Pathology on parade

A new essay from Exuberant Animal takes on the “physique-industrial” complex and skewers the bejeezus out of it with savage, toothsome brilliance. I don’t think anyone has ever captured the sense of existential dread that this subculture evokes in me as well as this piece. I wanted to slow clap after I read it.

I must reproduce at least a few of the passages here, to further salute the punctum of their pointed message:

In some quarters, this convention was billed as a “health and fitness event.” But clearly, health had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Most participants were in obvious partnership with the metabolic devil, mortgaging their futures for short-term muscular development. Many appeared to be flogging a deep psychological conflict, played out in physical form.

More properly, this event resembled nothing so much as a vast chemistry experiment. The formula is simple: take immense quantities of anabolic substances, add prodigious amounts of brute physical labor and whala! Spectacular muscular development. If you wanted, you could reproduce the whole thing in a laboratory.

By the way, only the most naïve observer would wonder about steroid use in this population. Some things are simply obvious. No amount of natural training would produce such grotesque physical development. The tissue that we observed was clearly synthetic. As Jeff Crews put it, “If cannibalism were legal, you wouldn’t want to put any of these people on the barbeque.” And, if they did happen to die a natural death, you’d be wise to treat their bodies like toxic waste and hand them over to the EPA for processing.

There was no ambiguity about the ultimate purpose of this event. Aside from the obvious profit motive, the primary objective was to promote the appearance of individual human bodies. As such, this event was poised at the cutting edge of the “me industry.”

Bodybuilders are the most obvious players in this industry, but they are by no means the only ones. The “me industry” is a culture-wide force that includes most health, fitness and lifestyle magazines, TV shows and DVDs, as well as many gyms, spas and salons. It includes, not just an obsessive focus on muscle and weight loss, but also athletic achievement, skin care, fashion and personal possessions.

In this industry, attention is focused exclusively on the individual and the individual’s body. It’s all about your abs and my butt. It’s all about your weight loss or my athletic performance. It’s all about your hair or my skin. It’s never about our community or our predicament.

The “me” meme is all about promoting the primacy of the individual. The customer is a stand-alone organism with no tribe or community. Relationships are irrelevant. This is why magazine covers always feature single, isolated bodies, Photoshopped to perfection. There’s no background, no habitat and thus, no life-support. It’s all about me and it’s all about you, but it’s never about us.

Now, unlike this author, I have a weak spot for weird body mod subcultures. I’d rather see a little extremism than the tiresome mantra that the body is a lovely gift au naturel from the Great Spaghetti Monster and should thus in no way be decorated or modified. And maybe that’s just because I love my purple hair even though it may give me cancer in a few decades. (Although I only own one pair of high heeled shoes, which would be properly described as “kitten heels” aka “wuss heels”. They are extracted for special occasions once a year, whether I need to or not.)

So it’s not necessarily the body mod component that troubles me. I say have fun with it.

What’s particularly insightful about this post is that it captures two things:

  1. That much of the behaviour and mindset required to accomplish the goals valued by the physique-industrial complex are patently antithetical to health and true, holistic wellbeing.
  2. That it is a profoundly me-centric pursuit to the exclusion of any notion of relational existence or community.

Should you care how you look? Absolutely. Otherwise you end up wearing old newspapers and not showering. Should this caring completely displace life-affirming, truly wellness-oriented behaviours and cognitive structures? No way. Carving away the body is not joy, although it is an interesting science project. Training hard, eating to fuel good things and optimize the body’s natural processes, pushing one’s physical performance limits because it inspires aliveness and a sense of connection to existence — that is worth exercising for.