Friday, 27 September 2013

The Body of a God - Part 3

Even though the first official bodybuilding contest organised by Eugen Sandow in 1901 was a huge success there was no immediate follow-up competition. Instead an American called Benarr Macfadden organised similar contests in the USA a few years later, leading to America as being seen as the “home” of bodybuilding. Until recent decades, however, gay bodybuilders have had to stay firmly in the closet, such was (and still is, to some extent) the paranoia among straight bodybuilders that all gay men would want to “touch” them.

It was also in America where a sub-culture of muscle admiration developed in photography which dated back to the Father of Bodybuilding himself, Eugen Sandow. Developing from this came physique magazines, making it possible for closeted men to see muscular bodies without going to the gym or to rarely-held bodybuilding contests. A niche market opened whereby magazines published specifically for gay men were promoted as ordinary physique magazines – the “beefcake” magazines. They catered for those who were attracted to a wide variety of muscular types, from massive bodybuilders to slimmer, toned athletes.

There still remained, however, a certain perceived “corrupting influence” that physique magazines in general were said to produce, especially those which showed men in poses which had nothing to do with training. Several beefcake magazines were accused of being pornographic purely on this basis. The debate came to a head in 1947 when beefcake magazine pioneer Bob Mizer was convicted of distributing “obscene material” in the mail. Ironically, these photographs and magazines are now considered important cultural items!

At the same time bodybuilders were beginning to turn their sport back to its origins in entertainment. The cinema industry soon pounced on bodybuilding champions and put them onto the big screen, in very little clothing. In doing so the film industry was perpetuating the belief that the more muscles a man had the more heroic and ideal he was. The visibility of these bodybuilders on the big screen also gave the sport a big boost and many bodybuilding gyms and associations were formed.

Bodybuilding was beginning to grow into an industry. More gyms and more contests were joined by commercial interests such as more magazines, sports nutrition and personal trainers – and the development and use of drugs and steroids.

But the bodybuilding world was not ready to embrace diversity. It did, however, realise the homoerotic nature of the sport and deliberately promoted a macho straight image with bodybuilders surrounded by scantily clad females, much as boxing and wrestling matches still do, not to mention many present day bodybuilding magazines.

This didn’t stop the lgbt community from embracing the culture of the body beautiful, something it was more discreet about exhibiting previously. Gyms specifically catering for the gay market began to open up across America in the late 1970s. Several gay bodybuilders were competing in mainstream contests in this decade In fact, and what is just as remarkable about the 2 gay bodybuilders who were openly gay by the 1980s is that they were also the first black bodybuilders to win the Mr. America contest – Chris Dickerson in 1970 and Jim Morris in 1973. Jim was also the first black Mr. USA, and Chris went on to become one of the greatest and most titled bodybuilders in history. Both came out in the late 1970s. The first bodybuilder to come out and make a big media event out of it was Bob Paris in 1989, another former Mr. Olympia, Mr. America and Mr. Universe.

The general fitness industry, which saw the rise of jogging and aerobics as well as bodybuilding, was something that Olympian Tom Waddell wanted gay men and women to join and show the world that gay people were not stereotypical effeminate weaklings. It is fortunate that Tom was living in San Francisco at the time as there was a large lgbt health and fitness community already established there, and with their help he created the first Gay Games in 1982. Bodybuilding was among the sports, attracting a varied group of competitors of men and women of all ages.

Bodybuilding has been on the schedules of most Gay Games and Outgames ever since and is often one of the most popular events, and the contest held at the 1994 Gay Games in New York attracted the highest number of entries to any bodybuilding contest in history, gay or straight – 265.

Today gay bodybuilders are more visible, though not, yet, in major international contests such as this weekend’s Mr. Olympia. But go to any Pride, any club, any gym, and you’ll see gay men flexing their muscles proudly. The internet is full of websites of gay and straight men showing off their muscles (though, it has to be said, more often for the sexual gratification of the viewer).

And on that note I’ll finish this mini-history. For those of us who try to keep in shape with weight-training (and fail!) let’s hope that gay bodybuilders continue to flex for our sexuality and prove that muscles and masculinity are not exclusive to heterosexuality.

Oh - and good luck to the contestants (straight, gay or closeted) of the Mr. Olympia finals on Sunday.

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