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Bodybuilding is distantly related to the medieval carnival feat of strength. For its justification, however, the sport looks to a model of the "classic" Western body dating from 400-300 B.C.E. Periodic revivals of classicism, in philosophy as well as in art, returned that muscularly "armored" body to attention--particularly as an occasion for artistic display during the Renaissance.

A similar "rediscovery" of classic themes during the Victorian era exploited the Herculean body for various metaphorical purposes; among others, the presumably "natural" perfection exemplified in the Greek kouros, or male body, was enlisted in support of nineteenth-century physical culture movements.

However, neither classicism nor health totally accounts for the emergence of the male body into visibility or for the more recent entry of women into bodybuilding. At the heart of bodybuilding as an acceptable activity or sport is desire for the body, as well as permission given to "build" it in public. Commodity culture has made a business of creating, as well as satisfying, this desire. The fact that desire for the body is often has complicated bodybuilding as entertainment and sport.

Gay men and lesbians are an important--though more often denied than recognized--part of bodybuilding, both as athletes and as consumers of the physical culture and entertainment products that the sport sponsors.

Sandow and the Emergence of Bodybuilding as Entertainment

Beginning in the 1880s a German weight-lifter and theater strongman named Friedrich Wilhelm Muller found part-time work by displaying his muscular body, nude except for a very real fig leaf, in poses riffed from Greek statuary. In 1893 Florenz Ziegfeld, always on the lookout for new acts for his father, hired Muller as an act for the Trocadero Theater in Chicago, one of the chief entertainment sites of the Columbian Exposition.

From this springboard "The Great Sandow" (as Muller now called himself) went on to world-wide fame. Capitalizing on a mix of commerce, faux-classicism, and cult health, Sandow sold physique training apparatus, books, and magazines. In addition, and not incidentally, he sold the shapely male body, without apology--divorced from a need to be viewed either heroically, artistically, or morally.

Despite the fascination with the male form evident throughout the history of art, the body itself has remained wrapped in taboo--viewable only when armored in weapons or other "drag," and even then, only when justified in some manner by a moral gaze. Ziegfeld was certainly not the first to profit from this fascination. Nonetheless, he significantly broadened its possibilities.

With help from Sandow, Ziegfeld reshaped the vaudevillian exhibition of strength familiar to fair, carnival, and traveling circus (where actual weights were hefted on stage) into an exhibit that emphasized the visual pleasures of the body in display (in muscle enhancing poses, although without weights).

In addition Ziegfeld exploited the covert eroticism of Sandow's staged appearances. For example, he invited selected female guests backstage where, for a contribution to charity, Sandow's admirers could run their gloved hands over the model's muscles. The nod to charity assured that eroticism would remain discreetly covered by altruism, and, in this manner, rendered publicly acceptable.

Sandow never claimed to be the world's strongest man. Rather, he was, in Ziegfeld's marketing phrase, the "world's best-developed man." Ziegfeld's initiative and organization, and then Sandow's energetic self-promotion, raised the muscled-body--the look of muscle rather than its work--into a mode of respectable public entertainment.

By separating aesthetics from utility, the new entertainment prized the making of muscles as an end in itself, distinct from utilitarian results of increasing strength or improving health. The underlying equation was subtle, but clear, and in various ways the link between "Looking Good" and "Feeling Good" still governs much of popular culture today.

The Emergence of Bodybuilding as Sport.

The expression "bodybuilding" entered the language during the 1890s, distinguished at the time from "weight-lifting" (organized as a sport earlier in the century). Sandow's staginess--such as his classical poses and the bell jar in which he appeared at the Trocadero--exemplifies the criticism made against the industry of muscle-display. Bodybuilding, as performed by Sandow and his successors was, purists criticized, merely a performance--worse, it was a performance of a performance.

In the earliest bodybuilding contests, for example, weights were lifted off-stage; the "show" was the resulting "pump" derived from the exercise of muscle. Weight-lifting, on the other hand, was aptly if simplistically named--heavy weights were lifted in order to demonstrate strength. This division between utility and "look" is implicitly gendered, as we shall see, and still governs the way competitions such as power-lifting (and other weight-lifting derivatives) are distinguished from "physique" contests.

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Physique Medal winners at the 2002 Sydney Gay Games.
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