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I have recently watched several documentaries on bodybuilding, the most recent dealing with male fitness models. What I have taken from these programs is the sheer dehumanization that fitness can inflict on individuals.

Up front I’ll confess that I exercise five times a week. I alternate weights and cardio for a well-rounded routine. I started working out at sixteen and haven’t stopped. At my peak I was working out six days a week, roughly three hours a day. After tearing a quad, stressing my knees, and pulling my back more times than I can count, I took a step back. It had become an obsession that was literally destroying me.

Part of my obsession came from family. Most of my relatives are out of shape, my father among them. Seeing the stark difference between my father’s physique in his twenties when he was a boxer, sleek and chiseled, contrasted with the heavy set man I grew up with.

There is also the media cliche. When you are inundated with images of what is the perfect physique, see the rewards these men receive, the accolades they are given from the highest athletes to the jocks in high school you start to want to join the parade. Even intellectual me eventually succumbed.

Above all, it was to fill a hole. Whether it’s because you’re bullied, feel inadequate, need a release…the reasons are numerous. Part of me did it for self-confidence, part of me did it because I was this sickly, scrawny kid who was tired of feeling weak. I know where the drive comes from, but I never followed it as fanatically as these men did.

The image of the perfect physique has changed over time from something natural and balanced like the classical statues of the Greeks to the absurd proportions of the godlike superhero. Bulging arms, v-chest, ultra thin waste, bodies so lean the skin seems to shrink wrap the muscle.

To listen to these men speak, they clearly no longer look at their bodies as “them” but as a product. They measure their carbs and protein to the gram, eat masses of food, even to the point of force feeding themselves spending thousands a week on supplements and vitamins leaving them broke. They spend their days secluded in the gym, feel guilt and shame every second they aren’t pushing themselves. They sacrifice relationships, careers, and life experiences all to chase a vision that has become ever more distorted with the options modern medicine and nutrition allows.

These men, when you listen to them, possess the lowest sense of worth. They define themselves against others, require adulation or they fall deep into depression. They use the gym as an escape from reality, take all their problems and project them onto their soft flesh. Just one more rep, one more mile, harden myself up, take one more step toward greatness. It is fanatical. It is insane. Despite injury or long term financial repercussions, they obsessively chase what they even admit is a subjective form. A job is a sedentary lifestyle that is simply unacceptable. Wives and kids eat up training time.

They can’t enjoy what they eat. A burger is “momentary joy” compared to the days or weeks it will take to expunge it. Food is broken down to the basics: protein powder, egg whites, quinoa. Feeding is merely the building blocks to greater mass. One can see how much they loathe the process, choking flavorless oatmeal while “gaining” until they have so much muscle mass they are sore carrying it.

The bodybuilder cannot be happy. Happiness is complacency. Happiness means you’ve achieved. Perfection, no it’s still there just beyond reach. You have to move further away from who you are, what you are to catch it. Self-denial: that is the opiate.

And it is all a charade, a macabre masquerade. Fake tans to cover their skin, pale from being inside all day. Their muscles glisten but they are so dehydrated that they are on the verge of collapse. They want to be manly but prance around in thongs posing and preening. They are strong, independent but need the judges, crave that subjective glance. It’s a farce.

Though they won’t state the obvious, it is clear they do more than eat right and exercise. They joke about needles and anabolic aids, but to reach the heights of the gods they need more than mortal means. They speak of the evils of momentary pleasure while taking steroids, growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen blockers and more. They risk cardiac disease, cancer, and numerous other ailments but “that won’t happen” because they’ve done the research.

And what are they chasing? Recognition, fleeting recognition. They want to be the world’s strongest man moving buses and masses measured in tons rather than pounds. They want that magazine cover, that trophy, the movie star life. It doesn’t matter if the mass they carry creates respiratory problems. So what if they live in a van next to the gym or gone broke paying to reach perfection. It’s all about sacrifice. Give up these earthly desires if you want godhood!

The delusion these men hold onto is cringe inducing. Even if they get second, they know they were really the best or the loss will spur them on to try harder. Eventually the world will realize. They have to. One man stole from his own brother to pay for a gym membership because “it was worth it.” Their body, their temple must stand as a monument.

And when reality slinks in, when age and human frailty finally take hold, these men dive into suicidal depression. They cling to that belief that if they work hard enough, their youth and vitality will never fade. When time proves otherwise, the fantasy fades and the first real day shines down on them. What can they do? All that time, all that effort invested in something that will eventually betray them. Their temple, like all great structures, will eventually succumb to ruin.

I just don’t understand what legacy they think they are leaving behind. What, a body others will strive to render irrelevant withe the next generation of body builders? Magazine spreads that will only end up in bins? A trophy that tarnishes with time? What are they building? What lives are they changing? Who will speak their names? Not the wives they neglected or the children they abandoned.

This fixation to turn flesh into bronze, to build man into a monument is counterproductive. It isn’t living life, it’s sacrificing it. That’s why I became tired of shredding my limbs, breaking my back, and spending my time in the gym to the hammering sound of weights all around. I went out, I lived life, said so what to perfection. I found love, have a family, discovered that joy comes not simply from within but moreso from without. Flaws are what define us like the swirls in marble. They give us a beauty beyond sterility.

So these men turn their bodies into temples but they are hollow things, empty beauty that can only be admired but within which there can never be satisfaction or transcendence. They are monuments to folly. Perhaps they carry a flaw afterall.

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