels.” The audience and talk show hosts didn’t see them as feminine because of their looks, because of their muscles. Helms makes the case that gaining muscles is hard work, and it is rewarding to them to see their hard work paying off. “Muscles aren’t men’s territory,” she states. So why should female bodybuilders be viewed as unfeminine? Unfortunately, our culture is filled with stereotypes, and the female body is idealized and stereotyped quite often. Petite and slender is how most women are idealized, not strong and muscular.
Similarly, in an experiment performed by Harvey Freeman, a psychologist, in 1988, we see how women tend to be seen. In this study, 70 college students (40 female, 30 male) were given three envelopes, each contained a picture of a woman wearing a bathing suit. In each of these photographs, the face of the woman pictured was blanked out, so that they would not be judged on their facial beauty, but on their bodies. One was a somatically attractive woman, one was a somatically unattractive person, and the other was a female bodybuilder. None of them were flexing their muscles. The subjects were asked to judge these women on their attractiveness, personal attributes, and their life success. For attractiveness, the female bodybuilder was judged to be significantly less attractive than the attractive woman, but not significantly different than the unattractive woman. The results also showed the bodybuilder as having significantly fewer socially desirable characteristics than the attractive person, but having significantly more desirable characteristics than the unattractive person. Finally, the bodybuilder was “expected to have the same prospects for self-fulfillment as the high attractive stimulus persons and better prospects than the less attractive stimulus person.”
This study shows how female bodybuilders are viewed in a different light than other women. They occupy a sort of middle ground between those we view as attractive and those we view as unattractive. This brings me to the question of why do people decide to get into bodybuilding in the first place? What makes them want to do this to themselves, and how do they feel about themselves? Sam Fussell wrote an autobiography entitled Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder in which he admits, “the attempt at physical perfection grew from self disgust.” He continues to discuss why he became a bodybuilder, and the biggest other factor, along with disgust, was obsession. He became obsessed with lifting and making himself feel better about himself and his body.
Kerry Dulin also brings us into the mind of a bodybuilder. He explains that while the majority of the population is concerned about their appearance, bodybuilders are obsessed with it. They do not eat for pleasure, they eat what will help them improve their appearance. Their diet is where the definition in their muscle comes from. They tend to eat protein rich foods and stay away from carbohydrates. Many bodybuilders suffer from muscle dysmorphia, which is a perceived problem that makes them feel small all of the time (even though they may be enormous). They need to be bigger to feel better about themselves, and so they continue to get bigger and bigger, but they never feel like they are big enough. “I don't know that I have ever spoken with a competitive bodybuilder who has expressed satisfaction with his or her physique,” said Dulin. They reach for this goal they have set, but right before they reach it, their goal changes. These bodybuilders feel like they are not where they want to be. “We set an initial strength or physique goal only to decide that it is not enough as we approach it,” Dulin says. Dulin has come to realize this fact, and thus also has come to say that it’s ok to stop changing the goals, stop raising the bar. He says to look how far you’ve come and bask in that glory. This is a problem that many bodybuilders have, they do not know to stop and enjoy what they have accomplished. Instead they are too busy trying to attain their next goal.
In addition to that, it is also interesting to learn that many bodybuilders were very little and puny as children. They were teased for being small, and when they reached puberty began to lift weights as a result of this feeling of inadequacy. This feeling can carry on throughout their lives, which leads them in their pursuit to get bigger and bigger. Dulin reports that he knows many bodybuilders who won’t date or don’t have any social life outside the gym; their only goal in life is to get bigger. By doing so, they hope to feel better about themselves.
“The most characteristic means by which the twentieth century has filtered the visual world and rendered it intelligible has been the photographic image.” Bodybuilding is no exception to this idea. We see photographs of both male and female bodies all around us. However, much of the time, the female bodybuilder is seen in a different light than the male bodybuilder.
With the rise of photography, Americans see their ideal bodies on magazines, billboards, and anywhere else you can imagine. For women, their wish is to be thinner, and this leads to problems such as anorexia and bulimia. Men wish to be leaner with more muscle mass, which leads them to begin bodybuilding.
*Fig. 1: a picture of a female bodybuilder at a competition
Look at the cover of a muscle magazine sometime. You will notice there are rarely female bodybuilders on the cover. Women are on these covers, but not female bodybuilders. Typically, there are male bodybuilders, all greased and flexing, with an attractive, slim, big breasted woman on their arm. Mixed signals as to how women are supposed to look are even on the covers of bodybuilding magazines. When you do see female bodybuilders, although they have some manly characteristics, such as large muscles, many enhance their feminism with breast implants. As females gain muscle in their chest area, their breasts decrease in size, and thus get breast implants so they can keep their feminine attractiveness.
Today's’ bodybuilders are looked down upon by their fans and the media if they decide to pose nude for photographs. Many feel it is degrading to both the individual as well as to their sport. Even still, many bodybuilders will pose nude to show off their perfectly sculpted body. Having been around bodybuilders, I know how self absorbed they are with the way they look, and this is why they decide to pose nude, many feel their finely tuned bodies should be shown off. Photographers want to do nude shots because they want to expose the male and female body and all of its glory. They want to photograph them without the camouflage of clothes.
Shawn Ray, a professional bodybuilder, feels the bodybuilding industry is “a strange industry for sure, mixed with X-convicts from dope dealers to gay and lesbian porn stars. This sport has wife swappers, Nubian addicts, X-heads and schmoes who wrestle for money, we have them all.” He acknowledges his sport as a type of freak show. “The thing that gets me about bodybuilding is that when I started competing, I didn’t sign up for this freak show, I just wanted to compete.”
In conclusion, the world of bodybuilding is in and of itself a human freak show, where men and women lift weights to gain massively large muscles to show off to the world. These bodybuilders are both cultural and corporeal freaks because of their sheer size and extensive muscle mass. Over the course of time, psychologists have tried to explain it and understand it and photographers have captured the human body in all of its glory in the pictures of the bodybuilders. Through this paper we were able to look into the minds of a few professional bodybuilders, Dulin, Ray, Fussell, Murray, and Dennis, as they described their sport and the freakishness of it. And in addition, we saw how male and female bodybuilders are seen and treated differently. In the world of bodybuilding, all that matters is size and definition, and it dominates all that they do.
Through this essay we have seen the freak in many lights by summarizing Thomson’s book, the movie Freaks, and looking at a modern marvel, the bodybuilder. We examined them from when they traveled with dime-shows and were shown on street corners or in taverns, to present-day freaks. They exist both as the cultural and as the corporeal freaks still today. Over time, our perception of the freak has changed from when they were once locked in cages and shown to paying crowds, but even today, we still have the concept of the freak: someone who differs from what our society sets as the norm.
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