Friday, January 21, 2011

The Strong Image

Pop Quiz(for those who know nothing about MMA): Which of these guys has the highest win percentage?


Answer: The guy at the top is Phil Baroni, the brash and trash-talking MMA punching bag with a 13-13 record. The guy at the bottom is Anderson Silva, a fighter who could lay a solid claim to being one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time, who has a 27-4 record.

Obviously, for those more knowledgeable in all matters of MMA, Silva is a far more technically sound fighter than Baroni will ever hope to be. Fighting has little to do with how a body looks and it's all about the skills it can perform. Just the same, those of us who watch him know that Anderson Silva is a powerful striker. On the other side of the coin, the body-beautiful Baroni, a guy who's graced the cover of Muscle and Fitness, makes a most basic mistake: a body isn't strong and powerful just because it looks strong and powerful. It looks good though!

This is hardly a new phenomenon. After Eugen Sandow realized (courtesy of Arthur Saxon) that he wasn't the strongest guy out on the Vaudeville Circuit anymore, his shows changed. It became more of a display of his body first and a strongman act second. That played into the bigger scheme of things anyway because most of his shows' attendees were more interested in how he looked anyway. That may have marked the beginning of the slow, but sure, separation between looking strong and being strong. Sandow was perfectly fine with looking part of "the world's strongest man" the part rather than being the part. The former was far easier to pull off.

It's hard to completely cut down the imagery of strength though. Although there were other contemporaries of Sandow operating, the the mere image of muscular strength, for all of its benefits, was a sure indicator that the owner of the hyper-developed muscles was a low-class laborer. The ideal male image, for a long time, alternated between being extremely thin (proof they didn't do any manual labor)or extremely fat(Proof they had enough money to eat as much as they cared to and did move/labor much).

The funny thing that eventually emerged after Sandow was, of course, aethetic bodybuilding. They carried on the tradition of the look of strength being more important than the ownership (that's not to say they weren't strong, it just means that it was secondary). The illusion began to shape their reality: train for shape and strength will follow.

It's also interesting to note who shaped that image. A Google Image search of any name bodybuilder (Take your pick: Jack Lalanne, Dan Lurie, Earle Liederman, John Grimek, Tony Samsone, Arnold, etc) from the 1920's to the 1970's will, in all likelihood, turn up some sort of gay erotica. An unknown, but probably very large, portion of the early bodybuilding fans were gay men. It could be said that that image of strength for most of the 20th century was tailored to be homoerotic. Nearly all of the major bodybuilding photographers were gay. Joe Weider knew what he was doing when he started his shirt-pocket sized "Adonis" magazine.
I wonder what Phil Baroni would say to that.

Shots never fired always miss. The ideal about the relationship between men's physical ability and physical appearance has fired several shots and missed more than a few times. It's a better track record than the opposite sex. Generally speaking, any display of anything remotely resembling muscular power has been strictly off-limits in the feminine image for as long as the names, "physical culture", "strength training", or "bodybuilding" have existed. The awe that this ad inspired kind of annoyed me. I recall this ad with Jennifer Anniston being some sort of pinnacle of the fit female. Forgive me for saying this but she looks like a stick figure! Would it actually hurt to lift something meaningful other than a pekinese-esqe dumbbell? Real weight, and real strength training, doesn't turn women into men!

See me in the background? I may have been looking for a 53 lbs kettlebell that they ended up hogging! How rude!

So, what's the solution to the strong image problem? Well, I think that a good starting point would be if everyone could collectively hold up the physical ideal of people that look like they can do strong things because they ACTUALLY DO things that make them strong! Would that be too much of a leap?

I hope you're not going to ask me (or yourself) what does that look like? If you insist, then here's an idea: go out and do stuff that makes you strong. Do it with other people. Repeat this over and over. Stop looking to E! and trash-magazines for the answer. You'll start to see for yourself. These activities don't have to be anything specific, although I think that we could all use a break from the cardio-workout-saturation. Strength is platic in nature. So, its presentation is going to vary. Don't get too hung up on that. Just learn to appreciate a strong performance first and what it looks like second. That's when we'll get this whole thing straightened out.

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