Muscle as Dominance-Display

Hi everyone!

In the last post, I looked at hypermasculinity and its effects on gay men in general and gay bodybuilders in particular, the impact of the AIDS crisis of the 80s, comic-book masculinity, and the media’s role in shaping our ideas about the muscular body.

In this next installment, I look at whether or not dominance-display theory may go some way to explaining our interest in bodybuilding from a young age, as well as the phallic symbolism of the male body in (the) sport. I also briefly look at the effect of dominance-display on relationships. You may view this post as building upon the last point we made in yesterday’s post about the link between bodybuilding and sexual prowess in bodybuilding media.

In connection with sexual prowess, the dominance-display theory may go some way to explaining the interest in bodybuilding by many males at puberty and through adolescence. The sport is driven by testosterone and is related to fantasies of dominance over other competitive males (Dutton, 1995). The obsession with size may have its roots in the ‘identification of physical dominance with tribal leadership and the sexual rights over female members of [that] tribe’ that such leadership may include. One of the main proponents of this theory is Desmond Morris, who observed the behaviour of baboons:

The dominant monkey is always larger than his underlings. He has only to hold himself erect and his greater body size does the rest.

Morris (1971)

The fascination of men with other men’s bodies is evident with our pre-occupation with the penis, particularly its’ size and length. This organ and its activities are a constant source of male anxiety and insecurity. The ability to ‘perform’ is a key element of masculinity and male adequacy as well as a validation of one’s own gender identity. Penile display is not necessarily aimed at women (Jared Diamond, 1991). The penis sheath, worn by some New Guinea tribesmen, is equivalent to the possession and display of a large penis being seen as a sign of sexual prowess and/or status that is aimed at other men (Dutton, 1995).

The phallic symbolism of the male body in sport, and especially bodybuilding, is not lost on feminist writers such as Rosalind Miles (1991). In her book, The Rites of Man: Love, Sex and Death in the Making of the Male, she asserts that (heterosexual) men who engage in the sport of bodybuilding are not doing it for women. With particular reference to the phallic symbolism of the sport, she observes when referring to actors such as Schwarzenegger and Stallone, albeit wryly:

‘each becomes a public phallus, huge, rock-hard, gleaming and veined with blood. And as the phallus first stirred and came to life in the primeval swamps of the male imagination, so males above all are all uniquely alert to its siren call and baleful power. Becoming an athlete, bodybuilder or ‘jock’ is therefore a clear and overt statement of manhood and male potency, and the clearest possible message to other men’.

Bodybuilders already know this by experience. It is the exercise high called the ‘pump’, the process by which blood is forced into a muscle through hypertrophic exercise, and which is a contributing factor to muscle growth. Schwarzenegger, in the documentary movie Pumping Iron, described the pump as being very similar to an orgasm.

It is the greatest feeling I get. I search for this pump because it means that my muscles will grow when I get it. I get a pump when the blood is running into my muscles. They become really tight with blood. Like the skin is going to explode any minute. It’s like someone putting air in my muscles. It blows up. It feels fantastic.

(Butler, 1990)

There are now specific nitrous oxide-based supplements available that facilitate the quest for a pump, very much like ViagraTM and other such technologies for men with sexual dysfunction issues or who are simply seeking to enhance their own sexual ‘performance’ whether or not they have such issues. For Miles, dominance-display in this manner becomes a form of aversion therapy and confirms men’s emotional exclusion of women. ‘Being’ the phallus in this manner is ‘a defence against castration’ (Parveen Adams, 1996). An additional downside of this form of display can be found in anecdotal evidence which suggests that the marriages of competitive bodybuilders tend to suffer as a result of their commitment to the sport and the figures are higher than average (Dutton, 1995).

In the next installment, I look at body dysmorphia in bodybuilding.

I AM…The Queer Philosopher

PS: I’ve had some further thoughts on this since I last submitted this essay. For example, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions includes the masculinity/femininity index. Two of the markers for masculine societies are competition and performance. I would argue that these markers can be linked to sport (as well as business, war, etc) and sexual performance of men. The other thought is that men’s fascination with other men’s bodies can be referred to as homosexual acts, even though there is no romance or sex involved. Or, perhaps homosocial is a better term, referring to homosocial desire (according to Eva Sedgwick, e.g.)? What do you think?

PPS: Have things changed in terms of heterosexual relationships for competitive bodybuilders since Dutton? What about LGBT relationships?