| Muscles and
Note: This is a longer version of
an essay which originally appeared in "Art Issues."
In the mid 1950's a revolutionary
event occurred with the publication of a few small-format
magazines with names like "Physique Pictorial," "Male
Physique," and "Tomorrow's Man." Featuring muscular men
wearing only posing straps (a mere peek of pubic hair
guaranteed legal prosecution) those "pictorials" were
aimed unapologetically at gay men, no pseudo-workout routines,
no health tips, just titillation.
circulation plunged among so-called bona fide bodybuilding
magazines like "Muscle Power," "Strength & Health,"
and "Iron Man." Since the 40's, those "muscle" magazines
had featured lots of workout routines, lots of health
tips. Virtually every editorial comment made it clear
that those publications were aimed at heterosexual men,
and that their goal was to encourage the hyper-masculine
activities of weightlifting and bodybuilding. That did
not keep those same magazines from carrying, in every
issue, several modeled photographs of men in tiny posing
straps, photographs aimed at gay men and offering the
same titillation the new gay pictorials were providing
lamenting the real reason for their distress, the decline
in subscriptions, editors of "muscle" publications decried
this catering to "perverts."
had, in a sense, been outed. Not only had the subscribers
to muscle magazines "come out," but so had the models
in "physique" magazines, models often well known in gay
circles. "Out," too, were some of the photographers who
had contributed to muscle magazines--Bruce of Los Angeles,
Lon of New York, Kris of Chicago.
not "come out" were the muscle magazines themselves. While
no longer overtly disdaining gay readership, those publications
still continue to assert that their subscribers, and the
bodybuilders appearing in their pages--especially the
"stars" of physique competitions--are super heterosexual.
always been those who have known otherwise. Many years
ago, a sage queen, observing this writer and modest bodybuilding
practitioner loitering--shirtless chest oiled--on a Hollywood
street late at night, cut to the core of the matter by
declaring, "Hon, your muscles are as gay as my drag."
denied by its professional practitioners, bodybuilding
fits squarely in the realm of gay theater. On that stage,
there are three main categories of players, the queen,
the leatherman, and the muscleman. All rely for effect
on visual assault--they are living trompes l'oeil:
the queen with her sequined drag, the leatherman with
his stud-sequined leather, the muscleman on stage with
his oil-sequined body. (All apparently share an impressive
knowledge of the decorative power of sequins.)
artifice, and effect, all three presentations are forms
of glamorous camouflage. They reveal roots in common,
an aversion to appearing to be a "sissy." All convert
the "wearer" into someone else. The drag queen becomes
a "woman"; the leatherman displays himself as a menacing
presence; the muscleman signals, with his pumped armor,
that he will not be the proverbial object of "sand in
the face" as depicted in the famous Charles Atlas comic-strip
In that comic-strip,
a painfully thin, nervous man--a stereotype of a kind
of gay man--is ridiculed by a beefy man who kicks sand
in his face. The assaulted man learns his lesson, orders
the Atlas course, as so many of us did, and is transformed
into a bully himself. Muscles bulging, he can now face,
mano a mano, his oppressor. Perhaps, after their
ardent encounter on the beach, they went home together.
Now a few
words are in order about the tawdry beauty of professional
bodybuilding. It's a world that is at once sleazy and
alluring, cheesy and elegant, hypocritical and honest.
While extolling ultra-masculinity, it indulges a bitchiness
that makes squabbling divas seem tame. Self-avowed heterosexual
bodybuilders resort to bizarre meanness, "psyching out"
rivals, remarking on "bitch tits," a condition caused
by steroids. Widely derided, bodybuilding is in ill repute
because it is spectacularly narcissistic.
grounds for considering it an art form. The self-sculpting
of a body requires as much discipline as ballet and acting.
Bodybuilding has a rich heritage. Atlas, Hercules, and
Michelangelo's God and Adam are its progenitors in art
and myth. So is Sisyphus, who must have developed a terrific
physique from having to cope with that infernal rock.
In paintings, martyred saints have killer abs and obliques,
exhibited lovingly to the very edge of sexy loincloths.
Christ on the cross has awesome definition--and knows
how to pose sensationally.
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Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.