Male and female bodybuilding is a popular sport and amateur activity in the United States and internationally. This sample psychology research paper explores the nature of bodybuilding and its effects on social factors.
Bodybuilding’s psychological and social impact
This research proposal will present the modern status of male and female bodybuilding within the context of socio-stigmatic factors that tend to dictate the manner in which they engage with the world, relating these to our perceptions of the bodybuilding community and its members. This research follows academic guidelines and will arrive at a more refined understanding of the sociological impulses of those who engage in the bodybuilding lifestyle while assessing these relative to our perceptive inclinations regarding them.
In general, and as applied to the modern social context, we will explore what it is that drives bodybuilders to the extremes at which they spend their time and why we perceive them and these extremes in the way in which we do. This will allow for a comprehensive understanding of how the persona is constructed within the bodybuilding community and how the psyche evolves and interacts in this process, according to the external factors of human perception.
Transposing gender roles onto bodybuilders
In the bodybuilding community, all are in competition with each other, with none enjoying a distinct competitive advantage over the other; each bodybuilder is striking the same pose, in the same apparel. The object of this competition is thus to project grandiosity in striking such poses that indicates a superiority of ego.
To this end, bodybuilders have most recently sought to accentuate not their bodies for their own sake but to maintain their bodies according to a set of gender rules dictated by society. These routines and rituals entailed in the process of preparing for a showcase have coalesced into a set of unusual procedures that have functioned to captivate society at-large with what it perceives as a kind of “queer” activity engaged in by those who operate at the societal periphery.
Richardson questions why one would wish to push him or herself to the very brink of physical extremism, while also risking societal alienation. Ultimately, Richardson suggests that a kind of “hysteria” is at work in the mind of the bodybuilder, as he describes:
“Although hysteria has been culturally connected to the female body, Lacan described hysteria as gender confusion. The hysteric is confused as to his/her gendered subjectivity in relation to the phallic order. The bodybuilder, like the hysteric, seeks a complete rejection of the body, owing to a lack, in his history, of symbolization of the body. Therefore the bodybuilder dreams of an autotelic body and this causes erotogenic zone displacements and the resulting auto-eroticism of extreme, male bodybuilding” (Richardson 49).
Understanding bodybuilding’s unwritten rules
Here, we begin to understand the identification of some form of “queer” interest on the part of the bodybuilder. He or she is essentially obsessed with manufacturing a kind of gender-normative egotism without acknowledging as much, existing in the world purely for purposes of furthering this image. In this context, the egotism of the bodybuilder is a kind of physiological necessity for him or her; a manner of living, as opposed to a mere manner of thinking.
For Monaghan, however, bodybuilders are perpetually seeking to engage in “the positive moment of bodybuilding” for a variety of potential reasons, though he primarily concerns himself with whether bodybuilding is fundamentally “good” or fundamentally “bad.”
Pointing to the paradoxical nature of the bodybuilding regime, Monaghan suggests that
“the health-promoting bodybuilding lifestyle is commonly associated with anomalous activities such as illicit drug use” and that this may not be caused by “personal or gender inadequacy,” but rather by “reverse anorexia or muscle dysmorphia” (Monaghan 332).
Whatever its causes and potentially harmful effects, bodybuilding and workout trends are not necessarily harmful to those who require the somatic and pragmatic benefits associated with anaerobic exercise and the vibrant physicality derived from it. Monaghan, in other words, seeks to identify why bodybuilders are so susceptible to the addictive qualities of bodybuilding and whether its more potentially harmful qualities are indeed as harmful as they seem within the context of the practical purpose inherent in acting upon these impulses to engage in “the pump.”
For Mora, “ideal self-discrepancy” can operate as a buffer against the kind of psycho-sematic tension that many of us seek to avoid. In endeavoring to reach what they perceive as ideal physical appearance, Mora’s “data reveal that ideal self-discrepancy may have a buffering effect for anxious mood” (Mora et. al. 2059).
Reaching ideal body image and physical performance
In this sense, Monaghan’s approach to identifying why bodybuilders engage in bodybuilding on an impulsive level is enhanced as a result of the empirical suggestion that bodybuilders are motivated by some basic desire to simply remain in a good mood. Other researchers believe bodybuilding is driven by poor self-image created by advertisements and other media.
Through enhancing physical fitness, Mora suggests that bodybuilders are able to achieve the same kind of mood that comes so naturally to many members of the same society into which bodybuilders attempt to integrate. In this sense, bodybuilding’s egotistical form of expression represents a kind of paradoxical attempt to conform to societal norms. In other words, by doing that which normalizes the mood (i.e. building the body), bodybuilders better assimilate themselves into our collective social order.
Gender roles associated with bodybuilders
Nuanced alternatives to these approaches have been taken by Richardson, in addition to Wiegers, who both seek to approach the issue through the analytical lens of gender. In assessing the value perceived by females in the act of bodybuilding, Richardson suggests that it is here where we truly witness a genuinely competitive element to the activity. Gender bias and stereotyping may exist within the bodybuilding sport, but both men and women seem to enjoy it for the same reasons.
“Female bodybuilding challenges the traditional sex/gender/sexuality continuum not only by de-essentializing the gendered body but also by challenging the narrow perception of heteroerotic” (Richardson 20).
This exercise in self-creation is for Richardson and Wiegers fundamentally self-absorbed and indulgently masturbatory in nature.
As per Wiegers, “Studies show that a man’s self-esteem is higher when his body is physically bigger, muscles are a distinct symbol of masculinity” (Wiegers 142).
Whether as applied to the female seeking to assert herself in a male-dominated subculture or a male seeking to create the ideal version of himself in order to preclude a sense of insufficiency,
“pumping up in the gym is a distinctly solo operation. Therefore, if pumping-up is a sexual experience, then it is a form of masturbatory sexuality” (Richardson 58).
To this end, previous research has yet to investigate the foundational origins and subsequent sociological influence of the sensation described as “the pump.” While difficult to identify in a visceral sense, efforts toward doing so could yield a better understanding of the most basic sociological factors motivating both the bodybuilding community and our perceptions of it. In so doing, we may arrive at answers that will function to contribute to this body of research in a manner that has yet to be engaged.
Proposal for conducting bodybuilding research
The research to be conducted poses certain challenges, both ethical and empirical, in light of where the current research leaves us.
If bodybuilding is simply a reflection of “ultimate vulnerability and a passionate battle [between men] and their own sense of self” (Wiegers 155), then this battle has perhaps been sufficiently investigated.
To delve further into it will only yield useful and pragmatic findings if delicately handled. Primary research must include a sample questionnaire must be developed and then provided for subjects, selected at random, in such a way as will allay any potential insecurities suggested by previous research. Acquiring honest answers to straightforward questions can do much to enhance our understanding, beyond what the research detailed above has already indicated.
Developing a questionnaire designed to meet all criteria
A questionnaire-based mode of inquiry might be combined with an interview-style approach, in which subjects would be shown clips from the seminal documentary “Pumping Iron”, which closely tracks the daily routine of former Mr. Olympia stalwart, Arnold Schwarzenegger. For Schwarzenegger, the basic act of pumping oxygen through one’s musculature was almost indistinguishable from what he described as sexual climax.
It is certain that this effect will have some application for all subjects, but delving deeper into the nature of this sensation, relative to how Schwarzenegger describes it, may yet yield insight into the precise origin of this sensation, which in turn may lend guidance for future studies attempting to identify the core motivating factor influencing bodybuilders in their daily routines.
Determining the catalyst of bodybuilder’s “pumping”
Ultimately, researchers have yet to determine the precise origins of the factors that function to form and influence the bodybuilder’s impulses. Some have argued that these impulses similar to sexual arousal caused by a sexual double standard among men and women.
Others have suggested more socio-somatic or even psychosomatic basis. In acquiring a more sensualized understanding of these sensations, we can better understand their origins in assessing whether bodybuilders are engaged in their craft strictly for egotistical purposes or if there exists a more complicated order in the structure of their behavioral impulses.
In other words, it may be that the bodybuilder is strictly engaged in the act of bodybuilding because he or she has no other means of evolving the persona, thus relying upon external stimuli relating to societal perception or even mere self-perception for purposes of managing the psyche and allowing for a more controlled personal evolution.
Conclusion and summary
Research to this end has the potential for broad-reaching influence on research into the manner in which we seek to integrate ourselves into the larger social order to which we are expected to conform. Whether through conforming behavior or otherwise, out perceptions of ourselves are colored by our perceptions of others and vice versa.
In examining the nature of this interaction as applied to the context in which it manifests most extremely, accumulated data and its subsequent analysis have potential for application to even the most basic human expressions of the desire for sociological fitness within the socio-stigmatic settings that bear upon our daily routines.
These efforts at integration into our collective social order may be motivated by purely sexual desires or they may emerge from more practical impulses toward mood-management and social fitness and acceptance. Regardless, in examining these potentialities through their most extreme forms of expression, much can and should be learned.
Monaghan, Lee F. “Looking good, feeling good : The embodies pleasures of vibrant physicality.” Sociology of Health & Illness 23 (2001): 331-53.
Mora, Pablo A., Tamara M. Szabo, Jason Popan, and Howard Leventhal. “Exploring the Relationship Among the Undesired Self, Health, and Mood in older Adults'” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 8 (2012): 2042-058.
Richardson, Niall. “Flex-rated! Female bodybuilding: Feminist resistance or erotic spectacle?” Journal of Gender Studies 17 (2008): 290-300.
Richardson, Niall. “The Queer Activity of Extreme Male Bodybuilding: Gender Dissidence, Auto-eroticism and Hysteria.” Social Semiotics 1st ser. 14 (2004): 50-64.
Wiegers, Yvonne. “Male Bodybuilding: The Social Construction of a Masculine Identity.” Journal of Popular Culture (2003): 147-60.